What is a Chromebook?

The name says it all. The thing that makes a Chromebook different from other laptop PCs is the Chrome operating system, which is designed to utilize mostly online applications and storage rather than programs and files loaded onto an internal hard drive. The result is a new category of laptop that is very thin, very light -- and very popular.

Chromebooks started as a low-price alternative to conventional laptops -- you can find a variety of full-function models for less than $200. But as users have grown to appreciate their ultra-lightweight, highly mobile design, a wide range of Chromebooks has emerged, including advanced models featuring high-resolution displays and ultra-fast processors available for $700 and higher.

What makes a Chromebook different?

Chromebooks were pioneered by Google, the search engine company that has also introduced game-changing products in other areas, such as the Android operating system for mobile devices. The first Chromebooks hit the market in 2011 and since then, nearly every major PC manufacturer has teamed with Google to create branded Chromebooks of their own.

The big innovation in the Chromebook was its elimination of the typical, multi-function PC operating system that did everything from boot the system and sort documents to run software programs and play DVDs. Instead, Chromebooks use Google's minimalistic Chrome OS, based on open-source Linux. The Chrome OS, in turn, uses the Chrome web browser as its primary user interface (similar to the way other operating systems might launch programs from the so-called "desktop").

As most actions start from the Chrome web browser, most activities performed on a Chromebook are conducted over the web -- viewing movies or other popular content, using web-based office software, saving files to cloud storage, and so on. And because most activity is conducted online, Chromebooks can cut costs (and save weight and thickness) by eliminating traditional optical devices (DVD, CD, etc.) and using comparatively small solid-state storage drives.

Advantages of a Chromebook

With less expensive hardware and software components, Chromebooks have quickly earned a spot in the PC marketplace for buyers seeking a lower-cost laptop that allows them to conduct most activities via the internet. But their popularity has grown beyond the budget-minded alone, with more advanced PC users valuing Chromebooks for their fast boot times, light weight and all-around mobility.

What are some advantages of a Chromebook?

  • Long battery life: The minimalistic Chrome OS and absence of a typical spinning hard drive means unplugged times can be longer on a Chromebook.
  • Optimized for Google apps: If you already rely on Google's popular apps such as Calendar and Gmail, the Chrome OS is optimized for using them conveniently.
  • Fast boot times: With an OS that's intentionally minimalistic and data stored on a solid state drive, a Chromebook has less to accomplish when booting up, so it's ready to use much faster.
  • Browser-based simplicity: If you can use a web browser, you can use a Chromebook, since it's primary user interface is the Chrome browser.
  • Extremely thin and light: With fewer bulky internal components, Chromebooks are among the thinnest, lightest PC devices available today.

For more, refer to Chromebook vs. laptop: Which is right for me?

Can students use a Chromebook?

Chromebooks can fit the needs of many students, just not every student. They're extremely light and portable, among the least expensive laptop-style systems available, and the Chrome OS is very easy to learn and use. But since Chromebooks have less internal storage than comparable devices and do most of their work via remote cloud services and web apps, they're best suited to users who are comfortable working that way, less so for those who prefer loading programs and saving multi-gigabyte files locally.

A Chromebook could be a good, economical choice for a student who will mostly read books, write papers and conduct web research (along with other important student activities such as posting social media, editing photos, and so on). Google has built a broad universe of useful word processing and other applications for which Chromebooks come pre-optimized (Google Photos, Docs, Music, Drive and more), and other software makers have released Chrome OS or cloud-based versions of their most popular programs.

A Chromebook might be less well-suited for a student who will often work beyond the reach of a wireless internet signal, who wants to spend off-study hours playing processor-intensive computer games, or whose course of study will require the use of advanced software programs that aren't available for Chrome OS. Plus, most Chromebooks have fewer ports to attach external devices for battery charging or direct data transfer (when short- or long-range wireless options won't suffice).

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