“Should I buy a Chromebook?” is a question that is asked with increasing frequency by individuals, businesses, parents and students looking to reduce their computing costs and/or work exclusively in the cloud. 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 lot of what I’m doing on them is now being done in Chrome.
Increasingly, I seem to be neglecting installed Microsoft productivity apps like Word, Outlook and Excel in favour of online, cloud-based equivalents (mostly Google products) that run happily in Chrome. And the e-commerce apps I use for my business — like Shopify, BigCommerce and Squarespace — all run in a browser too.
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 cheap Chromebook and writing a blog post about the whole thing. On a Chromebook.
Let’s kick things off with a look at what a Chromebook actually is.
What is a Chromebook?
A Chromebook is a laptop that you use primarily when you are online, and one that you don’t — generally speaking — 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 don’t usually 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 your IT (information technology) costs in a few ways.
First, 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). And, if you apply these sort of cost differentials across a large team’s computing requirements, you’re talking about saving a lot of money.
Second, because Chromebooks do not particularly rely on locally-run applications, there is less of a need for an IT department to install software. Or update it. Or support it. Any updates to your Chromebook and the Google software you use on it are carried out regularly and automatically by Google — and if you’re a Google Workspace customer, you have a 24/7 Google helpdesk at your disposal too.
Third, because there are no moving parts in them, Chromebooks are less prone to developing mechanical faults, meaning greater reliability and longevity — and a lack of repair bills.
And finally, because Chromebook users generally work ‘in the cloud’, you don’t need to spend as much money on physical storage to handle networking or backups.
(That said, investing in a third-party cloud backup service to ensure any data in Google Workspace remains backed up is still a good idea).
The below video from Google spells out the benefits — as the company sees it — of using Chromebooks in a work or educational context.
Chromebooks can lower your software costs
For many individuals and businesses, Google Workspace, 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 (Google Workspace starts at $6 per user per month).
And if you don’t want to work with Google Workspace, there are cheap or even free browser-based alternatives available to you — not least a free browser-based version of Microsoft Office. There’s also the entry-level Microsoft 365 plan, which provides you with an email account and cloud storage for a few dollars per month as well as the online versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc. (Microsoft Access can’t be used on a Chromebook however.)
Tip: For a detailed overview of when and why you might want to use Google Workspace or Microsoft 365, you can check out our Microsoft 365 versus Google Workspace 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 that you can still get ‘phished’ on a Chromebook, which is something different).
And on top of that, Chromebooks are viewed as one of the more robust options available from a virus protection point of view — the automatic updates, ‘sandboxing’ and ‘verified boots’ of Chrome OS 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 in 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.
(That said, if you’re used to working another operating system, you may need to factor in a slight learning curve after switching to Chrome OS.)
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, these all have two things in common: first, they are examples of software titles used by millions of businesses all over the world, and second, they are all applications that run in a web browser.
So, 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 modestly-specced Chromebooks provide a 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 the move, there is little point in forking out for an expensive Apple product or high-end Windows device when you can access video content perfectly well via Chrome.
Chromebooks are ideal for a workforce that moves around a lot
If you travel 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 lack of moving parts also means that their battery life is excellent.
The thing to watch out for, of course, is the lack of an internet connection. This is less of an issue these days, with tethering via phone and ever improving wifi available, but it is possible to hit a black spot. If that happens, there are offline working options available for some Chrome Apps (notably Gmail), but you will have to plan ahead to use them (more on this below).
The integration with Google Workspace is great
Over 6 million companies use Google Workspace 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.
Are Chromebooks good for education?
For many of the same reasons that Chromebooks can work well in a business context, they are often a good choice in an educational setting too. The hardware is cheap, the key software is included and battery life is very long (meaning students can usually avoid recharging machines during the school day).
Additionally, Chromebooks work seamlessly with Google Classroom, which in the COVID-19 era can be very useful for the remote learning that many students now have to undertake.
The main drawback from an educational point of view is that there are limits to the types of applications that you can install on Chromebooks. This will rule the machines out for students who need to work on very specific, locally installed apps. But for general browser-based learning, Chromebooks are an excellent, cost-effective choice.
