Why Buy a Chromebook?
The top performers in our review are the ASUS Chromebook Flip C302, the Gold Award winner; the Acer Chromebook R 13, the Silver Award winner; and the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on how we tested and ranked the 10 best Chromebooks and how to find the right one for you.
If you’ve shopped for a laptop recently, you’ve undoubtedly heard the term Chromebook. Even if you aren’t familiar with what exactly a Chromebook is, you’ve probably wondered at their lower-than-usual prices, their Google branding and the variety of opinions people have about these affordable, web-connected devices. To review more information about Chromebooks, read our articles about Google's laptops.
What Is a Chromebook?
While Chromebooks look just like standard notebook computers, there is one crucial difference that separates them from the rest: Instead of using Windows or Mac OS as an operating system, these inexpensive laptops use Google’s Chrome OS. This lightweight operating system leverages online services and browser-based apps to run on lower-power processing hardware, so Chromebooks are less expensive to make than your average Windows machine. There’s also no added price for the operating system – manufacturers pay for the privilege of using Microsoft’s Windows, and Apple doesn’t share Mac OS with anyone at all. Google gives Chrome away for free, and manufacturers pass that savings on to you.
The Chrome operating system began as an expansion of the Chrome web browser, adding functional elements like a media player and file navigator but keeping the browser as the main interface. Built around Google’s online applications, such as Google Drive and Google Docs, the Chrome operating system doesn’t support common programs you might use on a Windows or Mac machine.
In many ways, this makes Chromebooks appealing as devices for less tech-savvy people, since there are fewer security concerns than with a Windows machine and they cost much less than any Mac. Because of their low costs, laptops in this category have become extremely popular among budget shoppers and education users – both students and teachers alike.
That’s not to say that Chromebooks don’t have nearly all the same capabilities as traditional laptops. In the years since Chrome OS first came onto the scene, the offline capabilities of many apps have expanded. Google made using Google Docs, Google Sheets and Google Slides quite similar to using Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and automatic syncing to the cloud adds an element of convenience that traditional office software struggles to match. Additional offline apps and capabilities include photo editing, games and a variety of productivity tools available through the Chrome Web Store.
While the first Chromebooks were simply compact netbooks with the new OS installed, the variety of laptops offered with Chrome OS has grown considerably in the last year or two. Notebook computers made from premium materials are now offered alongside inexpensive plastic ones. In addition, compact designs have been joined by full-size notebook systems. Even more recently, touchscreen Chromebooks and convertible 2-in-1 designs with tablet functionality have started popping up.
Android Apps Incoming
Another big change coming to Chromebooks is built-in support for Android apps. Every app in the Google Play store runs on these new Android-capable Chromebooks, not just phones and tablets. This capability is still rolling out, and there are only a handful of products on the market that currently support Android apps. This will change, though, since Google announced that as of 2017, all new Chromebook models will also offer Android support. This effectively makes all convertible Chromebook tablets Android devices as well.
Of the systems in our review, two currently support Android apps, albeit in Beta mode. This means that, at present, you need to turn on the option to install and run apps, and there may be a few hiccups. That said, Google and the various manufacturers are working to improve this experience and updates coming this year should make Android apps easier and more reliable to use.
Chromebooks: How We Tested, What We Found
With so many Chromebooks on the market, you need to pay attention to a few key details to find the best one. Even with an online operating system, performance is essential, as is battery life and design.
A Chromebook may be used primarily for browsing online and running web apps, but performance is still important. Better performance leads to a smoother user experience, fewer issues when running multiple media-heavy browser tabs and a better experience overall.
The second test, WebGL Aquarium, determines web graphics performance. It displays an aquarium full of 2,000 individually rendered fish and tracks the average frame rate. The higher the frame rate, the better equipped the Chromebook is to handle complex graphics and games.
The other performance point we tested is battery life. Using Laptop Mag’s battery life test, we simulated web browsing with a looped script that navigates to and from a number of websites under uniform device settings. This loop runs continuously until the battery dies and provides us with a good estimate of the sort of battery life you can expect from the device. A long-lasting battery lets you browse away from an outlet, whether you’re binge watching TV shows on Netflix or researching on Wikipedia. In our testing, we found that the average battery life was right around nine hours, though the best Chromebooks offer between nine and 11 hours of battery life.
We also take into account the device’s design. Many Chromebooks now offer convertible 2-in-1 designs, and we give some preference to those that have 360-degree hinges and touchscreens. Chromebooks with 2-in-1 capability are more flexible, as you can use them as a laptop or tablet as well as in other modes. Combine this with the ability to run Android apps, and Chromebooks with convertible designs are two devices in one, a Chrome OS laptop and an Android tablet.
What Else Is Important in Selecting a Chromebook?
Setting aside performance, battery life and convertible form factors, there are other aspects to bear in mind when selecting a Chromebook.
Other design considerations include size and quality of construction. Chromebooks generally fall between 11 and 14 inches in size. Smaller systems are more portable while larger laptops are likely to be more comfortable to type on and use daily.
The display is another point of differentiation, with many less expensive Chromebooks having only 1366 x 768 resolution screens. Premium models boast full HD and higher resolutions – up to 3200 x 1800 on one model.
There’s also the question of display technology. Less expensive, lower-resolution computers use standard LED-lit LCD displays, and higher-resolution models opt for Inter-Plane Switching (IPS) technology, which delivers better colors and wider viewing angles. The right screen resolution for you is based on your preference, but value shoppers should be aware that there’s usually a direct relationship between a Chromebook’s price and the quality of its display.
Connectivity is another item to consider. While all the models we reviewed use the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, they do vary in how its implemented. Some use a 2 x 2 antenna array, which optimizes performance to deliver more of the bandwidth available through the wireless ac standard. It also offers better connectivity and is less prone to interference. Despite these improvements being readily available, a few Chromebooks still use a basic 1 x 1 setup. This single-antenna option is more prone to interference.
Help & Support
Finally, while Chromebooks are relatively low maintenance, you may want to consider the help and support options available. Many companies offer robust assistance with dedicated support personnel available online or by phone, and many include tech support services as part of the standard warranty. Still, other manufacturers might make it difficult to even find basic information about the product. We list some of the common support services in our product matrix, but we also provide an overall grade of each company’s support quality. Most of these grades are based on independent testing and evaluation by our colleagues at Laptop Mag, but we also offer grades based on our own impressions in dealing with each company and the support services available.
Chromebooks: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The Gold Award goes to the ASUS Chromebook Flip C302, a convertible 13-inch laptop that provides one of the first opportunities to take advantage of native Android app support. With strong performance and long battery life, it’s the best Chromebook for the money and one of the best laptops you can buy for under $500, regardless of operating system.
The Acer Chromebook R 13 wins our Silver Award for similar reasons. Its quality aluminum construction and 2-in-1 design suggest a premium price, but it offers solid performance and great battery life for far less than an equivalent Windows laptop. If you want a new Chromebook that doubles as a tablet, it’s a smart choice.
The Bronze Award winner is the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook, which puts Chrome OS into Lenovo’s tried and true ThinkPad design. Great for use in the classroom or office as well as at home, this Chromebook was one of the best performers in our review and boasts some of the best support options around.
Other Chromebooks worth mentioning include the Dell Chromebook 11, which delivers plenty of functionality at a budget-friendly price. Education users will want to take a closer look at both the ASUS Chromebook C202 and the CTL Chromebook J5, two of the best Chromebooks to enter the classroom. In addition to being competent laptops in their own right, these systems are built to be kid-proof, with rugged designs and spill-resistant keyboards, and they are easy to manage with Google’s tools for teachers and schools.