This story was originally published 2020/04/07
9:00am PDTon Apr 7, 2020 and last updated 2021/03/06
7:55am PSTon Mar 6, 2021.
Chromebooks are on the rise. Chrome OS machines have been selling like hotcakes since 2020, and they’ve proven to be reliable and often affordable laptops for anyone learning or working from home. But many people are still asking themselves: Is a Chromebook really a good choice for me? In this article, we’re exploring when you should buy a Chromebook, what limitations there are, and what has improved over the last year.
Chrome OS is celebrating its tenth birthday this March, and while the platform has become much more powerful over the years, one thing is still true: You’re essentially running a barebones OS that gives you access to nothing but a browser, plus Android and Linux apps thanks to on-board virtualization. If that’s all you need to get your work done, then this shouldn’t bother you, but it’s a limitation you need to have in mind. You can’t use widely popular productivity apps like Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, and Premiere, or the desktop version of Microsoft Office — though that might change in the future once Google has more to tell us about its plans to support Windows apps on Chrome OS.
You also need a Google account to use a Chrome OS machine, much like Android. It becomes intertwined with the user profile on a Chromebook, and even though there’s an option to use a guest profile without a Google account, it’s severely limited — you can’t change settings, you can’t install Android or Linux apps, and your history and logins will be wiped every time you restart the device.
There are even more restrictions incoming — privacy extensions like Privacy Badger and ad blockers will have fewer rules to work with in the future thanks to a change of how extensions work on the OS. You can’t even switch to another browser if you don’t like the route Google is going (sure, you can install Firefox as an Android or Linux app, but why get a Chromebook in the first place then?).
If you’ve ever used Google Chrome on another desktop OS, you know what awaits you. Chromebooks give you access to all the usual browsing features you could ask for and then some. You can use Chrome extensions, you have access to your history, bookmarks, and passwords across all of your devices, and of course, you can also change the visuals. Chrome OS supports multiple Google accounts, although setting them up is a bit more cumbersome than on Chrome. And if you yearn for web apps that feel more like native applications, you can turn any website into a windowed experience by clicking the overflow ⋮ menu and choosing More tools -> Create Shortcut … and ticking the Open as window box.
Since most services offer decent web apps these days, including Microsoft with its Office suite, you can likely get almost everything you want to get done on a Chromebook. If you have another computer with another OS at your disposal, try limiting yourself to web apps to see if the experience is for you.
Chrome OS recently introduced Phone Hub, which is currently rolling out to more and more people. If you have it, you’ll notice a new stylized phone symbol next to the clock in your task bar. You can tap it to set it up, and once that’s done, you’ll be able to see your phone’s notifications and recent Chrome tabs on your Chromebook. You can also seamlessly turn on its hotspot, silence the phone, and locate it. There’s evidence that you’ll be able to see and interact with your handset’s screen right through your Chromebook in the future, which could make it easy to respond to WhatsApp messages and the like without having to set up anything on your computer.
Features like these have been available for Windows and Android for a while thanks to the Microsoft Your Phone app, so it’s great to see that Google has finally stepped up its game when it comes to interoperability of its own products.
Android app interfaces often feel like blown-up phone UIs, like Netflix does here.
Google introduced Android apps to Chrome OS so it could drastically increase the amount of compatible applications on Chromebooks, but unfortunately, these apps are anything but first-class citizens on the OS. Most apps are built first and foremost for phones, which makes it hard to use them with trackpad, mouse, and keyboard. A lot are even only optimized for small phone screens, either forcing a laughably blown-up interface on you or making you want to use them in a small window only in the first place. When you don’t like your Chromebooks native display mode and change it to another size, some scaling problems will make apps look fuzzy and frayed. Apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video give you offline access to video content, which is great when you’re traveling, but both limit app video quality to sub-HD.
Not all Chromebooks support Linux, but those that do (all machines released starting 2019) give you access to all the great Linux applications out there, including LibreOffice, GIMP, and even other browsers like Firefox. However, like Android, Linux runs in its own sandboxed virtual environment, which means that you’ll inevitably lose some performance compared to a native solution. Linux apps do feel more at home on Chromebooks than Android apps, though, and you can give them access to your full file system with one single right-click in the Files app.
There’s also the whole other Pandora’s box of issues once you get into the question of GPU acceleration. A very limited subset of Chromebooks currently support GPU acceleration in Linux apps, and performance can still be downright abysmal. If you’re looking to do something like play 3D-accelerated Linux-compatible games on Chrome OS, you probably shouldn’t get your hopes up: they almost always have issues and generally run in a way that renders them almost unplayable.
Linux is still only supported in beta as of now. You need to activate the environment in Settings, and you need to be familiar with the command line (see our guide) to fully set it up and install applications. That might not be a hurdle for you, but if you consider getting a Chromebook for someone who’s not too tech savvy, you can probably forget about the whole Linux aspect.
Tent mode is great when you want a big tablet with a built-in stand for media consumption.
