Chromebooks are inexpensive laptops with a difference: they run Google’s Chrome OS instead of Windows. Martyn Casserly rounds up six of the best
AChromebook is a laptop that runs Google’s Chrome operating system (ChromeOS) rather than Windows or OS X. It offers pretty much the same experience as using the popular Chrome web browser, which you might well already use on a Windows PC or laptop, but with a few extra features added to the mix. An internet connection is central to how a Chromebook functions. Nearly all its apps and services are online and don’t run locally. There are a few exceptions to this, with
Google’s own Document and Spreadsheet apps capable of working offline and then seamlessly syncing any work you’ve done to the cloud once you’re back on Wi- Fi. This simplicity allows Chromebooks to use less powerful hardware than many Windows laptops, without it affecting the overall performance. You won’t fifind capacious hard drives, high- end processors or large 15.6in screens. Instead, Google offers 100GB of online storage with every machine, mobile processors are the order of the day ( negating the need for noisy fans), and the usual screen size is around the 11.6in mark. One of the most notable benefits of such modest accoutrements is that prices for Chromebooks tend to be below £300, with many selling for nearer £ 200. There are many similarities across the available models, with a generally standard keyboard layout and screen resolution, and fast bootup times, but those with specific needs should still be able find a machine to suit them.
What you can get
Compared to a couple of years ago, there’s a much wider choice in 2016. The range of screen sizes spans 10- to 14in and not only are there certain models with touchscreens, but some have hinges that allow the screen to fold right back flat against the underside so you can use it like a tablet.
There’s even a rugged option: Dell’s latest Chromebook is designed for use in schools, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t also be great for home use, especially if you’re buying one for children to share.
Another recent development is the Chromebook-on-a-stick. Asus’ Chromebit, for example, take the crucial hardware, shrinks it down to dongle size and lets you turn any HDMI-equipped display or even TV into a Chromebook – you just need to provide a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to control it.
For most people who just want a laptopstyle computer for browsing the internet, creating documents and spreadsheets, streaming videos or giving to the kids as an inexpensive, virus-free homework device, a Chromebook is an excellent choice.
There are, of course, still very good reasons to buy a Windows machine – they offer a far bigger choice of software they can run and don’t rely so heavily on the internet, for starters – but Windows laptops at the low-end of the market, especially in the price range that Chromebooks occupy, tend to be underpowered or cumbersome.
Really, though, Chromebooks are intended as a second device: you’ll still have a laptop or PC in the house, but the Chromebook is a portable, lightweight alternative which is great for web browsing and email. You might think you’d prefer a tablet for these and other tasks, but ChromeOS means you’re getting a very compatible web browser, so you shouldn’t hit the kinds of limitations that you often find with an iPad or Android tablet, and have to resort to using a Windows laptop. Generally, that doesn’t happen with a Chromebook.
The Chromebook limitation
We’re not saying that Chromebooks are a perfect solution, as there are still limitations. The most significant is that, unlike Windows machines, Chromebooks can’t run most of the software you might be used to. So, no Photoshop, no iTunes (and therefore no iPhone compatibility) and next to no gaming.
Full versions of Microsoft Office are also missing, although you can use the web-based suite with reduced functionality. Google’s own Docs suite is also a very good alternative if you don’t need Office’s advanced features, while its online collaboration is better than Microsoft’s offering.
The other main consideration is how far you’re willing to embrace the cloud. Chromebooks generally come with no more than 16GB of internal storage, as the premise of Chrome OS is that you use the internet rather than your machine to run programs and store data. So if you live in an area with patchy broadband, or don’t want to store your information on Google, Microsoft or Dropbox servers, then a Windows machine might be a better solution.
Peripheral support is also hit-andmiss, so if you need printers or other external devices to get your work done, then it’s worth investigating whether your devices will work with a Chromebook before you buy one.