Chromebook versus Laptop

Chromebook versus Laptop: Limitations and Capabilities of a Chromebook

Tempting as they may be to the budget-minded, however, especially anyone out there in need of a new netbook as we head into winter’s gate, a laptop and a Chromebook are not an apples-to-apples comparison. The biggest divider, price aside, is the operating system. If you’re a Windows or MacOS user, you might be taken aback by the pared-down nature of Chrome, Google’s streamlined operating system. But then, if you are, maybe you need the missing features. Maybe you just don’t, and if that holds, and if some of these are dipping far below $300, then maybe you’re talking some serious cash out of your netbook budget.

Exploring the Evolution of Chromebooks: From Limitations to Flexibility

Back when Chromebooks first showed up in 2011, they were rightly and regularly scorned for their obvious limitations, particularly your having to have available an internet connection capable of running, well, Chrome. The operating system turned 10 years old last year, and while today’s laptops and tablet-like two-in-ones have come a long way from their primitive origins, some things have stayed the same – and you might not be willing to play by the rules that those things dictate. Then again, if you don’t want to read about it and just want to play with Chrome OS right now, here’s how to temporarily run Chrome OS on any laptop with a USB flash drive costing less than $20 likely laying about your house already.

What are the capabilities and limitations of a Chromebook?

At the initial launch of Chrome OS, you literally booted the machine and started using the Chrome web browser – pretty much all there was to a Chromebook. If you’re used to Windows and Mac, the average Chromebook is just a laptop that runs a web browser, and that’s it.

That’s a revelation, even if the Chrome OS never grew up and opened itself up beyond that basic level. The cold, hard fact of the matter is that, these days, a lot can be accomplished completely on the web. List everything you do day in and day out, and what will you find? That you’re, in fact, doing nothing at all you can’t accomplish at the very most basic level with Chrome.

To be clear, the Chrome browser and other software that runs on ChromeOS will also run on a Windows laptop or MacBook (which will also run other Mac and Windows software, of course). And even if you don’t immediately need a particular piece of software, having the option is nice: a Chromebook may not be great for running CAD programs yet, but what’s to stop you from buying one in case that changes? And if you’re shopping for a laptop for students who are stuck learning remotely via Google Classroom, you can still use a Mac or a Windows PC.

In that regard, Chromebooks won’t initially run Windows and/or Mac software (although using VMware on Chromebooks can enable the use of Windows apps, but that’s not an easy route for most Chromebook owners). However, there’s Linux app support, and current hardware can potentially run Android apps, and there are also web apps that you can download from Google’s Chrome Web Store. And, if you’re looking at a Chromebook as potentially an add-on device, using Windows or Mac software from a Chromebook is possible using Chrome’s Remote Desktop and it works pretty well.

What is a good Chromebook?

Until recent years, each Chromebook has been virtually identical, regardless of the maker. Now, there’s a far greater diversity of laptops and two-in-ones — convertibles and tablets that can fold back and double as a laptop — onto which to grow Chrome’s current capabilities. Windows laptops will still offer more sizes and varieties, especially those with supreme processing and graphics power, but the variety is vastly better than just a few years ago.

Since the little OS is so lightweight, and the same goes for web apps, you don’t need much in the way of hardware to have a great experience with a Chromebook. More RAM and faster, high-end processors add more oomph for intensive power users, driving up not just the price, but the need for a separate SSD for file and app storage, and a 128GB SSD for all that storage gear, and the device will take you very, very far. Even so, you’ll blow through basic specs before you know it, and you’ll be faced with more processor-bound world-conquering and spotty apps. When asked what basic Chromebook specs to look for, I tend to respond with:

  • Intel Celeron or Pentium, Qualcomm or MediaTek processors
  • 4GB of memory
  • 64GB of storage
  • Full HD (1,920×1,080-pixel) display

There’s some flexibility here, too, however – you can get 1,366×768-resolution displays (though we found them especially soft next to models with full-HD displays), and you can get by with just the 32GB of onboard storage if there’s a microSD card slot on hand that you can use – especially if you don’t plan to download a lot of Android apps.

A Chromebook requires far less local storage than a regular laptop – in part because a big component of Chrome OS’ versatility is connectivity with the cloud for files rather than local storage. And note that in the fine print, storage – or, in some cases, memory – is often soldered on and unupgradable after the fact, so you should plan ahead when ordering.

Regardless of what Chromebook you end up choosing, first get the Auto Update Expiration (AUE) date of the device you’re considering. And, of course, go get it now. While Chrome OS and the browser get security updates forever, non-Google hardware is ‘early’ supported only so long, after which there are no updates at all.

The current date on devices just coming out of the factory is roughly seven to eight years from the device’s initial release date. It hasn’t always been this way … and it won’t always be this way. Google maintains an AUE listing for each model and you should check it before you buy, whether you’re choosing a brand new unit off the shelf or a unit out of its original owner’s recycling bin.

Is an internet connection required for Chromebooks?

When Chromebooks first came out, they were, technically speaking, paperweights when they weren’t online – a huge problem if you found yourself in the middle of editing one of those all-important documents when your web connection unexpectedly disappeared and you can no longer save it. Thankfully, that has since improved a lot. Chrome has improved its offline capabilities and you have offline options with apps such as Netflix, YouTube and Spotify.

For a regular laptop, being offline is a little less of a problem, largely because the software you are using is installed and is working without a network. In this respect, even Macs and PCs are places you can do some work – though again, it’s not great, and you can’t do much if you’re offline, but you can probably use a bunch of Microsoft products.

Chromebooks might not be a good choice if you have no desire, and cannot for any reason keep an eye on, a device so you can be online even when you aren’t. On the other hand, it turns out that, since these devices come on Android, and since Google now runs Android, it is incredibly easy to turn on an Android phone of yours and instantly make it a mobile hotspot, and to make Chromebooks and Android work together.

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