There's a lot to like about Chromebooks. They're budget-friendly, have a lot of options and are powerful enough to get things done. If you're a student shopping for a laptop for school, they may be pretty attractive. However, for some students, it's a nightmare waiting to happen. Let's see where you fall.
First, Understand What You're Getting with Chrome OS
In most ways, Chromebooks are just laptops. Sure, they have somewhat different specs than your traditional Intel-powered, off-the-shelf notebook, but the big feature that sets them apart is Chrome OS.
Chrome OS is, essentially, the Chrome browser in operating system form. It's designed to use your Google account to centralise as much of your work as possible, and store it all in the cloud. Most of the applications you'll use are web-based, and almost all of them will store their data online. That's the beauty of Chrome OS: If something were to happen to your laptop, ideally you'd be back up and running quickly just by logging in to another one.
That's all great when it comes to backups and safety, but it also means that Chromebooks come with serious limitations. Since they're designed to be "terminals" rather than your main computer, they don't have powerful graphics cards, they don't generally offer a lot of storage, and often use low power processors. Some may have high-end screens and keyboards, but they will still have drawbacks over a traditional laptop. The previously mentionedChromebook Comparison site can help you navigate Chromebook specs, and see what's "normal" when compared to other laptops.
That means that whatever your school's recommended specs are, you'll probably need to scale them back a bit to reflect the fact that Chromebooks do most of their work on the web. It also means you need to be comfortable with everything you do being online, in "the cloud", and you'll need to trust Google with, well, everything (and that's a tall order for many people.) But, if that's OK with you, they can be great little machines.
Who Chromebooks Are Good For
With that out of the way, Chromebooks are ideal for more students than you might think. They're generally affordable, and even though Chrome OS isn't exactly a super-flexible operating system, it's mature and robust enough for you to do almost everything you need to do, especially if your world revolves around the web. Here are some students who can benefit from a Chromebook:
- Students who do everything on the web: For most of us, the majority of the tools and services we work with are on the web, or have great web apps that we could use instead of programs installed locally. We all have Google accounts, use Gmail, use web lockers for our photos (like Google Photos or Flickr), work with free online office suites like Google Docs, use Facebook and Twitter, listen to streaming music using Spotify or Google Music, and watch streaming movies through Netflix. Even if you swear you can't find a Chrome or web-based replacement for your favourite app, odds are there's something that will get the job done. If most of your work is online (or can be online) a Chromebook will let you do just about everything you need to do.
- Students who have reliable internet access: Even though Chrome OS has some offline capabilities and applications, most of its power comes from being always connected. Your data and changes are all saved and backed up automatically to your Google account. Of course, this all means reliable internet access is a must to use a Chromebook to its fullest potential. If, however, your school is blanketed in a cosy blanket of high-speed Wi-Fi and lots of Ethernet ports, you'll be in good shape.
- Students who want one computer on the go and another as a home base: One great thing about Chromebooks is that they're really affordable. A good one can run you a few hundred dollars, compared to the thousands you'll spend on a more powerful laptop. That means it might actually be cheaper to get two computers: a Chromebook for on-the-go work and a regular desktop computer for home. So, if you want a custom-built desktop for gaming or video editing, but you'd still like something better than a tablet to take notes or take to the library and write papers on, a Chromebook is a solid option that won't break the bank (or drain your PC build budget.) Plus, its always-on, always-backed-up nature means you can even get at your notes and papers from your Chromebook on your other PC when you need them.
- Students who don't play video games (or do, just not on their Chromebook): Gaming on a Chromebook is pretty much a non-starter, unless the games you play are primarily web-based games. Like we mentioned, don't expect high-end graphics on a Chromebook, or even the availability of platforms like Steam unless you decide to install Linux. However, PC gamers could use a Chromebook for work, and then keep their gaming to a gaming PC, like we mentioned above, or a console if you prefer. Your Chromebook could keep you on task and productive when you're out and about. When you're at home though, it's a free-for-all.
