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Chromebook vs. laptop: Which is right for me?

You're looking for a thin and light PC and have decided to buy either a laptop or a Chromebook. So which system is best for you? Will the laptop's overall versatility give it an edge? Or is a Chromebook's minimalistic operating system and focus on cloud storage and services more suited to your needs?

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

Both laptops and Chromebooks are portable PCs intended to be used anywhere a computer is needed: at a desk, on the couch, or while moving from place to place. But there are some important differences:

  • Laptop: Controlled by a PC operating system such as Microsoft Windows 10, with a "desktop" workspace from which the user launches previously loaded software programs. Internal storage is provided either by a spinning hard disk or a solid state drive. Typically has additional built-in features such as optical drives (DVD, CD, etc.), multiple ports to attach external devices, etc.
  • Chromebook: Controlled by Google's Chrome operating system, which uses the Chrome browser as the primary user interface. Relies mostly on internet-based applications and cloud storage (internal storage is comparatively limited and always solid state). Additional built-in hardware features are intentionally omitted to keep system size to a minimum. Learn more at What is a Chromebook?

Some of the points mentioned above are not exclusive to one system or another. Laptops can make equal use of cloud storage and services, and Chromebooks have multiple external ports, just fewer of them (typically). The essential difference will always be that Chromebooks run the Chrome OS.

How are laptops and Chromebooks similar?

There are several categories where Chromebooks and laptops score roughly equally.

Battery life: Laptops can run for extended periods thanks to their typically larger batteries. Chromebooks get more from their batteries thanks to their intentionally minimalistic OS.

Portability: All Chromebooks are designed to be extremely thin and light. Laptops have a far wider range of sizes and weights but every manufacturer makes models that are Chromebook-size.

Durability: Laptops with sturdy frames and keyboards have long been popular for military and industrial use. Chromebooks are catching up, and with fewer moving parts may ultimately have an advantage.

Note that as the Chrome OS evolves, new, more PC-like capabilities become available. For example, some Chromebooks now provide an optional Windows-style desktop from which to start your work. Likewise, PC operating systems are in some ways becoming more Chrome-like, with some now capable of running mobile-style apps.

Comparing Chromebooks to laptops

Shoppers who are choosing between a laptop and a Chromebook can refer to the following table for a quick review of the comparative advantages of each system.

Advantages of a Chromebook

Compared to a laptop, a Chromebook has these advantages:

  • Price: Unless you buy a model with numerous options, a Chromebook ($150-$300) will nearly always be a more economical option than a laptop (minimum $400). Note that these numbers are approximate, with a wide range of price options in each category.
  • Boot times: Chromebooks boot up faster than other PC systems thanks to their solid state drives and the Chrome OS, which is intentionally designed to activate a minimal set of functions -- little more than the Chrome browser -- when first turned on.
  • Simplicity: For anyone who hasn't yet used a PC or gets frustrated using a standard laptop OS, a Chromebook can be a great choice because there's less to learn to get started, with most tasks initiated directly from the Chrome browser.
  • Thin and light: Generally, Chromebooks are thinner and lighter than standard laptops because they use solid state storage exclusively and omit big, heavy add-ons such as DVD drives, etc. But read the specs. Many new laptop designs compare favorably to Chromebooks in terms of portability.
  • Unplugged lifestyle: There's nothing like a Chromebook to help push a user to adopt a more unplugged lifestyle -- saving files to the cloud rather than a hard drive, streaming music rather than downloading it, and perhaps even avoiding some viruses or other negative aspects of using a standard laptop OS.

Advantages of a laptop

Compared to a Chromebook, a laptop has these advantages:

  • Flexibility: A laptop with a full PC operating system, optical drive, and multiple slots and ports will always be more flexible than a Chromebook, which has a relatively limited user interface, fewer port types, and relies more on remote applications and services (which can also be reached from a laptop).
  • Advanced software: Virtually every software program -- photo editors, spreadsheets, word processors, games -- can run on a laptop, whereas some software makers have yet to release Chrome-compatible versions of their programs. NOTE: Some newer Chromebooks can run Android apps, which could, over time, help them catch up to laptops, software-wise.
  • Processor speed: Laptops typically have faster clock speeds than Chromebooks, as even small models have frame designs that can contain (and cool) the latest processors, additional RAM, etc. Chromebooks aren't slow, by any means. But laptops can do more at once.
  • Business use: Most analysts give laptops the edge for business, particularly those with multi-core, multi-thread CPUs and better multi-tasking. A Chomebook's suitability for business increases for frequently mobile users who put extra value on portability, especially if it's at a lower cost.
  • Offline time: Laptop users can stay relatively productive even when beyond the range of their home or office wireless, whereas the Chromebook's "connected-for-everything" approach could make it hard to complete some tasks when out-of-range.
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