Laptop trends come and go. We've lived through netbooks, ultrabooks and even stereoscopic 3D laptops (yes, that was a thing for a while). Most don't stick around for the long haul, so I originally approached Chromebooks with the same skepticism.
The first couple of generations of Chromebooks were stripped-down laptops running Google's Chrome OS -- literally, little more than the browser as operating system -- and were more hype than reality. At best they worked for kids or the tech-averse: Fine for basics like email, Facebook and YouTube but it was a major struggle to make one of them your main machine.
Now Chromebooks have had a few generations to evolve. Many have standard Intel Core processors, better file management and access to Android apps via the Google Play store. It now feels like the category has gotten a major reboot, as seen in the excellent new Samsung Chromebook Pro.
Is it finally time to break down and admit that a good Chromebook is all the computer you're likely to need? The biggest hurdle might be getting past common preconceptions about the category. To test this theory, I gritted my teeth, dove right in, suffered through the classic five stages of Chromebook acceptance, and came out the other side.
I'm 100 percent not a Chromebook guy. I'm the type of person who needs a few hundred free GB of hard drive space for all the apps and files I collect. What if I want to do some registry tweaking? What if I want to update my drivers for a graphics card (or even have a graphics card)? I need Photoshop, Adobe Premiere, Steam and a ton of other programs. Those are just not going to happen on a Chromebook, right?
Why do you think Apple doesn't make a laptop that costs less than a thousand bucks? That's because you just need to spend that much to get anything really worthwhile. Why do you think a touchscreen Surface Pro from Microsoft costs around that much once you add the keyboard cover? Because good touch and stylus response requires a real investment. A Chromebook might be enough computer for you, but me? No way.
Freedom of choice is what PCs are all about. Everyone wants to put you in a walled garden of some sort. Apple is notorious for this, with the iOS App Store controlling what you can do (or not do) on an iPhone or iPad. Even MacOS MacBooks make it hard to install "unverified" apps without jumping through hoops. Chromebooks are the same way -- you can use any website you want, but the last time I tried a Chromebook only a handful of app-like tools from the Google Chrome OS store, and most of those were just junk, anyway.
As bad as Microsoft is with its Windows App Store, at least you can choose to completely ignore it and just install anything you want. Good luck trying that on a Chromebook. And if you really, really need to get a laptop for a rock-bottom price, there are a few full Windows models that cost $200-$300, as long as you don't mind the rock-bottom performance that goes along with them.
If you get a Chromebook instead of a Windows 10 laptop, you're just cutting yourself off from the wider world of software, as well as tying your hands when it comes to tweaking and customizing how your own hardware works. I, for one, am not going to take that lying down -- they can have my .exe files when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers!
Maybe I'm being to harsh. I guess there are ways to work around Chrome OS limitations. Maybe I can use Pixlr instead of Photoshop. And I actually do spend most of my time surfing the web, or at least using web-based services and cloud-based tools -- so being locked into the Chrome web browser isn't really all that bad. I mean, I can still get to things like Amazon and Netflix.
Besides, adding access to the Google Play app store, and its millions of Android apps, fills in a lot of the blanks. It's going to be available on every new 2017 Chromebook (and several earlier models), and adds a ton of games, social media apps, and other tools. Some are optimized for the bigger laptop screen, others show up in phone-sized windows. It's almost like I should think of a new Chromebook as a laptop with some of the DNA of a phone.
And while I still can't install the PC version of Microsoft Office, at least I can open emailed Excel docs or other files in the free cloud-based version of Office, or even in the Android version, which works surprisingly well on a Chromebook. I guess you have to pick your fights.
Do you know how can I tell this Chromebook isn't a serious get-work-done tool? The keyboard is labeled with all lowercase letters. How am I supposed to take that seriously? The Google Pixel (the Chrome OS device, not the phone), which cost as much as a MacBook, was a true high-end machine, but it's been discontinued. Aside from that, even so-called high-end Chromebooks feel kinda junky, with either flimsy plastic bodies, or meh-feeling metal bodies once you hit $400-$500.
Remember playing PC games? Man, that was fun. I mean, you can get some phone versions of games on a Chromebook, especially if you go through the Android apps in the Google Play store, but it's not the same. Windows 10, for all its faults, has many useful tools built right in, like the News app or the notifications bar, and macOS has Photos, Siri and all that other built-in MacOS-based goodness. This, in contrast, is really just a web browser in a box, and even if I do manage to download something, most Chromebooks only have 16-32GB of space. Can I every show my face in my local coffee shop again? I don't want to be the only person there without a backlit fruit logo on my laptop...
I have to admit, compared to a lot of other lower-cost PCs I've used, this Chromebook I'm working on now (a Samsung Chromebook Pro with an Intel Core m3 processor) feels faster. Definitely less slowdown, better scrolling on web pages, and it wakes up as soon as I open the lid, much like a MacBook does.
Sure, I'm not running "real" Photoshop, but most social media tools include basic photo editing now, which is probably why I haven't felt the need to install Photoshop on any Windows laptops I've tested in a while. And thanks to the Android apps available in the Google Play store, I'm running the mobile versions of Instagram and the Amazon Alexa app, which is something you generally can't do on a laptop. (A few potentially useful Android apps either wouldn't run or didn't work properly, including Snapchat, Uber and Pokemon Go.)
Let's go down my list of PC priorities -- Gmail, Google Docs, Facebook and Twitter: check. Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime video: check -- although Amazon doesn't have a Google Play app, so you'll have to use the web-based version or sideload the apk (Android installation file), which requires messing around in the Chromebook's developer mode. (I don't recommend that, since it means shutting off some of the nice security features that Google has added to keep the Android apps safely walled off.)
I've now traveled the five stages and reached Chromebook acceptance. While it's still more fun to use something very high-end, like the new MacBook Pro or the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, I'm more than happy to take one of the new generation of Chromebooks to my local coffee shop or even on a trip, and it's hard to think of a better overall bang for your buck in PCs right now.
If you're looking to spend around $500 on a new laptop, the question is no longer, "Can you get away with using a Chromebook?" but instead, "Why aren't you already using a Chromebook?"