What is a Chromebook?
A Chromebook is a notebook which comes with Google's Chrome OS operating system instead of Windows or Mac OS X. Chromebooks all conform to a certain set of specifications set out by Google and are designed with portability, long battery life, and ease of use in mind. Chromebooks tend to be priced less than most Windows and Mac laptops because Chrome OS requires less system memory (RAM) and internal storage (SSD) space than their Windows based competition.
What is Chrome OS?
Chrome OS is a very light-weight operating system based on Linux and the Chrome Browser. Google makes most of Chrome OS available for free via the open source Chromium OS project. Unlike traditional desktop operating systems, Chrome OS is designed specifically to work with online web services like Google Drive, Google Docs, and web based email. Google has also designed Chrome OS to make it very resilient to viruses and malware.
What you should know before buying
It's a browser!
The most important thing to know when considering a Chromebook is that you pretty much only get the Chrome web browser. There are some pre-installed apps that run offline and outside the browser (like a calculator, video player, etc.) and more third-party apps are available all the time, but most of your work will be done within a browser window. If you currently find yourself doing most of your daily work in Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer, you may be a good candidate for a Chromebook.
It doesn't run Windows Apps!
Chromebooks do not run Windows programs. You can't install the desktop version of Microsoft Office or your favorite old DOS game. You can, however, use the online equivalent to many popular desktop apps like Microsoft Office 365. Out of the box, Chromebooks are set up to use Google applications like Google Docs, Google Calendar, Gmail, and Youtube. This doesn't mean that you're limited to these services, feel free to use any online services you like. If you really need access to Windows programs, you can always connect to a remote Windows computer with the help of Chrome Remote Desktop or Chrome RDP.
You will need a Google Account
Pretty much everything about a Chromebook revolves around your Google account. You will need a Google account to log into the Chromebook. Your account is used to sync your settings between Chromebooks (and also Chrome on other operating systems), connect you to your Google Drive (where you'll probably want to store a lot of your documents) and log you into other Google service automatically. There is a guest mode available, but it's designed to allow friends and family easy access to your Chromebook, not for everyday use.
If you already do most of your work online and can find online alternatives for other applications you use daily, you're a great candidate for a Chromebook. Even if you do need a more powerful workstation and Windows or Mac OS X applications to get your work done, you still may enjoy having a Chromebook around for surfing the web, watching Netflix, and checking email on the go or on the couch.
When comparing Chromebooks, you may notice that many of the different models look very similar. This is because Chromebooks all must meet a set of specifications that Google makes for manufactures. While they might look the same on the surface, you'll find that there are many subtle differences that make each Chromebook unique. Here's what you need to look for when choosing your perfect Chromebook.
The Chromebook screen is one of the most important things to consider when buying a Chromebook. After all, the screen is what you'll spend most of your time looking at and interacting with. Here's what you need to know about Chromebook screens.
Chromebooks come with a variety of screen sizes ranging from 10.1 inches to 15.6 inches. The most popular sizes are 11.6", 13.3" and 15.6". These all have a 16:9 wide screen aspect ratio (like an HD TV) and usually 1366x768 or 1920x1080 resolution. A few Chromebooks have different screen sizes and resolutions, like the ASUS Chromebook Flip which has a 10.1" screen with a 16:10 aspect ratio and 1280x800 resolution. Google's own Chromebook Pixel also has a unique screen size of 12.85" with a 3:2 aspect ratio and a very high resolution of 2560x1700.
For those looking for an extremely portable and low-cost computer, consider choosing an 11.6" model. If you want a bit more screen room while still keeping things portable, consider a 13.3" Chromebook. If you enjoy having a large screen and don't mind a little extra bulk, a 15.6" version might be just what you're looking for.
More and more Chromebook models are shipping with multi-touch support. Chrome OS has the ability to handle multi-touch input, two-finger zooming, touch scrolling, and on screen keyboards. If you find touch screens on other laptops to be useful or if you like tablets, you may want to spend the extra money on a touch screen Chromebook. Some newer Chromebooks like the Acer Chromebook R 11 and the ASUS Chromebook Flip are designed with touch screens to be used in a tablet mode.
Chromebook screen quality varies greatly between models. Many lower priced Chromebooks come with traditional LCD screens, sometimes referred to as "TN" screens. These are inexpensive screens that don't have the best brightness, suffer from very poor viewing angles, and have washed out colors. IPS screens are more expensive but also have much more vibrant colors, brighter picture and very good viewing angles. While cheaper TN screens are fine for indoor use, you'll probably find it worth the extra money to get a Chromebook with an IPS screen if you plan to use your Chromebook for long periods of time or if you ever plan to use it outdoors.
Screen resolution refers to the number of pixels on a monitor. Common screen resolutions found in Chromebooks are 1366x768 (720p, half-HD) and 1920x1080 (1080p, full-HD). For smaller screens, 1366x768 is usually adequate. For screens 13 inch and above, you may want a full-HD 1920x1080 screen. A higher resolution screen gives you more "room" to work with documents, but it can also make text difficult to read without zooming in on web pages. If you plan to watch lots of HD movies on your Chromebook, then you'll certainly want a 1920x1080 screen so you can watch your videos at full resolution.
