Would a Chromebook Work for You?
These devices are essentially stripped down to perform only the most essential personal computer functions: web browsing, video and music streaming, and cloud based document editing, all via Google's own operating system and suite of applications. Depending on your needs this could represent a refreshing dose of simplicity, or a frustrating set of limitations.
Reasons to Get a Chromebook
-Secondary computer: if most of your computer budget is tied up in a large, immobile desktop unit, one of these models could be an inexpensive way to still provide yourself with basic computing functions whilst on the go.
-Portability: most models are relatively small and lightweight.
-Battery life: these models tend to have around 10 hours of juice on a single charge, so no more fighting for the seat next to the outlet at the coffee shop.
-Price: if your computing needs are only basic, one of these machines can offer all you need at a correspondingly small price.
-Security: since almost all of your data is stored in the cloud, even if someone steals your laptop they won't have access to any information.
Reasons Not to Get a Chromebook
-Lack of onboard storage: since these models are optimized for cloud based activities, most max out at just 16gb of internal storage (though some go as high as 64gb)
-Can't use common programs: if you're in the middle of a lot of projects using Microsoft Office, you're out of luck. These machines can't run office, and though there are some workarounds currently available, none are great (more on that later). Same goes for other popular programs like Skype and iTunes.
-Lesser processing capability: Chromebooks are getting better in this regard, but if you like to have gobs of tabs open while you web broase, a Chromebook may get bogged down.
-Lack of offline capability: most functions executed on a Chromebook require an internet connection. While you can edit documents on your Google Drive while offline, much of the functionality disappears when the wifi fades.
-Limited gaming: there are very few games currently available for Chromebooks, though that number is increasing rapidly.
If you already use the chrome browser and 99% of your time on the computer is spent in chrome, or you want a simple secondary computer, one of these models will be perfect. If there is a program or app outside of Google's suite that you can't live without, chances are you'll be happier with a fully functioned laptop.
Choosing the Right Product
If you've made it this far thinking a Chromebook would be a useful purchase, this section will help guide you to the right model.
Step 1: How Much RAM do You Need?
Random access memory, or RAM, essentially acts as a computer's short term memory. More RAM generally translates into faster performance. Most new laptops have somewhere between 4 and 16 gigabytes of RAM, with 8 being the average. Chromebooks generally have either 2 or 4 gigabytes of RAM, with some exceptions. In our testing we found that 2gb were almost too slow to use in many cases. For example, if you try to stream pandora and open a few tabs you'll probably notice some annoying lag. If you can afford the extra cost, we suggest springing for a 4gb model, you'll be happy you did.
Step 2: Consider the Size
Most Chromebooks are between 10 and 14 inches (this measurement corresponds to a diagonal line across the screen). Essentially this is a trade off between portability and the size of your screen and keyboard. If you're looking for a secondary computer that is as portable as possible, go small. If you have sausage fingers and would get frustrated with a small keyboard, or want to stream a lot of movies, go bigger.
Step 3: Consider the Interface
Nothing is worse than having a trackpad that lags or a keyboard that sticks. We tested all these sorts of things in our Interface/Features metric, so check those scores to make sure the model you're considering picked up an acceptable grade.
There are a small number of Chromebooks available with touchscreens. This is a great feature if you want to use Android apps on your Chromebook, which is possible on a number of current models (more on that in a bit).
Step 4: What Screen Resolution do You Need?
Most models have a native resolution of 1366 x 768, which essentially corresponds to 720p (for a deeper dive into the ins and outs of resolution, check out our projector review). While this is technically still high definition, most of us have probably become accustomed to full 1080p high definition. If you plan on streaming a lot of movies you might want to opt for a 1080p model. Just remember, even the best Chromebook may a bit struggle if you try to stream 1080p video and do something a bunch of other things at once.
Step 5: Think About Ports
It's always a bummer to get a new machine and excitedly open up the box, only to realize its lacking the one port you really want. This may be an HDMI output to easily hook it up to a TV, or enough USB ports to plug in all your accessories at once. Make sure you check the specs to confirm the model you're getting fits your needs.
Step 6: Would You Ever Want to Run Linux?
This is far beyond the scope of how most people will use their chromebook, but it is possible to install a Linux environment on your chromebook. This would allow you to do such things as install some programs, like Skype, that aren't supported by the chrome operating system. However, many such applications can only run on machines with Intel processors, so you'll want to make sure the model you buy has Intel inside.
Here we will elaborate upon some of the points we made in our step by step decision guide, so that you can get all of the background information for the factors relevant to your decision to buy a chromebook.
Google Makes Chrome and Android, so Can I Run Android Apps?
Currently some Chromebooks are compatible with Android apps, and Google has said all future models will be as well. However, real world functionality and the rollout of Chrome compatible apps has been slow at best.
Do I Need a Google Account?
The short answer to this question is yes. Using one of these machine means signing in to a Google account in order to access all of the functionality that comes along with having one. While you can log into a machine without a Google account as a guest, you won't have access to any kind of cloud storage or the chrome app store. This essentially limits you to very basic web browsing, and nothing else.
How Much Can You Store in the Cloud?
