Are Chromebooks Good Laptops For Students?

Are Chromebooks Good Laptops For Students?

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.

Pictures: tuulijumala (Shutterstock), Kevin Jarrett, Matthew Cote

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 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.


  • It’s also worth noting that chromebooks can’t play MKV files stored locally (ie for most people, it won’t play HD video files you expect it to play).

    Out of the box, they also can’t do skype, but with the aid of an android phone or tablet, plus a chrome extension or two, you can convert your android skype app over to run on a chromebook.

    They do however, do google hangouts, which is just as good. Plus nearly all android phones and tablets already have it installed.

    Students who have very limited internet bandwidth would also be better off with a chromebook IMO. The updates are significantly smaller than windows updates, don’t take anywhere near as long to install, and whilst at school, chrome OS will update itself off nearby chromebooks using the local LAN, instead of re downloading the whole thing off google’s servers.

    *edit* A full Chrome OS update is 400mb, an incremental update is 50mb

    Updates for Windows machines can easily run 4-5Gb a month, per machine.

    Plus chromebook extensions are tiny, so app updates don’t take long either, and there is no anti-virus or malware updates to worry about.

    If you get all your entertainment from other means, (satelite pay tv, SD cards or hard drives from friends,, radio/Free to air TV, etc) and you rely on 3G/4G as your only form of internet connection at home, then a chromebook is better.

  • The single most important thing when choosing what laptop to purchase for a student is the software required by the school.
    When I was working in IT at a school every other week we’d have some teacher coming in with the recommendation that we switch to Macs or Chromebooks, depending on what their personal preferences are and the fact of the matter is, at an organisational level the school had decided upon windows. Everyone had to use windows so that staff could reliably mark student work and so that IT could provide timely and accurate support.
    Your student cannot pass if the staff cannot mark their work, and the student cannot work if their laptop doesn’t work.

    Your student probably does not care about what the school’s requirements are. Your student probably doesn’t care about the feasibility of working on this laptop. The student most likely cares about one of two things. Fashion and Gaming. Students want a fashionable laptop because it’s pretty or cool or they want a gaming laptop because they plan to play games all day and they will lie to every person who will listen to them about why they need this particular laptop.

    • Yes. A related question might be ‘is chromebook a good system for a school to buy into?’ It is going well in America with a lot of 1 to 1 programmes as well as ‘laptops on a trolley’ setup.

  • Get your kids a laptop with no internet, make sure they have ms office, paint, and visual basic and learn how to use them early on.

  • Totally agree with this article with the possible exception of resale value of Chromebooks. I think they are remarkably long lived. My early Samsung Chromebook works as well as ever, despite it’s age. I have no real evidence for this, but they really do survive!

    Also jjcoolaus I play MKV files, encoded with H.264 and AAC audio constantly from my NAS server. They have been encoded over the last 6 years for Windows and Linux computers, but play perfectly on Chrome OS. I also play music in MP3 format.

    I acces it using FTP or SMB (using a plugin) on my HP Chromebook 11 and my ASUS Chromebox.

    I have Windows and Linux computers, but now only use them to edit audio and video.

    Enjoy! – Phil S.

  • “Are Chromebooks Good Laptops For Students?” Short answer is for 9 out of 10 students YES!

    I’ve spent 25 years in IT support and a fair amount of that time working for Apple as a tech support engineer. Currently I support a number of schools. Without writing a long essay there are 2 things I can say, 1. I love the Mac OS and that’s what I’ve used for many years now. 2. I’m blown away with just how good Chromebooks are.

    The primary reasons that I recommend CB’s are Speed, Simplicity, and Security. The fact that they come at such a low price seals the deal.

    What I’m also finding is that I’m using the CB more and more rather than my Mac. That was never the plan but the CB is just more convenient.

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