Chromebooks are now a staple of American education. If your child needs one for schoolwork or playtime, here's help with the specs, the features, and everything else you need to know before you buy.

Chromebooks can make ideal work and play companions for kids of all ages. They’re laptops that typically cost a few hundred dollars and run Google’s simple-to-use Chrome operating system. With a Chromebook, parents don’t need to worry about a leaking juice box ruining a significant investment, nor do they need to provide much in the way of tech support. Most Chromebooks are inexpensive, and all are simple to use.

Thanks to those two factors, Chromebooks are now a staple of American classrooms, with school districts large and small issuing them to students at little or no direct cost. Paired with specialized apps like Google Classroom, they’re used for everything from pop quizzes to virtual art-museum visits, and the software can incorporate features handy for educators, too, such as plagiarism detection. 

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(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

Even if your child’s school doesn’t issue Chromebooks or use these tools, the need for remote learning that’s skyrocketed during the pandemic lockdowns over the last year-plus may well be making you consider buying one. And the uncertain circumstances around schooling as the pandemic progresses is making the demand for them even stronger. (Expect occasional stock shortages and volatile prices.) Here’s what to look for before you click “Buy Now.”


What Is a Chromebook?

You and your kids might have never used a Chromebook before, but you’re almost certainly familiar with how one works. That’s because the Chrome operating system is based on the same Chrome web browser that your kids already use when you let them borrow your existing laptop, smartphone, or tablet. If all your child needs is a portal to the internet, you don’t need to install anything—just launch a browser window.

You can install apps on Chromebooks if you want to, however. The process is much like installing apps on your smartphone, involving little more than a visit to the Google Play Store or the Chrome Web Store. Even apps designed for Android phones will work on late-model Chromebooks. You will also find a considerable library of kid-friendly apps designed for Chromebooks, and not just games: tools for note-taking, podcasting, book publishing, drawing, screencasting, and other 21st-century schoolwork.

The simplicity of Chrome OS means that it allows fewer openings for bugs and security risks. There are no drivers to update, and no sluggish antivirus software suites to buy and maintain. Kids won’t keep up with these tedious computing chores, and you probably don’t want to, either. Assuming it’s got an internet connection, a Chromebook will keep itself secure and updated. 

The disadvantages of this simplicity? They include less flexibility and the occasional frustrating compatibility issue. Now and then, Chromebooks can trip you up with minor hurdles, like incompatibilities with in-flight streaming entertainment systems that use digital rights management (DRM) software, whereas these systems work just fine with iOS or Android devices. Larger issues include missing capabilities that have been a staple of modern computing for years. Chrome OS, for example, offers nothing in the way of out-of-the-box video editing, unlike the simple but powerful tools built into Windows and macOS.

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(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

In short, the advantages and drawbacks of Chrome OS mean that a Chromebook is as well-suited to child-friendly computing as it is ill-suited to the needs of power users.


What Chromebook Features Do Your Kids Need?

As a result, your main consideration when buying a Chromebook for a child is not how powerful the machine is, but what kind of physical features it has. Somewhat ironically, the younger your child is, the more features he or she might need. That’s because younger students are typically the target audience for augmented reality (AR) or drawing apps that require multiple cameras, touch screens, and digital pens. Older students who are primarily taking notes and writing term papers may not need these features as often. 

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(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

Some of the most innovative Chromebook designs we’ve seen recently are actually tablets, not laptops. They’ve been slow to catch on among mainstream buyers, but they have great potential as a classroom learning tool. They’re much smaller and lighter than laptops, so they’re easier for younger kids to hold. They also typically have front-facing cameras, which are required for some AR apps and great for capturing a picture of the blackboard before the teacher erases it. 

Inexpensive Chromebook tablets from Acer, Asus, CTL, and other companies are usually sold directly to school districts and therefore difficult to find in retail, but they’re worth a look if you happen to find one in stock. Convertible Chromebooks with 360-degree hinges, however, are good alternatives, since they include a physical keyboard but can still be used as a tablet if needed. 

