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Chromebook buyer’s guide: What is a Chromebook, what can and can’t it do?

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Table of contents

Chromebooks are taking the computer market by storm. They’ve managed to find their own market in the portable computing space, standing against the massive demand for traditional laptops, as well as good tablets like iPads. At this point, these machines are in demand, with many people opting for a Chrome OS laptop over an affordable Windows laptop.

The need for a traditional computer is no longer dire. Phones and tablets are often more than sufficient for casual users. Chrome OS computers provide bigger screens and a proper keyboard, while also keeping the experience portable and light. We’re here to answer all your burning questions — what a Chromebook is exactly, how it differs from a traditional PC, and which one you should buy.

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What is a Chromebook?

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

You may be used to choosing between Apple’s macOS and Windows when shopping for a new computer, but Chromebooks have offered a third option since 2011. But what is a Chromebook? These computers don’t run Windows or macOS operating systems. Instead, they run on Linux-based Chrome OS.

Chromebooks are portable computers running Chrome OS, designed to run workflows that generally run in a browser. They have plenty of app support, but they’re not meant for heavy workloads. As a general rule, if the work resides mostly in a web browser, you can use a Chrome OS machine to get it done. In case of complicated workflows that need specific apps, a Chromebook may not be the best fit.

Alternatives: These are the best laptops you can buy right now

What’s the difference between a Chromebook and a laptop?

Chromebooks aren’t all that different from laptops from a hardware perspective. They’re portable computing devices that are rather similar to laptops in terms of design and basic hardware, with some of them sharing similarities with tablets, as some 2-in-1 laptops also do. The major difference comes down to the operating system on board, which is Chrome OS, compared to Windows on traditional laptops, and macOS on MacBooks.

One of the major hardware differences is the built-in storage space. Given that Chrome OS is quite light, and most of the apps are really web apps, most Chrome OS laptops come with limited internal storage. Most Chrome OS users don’t need a lot of storage though, and there are always external storage options like external HDDs/SSDs, if needed. You also get an SD card slot with some of these Chrome OS laptops.

What is Chrome OS?

In the most basic sense, Chrome OS is an operating system based on the Chrome browser you probably already know and love. That means anything you can do in Chrome for Windows or Mac, you can also do it in Chrome OS.

This may sound like a glorified browser, and it used to be, but things have changed in recent years. Chromebooks can now run Android apps, and some even support Linux applications. This makes Chrome OS laptops helpful for doing more than simply browsing the web. You won’t get the full desktop software portfolio Windows and macOS rock, but there are millions of Android apps and a wide variety of full Linux desktop apps at your disposal.

More: What is Chrome OS and who is it for?

Can you run Windows on a Chromebook?

Palash Volvoikar / Android Authority

Like we mentioned above, Chrome OS laptops generally have a lower storage capacity. This makes them less than ideal to run Windows. However, these machines can run Windows, if you really want them to. The process is quite complicated, and can potentially damage your device and/or void your warranty. We recommend you don’t use Windows on a Chrome OS laptop.

There are Android and Linux apps you can run on a Chrome OS device that will do a better job of getting your work done than installing Windows on a Chrome OS laptop. Additionally, there are also ways of running Windows apps on these Chrome OS laptops. We’ll detail all the possibilities, including how to install Windows on a Chromebook, in the guide linked below.

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Instructions here: How to put Windows on Chromebook devices

Chromebook advantages and disadvantages

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Chromebooks are perfect for some use cases, and not so ideal for others. Let’s get into the major advantages and disadvantages of these computers.

Chromebook advantages

Here are some scenarios where Chromebooks make the perfect computing devices:

  • They’re great for student and light office use. Chromebooks do well with work that mostly needs to be done in a browser. From the typical work-from-home workflows, including online classes and meetings to word processing and spreadsheets, Chromebooks do it all. They’re the ideal machines for such work, especially as more and more work in these use cases has moved online with services like Google Docs Editors suite and Office 365, among others.
  • They generally have a better battery life than similarly-priced laptops. Chrome OS is rather light in comparison to Windows, and that shows when you’re using a Chrome OS laptop for the kind of usage it’s intended for. Most of these machines, especially the cheaper ones, will give you quite a decent battery life.
  • They’re cheaper. They’re often quite a bit cheaper than Windows laptops that come with the same processor and similar specifications. This has been a major reason why they’ve been adopted by the education community. It’s also led to their growing popularity in the low-end segment of the portable computer market. Premium options can cost quite a lot, but those aren’t for everyone.