It is also important to consider the type of finish on your Chromebook screen. Some models, like the Acer C720 Chromebook come with an anti-glare matte screen. These screens help keep light from reflecting off of the monitor. Other models, such as the Toshiba Chromebook 2 have a very glossy finish which reflects light. This can be very distracting if overhead lighting or sunlight reflects off of the screen. Glossy screens can cause a mirror-like effect which makes it hard to see what you're working on.
The processor or CPU is arguably the most important part of any computer. Chromebooks come with many different kinds of processors, including some that you may have never heard of. Here's what you need to know about processors when buying a Chromebook.
Intel vs ARM Processors
There are two basic types of processors found in Chromebooks. Intel processors and ARM based processors. You've most likely heard of Intel processors since they have dominated the desktop and notebook markets for decades, but you may not have heard of ARM processors. ARM architecture based processors have been around for over 30 years, but have become popular lately as the go-to processors for mobile phones and tablets. Some of these ARM processors are extremely powerful and also very energy efficient. Chrome OS can run on both ARM and Intel architectures and this creates opportunities for manufactures to develop interesting new Chromebooks featuring whichever processor they feel gives them the best combination of speed, battery life and price.
For the most part, Chromebooks with ARM processors and Intel processors behave identically. Unless you're very adventurous and want to try to install a Linux distribution on your Chromebook, you will never notice a difference between the different processor types. As of this writing, it appears that the current generation of Intel processors provides greater performance than the ARM competition, but that is always subject to change.
Gigahertz, Cores, and Threads
Processor speed is measured in Gigahertz (Ghz). Generally speaking, the more Ghz, the faster the Chromebook. Of course, Ghz is not the only thing to consider when choosing a processor. Modern processors also have multiple cores, think of this like multiple processors on the same chip. Chrome and Chrome OS are very good at taking advantage of multiple cores, especially if you tend to have multiple tabs open in Chrome. Threads represent the number of simultaneous processes that can be handled by a processor. Usually, the number of cores and threads in a processor are equal, but Intel does offer some higher-end processors which use hyper-threading technology to split a core into two threads. Hyper-threading can give you a bit of a boost if you are performing many tasks at the same time, but because it is splitting a core, it can't double the performance of single-threaded processors.
As a general rule, it is better to have a quad-core processor than a dual-core processor, even if the speed (Ghz) is slightly slower.
All current generation Chromebooks come with graphics processors (GPUs) that are integrated into the main processor (CPU). This means that Chromebooks are limited to Intel or ARM based graphics processors. These processors are more than capable of handling the basic tasks for a Chromebook, as well as playing HD video, and they're even good enough for playing simple 3D games.
System Memory (RAM)
The amount of RAM is one of the most important things you should consider when searching for your perfect Chromebook. Many modern websites like Facebook, Google Docs, and other web apps require ever increasing amounts of memory, and with many sites open at once, you can quickly run out of memory. For many casual users, 2 GB is enough system memory, but if you tend to have many tabs open in Chrome, you'll want to consider getting a Chromebook with 4 GB of RAM. As a general rule, the more RAM you have, the better!
Types of internal storage
Chromebooks come with either eMMC or SSD solid state internal storage instead of traditional hard drives. These technologies are much faster than hard drives and allow Chromebooks to start up and load programs very quickly. While both eMMC and SSD drives are very similar, they do have their differences, mainly that SSD drives are faster and of slightly higher quality.
Why so little storage space?
Chromebooks generally come with either 16 or 32 GB of internal storage, which helps keep prices low while still providing very fast drives. Chrome OS is designed to work with cloud services and Google assumes that you'll be storing all of your documents, photos, and files on Google Drive instead of on your Chromebook's internal drive. In fact, the only local storage folder provided by Chrome OS is the "Downloads" folder, which is intended for storing downloaded files temporarily. One advantage of storing your files in Google Drive is that your documents will automatically be available on all of your Chrome OS devices, on other devices where you've installed Google Drive (like Windows or Mac computers and mobile phones) and on the Google Drive website.
SD and microSD Cards
Almost all modern Chromebooks come with either and SD or microSD memory card reader. This is especially useful when loading photos from your digital camera or smartphone. You can also use the SD or microSD card slot to expand the storage capacity of your Chromebook. You can pick up a class 10 (fast) SD card for just a few dollars on Amazon.com and easily double or even triple the internal storage of a Chromebook.
Chromebooks support USB flash drives and USB hard drives that formatted in a variety of standard formats. You can read and write to USB hard drives from Windows computers as well as read Mac formatted drives. This makes sharing documents with your other computers really simple and makes expanding the Chromebook's storage almost limitless.
Many Chromebooks come with 100 GB of free storage on Google Drive. This is more than enough storage for most users, especially since Google introduced unlimited storage of photos and videos on Google Photos. If you require even more storage, you can always upgrade your Google storage plan.