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 the full versions of Microsoft 365 apps on Chromebooks
If you are attached to Microsoft applications like Outlook, Word and Excel, you should note that you can’t install the full versions of them on a Chromebook.
Accordingly, a lot of Chromebook users end up making a move to Google Workspace, which, being a Google product, works extremely well in a Chromebook context. However,
switching to Google Workspace will inevitably bring a learning curveif you’ve never used it before
even if you start using Google Workspace, you’ll probably still end up with a need to supply content to other people or organisations in MS Office format.
The good news is that Google Workspace is perfectly capable of creating, editing and saving Microsoft 365 files — but you should note that when it comes to editing complicated Microsoft documents, you may have to watch out for formatting problems when you save your files.
If you are very attached to Microsoft products, there are ways to use them on a Chromebook, however.
First, you can use the online version of Microsoft 365 using a Chromebook. Whilst not providing as comprehensive a set of tools as the desktop version of the Microsoft productivity suite, these products nonetheless enable you to edit most Word, Excel and Powerpoint files in a browser — and without some of the formatting headaches you might occasionally run into when you try to edit Office files with Google Workspace.
The other option is to install the Android versions of the Microsoft 365 apps on your Chromebook. These are pretty basic by comparison to the full versions of the apps, but they do let you perform essential tasks (and importantly, offline too).
So all in all, if you want to work with Microsoft 365, not being able to install the full versions of the apps on your Chromebook shouldn’t hold you back too much.
But if you are a power user of Microsoft products, and can’t live without the full versions of the Microsoft 365 apps, 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.
That said, 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; similarly, there are some options available to you when it comes to video editing — Android apps and/or web-based video editors can provide some workarounds.
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 Gmail in an offline mode 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.
There’s an ‘end of life’ date to worry about
Chromebooks receive automatic updates to provide users with the latest features and keep their devices secure — but not indefinitely. Each Chromebook comes with an Auto Update Expiration (AUE) date, after which updates will no longer be supplied for that device, and it may not be advisable to use it (chiefly for security reasons).
This isn’t entirely dissimilar to what happens to other types of devices — for example, Apple won’t always roll out the latest version of its OS to older computers. And you could argue that knowing how long your device will be useful for lets you manage future hardware purchasing plans better.
But (as you’ll see from the comments below) it’s clearly not popular with some Chromebook users.
How to turn a laptop into a Chromebook
Interestingly, you don’t necessarily to buy a Chromebook to get one!
If you have an old laptop that is struggling to run the latest version of Windows or Mac OS, you might find that ‘repurposing’ it as a Chromebook gives it a new lease of life and turns it back into a really useful machine.
This can be done by downloading Chromium OS (an open-source product which is related and extremely similar to Chrome OS) and installing it on your old machine.
Chromium OS makes much lighter demands on your computer than traditional desktop operating systems, and accordingly can turn a sluggish computer into one that boots up quickly and works perfectly fine as a tool for web browsing, consuming content or working in the cloud.
If this sounds of interest, you should check out Android Central’s guide on how to install Chromium OS on your computer.
What about Chromeboxes, Chromebases and Chromebits?
Chromeboxes are essentially desktop versions of Chromebooks — compact boxes that run Chrome OS. They 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. Pretty 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 Chromebooks
So, are Chromebooks any good? Well, we hope that this Chromebook review has helped you answer that question — a bit! To sum up, and help you make a final decision on that “Should I buy a Chromebook” question, 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.
They have long battery life.
Viruses and malware pose less of a risk to Chromebooks than other types of computer.
Chromebooks can reduce reliance on IT professionals and lower software costs.
The integration with Google Workspace is excellent.
They’re a good option if you chiefly use browser-based apps for work or entertainment.
Whilst you can use Microsoft 365 on a Chromebook (the online version), some features will not be available.
Although you can edit images and video on Chromebooks, they are not the best option 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.
2021 Chromebooks to consider
Below you’ll find some popular Chromebooks to take a look at.
Acer typically does well in this market — take a look at the Acer Spin 11 or the Acer Chromebook 514. If you are particularly budget-conscious, the HP Chromebook 11 is worth a look.
If you’re looking for a far more powerful Chromebook, then Google Chromebook Pixelbooks are for you. 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 using Chrome OS you’ll love the Pixelbook.