Commentary: Looking to buy a new Windows or Mac laptop? You'll first want to consider Chromebooks, too.
Joshua GoldmanManaging Editor / Advice
Managing Editor Josh Goldman is a laptop expert and has been writing about and reviewing them since built-in Wi-Fi was an optional feature. He also covers almost anything connected to a PC, including keyboards, mice, USB-C docks and PC gaming accessories. In addition, he writes about cameras, including action cams and drones. And while he doesn't consider himself a gamer, he spends entirely too much time playing them.
ExpertiseLaptops, desktops and computer and PC gaming accessories including keyboards, mice and controllers, cameras, action cameras and dronesCredentials
More than two decades experience writing about PCs and accessories, and 15 years writing about cameras of all kinds.
Due to the uptick in remote learning and working during the pandemic, a lot of people are now aware of the world of Chromebooks. It's likely because of this that I spent more time fielding questions about them from family and friends than I have since they first launched in 2011.
Chromebooks have been around for more than 10 years now and a lot has changed. Most of my Chromebook conversations are with people buying them for kids, but these Q&A sessions regularly end with them asking "Should I buy one for myself?" And the stock answer is usually, "It depends on your needs." But after a little digging, many people realize they don't need to do any more than what can be done on a Chromebook.
A common argument against getting a Chromebook is that you can do so much more with a real computer -- i.e., a laptop running on MacOS, Windows or a Linux distro. This is generally true, but again, many people don't need to do more. What can be done with web, Linux and Android apps on Chromebooks are increasingly more than enough to get through your day-to-day tasks.
Is a Chromebook enough for me?
Not sure if a Chromebook is right for you? Start by making a list of exactly what you need to do on a computer. Include what you'd like to do, too. If everything on your list is done in a web browser, congratulations, Chromebooks are a perfect fit.
So many things, especially when it comes to productivity tasks like word processing and spreadsheets, can happen in a browser or with a web app. Web apps are essentially website bookmarks that look like mobile apps on a phone or tablet and Google has a web store full of them. More feature-rich web apps, called progressive web apps or PWAs, actually function like full mobile apps letting you do things like use them offline, store files locally and let you receive updates and notifications. Microsoft Office is available for Chromebooks as PWAs, for example.
If you can't find a web app to meet your needs, all modern Chromebooks can run Android apps, too, from the Google Play store. It's basically this combination and some other key Chrome OS features (I'll get to those in a sec) that make Chromebooks an easier recommendation than they were even just a few years ago.
What's good about Chromebooks?
Price is one of the big things that makes Chromebooks so attractive. While premium models start at around $500, you can find excellent options for everyday use for $200 to $300. One of my favorite inexpensive models, the Lenovo Chromebook Duet, sells for less than $300. It's a two-in-one Chromebook with a detachable keyboard cover so it can be used as a tablet or a laptop. With its USI pen support, you can draw and take notes on the screen. You can connect a Bluetooth gaming controller to it and play Android games on it.
Speaking of gaming, while you won't be able to play the latest PC games directly from a Chromebook, game-streaming services like Google Stadia and Nvidia GeForce Now make gaming possible. Also, Google and game-maker Valve have developed a way to install and play older PC games on Chromebooks via Valve's Steam game store. And, again, you can play Android and browser-based games on them, too. Apps for services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, YouTube and YouTube Music are also available so there are plenty of entertainment options.
Also, some of the same reasons Chromebooks are good for schools and businesses make them excellent family computers. Everyone in the family can have separate Google accounts and signing in gives them access to only their stuff and not yours. Accounts for kids can be managed with Google Family Link. It's nearly impossible for Chromebooks to be corrupted with viruses or other malware. And if it isn't running quite right, you can reset it with Chrome's Powerwash feature and in a couple of minutes, the system is clean and fresh.
Google regularly updates the OS for security and adding new features and installs are quick and painless. And if you're an Android user, there's even more reason to pick up a Chromebook. Chrome's Phone Hub feature makes it easier than ever for the two devices to work together.
There is one thing to be aware of in regard to updates, though. Google Chrome devices have an Auto Update Expiration date. Non-Google hardware is only supported for so long before it stops receiving Chrome OS and browser updates. For models released in 2020, the date is roughly seven to eight years from the initial release of the device, but that's not always the case. Google maintains a list of AUE dates for all models and it's definitely worth checking before you buy a Chromebook, new or used.
What can I do with a Chromebook?
A hurdle for some is the need to run Microsoft Office or some other native Windows or Mac software. There are progressive web app versions of Office software that look and behave just like the Office 365 mobile apps. You'll want to be sure all the tools you need are available online or in the apps before making the switch, though. Take this same approach with every application on your list that is a must-have.
For example, if you need a laptop to run full Adobe Creative Cloud software like InDesign and Photoshop, a Chromebook's not a good fit. Adobe does have limited versions of CC apps for Android that are supported on Chromebooks, so depending on what exactly you're doing you might be able to get by. Again, though, Chromebooks are not natively compatible with software for Windows or Mac.
That said, software maker Parallels now makes Parallels for Chrome for Chrome Enterprise. It allows you to run full-featured Windows applications. It is mainly for business users, though, and not the best option for regular consumer use.
You can also use a Chromebook and its Chrome Remote Desktop to connect to other computers with the Chrome browser installed on them. Remote Desktop only takes a few minutes to set up and can be used as a workaround for accessing Windows and Mac software on a Chromebook. You can also use it to give tech support to family and friends or share your computer with them so they can securely access your apps and files.
Chromebooks have grown up a lot in the past 10 years and while they're not a solution for everyone or for everything, they do meet the needs of a lot of laptop buyers now.