Should a Chromebook be your next laptop?

This image provided by Google shows the company's first high-end chromebook Pixel.

This image provided by Google shows the company's first high-end chromebook Pixel.  (AP Photo/Google)

Chromebooks are laptops that run Google's Chrome operating system. Many cost $300 or even less. They're built to travel. They're small, thin, and light, and if they have the right processor (the latest version of Intel's Celeron), they'll provide a workday's worth or more of battery life.

Chromebooks are quick to start up, partly because the operating system doesn't place the demands on the computer that a heavy-duty OS like Windows does, and partly because they use solid-state drives instead of hard drives.

But those solid-state drives are generally small, 16GB or 32GB if you're lucky. And that's where the cloud comes in. There's no need for a hard drive if your stuff is stored in the cloud and not on the computer. But that's also the drawback of a Chromebook. To work at its best, it needs to be connected to the Internet, so you need to be near a network connection or Wi-Fi access.

That's not to say you can't work offline, but Chromebooks simply are not built as storage devices. And working offline requires a few additional steps that you're probably not used to because your non-Chrome computer doesn't require them.

Check our Chromebook and other laptop buying guide and Ratings.

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There are a couple of other downsides. For one, Chromebooks are not computing workhorses. You won't want to use one to create complex Word documents or demanding spreadsheets. You can't store all your photos on one (they'll need to go online, and you'll need network access to get to them) and you can't edit them. The displays on the ones we tested were okay at best, so they're not tops for looking at pictures or watching movies.

And although a few come with touchscreens, save your money and skip that feature. Chrome wasn't built as a touch operating system, so you just don't need one.

Bottom line: If you want to save money on a highly portable laptop, and you're already used to storing and sharing lots of docs online, say with a service like Google Drive, a Chromebook could be a useful tool.

Here's a little more info on the two we liked best.

Acer C720-2848, $225. At 10.75 hours, Acer's 11.6-inch Chromebook had the longest battery life of the seven models we tested. That, combined with its light 2.7-pound weight, also made it the most portable. And after all, that's what Chromebooks are about. Performance was good, which was on par with a couple of $300 models we tested.

HP Chromebook 14 q010nr, $300. You might want a Chromebook with a little more display real estate, so this 14-inch model is worth a look. Battery life was just about as long as the Acer at 10.5 hours. But of course it's bigger so it weighs a little more—4.1 pounds. Performance was good, and its larger size means the ergonomics are better than smaller models.

—Donna Tapellini

Editor's Note: This article appeared in the April 2014 issue of ShopSmart magazine.

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