Laptop vs Chromebook: how are they different and which work best for you

Acer’s updated two-in-one Chromebook Spin 713 is the first to support Thunderbolt 4 and is verified by Intel Evo.

Josh Goldman / CNET

Chromebooks are laptop and two in one running on Google’s Chrome operating system. The material can look like any other portable, but the minimalistic web browser-based Chrome OS is a different experience than the Windows and MacOS laptops you’re probably used to. Whether you’re planning to upgrade to a Windows laptop or MacBook, your kid got one from school, or you’re just curious about Chrome OS, here’s everything you need to know.

Read more: Best laptop under $ 500 of 2021

When Chromebooks first arrived in 2011 they were regularly derided – and rightly so – for their limited functionality and reliance on a consistent internet connection. The operating system turns 10 this year and today’s Chromebooks are a long way from where they started, but some things haven’t changed and you might not be willing to work with the limitations they have. Also, if you don’t feel like reading this and just prefer to experience Chrome OS, here’s how to run it temporarily on any laptop using a cheap usb stick you’ve probably already hung around.

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Here’s why a Chromebook may be all the laptop you need


What can or can’t I do with a Chromebook?

When Chrome OS first launched, it was basically Google’s Chrome web browser. For those who are used to an operating system like Windows and Mac, the average Chromebook is little more than a laptop running a web browser and that’s it.

While Chrome OS never matured beyond that, the fact is that a lot can be done entirely on the web these days. Take stock of everything you do on a daily basis and you may find that there is nothing you cannot accomplish with Chrome at its most basic level.

That said, a Windows laptop or MacBook can run the Chrome browser as well as other software supported by these operating systems. Even if you don’t immediately need a particular software, it’s good to have this option. Additionally, if you buy a Chromebook for distance learning with Google Classroom, a Mac or Windows PC will work as well.


Samsung’s Galaxy Chromebook 2 is a premium model with better performance than most.

Josh Goldman / CNET

In this sense, Chromebooks are not natively compatible with Windows or Mac software. You can use VMware on Chromebooks to run Windows apps and there are Linux software support, too much. Additionally, current models can run Android apps and there are also web apps available through Google’s Chrome Web Store.

Read more: Best Laptops, Desktops & Tablets For Designers And Creatives In 2021

One of the big hurdles here for many people is accessing Microsoft Office. You can’t install the full Office software on a Chromebook, but Microsoft makes both web and Android versions available in the Chrome and Google Play stores, respectively. But generally speaking, if you need or want a specific Windows or Mac app – and there is no suitable web or Android app substitute and you don’t want to use VMware – don’t buy a Chromebook.

Additionally, if you need advanced photo and video editing capabilities, you will need a Windows, Mac, or Linux laptop. Basic editing of photos and videos is fine, but Chromebooks generally don’t offer the graphics performance you need for demanding tasks or, again, the ability to install Windows or Mac software and games. . On the other hand, with game streaming services like Google Stadia, Nvidia GeForce Now and Xbox cloud games, Chromebooks can now be used for more than Android and browser-based games. You can also install and play Linux games, although you need a high-end Chromebook to do so. In addition, there are several Android apps available for editing photos and videos as well, including Adobe options.

Asus Chromebook Flip CM5

Today’s Chromebooks like the Asus CM5 are ready to play cloud gaming services, Android games, and even Linux games.

Josh Goldman / CNET

What is a good Chromebook?

Several years ago, all Chromebooks were pretty much the same no matter which company made them. Now there’s a much wider variety of laptops and two-in-ones – convertibles and tablets – to take advantage of Chrome OS’s current capabilities. You will always find more sizes and styles when it comes to Windows laptops, especially if you need cutting edge processing and graphics performance, but the variety of options is much better than in the past.

If you’re just looking for a good, basic Chromebook experience, the small, lightweight OS has minimal hardware requirements and so do web apps. Having a faster, higher-end processor, more memory, and more storage for files and apps will help move demanding multitasking forward, but if not, here’s what I recommend when wondering what base specs to look for. :

  • Intel Celeron or Core i-series, AMD Ryzen or MediaTek processors
  • 4 GB of memory or more
  • 64 GB of storage
  • Full HD display (1920 x 1080 pixels)

These recommendations are flexible. For example, you can get a screen with a resolution of 1366 x 768, but the inexpensive models used in low-end Chromebooks look especially soft next to the Full HD models. And you can get by with 32GB of on-board storage as long as there’s a microSD card slot to complement it, or you don’t plan on downloading a lot of Android apps. Unlike a regular laptop, a Chromebook relies more on cloud storage for files than local storage. It’s also worth noting that storage and memory are often soldered together and cannot be upgraded after the fact, so you can plan ahead.

Whatever Chromebook you buy, before you buy it, you should know the Automatic update expiration date, or WUA. Currently, non-Google hardware is only supported for a period of time before it stops receiving Chrome OS and browser updates, including security updates. For models released in 2020, the date is around 7-8 years from the device’s initial release, but that’s not always the case. Google maintains a list of AUE dates for all models and you should check it before purchasing a Chromebook, new or used.

Do Chromebooks Need an Internet Connection?

When Chromebooks first launched, they became clipboards when offline. Fortunately, things have improved as Google has improved the offline capabilities and popular apps like Netflix, YouTube, and Spotify have offline options as well.

Read: The best VPNs for 2021

For a regular laptop, being offline is a bit less of a problem since you are using installed software that records to internal storage. While neither of the two experiences is great offline these days, Chromebooks aren’t a great choice if you don’t want and can’t be online most of the time. On the positive side, Google has made it easy for Android users to turn their phones into instant mobile hotspots and have Chromebooks and Android devices work better together.

Are Chromebooks Inexpensive?

Due to Chrome OS’s low hardware requirements, not only can Chromebooks be lighter and smaller than the average laptop, but they’re also generally cheaper.

New Windows laptops for $ 200 are rare and, frankly, rarely worth buying. Finding a good $ 200 Chromebook, on the other hand, is pretty easy to do (or at least that was before COVID). And while spending more will get you better build quality, more features, or faster performance, even these premium Chromebooks typically start between $ 400 and $ 500, but can easily go over $ 1,000 depending on your needs.

With Windows laptops, you typically have to spend $ 700 or more to get a slim and light model with decent performance and battery life that will maintain its performance for years to come.

Sarah Tew / CNET

The simplicity of a Chromebook can’t be beat. If everything you do can be done in a web browser or with web or Android apps, there is little reason not to use a Chrome device. Although with support for Android, Linux, Parallels, and VMware, you can do a lot more today than when it arrived in 2011.

Read our Acer Chromebook Spin 713 (2021) review.

Joshua Goldman / CNET

With a wide range of models, sizes and styles that can be configured with all kinds of components and available at prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands, a Windows or Mac laptop offers a greater variety of performance and design. use, especially if you want to easily use software or play games available only on these operating systems.

Read our Asus ZenBook 13 review.

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