Chromebook disadvantages

Basically, Chrome OS is awesome unless you’re using it for certain types of tasks. Here are some very specific situations where they aren’t the best option:

  • They aren’t great for gaming. Sure, Chrome OS laptops have Android app support, so mobile gaming is an option. There are also browser games. But if you’re looking to play high-profile PC games, you should look elsewhere, unless you can live with cloud gaming from services like Stadia and GeForce Now. Those cloud gaming services require a very good internet connection though.
  • These computers aren’t always a great option for creative professionals. That’s unless you’re a writer, in which case they work wonderfully. Google Drive is baked in, and there are even ways to get Microsoft Office and Skype working. Unfortunately, most of these devices aren’t really powerful enough for 3D editing. Even if you pay big bucks for one of the powerful machines, most of the popular creative software isn’t available for Chrome OS. Photographers could live off the Lightroom Android app and other mobile editing options, and there are some ways to edit video, but most options require significant sacrifices, and/or pretty fast internet.
  • They aren’t powerhouses…though there are exceptions. Many of them are affordable, low-end machines. That means a Chromebook typically can’t handle 500 browser tabs and other intensive tasks. Of course, more powerful options exist. If you really want Chrome OS and the power to run Linux apps, Android apps, and more, you could go for something like the Google Pixelbook, Pixelbook Go, or the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook.

How to use a Chromebook

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

A Chromebook is a computing device at the end of the day, and is actually simpler to use than many modern computers. Chrome OS has that going for it on the whole. While different, it won’t really be unfamiliar to most users. It borrows a lot of cues from Android, and the Chrome browser and its ecosystem of apps.

Chrome OS is made for very basic tasks, and if your machine supports it, you can expand the functionality by installing some Android apps, or even some full Linux apps. Below are some guides to help you get the most out of your Chrome OS machine.

How much does a Chromebook cost?

Chromebooks cost as little as $150-$200 and go up to over a thousand dollars if you want one of the fancy ones. They typically cost less than Windows laptops with similar specifications. There are many sub-$200 Chrome OS laptops, and some pretty good ones under $300 as well. The best value for these machines lies under the $500 mark, where you get a solid balance of specifications for the price.

Those with higher-end needs will need to really pay up to get a superior Chrome OS laptop. Those can cost over $1,000. At that price point, there are many other options to consider, many of which have a full desktop OS. Check out the link below for some great options.

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Chromebooks and Android app support

Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Chromebooks have a solid selection of apps on their own, but it’s no match to Android apps. There are a wide variety of Android apps out there, and they can help enhance the Chrome OS experience greatly. Most Chrome OS laptops released after 2017 support Android apps, but keep in mind not all Android apps are optimized for Chrome OS, except the more popular ones.

Chrome OS laptops that support Android apps get the Google Play Store. This means you have most Android apps available on the Play Store ready for installation. This includes many of the best Android apps out there, including almost any messaging, chat, or video call app, music streaming, and video streaming apps. You also get other popular apps like Adobe Lightroom, Google Drive, Gmail, Reddit, VLC, and many more.

If you want to check whether your Chrome OS device supports Android apps, and want to go on and install them, check out our guides linked below.

Chromebooks and Linux app support

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

If Android apps aren’t your thing, and you want more of a desktop experience with your Chrome OS laptops, you have the option to install full Linux apps on your machine. If the device is running Chrome OS 69 or later, it can run Linux apps. The process is a little complicated, but if you’re sure about wanting to unlock the power of Linux apps on a Chrome OS laptop, then it’ll be worth the hassle.

Full Linux app support means there are a lot of full desktop apps available. A catch here is these Chrome OS laptops come with both ARM-based as well as x96 CPUs. Therefore, some of these apps may not work as expected, or at all, depending upon the CPU architecture used in your device. However, if you have an Intel or AMD-based Chrome OS laptop, the chances are you’ll be able to use nearly every Linux app.

If you want to check if your Chromebook can run Linux apps, and want to go on and install them, check out our detailed guides linked below.

Who makes Chromebooks?

Chromebooks have been widely adopted and, as a result, more or less every mainstream PC manufacturer makes them. All the big laptop makers like Asus, HP, Acer, Dell, and Lenovo have their own lineups of Chrome OS laptops. Many companies offer Chrome OS equivalents of some of their laptop offerings as well. There are also Chromebook offerings available from some lesser-known brands, mostly on the lower end of the market. Google itself also has its Pixelbook lineup, in case you want that Pixel-like experience with Chrome OS.

Let’s take a look at some of the key Chrome OS laptop manufacturers.

Google Chromebooks

Palash Volvoikar / Android Authority

Google’s Chromebook lineup is called Pixelbook, and it’s to Chrome OS what the Pixel phones are to Android. You get a great experience, as Google tries to demonstrate the ideal Chrome OS experience with these machines. Google has three lineups – the Pixelbook lineup, which is the premium and more expensive one, the more affordable Pixelbook Go lineup, and the Pixel Slate lineup. The original Pixelbook has been discontinued, and we’re waiting on a Pixelbook 2 right now.

