On the fence on whether you should get a Chromebook or a laptop? In this post, we’ve covered the main reasons for getting a Chromebook over a laptop and vice-versa.
Just a couple of years ago, in 2020, Chrome OS devices outsold macOS laptops in market share for the first time. The lightweight OS popular in low-cost laptops soared in market share due to the rise in educational devices during the pandemic.
With this trend of a rise in Chromebook usage expected to continue in 2022, that begs an important question:
What should you get… a Chromebook or a traditional laptop?
What are the differences between Chromebooks and laptops? Which should you use for your specific workloads and requirements? Are there any disadvantages to picking a Chromebook over a normal laptop? In this article, we’ll compare Chromebooks to laptops and ultimately help you decide which would work best for you.
What is a Chromebook?
Chromebooks are any laptop devices that run the desktop operating system Chrome OS. This lightweight OS centers mostly around the Chrome web browser. It was designed primarily on the belief that everything you’ll ever need to do, you’ll need to do on the web.
At the start, this meant that there were no offline applications—or at least not in the way that Windows, Mac or even Android users know them. Now, however, as the OS turns 11 years old, Chrome OS has matured into a surprisingly competent laptop operating system.
Most Chromebooks released after 2019 support Android apps, with Google launching the full Google Play Store on Chrome OS in 2016. ChromeOS now supports Linux software too. This opened up a great avenue for software, bringing new utility apps, word processors and more to the platform.
How does that compare with normal laptops?
Technically, a Chromebook is by all intents and purposes a laptop. Chrome OS is a modified Gentoo Linux distribution. The arsenal of Chromebooks out there are split between ‘normal’ x86 processors like the Intel Pentium and ARM-based processors like the Snapdragon 7c Compute Platform in the Acer Spin 513.
Now that both Windows and Mac support ARM-based processors too—with Apple transition to their own ARM Apple Silicon—what are the differences between the two laptop form factors?
Well, the answer lies in the software experience. While much progress has been made in recent years to support more offline apps, the vast majority of your work will still occur within the Google Chrome web browser. There is still a much smaller array of available apps on Chrome OS—with it missing mainstays like the Microsoft Office suite or any Adobe desktop app.
Why Chromebooks could be better than laptops for you
Next, we’ll explore scenarios where a Chromebook might be more suitable than a macOS or Windows laptop.
You need a cheap laptop that won’t be terrible
ChromeOS is a far less resource-hungry operating system than Windows or macOS. If you have a look at the range of affordable Chromebooks, you’ll see dotted around Intel Pentium and Celeron processors.
In a Windows machine, this hardware would be sluggish, unstable and outright awful to work with. Though, in a Chromebook, you’ll get a passable experience with surprisingly decent performance.
That’s a trend across the board with Chromebooks. They perform far better on low-end hardware than Windows devices with the same components packed in.
If you only have $200 to spend on a laptop, you’re far better off going with a Chromebook. A $200 Windows laptop would be terrible. A $200 Chromebook would be fine to use. (A $200 MacBook doesn’t exist and will never exist).
You need a laptop for school
There’s a reason Chromebooks are immensely popular for classrooms and schoolwork. Schools across the US have almost unanimously chosen Chromebooks as the laptop device for the classroom. As Chromebooks are cheaper than decent Windows laptops, they don’t stretch school budgets as much.
Many US schools are also using the Google Classroom virtual learning suite to deliver hybrid learning. It’s entirely possible the do all your learning on a Chromebook. Essays can be written with Google Docs and your group presentations are easy to collaborate on with Google Slides.
There’s an interesting phenomenon arising from the ubiquitous use of Chromebooks in schools. More children than ever know how to use and are used to using a Chromebook. Chances are if you’re a parent in the US, your child is more comfortable with Chrome OS than they are with Windows.
As an adult, this seems strange, doesn’t it? Surely, Windows is the default operating system? But, more than half of primary and secondary school students use Google apps for schoolwork, according to Google. That’s a big indication that Chromebooks are great for school work.
You almost always use the web or web apps
If you never use any specialist desktop application in your daily computing life, you’ll quickly get used to Chrome OS. Chrome OS will get you online and connected using the Chrome web browser faster than it will take to boot up a Windows PC.