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(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

A Chromebook tablet or 2-in-1 convertible will have a touch-enabled screen by necessity, since their keyboards aren’t always at hand. But most conventional laptop Chromebooks have non-touch displays, at least in their default configurations. Now that Google has greatly improved the touch capabilities of Chrome OS versus its early versions, touch screens are at least worth considering.

Another consideration for your kid’s Chromebook display is its resolution. As with any laptop screen, you’ll want to avoid displays with resolutions below full HD (typically 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, or 1080p) if you can. There are inexpensive full-HD Chromebooks out there, but they’re sometimes hard to find among the sea of others with lower-resolution displays. (Lower resolution usually manifests itself as a screen with a 1,366 by 768 resolution.) Your kids’ eyes will thank you for going with full HD, especially if the Chromebook has a screen 13 inches or larger. A 1,366-by-768-pixel resolution is only acceptable nowadays in an extreme budget Chromebook with a screen in the 10-to-12-inch range.


Should You Buy a Rugged Chromebook for Kids?

It’s always a good idea to choose a Chromebook that’s designed to withstand bumps, bruises, and the occasional liquid spill. And it’s a requirement if your child will be lugging his or her Chromebook to school every day. You might not be able to find a Chromebook in your budget that passes true MIL-SPEC testing, but you can find other rugged options. Look for water-resistant keyboards, keys with anti-wear tops, and non-slip chassis textures or coatings. 

In addition to being sturdy, a kid-friendly Chromebook should also be made of materials that are easy to clean. Look for darker colors, and choose a metal finish over a plastic one if you can. A few past Chromebooks have even included innovative materials like display lids that double as scrawl-on whiteboards, giving kids additional creative leeway to customize their Chromebooks without leaving permanent damage. 

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(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

Since your kid will mostly use a Chromebook to connect to the internet wirelessly, it doesn’t require a lot of ports for peripherals or Ethernet connections. The most important connectivity consideration is Wi-Fi. Look for the 802.11ac or 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) standards, and avoid the older 802.11n standard. Bluetooth is also nice to have for connecting a wireless mouse or streaming audio to external speakers.

Many inexpensive Chromebooks have proprietary charging cables, which could be difficult to replace if they’re lost. A USB Type-C charging cable is better, especially if you have other USB Type-C devices, since you can usually swap charging cables between them in case your kid loses one. 


What CPU Should a Chromebook for Kids Have?

Simple software needs only simple hardware to run. It’s a key reason why most Chromebooks are less expensive than Macs and Windows PCs—you don’t need tons of CPU cores or a powerful graphics processor to write essays and browse the web. Nor do you need capacious hard drives to house tons of video files when you’re using Google Docs and streaming multimedia content from the internet. 

You can find “prestige” Chromebooks with Intel Core i7 processors and 256GB solid-state drives (SSDs) if you want them, including models from Samsung and Google itself. But these machines, which hover in the $1,000 range, are overkill for most users, especially children. 

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(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

Instead, we recommend spending $400 or less on a kid’s Chromebook. That amount should get you at least 4GB of memory and at least 32GB of storage space. It will also get you a Chromebook with an Intel Pentium or Celeron processor, or an ARM processor. 

If you’re used to buying Macs or Windows laptops, you might balk at those specs, but they really are all your kid needs, and you should resist the urge to upgrade. A $300-to-$400 Windows laptop with a Celeron processor and 4GB of memory might be unpleasantly sluggish in everyday use, but a Chromebook with those same specs should offer an adequate experience for kids who are generally doing just one thing at a time on the machine. Even demanding apps that use ARCore, Google’s platform for building AR experiences, work on devices with as little as 4GB of memory and a dual-core processor. 


So, Which Chromebook Should I Buy for My Child?

We’ve outlined our favorite kid-friendly Chromebooks we’ve tested below. Click through for deep-dive reviews of each. Thinking about buying one for yourself, too? Check out our guide to the best Chromebooks overall. If you’d like to consider Windows laptops, as well, check out our complete list of best laptops for kids (incorporating both Chrome OS and Windows models), as well as our top laptop picks for college students. 

Other shopping and advice resources you might want to check out include our general roundup of budget laptops, as well as our roundup of Android, Apple iOS, and Amazon Fire OS tablets for kids.

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