With most models providing only 16gb of internal memory, you're probably wondering exactly how much you can store on the cloud. Google drive, the cloud storage system used with the chrome operating system and available to anyone with a google account, provides 15gb of storage for free right off the bat. Additionally, most chromebook purchases come with two years of an additional 85gb of space on google drive, pushing the total to 100gb (you'll want to make sure whichever retailer you choose includes this in their offer). Outside of those two years that 100gb would cost $2/month. This greatly expands your online storage capacity, but you may still need an external hard drive if you have a lot of files to store.
Expanding Internal Memory
Many models come with a built in SD card slot. Not only is this great for uploading photos, it also provides an easy way to increase the internal memory. SD cards are getting exceedingly cheap. You can get a 64gb card for less than $20 and effectively quintuple the onboard storage of most models. This gives you a bit more leeway in storing things on your device, So go ahead and load up that season of Game of Thrones before your long flight (and yes, there is a VLC extension availabe for Chromebooks, so most video files should be supported).
Google Drive allows you to essentially save all of your documents to your computer's hard drive and edit them while offline. Once you're connected to the internet again all the changes will sync up with the cloud. Utilizing this feature just requires some forethought and a few quick steps. We found this feature to work quite well, even though it felt weird using a google application without the internet.
What's the Deal with Using Microsoft Office?
The most direct way to use Microsoft Office on a chromebook is via Office Online. This is a free, web based version of the Office suite, very similar to google docs, and the chrome app store has applications designed for using Office Online. There are a couple of drawbacks to this. First, using Office Online requires saving files to OneDrive, Microsoft's cloud service. This isn't a huge deal, but having another cloud account to manage doesn't exactly fit with the streamlined simplicity chromebooks are striving for. Second, Office Online has limitations when compared to the full office suite, namely in terms of formatting options, the functionality of track changes and some advanced excel functions. If you want to continue using Office because of one special feature, chances are that feature isn't available in Office Online. Finally, Office Online lacks the offline functionality of Google Docs.
You can also transfer Office files into Google Docs. However, unless your documents are super simple this can lead to a headache inducing amount of formatting issues. Bottom line, if you're halfway through writing your grad school dissertation in Word, it would take a lot of effort for you to effectively move it over and be able to finish it on a machine running the chrome operating system.
The good news is you can save Google Docs files in Office formats (.docx, .xlsx…) to share with Office users. Again, you may run into some formatting issues here if you're not careful.
Google's End of Life (EOL) Policy
Machines running the Chrome OS receive automatic software updates from Google. This ensures you always have the latest features and functionality. However, Google has an end of life policy that dictates when they will stop automatically updating a device and no longer guarantee its compatibility with all features of the Chrome OS. Generally this date is no sooner than five years from when a device first hits the shelves, and google reports the EOL dates of all supported devices. This may seem a little harsh, but it is no different than any tech product that will inevitably become obsolete, and Google is more transparent about it than most companies. Because they are so open about this obsolescence, it is worth checking the EOL date of any device you plan on purchasing to make sure it is comfortably far away.
Gaming, is it Possible?
There are games available on the Chrome Web Store, but most are comparable or inferior to games you'd play on your cell phone. For fans of Steam it is possible to run the online gaming platform on a Chrome machine, but it requires installing a Linux environment, a somehwat complicated step that many users would not want to take. Additionally, even models with 4gb of RAM are going to struggle with graphics heavy games.
Can I Edit Photos?
There are a few photo editing programs available on the Chrome Web Store with decent user reviews, namely the Polarr Photo Editor. If you need more power than that there are ways to stream Photoshop to your Chrome machine. However, like many other things, this process is much more complicated than simply having a computer that can run Photoshop itself. Additionally, if you're a photographer that edits a lot of RAW images you'll have to be careful about both onboard and cloud storage restrictions.
Can I Print?
If you have a newer, wireless printer, then you're in luck. You can connect that printer to Google Cloud Print and print to it whenever you have an internet connection. We tested this feature when we did our printer review and found it easy and straightforward. However, if you have a printer that requires connecting to a computer via a USB cable you're SOL as chromebooks do not support this type of connection. You could hook such a printer up to a different computer and connect it to Google Cloud Print via that computer's internet access, but this feels like more trouble than it's worth.
How About Video Chatting?
All of the models we tested, and the vast majority of those available, have a built in webcam. This means they work seamlessly with Google Hangouts for video chatting. If all of your friends use a different platform, like Skype, you may be out of luck. There is a chrome app that allows you to use the text messaging portion of Skype, and there is an online version of Skype that lets you make voice calls, but video is another story. This may be rectified if Google makes all of the android apps available on chromebooks, as there is a Skype android app. In the meantime, you may just have to convince all your Skype friends to switch over to Google Hangouts. We hear sending baked goods is helpful if you decide to take this route.
When you buy a chromebook, to some degree you just have to accept that you are buying a limited machine. A machine that is capable of performing the vast majority of computing tasks most people undertake, but still limited nonetheless. If all you need is a simple secondary computer, or you've taken a long hard look at your computer habits and don't think a Chromebook would hold you back, then one of these machines is a great value. If you really need some functionality outside of what Google readily offers there is probably some sort of workaround, but chances are that workaround is not worth the extra effort and hassle required.