More people fall into these categories than you might think. After all, every year students spend thousands of dollars on laptops just for Facebook, Google Docs, Netflix and Spotify. Those students could get the same experience, or better, on a more affordable Chromebook. Plus, they wouldn't have to worry as much about backups and security issues like malware or adware. (We're not saying you don't have to worry at all, just less.)
Who's Better Off with a Traditional Windows or Mac Laptop
Of course, even though Chromebooks are great for a lot of people, there are others for whom they just aren't a good option. Maybe you just need power, or maybe there's something specific you want from your laptop. Here are some people who should probably buy a different laptop:
- Students who have specific school or app requirements: If your school or major expects you to use very specific tools or a specific operating system for your classes, a Chromebook won't endear you to your professors. Instead, it will be an obstacle you'll have to overcome. If everyone else in your class is using some special CAD software, or your design professor is teaching everyone to use Photoshop and you're using Pixlr, you're at a disadvantage, and trust us, no one is going to be interested in helping you get past it.
- Students who need ports, processing power, or can't find web apps for their work: Similarly, if you can't find a web app equivalent for your favourite desktop program, or the things you do generally require a lot of local processing power (gaming, video editing, audio encoding, etc), then a Chromebook may not be for you. Similarly, if you need to connect a lot of devices, or need special ports like Thunderbolt, good luck. You might fall into the "two computers is better than one" camp above, but if you want one, do-everything machine, a Chromebook probably isn't it for your use case.
- Students who want to flip their tech purchases for regular upgrades: This one is a little up in the air depending on what you buy, but considering the price point of most Chromebooks, you shouldn't expect them to hold a lot of resale value. You're not going to flip Chromebooks every year to get the latest model — and if you do, you might see yourself out more money than you'd like. Even high-end Chromebooks like the latest Chromebook Pixel are good, but not great. Even older Chromebooks have a hard time justifying their price. This all means the resale market is probably going to be full of bargains, and low prices you'll have to compete with if you want to sell. Even so, with low entry costs comes higher value over the long haul, if you use them over the long haul. You get the ability to keep your devices for longer, repurpose them for light duty later, or hand them down without feeling like you're letting go of a significant investment.
- Students vested in Windows or OS X, and uncomfortable without them: Chrome OS isn't for everyone. Don't get me wrong, it's streamlined and well designed, but it's still not for everyone. There'll still be some students — especially if they don't know what they're getting into — who'll download executable files or .app files and wondering why they can't use them. Those same people will inevitably call their campus IT support line, hear "oh, you have a Chromebook? We can't really help you," and feel they wasted their money. They will wonder why they can't download the same applications everyone else is using. They will have smartphones they can't really connect to, and read about lots of new apps they can't install. They will look at the way iPhones and iOS pairs with OS X and Apple computers, and want that experience instead, or miss the familiarity of Windows. After all, Chrome OS is more or less Linux, and if you're not ready for the challenges that come with using and troubleshooting Linux (sans command line, since Chrome OS has very little of that), you might be disappointed.
If any of those sound like you, maybe a traditional ultrabook or Macbook is more your style. That's not to say it's an impossible option though; like we said, some people might use a Chromebook as an on-the-go computer and then settle back into their comfortable relationship with OS X or Windows when they get back to their room. People not concerned with resale value won't care whether there's an aftermarket for the Chromebook Pixel. However, if you just want to buy one piece of tech that does everything you need and you already understand, a Chromebook may not be your best choice.
However, if you're on the fence, don't forget that you can kind of "test drive" Chrome OS on a laptop you already own if you want to. With a little elbow grease, you can try it out in advance, decide if it's the kind of experience you want (or can get used to), and then make a smarter buying decision. Doing that could, if you like what you see, even completely alleviate that last bullet point above.
At the end of the day though, these shouldn't hold you back if they don't sound like you. Chromebooks are great options for more people than will likely consider them. They will save you money, centralise your computing, make backups and moving between computers easy, and they're very easy to use once you get used to them. That doesn't, however, mean they're for everyone. Just be sure to include them when you're thinking about your next laptop purchase.