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Chromebook vs laptop: Which one best fits your needs?

There are real differences that can make these two types of portable computer ideal or terrible for each user. Let's take a look at what makes Chromebooks different from other laptops, which would work better for you, and some recommendations.
Written by Michael Gariffo, Staff Writer
Chromebook and MacBook (labeled Laptop) comparison
Google, Apple

The term laptop is often used interchangeably with Chromebook, but there are some differences every shopper should know before hitting the buy button on either. We'll answer the most commonly asked questions about what makes Chromebooks so unique, who they're best for, and what you should look out for when shopping for one.

Also: The 27 best laptop and Chromebook deals right now

What is a Chromebook?

A Chromebook is a portable computer running ChromeOS, a specialized operating system designed by Google to rely more heavily on connected and cloud-based services than traditional operating systems like Windows or MacOS do. Chromebooks look nearly identical to most laptops or notebook PCs, but generally include less powerful hardware due to their reliance on those cloud-based services, instead of locally installed software that requires more horsepower.

An Asus Chromebook opened and closed
David Gewirtz/ZDNET

What is the difference between a Chromebook and a laptop?

A Chromebook is a portable computer running ChromeOS. They tend to have lower-powered processors, less RAM, and less local storage than their laptop counterparts. There are, however, some high-end Chromebooks that outstrip the specs of most contemporary laptops.

In this comparison, "laptop" refers to portable computers running traditional operating systems like Microsoft's Windows or Apple's MacOS aka MacBooks). Operating systems like these rely heavily on locally installed software that lives in their internal storage. This differing philosophy on how to access software and services is the crux of what distinguishes a Chromebook from a laptop.

More: How to get Photoshop for free

For example, a person editing a photo on a standard laptop could use locally installed programs like Microsoft Paint, Adobe Photoshop, or GIMP, or photo-editing web apps like PixlrImgur, or Photoshop on the web (beta). A user wanting to complete the same task on a Chromebook would need to rely on web apps, as locally installed options like Paint and Photoshop are not compatible with ChromeOS.

Can a Chromebook do everything a laptop can?

Almost. Put simply, a Chromebook can do everything most people use a laptop for. This includes browsing the web, social media, email, messaging, watching or listening to streaming media, productivity tasks like word processing or spreadsheets, video chat and remote learning, and even basic photo and video editing. 

Laptops, however, for some tasks, are better for some niche and professional use cases. For instance, professional writers, myself included, can mostly get by just fine using a Chromebook because we do most of our writing on the web these days. However, professional photo and video editors will want a Windows or MacOS laptop to access software like Adobe Photoshop or DaVinci Resolve, neither of which is available via ChromeOS due to its lack of local software support. 

More: 5 reasons Chromebooks are the perfect laptop (for most users)

This makes Chromebooks excellent for students, office workers, and anyone who works or plays entirely on the web, but not so great for people who need the often more advanced capabilities of locally installed software.

A young girl using a Chromebook for remote learning

Can Chromebooks be used for gaming?

Chromebooks' gaming options are more limited than traditional laptops. While dedicated gaming laptops can play essentially any compatible game that a full-on gaming desktop could run (albeit likely at a lower frame rate), gaming Chromebooks are generally limited to two types of gaming: mobile games via Google Play and cloud-based gaming services. 

Mobile games from Google Play can be accessed by any Chromebook that supports the Android app store. These games work as they would on a smartphone or tablet if you have a touchscreen Chromebook. For a Chromebook without a touchscreen, you'll need to choose games that support keyboard, mouse, or touchpad input. 

More: How to install Android apps on your Chromebook

With cloud-based gaming services like Nvidia's GeForce Now or Microsoft's Xbox Cloud Gaming, the game runs on a connected server, rather than on the Chromebook itself. This makes it possible to play AAA titles with demanding system requirements on low-end Chromebooks, or even on smartphones. However, the quality of the gameplay experience generally doesn't match the responsiveness and resolution of a locally installed game. 

That said, you can get close to the ideal experience by sticking with lighter-weight (or retro) titles, having a speedy internet connection, and using a Chromebook optimized for gaming. The first wave of "gaming Chromebooks" just arrived, and includes models like the Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming Chromebook and Acer Chromebook 516 GE that I recently reviewed.

Lenovo's IdeaPad Gaming Chromebook on a desk with gaming peripherals
Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Do Chromebooks need to be connected to the Internet?

Ideally, yes, but some tasks can be completed offline. Because Chromebooks rely heavily on connected services like cloud-based storage and web apps, a lack of connectivity might leave you without access to important files or the software you need. 

However, some basic functions remain even when a Chromebook isn't connected to the internet. This includes things like using Google's productivity apps (such as Google Docs and Sheets); viewing locally stored files like movies, songs, and podcasts; and viewing or editing locally stored images and documents. 

More: How to set up offline access in Google Drive

To be clear, you shouldn't purchase a Chromebook if you don't intend to have it connected to the internet the vast majority of the time. While it can be used offline, its full functionality is dependent on access to an active internet connection.

Google's no internet warning in Chrome

Are Chromebooks expensive?

Generally speaking, Chromebooks are some of the least expensive portable computing devices. 

Their reliance on connected and cloud-based services means their internal components can be lower-end. This translates to reduced hardware costs for solid Chromebook models available for less than $300, and sometimes less than $100.

You could buy a very low-end laptop for around the same price, but the build quality and components would very likely be disappointing. Meanwhile, Chromebooks in this price range are nearly as fully capable as far more expensive options. 

As an exception, there are several more high-priced Chromebooks available. High-end models like Google's Pixelbook Go or Samsung's Galaxy Chromebook incorporate premium materials, high-resolution displays, and internal components that would be at home in a high-end laptop. While these models are overkill for most Chromebook users, they could suit someone expecting their Chromebook to be their primary computing device.

What is the best Chromebook?

The answer depends on your intended uses. Need a couch PC for basic browsing, maybe some social media, and the occasional streaming video? Then your priorities are very different from a student who wants a system with maximum portability and epic battery life. Because of this, ZDNET has best lists geared toward specific types of users, which you can find below.

If you want my quick picks for the best Chromebooks overall, I've included a few below with my reasoning behind choosing them. 

A woman shopping for a laptop

For mixed use: 

This is the Chromebook I've recommended to several family members and friends, all of whom reported excellent long-term satisfaction. Its touchscreen will let you play Android games, and its reliability and build quality will help you power through work or homework with equal ease. It's all the "laptop" most of us will ever need. 

For gaming:

I've reviewed two of the three Chromebooks included in the first wave of gaming-centric models, and the Acer 516 GE slightly edged out its competition due to the inclusion of an Ethernet port. If you're purely a Wi-Fi user with a great connection, the Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming Chromebook could be a great option too. 

For the road warrior: 

$650 might seem pricey when options like the great Lenovo model above exist. But, the exceptional build quality, 12-hour battery life, and laptop-class CPU all make a great case for this being the Chromebook to buy if you intend to be a one-computer traveler. 

For young students: 

I wouldn't call the Dell Chromebook 3100 disposable at $100, but it's as close as you can get in a usable laptop-type device. It's also surprisingly sturdy, meaning it may well outlast even the least careful youngsters.

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