"Should I buy a Chromebook?" is a question that is asked with increasing frequency by both individuals and businesses looking to reduce their computing costs. This Chromebook review explores the pros and cons of using Chromebooks and other Chrome OS-based computers and helps you answer that question...
Because of the nature of the work I do, and the nature of the times we live in, I seem to have devices coming out of my ears.
Depending on where I'm working, I switch between an iMac, a Windows laptop, an iPhone and an iPad, but one thing I've noticed about all these devices is that a hell of a lot of what I'm doing on them is now being done in Chrome.
Increasingly I seem to be neglecting Word, Outlook, Excel and so on (all installed Microsoft products) in favour of online, cloud-based equivalents (mostly Google products) that run via a browser.
This observation, coupled with some adverts featuring shiny computers on Facebook (after all, Facebook knows I like shiny computers), got me wondering about Chromebooks and whether you could run a business on one. This in turn naturally led to me buying a Chromebook and writing a blog post about the whole bloody thing. On a Chromebook.
But before we get to all that, let's discuss what a Chromebook actually is.
What is a Chromebook?
A Chromebook is basically a laptop that you use primarily when you are online, and one that you don't really save files onto.
Nearly everything — word processing, spreadsheet-eyeballing, note-taking and no doubt other dubious activities — is done online via Google's Chrome browser and pretty much everything you produce is saved onto the 'cloud'.
This means that Chromebooks generally don't come with much storage and don't require a particularly fast processor...which in turn makes them very cheap compared to 'normal' computers.
Chromebooks run Chrome OS, a stripped-back, Linux-based operating system which revolves mainly around the Chrome browser. Although an increasing number of apps which also work offline are now available for it, the idea is that most of what you do on a Chrome OS device is done online using the Chrome browser.
There are some really great things about Chromebooks — and some not so great. Let’s take a look at the good stuff first.
The pros of using Chromebooks
Chromebooks can lower your hardware and IT costs
Chromebooks have the potential to lower IT costs in a few ways.
Firstly, and for the reasons discussed above, they are much cheaper to buy than 'normal' computers. I'm typing this on a machine that cost me just $175 (albeit in a sale, but you can definitely pick a decent enough machine up for less than $300).
My mid-range Windows laptop cost four times as much as this without - when it comes to using Chrome and cloud-based software at least - being four times as good.
So whether you're an individual or a business, there are significant savings to be made by purchasing a Chromebook (or if you fit into the latter category, lots of them). If you apply these sort of cost differentials across a large team's computing requirements, you're talking about saving a lot of money.
Secondly, because Chromebooks do not rely on installed software, there is less of a need for an IT department to, well, install software. Or update it. Or support it. Any updates to your Chromebook and the cloud-based software you use (Google Docs etc.) are carried out regularly and automatically by Google, and if you're a G Suite (Google Apps) customer, you have a 24/7 Google helpdesk at your disposal too.
Thirdly, because there are no moving parts in them, Chromebooks are arguably less prone to developing mechanical faults, meaning greater reliability and longevity - and a lack of repair bills.
And finally, because your team is working in the cloud, you don't need to spend as much money on physical storage to handle networking or backups.
(Note that depending on the G Suite plan you’re on, you may need to invest in a third-party cloud backup service, however, to ensure any data in G Suite remains backed up).
Chromebooks can lower your software costs
For many individuals and businesses, G Suite, Google's set of productivity apps, is now capable of handling core computing needs - word processing, spreadsheets, email and diary management - perfectly well, and very cheaply (G Suite for Work costs £3.30 per user per month).
And if you don't want to work with G Suite, there are cheap or even free browser-based alternatives available to you - not least a free browser-based version of Microsoft Office or the entry-level Office 365 plan, which provides you with an email account and cloud storage for a few dollars per month in addition to the online versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc. Microsoft Access can't be used on a Chromebook however.
(For a detailed overview of when and why you might want to use G Suite or Office 365, you can check out our Office 365 vs G Suite comparison post.)
Chromebooks are less vulnerable to viruses
Because of the emphasis on cloud-based working, using a Chromebook doesn't tend to involve much installation of software; accordingly, it's quite difficult for users to get a virus on one (note: you can still get 'phished' on a Chromebook, which is something different).
