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Laptop vs. Chromebook: Which portable computer is best in 2019

It's time to change the way you think about Chromebooks. Here's why.

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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 and if you're still calling them "toys" or saying they don't run "real" software, you haven't used one lately. It's true that when they first arrived in 2011 they were routinely derided -- and rightfully so -- for their limited functionality and reliance on a consistent internet connection. (I should know, I've been reviewing Chromebooks from the start.) The thing is, today's Chromebooks are pretty far from where they started. After all, there are good reasons for their widespread adoption by schools and picking up steam for business

Read: Best 15-inch laptops for 2019  | Best laptops, desktops and tablets for designers and creatives in 2019

But, before you ditch your Windows or Mac laptop for a Chromebook, there are a few things you should know about them. While they've come a long way, some users might not be willing to work with the few 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 lying around. 

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

More than a browser in a box

Like I said earlier, today's Chromebook experience has greatly improved over the years. 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. 

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's also web apps that are available through Google's Chrome Web Store.

If you were scratching your head as to why anyone would need a $1,400 Chromebook with an Intel Core i7 processor and 16GB of memory like Google's new PixelBook Go, it's because you have a lot more application options these days. 

But generally speaking, if you need or want a specific Windows or Mac app -- and there's no suitable web, Android or Linux app substitute and don't want to use VMware -- don't get a Chromebook.

Also, if you want to do more than play Android games or advanced photo and video editing, 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. The gaming picture could change greatly in November when Google rolls out its Stadia streaming game service.

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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 or Pentium, 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.

Offline improved

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.

Things have thankfully gotten better as Google improved offline capabilities and common apps like Netflix, YouTube and Spotify have offline options as well. 

For a regular laptop, being offline is a little less of a problem since you're using installed software that saves to internal storage. Still, neither experience is great offline these days. 

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. 

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Josh Miller/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 Asus Chromebook Flip C101 review.

Angela Lang/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 Lenovo Yoga C930 review.

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