We’ve tested many new Chromebooks since our guide came out earlier this year, and we’ve updated our top pick for Fall 2019.
Chromebooks dominated the affordable laptop scene in 2018. The same wasn’t true just a few years ago, when most were unclear what to do with Google’s browser-based operating system. But now, after Chromebooks have successfully infiltrated the education market, users both young and old are familiar with Chrome OS.
Chrome OS runs exclusively on Chromebooks, the name for the laptops, two-in-ones, and now tablets that run Google’s operating system. If you’ve used the Chrome Web browser before, you know how to use Chrome OS—the browser is the portal to nearly everything you can do on Chrome OS. Google created an operating system that’s simple to use, efficient, and low maintenance in the sense that it doesn’t take a ton of power to run a Chromebook well.
All of those factors, plus the recent introduction of Android apps into the ecosystem, have made Chromebooks popular with younger users, teachers, and anyone who works and plays primarily within the confines of the Chrome Web browser.
As people gravitate to Chromebooks, OEMs have been producing more and more of them. There is a plethora of Chromebooks available now, some at dirt cheap prices and others at premium prices, making it hard to know which you should buy. Luckily, Ars has tested some of the most popular Chromebooks, and we can offer some insight as to which ones are worth your money.
Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.
What Chrome OS can do for you, and what it can’t do
Chromebooks can be solid devices for people who spend most of their computing time in a browser. Chrome OS is ideal for doing things like managing email, writing and sharing documents in Google Drive, streaming video and music, and general Web browsing. Chrome OS’ suitability for these types of tasks also means that those who have never used a Chromebook will find it easy to use without much of a learning curve.
Android apps add another layer to Chrome OS, allowing you to run your favorite mobile programs, including Spotify, Snapchat, Instagram, Netflix, Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, and more. The rollout of Android apps on Chromebooks has been slow, and not all Android apps are optimized for the large screens and full keyboards of Chromebooks yet. However, Chrome OS has been made more versatile thanks to the inclusion of Android apps.
Affordability makes Chromebooks stand out among most of their competitors. You can get a Chromebook for as little as $199, whereas the cheapest Windows machines run at least a couple hundred dollars more, and similar macOS machines don’t even come close in price.
Affordability has been a blessing for Chromebook users, but it has been somewhat of a curse for Chromebooks as a whole since many people have the false assumption that all Chromebooks are cheap. Time has proven that presumption untrue as more OEMs have come out with Chromebooks that feature premium materials and better specs.
Those devices are more expensive than your average Chromebook, and rightly so. The most expensive Chromebooks run anywhere from $699 to more than $1,000—though not all Chrome OS lovers need a Chromebook with the powerful specs and premium build that those expensive devices have. However, those who know that Chrome OS will fulfill their personal and professional needs may want to shell out more money for a luxury device.
But aside from better build quality and more powerful internals, those pricey Chromebooks still run Chrome OS and are not exempt from the operating system’s limitations. Unlike on Windows and macOS machines, you can’t download and install programs like Photoshop CC or Final Cut Pro. Chrome OS only supports Web-based extensions and Android apps—that’s one of the reasons it takes much less power for a machine to run Chrome OS well.
Also, most Chrome OS programs require an Internet connection and will not work when the device isn’t connected to Wi-Fi. If you don’t take the necessary precautions before leaving a reliable Wi-Fi network—like making pertinent Google Docs available offline—your Chromebook will essentially become a useless brick when unconnected.
Things to consider when buying a Chromebook
Chromebooks come primarily as laptops or two-in-ones, so you’ll need to decide if you want the versatility of a 360-degree hinge. If you want to use a lot of Android apps on your Chromebook, getting a two-in-one with a touchscreen will be the best option, since you can switch it into tablet mode and use it like an Android mobile device. The same advice goes for those who plan to use a Chromebook as a multimedia device—streaming videos on YouTube and Netflix can be more comfortable when using a convertible in tent or show modes.
Chromebook OEMs tend to cut costs by using cheaper materials when making these devices. Most affordable Chromebooks are made out of plastic, but that’s not always bad. While they won’t have the look or feel of an XPS 13 or a MacBook, Chromebooks made out of plastic or other materials can be just what one needs in an affordable, portable device.
Be sure to check the tech specs of the Chromebook you want before you buy it to make sure it has basic features, such as a backlit keyboard, an HD or FHD screen, a non-touch or touch panel, and an included stylus. Depending on the type of device and its price, not all of the features we consider “standard” will come standard on every Chromebook.
The same idea goes for ports—you should check to see if your preferred Chromebook has the ports you need. While most come with at least one USB-A port, a few of the newest models forgo USB-A and opt for all USB Type-C ports instead. Some Chromebooks come with additional connectivity options like HDMI ports and DisplayPorts, so consider how you’ll use the Chromebook and decide which ports you’ll require.
RAM, or the amount of memory in a Chromebook, helps the device run quickly when you have many tabs open. Most Chromebooks come with 4GB of RAM, and that will be sufficient for those who use the Chromebook for leisurely Web browsing, YouTube watching, and light Android app use.
Those who plan to push Chrome OS further—users with more than 20 browser tabs open at once, Android apps running in the background, all while streaming YouTube—should get a machine with at least 8GB of RAM. Doing so will ensure that the machine doesn’t lag as you open more tabs and programs and use them simultaneously.
Some Chromebook models can be specced out to have 16GB of RAM, and those typically have optional processor upgrades as well (a base model may have an Intel Celeron processor, but you can upgrade to a Core i3 or i5 CPU if you wish). More RAM never hurts, but only developers or experimental users who want to run Ubuntu, Linux, or Windows on their Chromebooks really need such high volumes of memory.
Storage isn’t the most important spec in a Chromebook, but it should not be overlooked. Chrome OS works as well as it does because Google expects users to rely (at least partially) on cloud-based services for storage—things like Google Drive, DropBox, and others. As long as you have an Internet connection, you can access all of the files you need through those various services. Google Drive even lets you save some documents for offline access now, ensuring you’ll be able to work on that paper or proposal even in a dead zone.
But every Chromebook needs some onboard storage—those who go Google’s recommended route can get by with just 16GB or 32GB of storage. Keep in mind that those levels are similar to those in low- to mid-range smartphones, so your Chromebook will have the same storage capacity as one of those handheld devices.
If you prefer being able to save some documents locally, or if you plan to download many apps and programs, you should get a Chromebook with at least 64GB to 128GB of storage. While Chromebooks aren’t built for serious photo or video editing, it is possible to do such things with these devices. If you dabble in that at all, you’ll need more onboard storage than the rest if you’re working off of locally saved files.
Some choose Chromebooks over other PCs because they are so affordable. Most Chrome OS laptops and convertibles are priced anywhere between $199 to $499, which is a couple hundred dollars less than the most affordable Windows devices (save for the new Surface Go tablet).
All of the factors we previously outlined contribute to the price of a Chromebook: design, materials, screen quality, processor, RAM, and storage. A Chromebook that works well enough for most customers can be found at $299-$499, but there will be some who want a device that comes in either above or below that price range.
Only recently have OEMs experimented with more expensive Chromebooks. Google owned (and mostly still owns) the luxury Chromebook market with its $1,000 Pixelbook. While it has the slickest design of nearly any Chromebook and specs that beat most other Chrome OS devices, it’s overkill for most customers. Nevertheless, we considered the Pixelbook and the newest expensive Chromebooks in this guide.