And on top of that, Chromebooks are generally viewed as one of the more robust systems going from a virus protection point of view: automatic updates, 'sandboxing' and 'verified boots' help prevent infection (you can find out more about these terms on Google's Chromebook Security help page).
All this means that if you are using a Chromebook, you can generally forget the costs associated with virus and malware protection software - or paying IT professionals to clear up the mess you made on the network after you opened that attachment from that nice lady from Russia.
They can encourage collaboration and improve productivity
Because Chromebooks aren't really about installing standalone pieces of software on your computer, those using them are effectively nudged in the direction of using web apps that allow multiple users to access and edit files together in real time. This opens up a lot of collaborative possibilities and new ways of working.
Additionally, with a Chromebook, less seems to get in the way of actually doing work. Chrome OS is clutter-free, stable, and free of the 'bloat' or 'lag' that you often get with other operating systems.
Chromebooks also boot up incredibly quickly (in about 5-10 seconds) and are 'instant-on' from sleep. Any system that comes with lack of distractions, delays and crashes has good implications for productivity.
You're dealing with a robust platform
Whether we're talking about email clients like Gmail, CRM tools like Salesforce, accounting solutions such as Xero, e-newsletter apps such as Mailchimp or helpdesks such as Zendesk, they all have two things in common: they are examples of software titles used by millions of businesses all over the world, and they are all applications that run in a web browser.
If your team access all their key tools in a web browser, then why not provide them with system that is designed explicitly for doing that? Even modest Chromebooks provide an astonishingly fast and stable environment for working with browser-based applications.
The same goes for using a Chromebook for personal entertainment - if the main reason you're getting a laptop is to watch Netflix or Amazon Prime shows on it, there is little point in forking out for an expensive Apple product when you can access video content perfectly well via Chrome.
Chromebooks are ideal for a workforce that moves around a lot
If you travels a lot, then Chromebooks can be an excellent option.
They are generally much lighter and thinner than traditional laptops (due to the lack of moving parts) — so this makes them much easier to transport.
The thing to watch out for, of course, is the lack of an internet connection: less of an issue these days, with tethering via phone options and ever improving wifi, but it is possible to hit a black spot. If that happens, there are offline working options available for some Chrome Apps (notably Gmail).
The integration with G Suite is great
Over 5 million individuals and companies use G Suite now - and if you or your business is included in that number, then you will be hard-pressed to find a nicer, more reliable and tightly-integrated way to work with this suite of products than on a Chrome OS device.
The cons of using a Chromebook
That all sounded fantastic didn't it? But before you rush out and by a Chromebook, there are a couple of significant downsides to consider.
You can't install Microsoft Office on Chromebooks
Whatever your feelings about MS Office apps, a generation has been brought up using them, which means that 1) your team will face a learning curve if you insist on them using other products and 2) you will probably need to supply content in Microsoft Office format to other organisations that you deal with.
The good news is that G Suite is perfectly capable of creating, editing and saving MS Office files; but you should note that when it comes to editing complicated MS Office documents, you may have to watch out for formatting problems when you save your files.
Alternatively, you can always use the online version of MS Office (free or paid) on a Chromebook: whilst not providing as comprehensive a set of tools as the desktop version, it nonetheless enables you to edit most Word, Excel and Powerpoint files in a browser and without some of the formatting headaches you might occasionally run into with G Suite.
It's important to note that 'power-users' of MS Office products may still need to use the desktop versions (as many advanced features are not currently available in the online versions of MS Office apps) and MS Access currently won't run in a browser.
But all in all, not being able to install the desktop version of MS Office on your Chromebook shouldn't hold you back too much when it comes to document editing.
If you can’t live without the installed versions of the Microsoft Office apps however, then maybe a Chromebook is not for you.
They are not ideal for working on multimedia projects
If your business is one which deals with a lot of audio or video related projects, then you are probably better off working on a traditional desktop.
It's not that there aren't powerful Chromebooks available that could handle this kind of work (the Chromebook Pixel, for example); it's more that the software typically used for multimedia projects - Pro Tools, Final Cut Pro etc. - is not currently browser-based.
