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5 questions to ask before buying a Chromebook

Do a search on Amazon for Chromebook, and you’ll find a surprisingly large selection of these laptops. Most sales had been to the education market early on, but research firm Gartner says this year more than half of the 5.2 million units sold will be to consumers like you.

While Chromebooks, which are based on Google’s Chrome operating system, have been growing in popularity, they don't necessarily suit everyones' needs. So how do you decide if one of these laptops is for you? Here are five questions and answers to help you figure it out.

1. Are you on a tight budget?

If you don’t want to put a big dent in your wallet for a new laptop, a Chromebook could be a great choice. They start for as little as $200 and generally don’t cost much more than $300. The exception: Google’s own Chromebook Pixel, which will set you back $1,300 (it’s the only one we tested with an Intel Core i5 processor). Our Best Buy recommendation is Acer’s C720-2848 ($200, pictured above). Chromebooks may not keep their price edge for long, however. A wave of new super-cheap laptops running Microsoft Windows is expected in the near future.

2. Do you need a lot of power?

Of course, when you’re saving that much money, you should expect a few trade-offs. Chromebooks are not speed demons. Most use low-power Intel Celeron processors, which boost battery life but don’t provide the best performance. That said, they’re good enough for creating and sharing documents, and other tasks that aren’t too demanding.

For more details on Chromebooks we've tested, take a look at our Ratings.  

3. Are you looking for super-portable?

Chromebooks aren’t quite as thin and light as many Ultrabooks, but they’re light and comfortable to carry. Most weigh around 3 pounds, though we found a couple that fall just below 2.5 pounds. Even better, battery life on the best models hovers between 10 and 11 hours, and we tested one, the Asus Chromebook C200MADS01, that lasted 14.5 hours. So you’ll get a solid day’s work and then some from most Chromebooks.

4. How committed are you to MacOS and Windows?

Chromebooks are not based on Apple’s or Microsoft’s operating systems. Think of the Chrome operating system as a browser on steroids. If you’re used to using a Chrome browser, Chrome OS will be quite familiar to you. Chromebooks are meant to be used mostly online, with your documents and other files saved to the cloud. Many of the apps are effectively bookmarks that take you to a web page.

You won’t be able to use most of the applications you’re used to in those Windows and MacOS. You can use Microsoft Office online (available in the Chrome store) on your Chromebook. But the default is Google Drive, which is where you’d go to create documents and other files using Google Docs, the company's online productivity suite. Docs is compatible with versions of Microsoft Office from 2007 on (you can upgrade documents from earlier versions before editing from within Google Docs). So you can edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files in Google Drive, and you can share items you create with Office users.

5. Are you comfortable in the cloud?

One way Chromebooks keep their weight down is by using solid-state drives instead of traditional hard drives. Those solid-state drives generally tend toward the small side, as in 16GB. If you’re lucky, you might find one with 32GB, like the Chromebook Pixel mentioned above. Those smaller drives keep the price down (again, the Pixel is an exception) and the weight light. They help the Chromebook start up faster than a conventional laptop (as does the streamlined operating system) and they also save on battery life.

And that brings us to the meat of the Chromebook idea: With so little storage space, Chromebooks are all about working online. Yes, Google’s been beefing up the Chromebook’s offline capabilities, but they still work best when you have Internet access. All your files are stored in the cloud. The bonus here is, you can easily share documents, and you can work collaboratively with other Google Drive users. The downside: You’re beholden to Google and whatever it decides to do as far as free cloud storage in the future. Right now, you get 100GB of free storage for two years. Once your time is up, files in that 100GB are still yours, of course, but you’ll have to pay to add more storage.

If you decide that a Chromebook is indeed in your future, we've got Chromebook Ratings for you. Is a Windows or Mac laptop more in line with your needs? Then take a look at our laptop Ratings.

--Donna Tapellini


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