Google Drive Alternatives
Of course there are many competitors to Google Drive like Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, and Box. All of these services can be accessed through their web interfaces on a Chromebook. Recently, some third-party developers have released apps to integrate these services directly into the Chrome OS file manager. See the File System for Dropbox App, and the File System for OneDrive App.
Optical Drives (CD and DVD)
Chromebooks do not come with CD or DVD drive, but you can always connect a USB DVD drive to read files. While you can read files from CDs and DVDs, you won't be able to play audio CDs or watch DVD videos. There is also no included software for writing files to blank CD or DVD discs.
While Chromebooks can do a lot of tasks while not connected to the Internet (like edit documents, watch videos, etc), it is really designed to be connected to the Internet at all times.
Chromebooks come with WiFi as standard issue. Nearly all models are 802.11n compatible and many feature 802.11ac, MIMO antennas, and dual band 2.4 and 5 GHz WiFi. All that to say that Chromebooks have fast WiFi radios that will support all of your web surfing and video streaming needs.
If you need to connect your Chromebook to a traditional wired Ethernet network, you can buy a USB Ethernet adapter like this model from Plugable.
A few Chromebook models come with mobile broadband modems and offer 3G, 4G or LTE connections. These devices are usually quite expensive and also require a mobile broadband contract with a provider like AT&T or T-Mobile (although some older models came with very limited free mobile Internet). Personally, I would recommend getting a mobile hotspot from Ting that can be used to connect multiple devices to the Internet instead of getting a mobile broadband enabled device.
All Chrome devices come with Bluetooth, usually version 4.0. While Bluetooth has many different uses, its use is very limited on Chromebooks. It's not possible to send files from one device to another over Bluetooth or connect to Bluetooth printers. The most useful Bluetooth feature in Chrome OS is the ability to unlock your screen with the help of a nearby Android phone. Perhaps more Bluetooth support will come to Chromebooks in the future.
Battery life is very important for Chromebook users on the go. Most Chromebooks come with energy efficient processors that, when combined with a good sized battery, can keep you working for hours. Chromebooks generally come with multi-cell Lithium-ion batteries with capacities measured in Watt-hours (Wh) or Milliamp Hours (mAh). While comparing these numbers can be useful, it's really the combination of the battery and hardware performance that determine a Chromebook's battery life. You can compare manufacture battery-life numbers with our Chromebook Comparison App (at the top of this page), but for more real-life information, you will probably want to watch some youtube reviews as well.
The quality of webcams that come built into Chromebooks varies widely. Many early models and some low-end models have very low quality cameras with very low resolutions. If you plan on using your Chromebook for making video calls, taking pictures, or recording video, you should search for a Chromebook with at least 720p HD or 1280x720 resolution.
Cooling - Fan or No Fan
Like all electronic equipment, Chromebooks produce a certain amount of heat. Some modern mobile processors are so power efficient that they produce much less heat than traditional processors. These new processors, when combined with good notebook design, can allow for fanless Chromebook designs that operate essentially silently. Because Chromebooks also use solid state drives instead of traditional spinning hard drives, fanless models are completely solid-state, that is, they have no moving parts. I highly recommend choosing a fanless Chromebook.
Chromebook keyboards a pretty similar to regular notebook keyboards with a few exceptions. The most notable difference is that Chromebooks don't have a "Caps Lock" key. In the place of caps lock, you'll find a "search" button that will bring up the main search menu in Chrome OS. The functionality of the search button is similar to that of the Windows key, which brings us to the next difference, there is no Windows button. Additionally, there are no traditional "F" or "Function" keys at the top of the keyboard. Instead, you'll find dedicated buttons for things like speaker volume and screen brightness along with several special keys specific to Chrome OS.
Apple has really popularized the backlit keyboard with their Macbook computers, and you can even find some Chromebooks with backlit keyboards.
External Monitors and Projectors
If you want to connect your Chromebook to an external monitor or use it to give a presentation with a projector, you can use the built-in HDMI port. Nearly all Chromebooks come with HDMI ports, but a few have Display Port or USB-C ports that require an HDMI adapter. You can also purchase HDMI to VGA connectors if you need to connect to an older projector.
Like all modern computers, Chromebooks come standard with USB ports for connecting peripheral devices. Most Chromebooks have both USB 2.0 ports as well faster USB 3.0 ports. A few models have yellow USB charging ports that provide extra power for charging mobile devices. The Chromebook Pixel comes with USB-C connectors, these are a newer type of USB that you can expect to see in new Chromebook models later in 2015 and early 2016.
Chromebooks are generally not upgradeable because they're made to be as inexpensive and portable as possible. Chromebooks are mostly aimed at a type of user who wants to just buy a computer and use it, not at the type of user who likes to tinker and upgrade their own laptops. However, some Chromebooks are upgradeable and tinkerers have found all kinds of fun things to do with low-cost Chromebooks.
Almost all Chromebooks do not have upgradeable RAM. To save money and space, Chromebook makers usually solder the RAM directly to the main system board.
For those who want to upgrade their storage space, there are some Chromebooks with upgradeable SSD drives.