Chromebooks are a powerful, affordable alternative to Windows laptops and MacBooks. While they can fulfill just about any need, picking the right one is crucial. Here’s how to choose the Chromebook that will work for you.
What Is a Chromebook, Anyway?
Imagine a netbook that actually works. That’s the basic idea of a Chromebook. They’re affordable laptops that run Chrome OS, a straightforward, lightweight operating system geared toward web browsing.
Chromebooks are great for people who don’t want a complicated laptop experience. In-browser tools, like Google Docs or Microsoft Office, work without a hitch. Facebook and Netflix are easy to access without stumbling over weird menus or an unintuitive design.
Chromebooks aren’t just limited to casual use, either. If you’re more tech-savvy, you can push the OS to its limit and download Android or Linux apps (like GIMP or LibreOffice), or even load Ubuntu alongside Chrome OS. You can even use a touch screen Chromebook to create digital art or control smarthome products, like the Chromecast or Google Home Mini.
There are only two areas where Chromebooks fall short. For one, they can’t run professional desktop software (like Photoshop or CAD). They also don’t have the horsepower for most games, although in-browser games work fine. If you’re a gamer or you use professional software, you might prefer a Windows laptop or MacBook.
Otherwise, you’re in the right place! First, we’ll take a look at Chromebook form factors and specs and work our way down to the details, like displays and ports.
The shape and size of your Chromebook influence its features, specs, and price tag. So, before you start shopping, you should figure out how you want your Chromebook to look.
Let’s start with a disclaimer: all Chromebooks are thin and portable, but some are thinner and prettier than others. If you don’t care about 2-in-1 stuff and just want to get the best bang for your buck, forget about appearance and focus on specs. Some of the cheapest, ugliest Chromebooks sport great internals and should last for the next few years.
However, 2-in-1 Chromebooks are tempting. They’re super-popular, and you’ve probably heard all about their awesome portability and versatility. Everything you’ve heard is true. Some of the best 2-in-1s on the market are Chromebooks (the Pixelbook and ASUS Flip are notable examples), and they’re really a joy to use.
The thing is, cheap 2-in-1 Chromebooks tend to be underpowered. We wouldn’t suggest you spend less than $300 on a 2-in-1 Chromebook unless you’re just going to use it to watch Netflix and browse Facebook.
The same goes for Chromebook tablets. They’re great for on-the-go use, but you should probably stick with $400+ options, like the HP X2 and the Pixel Slate. Inexpensive Chromebook tablets, like the Acer Chromebook Tab and the ASUS CT100, are designed to be as cheap as possible, so public schools can afford them. They’re much weaker than garden-variety Chromebooks of the same price.
Google Pixelbook (i5, 8 GB RAM, 128GB) (GA00122-US)
The Pixelbook is Google's flagship Chromebook. It's one of the best 2-in-1s on the market. The base model comes with an Intel i5 CPU, 8 GB of RAM, and a 128 GB SSD.
Get the Specs You Need
We keep talking about power, but how powerful does a Chromebook need to be? Well, not as powerful as Windows laptops or MacBooks. Chrome OS isn’t very resource-intensive, and manufacturers tend to build Chromebooks with specs that are easy to understand (thank goodness).
Forget what you know about laptop specs for a minute. Here’s how to find the right specs for a Chromebook:
- CPU/Processor: Responsible for most of your Chromebook’s speed, this is the brain of your system. It’s what allows your Chromebook to run software. For casual browsing and schoolwork, an ARM processor is all you need. If you plan to push your Chromebook to its limit or want a ton of speed, buy one with an Intel processor.
- RAM: This allows your Chromebook to juggle different tasks. In most situations, a Chromebook with 4 GB of RAM works just fine. But if you expect to push things to the limit, find one with 8 GB or more, like the Pixelbook.
- eMMC or SSD: Chromebooks run on solid-state drives, not hard drives, and some solid-state drives are slower than others. If you’re looking for speed, skip Chromebooks with an eMMC drive and find one with an mSATA SSD.
- Storage space: Chromebooks are designed to work with tools like Google Drive, so they don’t require a lot of storage space. But if you plan to download Android or Linux apps on your Chromebook, you might want to go for at least 64 GB of storage.
- Battery life: Manufacturers usually give a best-case battery-life estimate, so it’s good to snoop around on Google for some real-world results. Don’t bother with anything that has a battery life of less than four hours.
Okay, most of the hard work is done! You have an idea of what your Chromebook should look like, and you’ve got your specs all figured out. Now, it’s time to think about screens and ports.
Display Quality and Touch Screens
Nobody wants to spend all day staring at a dim, ugly screen. When you shop for a Chromebook, try to find one with a decent screen. The major things to consider are brightness and resolution. Dim screens are ugly or illegible in bright settings. A screen with a low resolution might look out of date, especially when you draw or watch videos.
Here’s what you should look at to choose a Chromebook with a good screen:
- Brightness: A screen’s brightness is expressed in nits. In most cases, 250- to 300-nit displays look crisp and won’t wash out in sunlight. If a manufacturer doesn’t specify nits, you might want to search the name of the Chromebook with the word “brightness” included to get some info.
- Resolution: This term refers to the number of pixels in a display. An increase in resolution usually leads to an increase in visual quality. Most mid-range and high-end Chromebooks have high-res, 1080p, or 2K displays. Cheaper, smaller Chromebooks can have 1280 x 800p or 720p displays. These might look ugly or outdated if you’re used to HD screens. At this writing, the Lenovo Yoga C630 is the only 4K Chromebook.
- Touch screens: Chromebooks work really well with touch controls. Unless you’re looking to save as much money as possible, or you hate touch screens, we recommend you get a Chromebook that has one—especially if you want to use Android apps or use your Chromebook as a tablet.
Now that you know what to look for in a screen, it’s time to get into the tiny details: ports!
What Ports Do You Need?
Ports and drives add a lot of unnecessary bulk to a laptop, so we suggest the “less is more” approach. A USB-C port fulfills the functions of most ports (even HDMI). They can charge laptops quickly and work great with cheap USB-C hubs.
If you don’t want to make that leap (cables are confusing), we suggest you look for a Chromebook with at least one USB-A port, and maybe even an SD card slot.
Where Should You Buy Your Chromebook?
Shopping for a laptop online can be a confusing task, but it’s a lot cheaper than buying from an electronics store. So, let’s try to make shopping online as easy as possible.
Most major websites that sell laptops have filters you can use to find the Chromebook that’s right for you. Filters allow you to search for Chromebooks by size, form factor, or specification. We suggest you keep your searches as broad as possible and cross-reference other websites to find the best deal.
Here are some websites that sell Chromebooks:
- Best Buy: The website is easy to navigate, and you can even schedule to pick up your laptop today at a Best Buy in your area. Plus, Best Buy sells refurbished and showroom Chromebooks at a discount, which is pretty cool.
- Newegg: Another easy-to-navigate website that regularly sells Chromebooks at a discount.
- Amazon: Its search filters aren’t the greatest, but, of course, there are tons of great Chromebook deals. We suggest you use Amazon as a price-checker.
- Google: You can also buy a Pixelbook or Pixel Slate directly from Google. It’s not always the best place to find deals and discounts, but the two-year financing plan is kind of nice.
You are now all set to buy your new Chromebook! We suggest you pop into a Best Buy or Walmart to give them a test run. This way, you can check out the keyboards, trackpads, and screens, and find the one that feels just right.