Interestingly however, a version of Photoshop is on the way for Chromebook - a 'streamed' edition which runs on a remote server and is accessed via the Chrome browser. It's currently a beta version limited to North America-based Adobe education customers with a paid Creative Cloud membership, but should be rolled out more widely soon, along with other Adobe Creative Cloud apps. This points to the fact that Chromebooks in time, may actually end up becoming a good option for working on multimedia projects; it'll be interesting to see how that all pans out.
(For the record, it should be pointed out that basic image editing on a Chromebook won't pose any problems - there are plenty of simple editors available, both cloud-based and offline.)
Chromebooks are not best suited to gaming
If you're into gaming — or at least playing the latest games — then a Chromebook won't be the best option for you, because they generally aren't powerful enough to cope with the graphical and computational demands of modern games.
That said, because some Chromebooks allow you to run Android apps, you do have some options when it comes to Android games. Laptop Mag has a good rundown of some good Android gaming options here.
They are (obviously) not as functional offline
Chromebooks are for obvious reasons less useful offline than online - but you still use them to access and edit Google Drive files when you're not connected to the internet, and you can use an offline version of Gmail too.
An increasing number of other apps which work offline are being made available for Chrome OS too; so as long as you plan things in advance, and make sure you save the right files onto your Chromebook before you go offline, you should still be able to get a decent amount of work done when you are not connected to the internet.
What about Chromeboxes, Chromebases and Chromebits?
Chromeboxes are essentially the desktop version of Chromebooks: tiny little boxes that run Chrome OS and are reminiscent of a Mac Mini or an Apple TV box.
You generally have to sort yourself out with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor when you buy one, but they are still much cheaper than traditional desktop machines.
Chromebases are 'all in one' computers that run Chrome OS; they look something like of the current generation of iMacs.
And finally, there's the Chromebit to consider - a dongle that just plugs into the HDMI port on a television and turns your telly into a computer. Remarkably funky stuff.
The pros and cons of using a Chromebook generally apply to using any of the above Chrome OS devices - assuming Chrome OS works for your business, you just have to make a call on the appropriate form factor.
Summary: pros and cons of using Chromebooks (and other Chrome-based computing devices)
So, should you buy a Chromebook? Well, we hope that this Chromebook review has helped you answer that question. To sum up, and help you make a final decision, here's a list of the main pros and cons of using one:
Chromebooks (and other Chrome OS devices) are very cheap by comparison to traditional laptops / computers.
Chrome OS is fast and stable.
Machines are typically light, compact and easy to transport
Viruses and malware pose less of a risk.
They can reduce reliance on IT professionals and lower software costs.
The integration with G Suite is excellent.
They're a good option if you chiefly use browser-based apps for work or entertainment.
You can't Skype on Chromebooks.
Whilst you can use Microsoft Office on them (the online version), some features will not be available.
They are not (yet) ideal for multimedia applications.
Working offline on a Chromebook arguably requires a bit more advance planning than using a traditional laptop.
They're not great for gaming.
If you are extremely dependent on a piece of software that does not run in a browser or on Chrome OS, Chromebooks are not for you.
2018 Chromebooks to consider
Below you'll find some popular Chromebooks to take a look at. Please note that the links used involve affiliate advertising.
Below you'll find some Chromebooks that have been highly rated by reviewers on Amazon (we've only included computers on this list which cost less than £300, have 50+ reviews, and a minimum of a four star rating). Acer typically does well in this market, in the UK at least.
Acer Chromebook 11 (four stars)
Acer Chromebook 14 (four stars)
Acer NX.GC2EK.007 Chromebook (four stars)
If you're looking for a far more powerful Chromebook, then Google Chromebook Pixelbooks are worth considering. As the name suggests, these are Google's own take on the Chromebook and accordingly you'll find that they are beautiful in design and extremely fast.
However, you can expect to pay Apple-style prices to get your hands on one:
The bottom line is that if your needs are not particularly demanding then an entry level Chromebook should serve you fine; if you've got cash to splash and really want to work on Chrome OS you'll love the Pixelbook.
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