Picking up a laptop used to be fairly straightforward. It was a choice between a Windows laptop or MacBook, with a well-established tribal loyalty to each. Today, the two are arguably a lot closer than they’ve ever been, and a new challenger has entered the ring – the Chromebook.
Compared to Mac and Windows laptops, the Chromebook is a unique proposition. On paper, it doesn’t really sell itself. Limited storage, limited programs, and it can’t do half what you’d expect from a Windows laptop. On the other hand, they’re generally very cheap, have amazing battery life that will last all day, are quick to start and easy to use.
So what would you buy a Chromebook for? We compare them to Windows laptops and MacBooks, and let you know when to get a Chromebook, and when to get a more traditional laptop.
Should You Buy a Chromebook or a Laptop?
With their cheaper prices and simple approach, Chromebooks are becoming a smarter choice than “regular” laptops. In fact, unless you have to run a certain program that's only available on Windows (or Mac), we'd argue a Chromebook is the best purchase. More computing happens online, rather than on your computer itself, these days. Your email account? Synced via the cloud. Your documents? Backed up to Google Drive or Dropbox. Your music and videos? Streamed, not downloaded. Chromebooks are perfect for this “always-online” approach, and they're so much cheaper than Mac or Windows alternatives.
- Get a Chromebook if you mainly want to browse the web, email and stream video
- Get a Windows laptop if you need to run dedicated programs and work with other Windows users
- Get a MacBook if you want to a powerful, user-friendly laptop with a premium screen
Chromebooks, MacBooks and Windows laptops all have their advantages and disadvantages, and there are tasks that each can achieve better than the others. At their core though, they’re all essentially laptops, and can browse the web, stream video and handle documents.
We’ve broken down what to typically expect from each operating system in the table below:
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|Operating System||ChromeOS||Windows 10||MacOS|
|Price Range||$200 – $1000||$300 – $2500||$999 – $2800|
|Screen Size||10 – 15-inches||11 – 17-inches||12 – 15-inches|
|Processor||Mobile chip||Intel Core||Intel Core|
|Microsoft Office||Web apps||Windows Office||Mac Office|
|Storage||32GB+||128GB – 1TB||128 – 500GB|
|Battery||10 hours+||3 – 12 hours||10 – 12 hours|
Key Specs Explained
Let's understand a few of those spec differences between Chromebooks, Windows Laptops and MacBooks
Operating system – The main point of difference. Chromebooks run ChromeOS, a Google-developed operating system. If you've ever used the Google Chrome browser, it'll feel instantly familiar. Essentially, all your day-to-day computing happens through this browser. Chromebooks run “web apps” rather than programs that you need to install. Windows 10 is a far larger operating system – that's a blessing, and a curse. It means you have much more flexibility to run programs or do complex tasks; but, it's heavy going, and tends to be slower to load and needs regular updates. MacOS is almost the best of both – fast and dependable, but able to run most programs, too.
Software – As we mentioned above, Chromebooks don't actually run software; they use web apps. This doesn't limit you particularly, though. Want to type a document? You can use Google Docs, which backs up all of your work online to the cloud. It feels exactly like using Microsoft Word, but doesn't require a paid-for license. There are Chromebook web apps for all sorts of tasks, like creating spreadsheets, running calendars or an inbox, or streaming videos.
Processor – On paper, Chromebooks have terrible processors. In practice? You'd never know. The ChromeOS operating system is so light-touch, that you can run it with a basic processor. Chromebooks still start quickly and run smoothly, but on a processor that helps cut the cost of the computer. Windows laptops and Macs need much more advanced processors in order to run quickly. Macs always have a good chip (and you can pay more for a great one), but cheap Windows PCs tend to be let down by cheap processors that make the system run slowly.
Storage – Here's a big one to get used to: Chromebooks have virtually no built-in storage. You're not expected to keep files on the device. Instead, you back them up online to Google Drive. This is actually far more secure. If your laptop was damaged or stolen, all your files would be safe and sound. You can still plug in an external hard drive to access other backups.
Screen quality – This can vary hugely between the super-cheap Chromebooks and the top-end (Google-made) Pixelbook. But, the same is true of Windows laptops. The only brand with outstanding screen quality across its entire laptop range is Apple. And you pay a premium for those displays.
Battery life – Chromebooks last and last: 10 or 12 hour battery life is typical. You'd normally have to pay Mac prices for such staying power. Windows laptops can last from 5 hours to over 10 hours, depending on what you spend. Again, it all comes back to the low-impact Chrome operating system, plus the fact there's no battery-hungry internal hard drive on a Chromebook.
Chromebook vs Windows Laptop
If you’re working to a tighter budget for your next laptop – say, under $400 – then it’s a decision between an entry-level Windows laptop or a Chromebook.