A lot of Chromebooks come with flippable or detachable touchscreens, which might make them an interesting tablet replacement. However, flippable laptops often aren’t as ergonomic as regular tablets, especially once you look at those with screens bigger than 12 inches. You’ll also have to cope with touching unresponsive keys on the back, which is rather unpleasant. The most useful form factor probably is the tent mode, which has you flip your device upside down, rotate the screen by almost 360 degrees, and rest the whole construction on a surface. That way, a compatible Chromebook becomes great for media consumption.
Once you rotate the laptop far enough (or detach the screen), the tablet mode kicks in. It forgoes the windowed interface for full-screen-only apps that you can switch between via gestures. Buttons become bigger and move further apart to make it easier to hit them. The problem with this mode is that all Android apps will be blown up to their full width. As described earlier, that’s rather suboptimal. You can put two apps or websites next to each other in a dual-pane view, but in many cases, you’ll be better off just using desktop sites instead of any of these blown-up, barely optimized applications.
All of this makes the idea of using a Chromebook as an Android tablet replacement rather unattractive. Any regular tablet will be more ergonomic and better optimized for touch-only use. If you want it to run Chrome OS, I’d recommend looking at the Lenovo Chromebook Duet.
Cloud storage solutions other than Google Drive are mostly read-only.
Being a Google product, Chrome OS works great if you save all of your data to Google Drive. The file system has Google’s cloud storage solution built-in, so once you log in to your Google account, you have first-class access to your data. While Dropbox has implemented a similar tight integration, other cloud storage vendors haven’t. For example, when you install the OneDrive Android app, you do get a OneDrive entry in the Chrome OS file browser, but it’s read-only. Network file shares, on the other hand, are fully supported.
Another Chrome OS quirk you should be aware of is that you can’t add any files or shortcuts to your desktop. You can only pin apps to your status bar or access them via the search menu. I personally prefer using my desktop for downloads, so that’s quite an adjustment for me. I do enjoy the addition of Holding Space in the Chrome OS beta, which replicates some of the desktop-like features without all the clutter.
Unfortunately, what people say about Chromebooks being a bit useless without an internet connection is generally true: because you live in a browser, most pages require connectivity to load. While some offline web apps like Google’s Docs, Sheets, and Slides exist, you’ll lose most web apps once you don’t have a connection anymore.
Aside from these and a few other notable exceptions, your offline productivity is going to be limited to what you can get done with Android and Linux apps, and we’ve discussed all their various advantages and pitfalls above. The short answer is that, if you frequently find yourself without internet connection, a Chromebook is probably not a good computer for you. Chrome is built around the concept of an always-connected computer. Then again, most computers are connected to the internet at almost all times these days anyway, so you might not even have to fall back to offline-only apps on other platforms, either.
There are some tangible advantages you get when you go for a Chromebook. The battery life is stellar compared to when you use Chrome on a MacBook or a Windows machine, and the lightweight OS is absolutely flying on weaker and thus less pricey hardware. I’m regularly working with dozens of tabs, among them Slack, Gmail, WordPress, and some form of music streaming and haven’t run into any issues on my HP Chromebook x360 with an Intel Core i3-8130U and 8GB of RAM (I still wouldn’t recommend going for a machine with a Pentium or m chip if you plan on keeping it for a longer time). This also translates to prices. While you can get $1,000+ Chromebooks, many perfectly fine machines are available for $500 or less — check out our roundup of the best options.
Since Chrome OS is incredibly lightweight at its core, you also barely need to put any work into maintenance. When something does go wrong, you can powerwash your machine and start over — most of your data is saved to the web anyway. Chromebooks also tend to be more secure than Windows and macOS devices. The fact that any website and Android or Linux app you install is sealed off from the rest of the system means that malware will have a hard time attacking your machine.
Despite the slew of advantages, you always need to keep in mind what a Chromebook can and can’t do. It helps when you’re able to work almost exclusively on the web, and it’s an advantage to be knee-deep into Google’s ecosystem, particularly by owning an Android phone and using Google Drive.
The simplicity and security aspects might make Chromebooks a good choice for kids and older folks. However, depending on your own workflow, you might see yourself using workaround after workaround to be able to do everything you want to do. If you’re still undecided, you can try relying on Chrome exclusively on your current computer for a while and see how far that gets you, while keeping in mind that you’ll also have access to Android and Linux apps on a real Chromebook.
Buy one if:
- You’re confident Google Drive or other web office suites cover all of your productivity needs.
- You rely on Google Drive or Dropbox for files in the cloud anyway or can/want to switch.
- You really only need a computer for light web browsing in the evening — Chromebooks are perfect for that!
- You don’t want to spend time troubleshooting that botched Windows update, again.
Don’t buy one if:
- You regularly rely on any Windows or macOS desktop app (Photoshop, Lightroom, Office) for your workflow.
- You want to be able to properly use browsers other than Chrome.
- You need applications that are first-class citizens on your laptop.
- You want more than eight years of software support (though that’s plenty for the average laptop life).
Even though we’re an Android site, this has to be said: An iPad might be better for many people who want a machine for some light web browsing and some entertainment, especially since it now supports mice and trackpads and comes with a full-fledged web browser. But if you mainly need a machine for productivity and know that you can rely on the web and some Linux apps, Chromebooks are definitely the way to go.