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Laptop vs. Chromebook: Which portable computer is best in 2020

Not sure how a Windows or Mac laptop is different than a Chromebook? Here's the answer.

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Google PixelBook Go delivers a premium Chromebook experience.

James Martin/CNET

Chromebooks are laptops and two-in-ones running on Google's Chrome operating system. The hardware might look like any other laptop, but the minimalistic, web-browser-based Chrome OS is a different experience from the Windows and MacOS laptops you're likely used to. Whether you're considering switching to one from a Windows laptop or MacBook, your kid received one from their school or you're simply Chrome OS curious, here's everything you need to know. 

Read more: Best 15-inch laptops for 2020

When Chromebooks first arrived in 2011 they were routinely derided -- and rightfully so -- for their limited functionality and reliance on a consistent internet connection. Today's Chromebooks are far from where they started, but some things haven't changed and you might not be willing to work with the limitations they do have. Also, if you don't feel like reading this and would just rather experience Chrome OS, here's how to temporarily run it on any laptop using an inexpensive USB flash drive you probably already have laying around. 

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HP's Chromebook x2 is an excellent detachable two-in-one. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The software situation

When Chrome OS launched it was essentially Google's Chrome web browser. For those used to an operating system like WIndows and Mac, it made the average Chromebook seem like little more than a laptop that runs a web browser and that's all. 

Even if the Chrome OS never matured beyond that, the fact is quite a lot can be done entirely on the web these days. Take stock of everything you do on a daily basis and you may find there's nothing you can't accomplish with Chrome at its most basic level. 

That said, a Windows laptop or MacBook can run the Chrome browser as well as other software supported by those operating systems. Even if you don't immediately need a particular piece of software, it's nice to have the option. 

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Samsung's Chromebook Plus can do a lot, but it can't natively run Windows or Mac software.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Along those lines, Chromebooks are not natively compatible with Windows or Mac software. You can use VMware on Chromebooks to run Windows applications, and there's support for Linux software, too. Plus, most current models can run Android apps and there are also web apps that are available through Google's Chrome Web Store

Read more: Best laptops, desktops and tablets for designers and creatives in 2020  

One of the big hurdles here for many people is access to Microsoft Office. You can't install the full Office software on a Chromebook, but Microsoft makes both web-based and Android versions available in the Chrome and Google Play stores, respectively. But generally speaking, if you need or want a specific Windows or Mac application -- and there's no suitable web or Android app substitute and you don't want to use VMware -- don't get a Chromebook.

Also, if you want to do more than play Android games or need advanced photo- and video-editing capabilities, you'll probably want a regular laptop. Chromebooks typically don't offer the graphics performance you need for demanding tasks or, again, the option to install Windows or Mac games and software. 

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Gamers will want at least an entry-level laptop like the Dell G5 15.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A diverse range of devices

A few years ago, all Chromebooks were pretty much the same regardless of what company made them. Now, there's a far greater variety of laptops and two-in-ones -- convertibles and tablets -- to take advantage of Chrome OS's current capabilities. You'll still find more sizes and styles when it comes to Windows laptops, especially if you need top processing and graphics performance, but the variety of options is much better than in the past. 

If you're just after a good, basic experience with a Chromebook, the small, lightweight OS has minimal hardware requirements and the same goes for web apps. Having a higher-end processor and more memory will help keep demanding multitaskers moving along, but otherwise here's what I recommend when I'm asked what specs to get:

  • Intel Celeron, Core m- or Core i-series processor
  • 4GB of memory or more
  • 32GB of storage
  • Full HD (1,920x1,080-pixel) display

There is flexibility with these recommendations. You can get a 1,366x768-resolution display, for example, but the cheap ones used in low-end Chromebooks look particularly soft next to full-HD models. And you can get by with 16GB of onboard storage as long as there's a microSD card slot to supplement it. Unlike a regular laptop, a Chromebook relies more on cloud storage for files rather than local storage. It's also worth noting that many times storage and memory are soldered on and can't be upgraded after the fact. 

Web connection (mostly) required

When Chromebooks first launched they basically became paperweights when they were offline -- a real issue if you were in the middle of editing an important document you suddenly couldn't save because your web connection dropped. Things have thankfully gotten better as Google improved offline capabilities and common apps like Netflix, YouTube and Spotify have offline options as well. 

Read: The best VPN services for 2020

For a regular laptop, being offline is a little less of a problem since you're using installed software that saves to internal storage. While neither experience is great offline these days, Chromebooks are not a great choice if you're not willing and able to be online most of the time.  

Price positive

Because of the low hardware requirements of Chrome OS, not only can Chromebooks be lighter and smaller than the average laptop, they're generally less expensive, too.

New Windows laptops for $200 are few and far between and, frankly, are rarely worth buying. Finding a good $200 Chromebook, on the other hand, is pretty easy to do. And while spending more will get you better build quality, more features or faster performance, even these premium Chromebooks typically start between $400 and $500, but can easily run more than over $1,000 depending on your needs. 

With Windows laptops, you typically need to spend $700 or more to get a thin, lightweight model with decent performance and battery life that will hold its performance for years to come. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The simplicity of a Chromebook can't be beat. If everything you do can be done in a web browser or with web or Android apps, there's little reason not to go with a Chrome device. Although with Linux and VMware support, you can do much more today than when they first arrived in 2011.  Read our Acer Chromebook 714 review.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

With a broad range of designs, sizes and styles that can be configured with all kinds of components and available with prices going from a couple hundred dollars to thousands, a Windows or Mac laptop offers greater variety in performance and use, especially if you want to easily use software or play games only available on those operating systems.  Read our HP Spectre x360 13 (late 2019) review.

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