The key thing to know about Chromebooks is that they aren’t as versatile as a Windows laptop. A laptop can handle many uses, and is able to download software and run applications from any source. The Chromebook system is more of a walled garden.
Google App Store
All your apps must come from the Google Play store or Google Web Apps store. As you can’t install regular programs or software, a Chromebook isn’t able to do as many things as a traditional laptop.
Now, that’s not to say you can’t do the essentials. You can still browse the web, email, stream videos, and edit spreadsheets or documents. But if you need to use particular software – Photoshop, for example, or even Skype, then a Chromebook isn’t for you.
The ‘limited’ approach has its advantages – for one, you’re less likely to succumb to viruses on a Chromebook, and they tend not to experience the gradual slowdown of a Windows machine that gets bogged down over time with programs and files.
Simple to Use
A Chromebook is also a lot more user friendly – there’s a lot less to go wrong when you’re using Google Chrome OS. In short, you can’t do anything that Google doesn’t want you to do.
Chromebooks rely on a constant connection to the internet, especially for saving content. Most ship with tiny storage, and although this is sometimes expandable with an SD card, the expectation is that you’ll be keeping files in the cloud.
Laptops, on the other hand come with much more storage, starting with 128GB solid state drives and going up to huge terabyte hard drives, which allow you to store as much as you want.
Verdict – If you’re a casual user who mainly surfs the web, streams Netflix and writes the occasional document, then a Chromebook is a good cheap option. However, if you need to run demanding software or simply need the versatility of a Windows machine, then go for a traditional laptop.
- Entry-level price
- Great battery life
- Not a suitable Windows alternative for everybody
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Chromebook vs MacBook
Chromebooks and MacBooks are two entirely different beasts. Until the launch of the pricey Google PixelBook, they were priced at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Premium vs Budget
The MacBook is a premium product with a suitably premium price tag. The range starts at $999 and only goes up from there.
Chromebooks on the hand have traditionally been aimed at the casual user are priced from around $200 – $400 dollars, making them highly affordable. Google’s PixelBook did buck this trend somewhat, and was heralded as a premium Chromebook, but for the most part you can expect these products to be inexpensive.
Both Chromebooks and MacBooks tend to be svelte and portable. They both use modern types of storage that take up less space than a moving-parts hard drive, and this helps them stay light. While Chromebooks rarely have the premium look of the MacBooks, which benefit from Apple’s glorious screens, you can still find very slim, attractive Chromebooks that won’t embarrass if taken out of a bag at the coffee shop.
As they’re so light and portable (and low cost) we also consider Chromebooks to be among the best laptops you can choose for school.
Great Battery Life
Surprisingly, since MacBooks cost around the $1,000 mark, and Chromebooks cost closer to the $250 level, both types of laptop impress with some seriously generous battery life.
With either a Chromebook or a MacBook, you can enjoy 10 hours or more without needing a recharge. The low-energy storage types and efficient processors keep them chugging along for much longer than Windows laptops.
The main issue you’re likely to run into in the Chromebook versus MacBook debate comes down to raw power. Typically, Chromebooks run low powered processors that can run apps from the Play store fine, but won’t be up for anything too strenuous.
The MacBook is, of course a powerhouse. If you need a laptop with plenty of brawn that can run a large gamut of software, then it’s the MacBook you’ll want to go for.
In the market for a MacBook? See our guide to Which MacBook You Should Buy
- Cheapest MacBook
- 12 hour battery
- Light and easy to carry
- Storage is limited
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Can You Run Office on a Chromebook?
If you need to use Microsoft’s Office software, you might think that a MacBook or ChromeBook are out. But, that’s not the case. Office is now fully compatible with Apple products, and they can be run just as easily as on a Windows laptop.
Office for Chromebook
Similarly, Word, Excel and other Office apps are available for Chromebook too. Office is available to download on the Google Play Store as a paid-for suite (keeping Microsoft’s profits happy).
It’s worth noting that not all Chromebooks have access to the full version of Microsoft Office, so check compatibility before you buy.
Free Office Web Apps for Chromebooks
If your Chromebook can’t install and run the full Office can only access the free version, which is online-only. These aren’t the conventional software versions, but instead they’re nearly identical web apps that you access via the browser on a Chromebook. The downside? You have to be online to use them (and you need to create a Microsoft account to access them).
Google Docs and Drive
Google would much rather you used its own office apps instead, and with an alternative for most of Microsoft’s programs available, and free, it’s not a bad idea. The apps automatically save your work and upload them to your Google Drive, assuming that you’re online, so they’re always available from any machine at any time. The file formats are also compatible with Office programs, and you can even save documents as Word documents, for example.
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