In Pictures: Google Chromebook Buyer's Guide
Chromebooks are Web-centric alternatives to laptops that, while not for everyone, are coming into their own. To help you decide if one is right for you, CIO.com answers common Chromebooks questions and takes a look at the current lineup.
Google promotes its Chromebook as "a new type of computer with everything built-in. For everyone. Starting at $199." Microsoft begs to differ. The Redmonders have developed a Chromebooks vs. Windows laptops page that, not surprisingly, shows Google's Chromebooks in a not-so-flattering light. There's also Microsoft's "Scroogled" ad campaign, featuring a Pawn Stars star who describes a Chromebook as a worthless "brick" when it's without an Internet connection.
However, Chromebooks are a new breed of laptop that, while not for everyone, are definitely coming into their own. Announced in 2010, debuting in 2011, Chromebooks have evolved as a low-cost (in most cases), Web-centric alternative to traditional laptops. Here's what you need to know about Chromebooks, and a look at the current lineup.
What Is a Chromebook?
A Chromebook is a portable "thin client" that runs the Google Chrome OS. Chrome uses the Linux kernel as its foundation and the Google Chrome Web browser as the overarching interface, through which you access files and run Chrome Web apps. Unlike traditional laptops, Chromebooks are designed for use while connected to the Internet. You can use some apps while offline, however; Google highlights them in its Chrome Web Store.
Chromebooks are optimized for Google apps, such as Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Drive. You can install only Chrome Web Store apps on a Chromebook. Instead of, say, Microsoft Office, you'd create and edit Office-compatible documents using Google software and store your files in Google Drive.
The Benefits of Chromebooks
Compared to traditional laptops, Chromebooks offer several advantages. Except for Google's high-end Chromebook Pixel ($1,299 to $1,449), they're mostly inexpensive. The lowest-cost models are currently Acer's C7 Chromebook and C720 Chromebook, both $199. And Chromebooks are often light, a quality hard to find in inexpensive laptops.
Chromebooks automatically update regularly. Google claims the Chrome OS's multi-layer security eliminates the need for antivirus software. Chromebooks power on in under 10 seconds. They have full-sized, laptop-style keyboards as well as built-in video chat cameras. Chromebooks support many USB devices. Some have HDMI output as well as Secure Digital (SD) slots to expand storage. Others can use your Chromebook without seeing your stuff by signing into their Google accounts.
The Drawbacks of Chromebooks
To be productive on the go, Chromebooks require you to think ahead. For example, if you're on a long flight without Wi-Fi, you may be stuck without access to needed files unless you: (1) previously stored the files in Google Drive; (2) have enabled Drive's offline mode; and (3) performed an "offline sync" before you boarded the flight. Alternatively, you can copy files to an SD card, then pop the card into your Chromebook's SD slot and open the files.
Also, if you work with specialized software you will most likely be out of luck with a Chromebook. Example: Though there are several image-editing Chrome Web apps, if you're a heavy Photoshop user you will quickly become frustrated using a Chromebook.
What Are Chromebook's Target Markets?
Mobile professionals, especially heavy Google users, are among Chromebook's target markets. Since Chromebooks are usually lightweight and have decent-to-long battery life, they can be attractive to students, too. In fact, Lenovo's ThinkPad X131e Chromebook is sold only to the K-12 education market.
In addition, a Chromebook's low cost and portability may appeal to families who want a second (or third) laptop for the kitchen, den or other area. Chromebooks can be ideal for older users, too, particularly those who aren't tech-savvy and don't want to deal with installing software and updating antivirus applications.
Acer C7 (aka C710) Chromebook
Available since Nov. 2012, the Acer C7 Chromebook ($199) is also known as the C710. It looks similar to its successors, the C720 and C720P. The non-touchscreen 11.6-inch display resolution is 1366 x 768 pixels. The C7 weighs 3 pounds., features a dual-core Intel Celeron processor, and includes three USB 2.0 ports and HDMI and VGA ports.
One big disadvantage: only four hours of battery life. PCWorld reviewer Melissa Riofrio notes the Acer C710-2457 Chromebook "is a bargain...but there's little else about it that makes it worth buying—or that will convince a smartphone or tablet user to convert."
