Hardware Laptops

Should I buy a Chromebook?

What is a Chromebook
Here's the 15in Acer Chromebook Spin 15, due out later this year - the numbers of Chromebooks just keep on increasing

Covering the launch of Acer’s new Chromebook Spin 13 brought up a perennial question. Who should buy a Chromebook? What do you lose, what do you gain? Why are they so cheap? If you’re wondering “Should I buy a Chromebook?”, then, this page is your friend.

What can a Chromebook do?

Simple: browse the internet. Anything you can do in a web browser – whether that’s Internet Explorer, Google Chrome or your browser of choice – you can do on a Chromebook.

This is essentially what a Chromebook is. Sure, there’s something that looks like the Windows desktop background, and various settings to control screen brightness etc, but think of it as a web browser in laptop form.

What can’t a Chromebook do?

It can’t download Windows or Mac software. So Microsoft Word and Excel can’t be run on your Chromebook, unless you have one of the more advanced models (such as the Chromebook Pixel) that can run Android apps. What you can do, though, is access Word Online and Excel Online – and so long as you saved your files into OneDrive (Microsoft’s cloud storage service) then you can access them too.

What are the key advantages of Chromebooks?

Simplicity. Security. Longevity. Price. And a couple more too.

Simplicity because they are darn easy to use. If someone can figure out how to use a web browser, they can work out how to use a Chromebook.

I mention security because they aren’t vulnerable to viruses in the same way as Windows laptops in particular. So you don’t need to add antivirus software. What’s more, because the Chromebook will keep itself up to date, it’s generally secure against new threats too.

This ties in with another big benefit of Chromebooks: they will still be as quick and up to date after three years as the day you bought them. Compare that to a Windows laptop, which will start to age after two or three years. Plus they boot up incredibly quickly, even if you haven’t used it for a while.

And because the Chromebook manufacturers don’t need to pack the latest processor and crazy amounts of memory, Chromebooks tend to be far cheaper than Windows machines. Although there are exceptions. Looking at you, Google Pixelbook.

I also like the fact that you can hand a Chromebook to someone and they’ll be up and running in minutes. So long as they have a Google account, they can access their files as a guest, do what they need to do, and then hand you your laptop back. Much simpler than on Windows.

Do I always need to be connected to the internet?

It definitely helps, but lots of key apps – think Google Docs in particular – can be used in offline mode. So if you’re working on a document, make sure it’s available offline and you can keep working on it on the plane.

Where Windows machines and Macs will always win out, though, is the richness of things you can do offline. Whether that’s watching films, editing photos or creating complex spreadsheets, you’ll struggle on a Chromebook if you don’t have a good internet connection.

Are the apps as powerful?

No. This is the other limitation of Chromebooks: all the apps you’ll be using will depend on cloud-based services, which means they rely on data being sent up and down, which means the companies behind them will favour simplicity over complexity. That’s fine if you just want to crop a photo and remove red-eye, but software designed for a Windows or Mac computer will be far more powerful.

That said, Google is adding power to its apps all the time. For example, did you know that Sheets supported Pivot Tables?

What are Chromebooks

So should I buy a Chromebook? What are the drawbacks?

There are drawbacks to Chromebooks. Because they’re designed to be used online, most of your storage will be online too. That’s why most Chromebooks will only come with 32GB of storage rather than the 250GB-plus that’s typical of Windows machines.

It’s probably worth explicitly stating that Chromebooks aren’t a good choice for gaming either. Their graphics chips are basic because they’ll only be asked to run games designed for web browsers.

Finally, there’s the reliance on Google. You can’t switch to more open browsers such as Vivaldi: you’re stuck with Chrome (unless you’ve got one that installs Android apps). As such, Google will be tracking your every move.

But really, that’s the end of the drawbacks. Chromebooks are fantastic. You just have to be aware of their limitations.

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About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis. Email tim@bigtechquestion.com

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