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

They might look the same, but they are definitely different.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Chromebooks first arrived in 2011, however it's only in the past couple years that they've gained ground on traditional laptops. That's mainly due to widespread adoption by schools, but their overall simplicity and low cost are undeniably attractive for home and work use, too.

Despite the portable design similarities, there are key differences between the Windows and Mac laptops you're used to and Chromebooks, which use Google's web-based Chrome OS. To cut to the chase, the basic differences are listed out in the chart below.

Still not sure which is right for your day-to-day? Just keep reading.

Chromebooks vs. laptops

Chromebooks Laptops
Uses Google's Chrome operating system Uses a desktop operating system like Windows 10 or MacOS
Runs web apps as well as Android and Linux apps Runs software installed locally as well as web apps
Minimal hardware requirements Hardware requirements dependent on performance needs
Typically small and lightweight with long battery life Broad range of devices and features to meet individual needs
Needs reliable web connection to be most useful with limited offline use Can readily be used online and offline
Prices start at less than $200 with premium models starting around $400 Prices start low, but expect to spend $700 to $1,000 for better performance longevity

Simplicity vs. versatility

I've been reviewing Chromebooks from the start and while the experience has greatly improved over the years, the core idea remains the same. Chrome OS is essentially Google's Chrome web browser, which makes the average Chromebook little more than a laptop that runs a web browser. Your gut reaction to that might be that a Chromebook just won't be enough for your needs.

The fact is, though, quite a lot can be done entirely on the web. Take stock of everything you do on a daily basis and you may find there's nothing you can't accomplish with Chrome. Also, Chromebook battery life is generally excellent.

That said, a Windows laptop or MacBook can run the Chrome browser as well while also letting you install regular applications. Even if you don't immediately need a particular piece of software, it's nice to have the option. Which brings us to the bigger question.

16-samsung-chromebook-plus-v2

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

Need Windows or Mac software? Skip Chrome

Chromebooks are not compatible with Windows or Mac software. Instead, they use web apps that are available through Google's Chrome Web StoreNewer models can also be used with Android apps, which can fill in some blanks, like if you need Microsoft Office access. And, if you don't mind poking around a bit in the OS, you can load Linux apps onto some models, too.

But generally speaking, you'd be dealing with substitutions, so if you need or want a specific Windows or Mac app -- and there's no suitable web, Android or Linux app substitute -- don't get a Chromebook.

Also, if you want to do anything more than casual gaming or basic photo and video editing, you'll want a regular laptop. Chromebooks just don't have the graphics performance you need for demanding tasks or, again, the option to install Windows or Mac games. The gaming picture could change later this year when Google rolls out its Stadia streaming game service, but for now a Chromebook won't cut it.

18-dell-g5-15-gaming-laptop

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

More choice or fewer decisions

Whether you're looking to play the latest games, edit large photo and video files or simply want to multitask without system slowdowns, there's a laptop to meet your performance needs. On top of that, they're available in countless sizes and styles. The seemingly limitless options means you can find the exact laptop for you. It can also lead to decision-making paralysis.

There are a lot fewer decisions to make with Chromebooks, however. 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 and not local storage.

Connection issues

The problem with a web-based operating system becomes glaringly apparent when you don't have a reliable internet connection. 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 and others have improved offline capabilities. Still, you need consistent internet access to get the most from a Chromebook.

For a regular laptop, being offline is much less a problem since you're using installed software that saves to internal storage. Or at least that scenario is a possibility.

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 cheaper, 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.

With Windows laptops, you typically need to spend $700 or more to get a thin, lightweight model with decent performance and battery life. Note CNET may receive a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.

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. And even a premium model like the all-aluminum two-in-one Asus Chromebook Flip is less than $500 with a 1,920x1,080 12.5-inch display, dual-core Intel Core M3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Without a full desktop OS, you're limited in what you can do with a Chromebook. With a broad range of designs, sizes and styles that can be configured with all kinds of components and available with prices from a couple hundred to thousands, it's hard to beat the versatility of regular laptops. For example, the full HD 15.6-inch Acer Aspire E 15 can be found as low as $350 with a dual-core Intel Core i3-8130U, 6GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive. For $550, though, you get an Intel Core i5-8250U, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD (and easy access to add more) and entry-level Nvidia GeForce MX150 discrete graphics. Plus, it has ports both old and new and a DVD burner. 

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