Acer C720 Chromebook
Acer's C720 Chromebook ($199), released in Oct. 2013, is among the least expensive of the current Chromebooks. It sports an 11.6-inch display with 1366 x 768 pixels and an 16:9 aspect ratio. The C720 features Intel's Haswell architecture; gets up to 8.5 hours of battery life (says Acer); and weighs 2.76 pounds.
The C720 was recently the No. 2 most popular laptop on Amazon.com with an average 4.5 rating. Computerworld reviewer JR Raphael says the C720 "offers unprecedented power for an entry-level Chrome OS system...(providing) solid performance...while simultaneously delivering admirable battery life."
(Author's note: I've tested a C720 and like it. But the screen quality leaves much to be desired, especially compared to iPad Retina models.)
Acer C720P Chromebook
Acer's C720P Chromebook ($299) features a touchscreen version of the C720's 11.6-inch display—making this much less expensive than the only other current touchscreen Chromebook, Google's Pixel ($1,299 and up). The C720P touchscreen shortens battery life a bit; the C720P claims 7.5 hours, one hour less than the C720. Also, the C720P weighs slightly more at 2.98 lbs (compared to the C720's 2.76 pounds).
Both Acer Chromebooks offer 16 GB of internal flash storage and, as do other Chromebooks, give buyers 100 GB of storage space on Google Drive free for two years. You'll also get 12 free Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi passes and a 30-day free trial of Google Play Music All Access. As of this writing, the C720P hadn't started shipping.
Google Chromebook Pixel
Google's Pixel is the Cadillac of Chromebooks and priced accordingly, at $1,299 for Wi-Fi; $1,449 for Wi-Fi and LTE. The 12.85-inch screen "has the highest pixel density of any laptop," says Google, with 239 pixels-per-inch. The Pixel (released Feb. 2013) is one of only two touchscreen Chromebooks; the other is the Acer C720P ($299). Pixel weighs 3.35 pound. and holds a five-hour battery charge, says Google.
Computerworld reviewer JR Raphael bought a Pixel and, six months later, wrote that it's "the nicest computer I've ever used. The design and build quality are simply out of this world." He adds that "other computers have perfectly passable screens, but this one is downright luxurious."
HP Pavilion Chromebook
Released in Feb. 2013, the Pavilion Chromebook was HP's first Chromebook. Though it's currently listed among the Chromebooks on Google's site, the Pavilion Chromebook is no longer for sale on HP's shopping site. Still, you can find it from etailers such as NewEgg ($260) and Amazon ($294).
But with newer models available, such as HP's Chromebook 14, the Pavilion Chromebook may not be worth seeking out. Engadget's reviewer notes that battery life is "disappointing" at 3.5 hours and that HP "made too many compromises when it decided to build its first Chromebook from a recycled PC chassis." The only "redeeming" qualities of this 14-inch Chromebook, says Engadget, are "its zippy performance, decent speakers and solid build quality."
HP Chromebook 14
HP's Chromebook 14 is $299 (Wi-Fi) and $349 (Wi-Fi and 4G). The latter includes free 4G data service from T-Mobile, up to 200MG per month for two years. Both models (released October 2013) have a 14-inch display, the largest of current Chromebooks, and come in three colors. Based on Intel's Haswell architecture, HP's Chromebook battery reportedly lasts up to 9.5 hours, the longest of any Chromebooks. Weight: nearly four pounds.
(Author's note: I've tested an HP Chromebook 14 and think it's a great choice for mobile professionals, if you don't mind the weight and you can deal with the pastel blue and peach colors (white is another choice). The free 4G service from T-Mobile is a compelling benefit as well.)
Samsung's Chromebook Series 3 came out in late 2012. Two versions are available: a Wi-Fi-only model ($249) and one that adds 3G connectivity ($329). Samsung's Chromebook gets up to seven hours of battery life; has a 14-inch, 1366 x 768 display; weighs 2.42 pounds; and includes an HDMI port, one USB 3.0 port and two USB 2.0 ports. It's compatible with Bluetooth 3.0, not the newer, low-power 4.0.
PCWorld gave Samsung's Chromebook 3.5 stars (out of 5). Benchmarks compared it favorably to tablets such as the Google Nexus 10 (which, like Samsung's Chromebook, uses a dual-core ARM processor and lacks a graphics card). The Chromebook's silvery design "looks a lot like the 11-inch Apple MacBook Air," notes reviewer Sarah Jacobsson Purewal.