From there, you can access anything you would be able to through a web browser on any normal laptop. If you only watch videos on your laptop, you can stream them through the web or use the Chrome OS apps for YouTube, Netflix etc.
If you only write documents, you can do that through Google Docs. If you only browse the web for research or for fun, nothing is stopping you from doing that on a Chromebook. If you only stream games using platforms like Xbox Cloud Gaming, you can do that on a Chromebook too!
You like using Google apps (Google Workspace, Gmail, Google Drive etc.)
If you primarily use Google apps instead of, say, Microsoft or Apple’s productivity suites, you’ll have a great experience on a Chromebook. Chrome OS is optimized for using these first-party Google web apps—and so anything that seems slow or clunky in G Suite on a Windows laptop or a Mac would be buttery smooth on a Chromebook.
Chrome OS is G Suite (now Google Workspace) at its best. It has the best implementation of Google Docs offline access of any device. Google apps work just as well on Chrome OS as Microsoft’s desktop apps do on Windows. If you already use Google Apps in your daily life, your transition to Chrome OS would be fairly smooth.
Why laptops (Windows & Mac) could be better than Chromebook for you
While there are plenty of reasons why Chrome OS might be a good idea for you, there’s a lot of reasons why you might prefer to stick with Windows or macOS for your laptop device.
You use software that isn’t available on ChromeOS
The biggest barrier for most laptop users looking to switch to ChromeOS is not having access to the programs and software they’re used to on Windows and macOS. If you swear by Microsoft Office, Chromebooks are not for you.
Secondly, if you use any specialistic applications for work, you should be considering a Chromebook as your work device. Creative folk would struggle on a Chromebook, with there being no real alternatives to apps like Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Premiere Pro. Sure, there are half-alternatives available now thanks to Linux software support. But decent and workable creative apps are still scarce on Chromebooks.
Is there technically a way to run Windows and Mac apps on ChromeOS? Yes, through VMware you can run a virtualized Windows desktop environment. But, is this really a solution for everyday use? Especially with the underpowered hardware and lack of memory on a Chromebook.
You want a high-end laptop
The Chromebook market is skewed heavily toward low-end hardware. Sure, premium Chromebooks do exist—like the Google Pixelbook Go. However, other than Google’s first-party offering, there is no ultra-premium Chromebook to match the likes of the Dell XPS 15 or a MacBook Pro.
And, if you’re looking for something you can game on, a traditional gaming laptop will be required as Chromebooks can’t run AAA titles without streaming them from another device.
The closest we get from third-party manufacturers is the Acer Chromebook Spin 713. But, we have that very same laptop running Windows—it’s the Acer Spin 7—and it isn’t anywhere near as premium as the high-end Windows laptops or any MacBook.
This is mainly because with such a lightweight OS, there’s no need to great a high-performance variant. Those looking for a premium device will simply just pick another option. Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy or is it just supply and demand at work? Either way, I hope we get another standard Pixelbook in 2023.
Your laptop will be your only ‘desktop’ device
If your laptop is your sole computing device, a Chromebook limits you heavily when it comes to having a ‘traditional desktop experience’. As aforementioned, you won’t have access to any Adobe desktop product, nor will you be able to run Microsoft Office.
There’ll always be those apps and products that aren’t designed for ChromeOS, and without a second device with Windows or macOS on, you’re missing out on lots of software experiences.
Sure, Linux support has softened this blow somewhat. But, even then, for most people installing Linux software is quite difficult and it still doesn’t give you access to commonly used apps.
Conversely, however, if you do have another desktop device like a Windows PC tower or a Mac Mini, a Chromebook is a great lightweight device for portable use. Lots of Windows users love to use their Chromebook as their out and about device or just for watching videos on the web. A Chromebook is the cheapest ‘good’ laptop and so is a great secondary device.
ChromeOS has come a long way since first being introduced in 2011. A mere decade ago, it would be impossible for PC guys like me to ever recommend a Chromebook. However, in 2022, Chromebooks are the cheapest way to introduce people to the laptop world.
They’re great companions in the classroom and great for people that primarily use a web browser instead of desktop applications. They still lack the software arsenal for specialized applications and creative work. Work laptops still shouldn’t be Chromebooks. But, for a simple and fun leisure device, why not try a Chromebook?