Chromebook vs laptop: Which one best suits your needs?

Comparison of Chromebook and MacBook (labeled as Laptop)

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The term laptop is often used interchangeably with Chromebook, but there are a few differences that every shopper should know before hitting the buy button on either. We’ll answer the most frequently asked questions about what makes Chromebooks so unique, who they’re best for, and what to consider when buying one.

Also: The 27 best laptop and Chromebook deals right now

A Chromebook is a laptop running ChromeOS, a specialized operating system designed by Google to be more reliant on cloud-based and connected services than traditional operating systems like Windows or MacOS. Chromebooks look almost identical to most laptops or notebooks, but they typically pack less powerful hardware due to their reliance on those cloud-based services, rather than locally installed software that requires more power.

An open and closed Asus Chromebook

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

A Chromebook is a laptop that runs ChromeOS. They tend to have lower-powered processors, less RAM, and less local storage than their portable counterparts. However, there are some high-end Chromebooks that exceed the specifications of most contemporary laptops.

In this comparison, “laptop” refers to laptops running traditional operating systems such as Microsoft’s Windows or Apple’s MacOS, also known as MacBooks). Operating systems like these rely heavily on locally installed software that lives on your internal storage. This different philosophy on how to access software and services is the crux of what distinguishes a Chromebook from a laptop.

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For example, a person editing a photo on a standard laptop might use locally installed programs like Microsoft Paint, Adobe Photoshop, or GIMP, or photo-editing web apps like pixlr, Imgureither Photoshop on the web (beta). A user wanting to perform the same task on a Chromebook will need to rely on web apps, as locally installed options like Paint and Photoshop aren’t compatible with ChromeOS.

Almost. Simply put, a Chromebook can do everything most people use a laptop for. This includes browsing the web, social media, email, messaging, watching or listening to streaming media, productivity tasks like word processing or spreadsheets, video chat and remote learning, and even basic photo editing. and videos.

Laptops, however, for some tasks, are better for some niches and professional use cases. For example, professional writers, myself included, can mostly get by just fine using a Chromebook because we do most of our writing on the web these days. However, professional photo and video editors will want a Windows or MacOS laptop to access software like Adobe Photoshop or DaVinci Resolve, neither of which are available through ChromeOS due to a lack of local software support.

Plus: 5 Reasons Chromebooks Are the Perfect Laptop (For Most Users)

This makes Chromebooks great for students, office workers, and anyone who works or plays entirely on the web, but not so much for people who need the often more advanced capabilities of locally installed software.

A girl using a Chromebook for remote learning


Gaming options on Chromebooks are more limited than those on traditional laptops. While dedicated gaming laptops can play pretty much any compatible game that a full gaming desktop can run (though likely at a lower frame rate), gaming Chromebooks are generally limited to two types of games: gaming mobiles through Google Play and cloud-based games. services.

Google Play mobile games can be accessed from any Chromebook that supports the Android app store. These games work just like they would on a smartphone or tablet if you have a touchscreen Chromebook. For a non-touchscreen Chromebook, you’ll need to choose games that support keyboard, mouse, or trackpad input.

Plus: How to install Android apps on your Chromebook

With cloud-based gaming services like Nvidia’s GeForce Now or Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming, the game runs on a connected server, rather than on the Chromebook itself. This makes it possible to play AAA titles with demanding system requirements on low-end Chromebooks, or even on smart phones. However, the quality of the gaming experience generally does not match the responsiveness and resolution of a locally installed game.

That said, you can get close to the ideal experience if you stick with lighter (or retro) titles, have a fast internet connection, and use a gaming-optimized Chromebook. The first wave of “Gaming Chromebooks” has just arrived and includes models like the Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming Chromebook Y Acer Chromebook 516GE which I recently reviewed.

Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming Chromebook on a desk with gaming peripherals

Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Ideally yes, but some tasks can be completed offline. Because Chromebooks rely heavily on connected services like cloud-based storage and web apps, a lack of connectivity can leave you without access to important files or the software you need.

However, some basic features remain even when a Chromebook isn’t connected to the Internet. This includes things like using Google productivity apps (like Google Docs and Sheets); view locally stored files like movies, songs, and podcasts; and view or edit locally stored images and documents.

Plus: How to set up offline access in Google Drive

To be clear, you shouldn’t buy a Chromebook if you don’t intend to have it connected to the Internet most of the time. While it can be used offline, its full functionality depends on access to an active Internet connection.

Google warning without Internet in Chrome


Are Chromebooks expensive?

Generally speaking, Chromebooks are some of the least expensive portable computing devices around.

Its reliance on cloud-based and connected services means its internals can be low-end. This translates to reduced hardware costs for solid Chromebook models. available for less than $300and sometimes less than $100.

You could buy a very low-end laptop for around the same price, but the build quality and components would likely be disappointing. Meanwhile, Chromebooks in this price range are almost as capable as much more expensive options.

As an exception, there are several more expensive Chromebooks available. High-end models like Google Pixelbook Go either Samsung’s Galaxy Chromebook incorporate premium materials, high-resolution displays, and internal components that would be right at home in a high-end laptop. While these models are overkill for most Chromebook users, they might suit someone who expects their Chromebook to be their primary computing device.

The answer depends on its intended uses. Do you need a couch PC for basic browsing, maybe some social networking, and the occasional video streaming? So your priorities are very different than a student who wants a system with maximum portability and epic battery life. Because of this, ZDNET has the best lists geared towards specific types of users, which you can find below.

If you want my quick picks for the best Chromebooks overall, I’ve included a few below with my reasoning for choosing them.

A woman shopping for a laptop


For mixed use:

This is the Chromebook that I have recommended to several family and friends, who have reported excellent long-term satisfaction. Its touchscreen will let you play Android games, and its reliability and build quality will help you get the job or task done with just as much ease. It’s all the “laptop” most of us will ever need.

For games:

I reviewed two of the three Chromebooks included in the first wave of gaming-focused models, and the Acer 516 GE slightly outperformed its competition due to the inclusion of an Ethernet port. If you are a pure Wi-Fi user with a great connection, the Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming Chromebook could be a great option too.

For the road warrior:

$650 can seem expensive when there are options like Lenovo’s big model above. But, the exceptional build quality, 12-hour battery life, and laptop-class CPU make an excellent argument for buying this Chromebook if you intend to travel with just one computer.

For young students:

I wouldn’t call the $100 Dell Chromebook 3100 disposable, but it’s as close as you can get in a usable laptop-type device. It’s also surprisingly hardy, which means it can outlast less careful youngsters.

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