Asus Chromebooks

Asus is one of the most prominent PC makers, and it carries the same weight in the Chromebook market as well. We have three main lineups from the company. The basic lineup has the more affordable options, and the Flip lineup has two-in-one designs with premium build and features. Asus also has a Chromebook Detachable lineup if you like a tablet form-factor with the option to attach a keyboard.

Acer Chromebooks

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Acer has quite a few Chromebooks on offer as well. It doesn’t have clearly separated lineups, but it does have a few series labels you can use to identify the class of the Acer Chrome OS laptop in question. The basic series has the affordable options here as well. Acer uses the Spin demarcation for its 2-in-1 designs, and the Enterprise range has top-of-the-line premium offerings that cost more. The Enterprise range also gets some Spin variants.

Lenovo Chromebooks

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Lenovo makes some of the best Chromebooks out there. It splits its offerings in two ways — School and Business. Both of these contain the basic range, the 2-in-1 range which uses the Flex moniker, and the detachable range which uses the Duet name. Lenovo provides some rather premium offerings at relatively affordable price tags. Its Flex range is particularly good value for money.

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HP Chromebooks

HP is a huge player in the traditional laptop space, and it brings the same expertise to the Chrome OS offerings. It has a relatively smaller portfolio, but it covers the three essential categories like the other brands mentioned above. The 2-in-1 range is called x360 just like HP’s laptop offerings, and HP simply uses the “Detachable” tag for the detachable. 

Samsung Chromebooks

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Samsung is another brand that keeps its Chrome OS portfolio rather light. It has only five options across five categories. The Premium category has the Galaxy Chromebook, while the sequel, Galaxy Chromebook 2 has slightly lower-tier specifications and fits into the Everyday category. The Traveler category has the Galaxy Chromebook Go, and the Student category has the Chromebook Plus, which is a 2-in-1, and the Chromebook 4/4+, which are your regular affordable machines. Samsung doesn’t have a detachable option.

Dell Chromebooks

Dell’s Chromebook offerings are also available across some of its laptop ranges. The home computing range has the Chromebook 11 lineup, while the business range has a lot of offerings under the Latitude range, with the most expensive ones carrying the Enterprise tag and features to boot. Dell is also lacking detachable options, and its convertible options don’t have a separate label, but just a 2-in-1 tag added.

Which Chromebook should I buy?

Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Do you want a Chrome OS machine but not sure which one to buy? Just like Windows PCs, Chrome OS machines come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and form factors. There are larger-screened devices and some that are barely 10 inches in display size.

We have a list of the best Chromebooks you can buy, with a range of recommendations. Here are our top picks across the key categories.

Here are a few extra buyer guides that will help you find the right laptop for your needs. Also, be sure to check out our guide for the best Chromebook covers and cases.

Other Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How much is a Chromebook?
A: As mentioned above, these machines start as low as $150-200, and go on to cost well over a thousand dollars. The sweet spot for these computers is around the $500 mark.

Q: Can I run Microsoft Office on a Chromebook?
A: Yes, you can. Chrome OS laptops support Microsoft Office apps available via the Google Play Store. Follow our guide on how to do it.

Q: Can I run Adobe Photoshop on a Chromebook?
A: You can’t run the full version of Adobe Photoshop on one of these devices, but the mobile version is available via the Google Play Store. Check out our guide for more.

Q: Can I play games on a Chromebook?
A: You can run some of the best Android games on Chromebooks via the Google Play Store. Theoretically, you should also be able to play some of the full Linux games, but the hardware in these machines isn’t designed for desktop games.

Q: Do Chromebooks have Bluetooth?
A: Bluetooth is a standard feature on laptops these days, and as such more or less all Chrome OS laptops have Bluetooth. 

Q: Do Chromebooks have cameras?
A: Just like Bluetooth, cameras are also a common feature on laptops, and most Chrome OS laptops come with cameras.

Q: What operating system does a Chromebook use?
A: These devices run on Chrome OS, which is an operating system that revolves around Google’s Chrome web browser and its apps. 

Q: How long will a Chromebook last?
A: In terms of battery life, most of these machines last between 7-13 hours. Light usage will get the average Chromebook through a normal working day. In terms of longevity, if you buy one from one of the major brands, a Chrome OS laptop will last you just as long as the average laptop — between three to five years. Of course, this varies depending on your usage. 

Q: Is a Chromebook good for college?
A: Chromebooks are great for educational use. Some college workflows may require the use of desktop apps that simply are not available on Chrome OS. However, for College workflows that rely on basic tasks like web browsing, documents, presentations, video conferencing, and such, a Chrome OS machine should do just fine.

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