Chromebooks have risen to prominence in recent years as a practical and relatively cheap alternative to a PC or MacBook. Those looking for a workhorse to serve the essential functions of a computer will find most, if not all, of their needs met by one of these machines, though cost-reducing trade-offs mean they set themselves apart from their more expensive brethren in a number of ways.
Chromebooks, generally speaking, are minimalist in the design of both their hardware and software. They tend to be small — most have screens measuring 13 inches or less — and light. This makes them even more portable than most traditional laptops; even the biggest Chromebooks, such as the 15.6-inch Acer Chromebook 15, weigh less than 4 pounds. Most newer Chromebooks are also built with aluminum, making them surprisingly durable, and their lack of a fan means they run quietly while still remaining cool to the touch.
Many newer models also boast tablet functionality, complete with a touchscreen and 360-degree hinge. This makes the switch from laptop to tablet easy and — since most Android apps are created with touchscreen-based devices in mind— useful for playing games, streaming video or reading.
However, Chromebook hardware can sometimes be of notably lower quality. Although more than functional, touchpads can be overly sensitive, touchscreens can be glitchy and running multiple programs or open Chrome tabs can slow the computer due to the limited RAM available.
Like Apple and Microsoft, Google has its own proprietary operating system: Chrome OS, a lightweight, cloud-based system that uses the internet to limit reliance on hardware and streamline the user experience. It’s based around the Chrome web browser, a familiar tool for many, and it’s extremely fast; the system takes only a moment to boot up, and applications open instantly. This makes Chromebooks ideal for those looking to shed the bulkier operating systems offered on PCs and Macs, and the lack of bloatware means the laptop is virtually pristine on first use.
However, the system’s slim profile comes with a few major drawbacks. For starters, most major software developers offer their products for Mac or PC, but few cater to Chromebook users (at least, so far). This means Chromebooks have nothing to offer users looking to install powerful programs. An architect couldn’t install 3D modeling software, for instance, and gamers will need to look elsewhere for a computer to run StarCraft or Fortnite.
There’s plenty of utility to be found in these slim machines. Because Google’s web browser serves as the nexus for most of the system’s functions, Google Drive and its suite of office apps are easy to access, and the ability to save files for offline use means the Chromebook is much less reliant on an Internet connection than it once was. Naturally, documents are also backed up to the cloud for easy retrieval on other devices.
Access to the Google Play store brings millions of apps and games to the Chromebook, including popular programs like Gmail, Hearthstone, Minecraft, and Microsoft Word. Anything that can be accessed by an Android device can be used on a Chromebook, although few of those programs have been optimized for that purpose, causing fuzzy, unfocused graphics for a number of apps. Netflix, for example, can stream high-definition video but features a decidedly low-definition menu screen. Until more developers optimize their content for use on Chrome OS, only a small number of programs will look as though they belong on a Chromebook screen.