How to decide between a $199 Windows notebook and a Chromebook

This is not an easy decision to make. There are some critical nuances you have to consider before you go one way or the other. In this article, we take a look at those factors.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Let's be clear: A Windows notebook can do everything (with a few important exceptions) that a Chromebook can do. The reverse is definitely not true.

Even so, this is not an easy decision to make. There are some very critical nuances you have to consider before you go one way or the other. In this article, we'll look at those factors and by the end, you should have a good understanding of how these devices differ and who should use which device and when.

Given that we are now seeing price parity for these two devices, let's first understand each machine's key characteristics. First, the Chromebook.

The Chromebook is a device built strictly to run the Chrome browser in a laptop format. Because that was all the machine was intended to do, it was able to come out at a considerably lower price (for a while) than typical Windows or Mac notebooks. However, as we've seen in the last few months, Windows vendors have achieved the notable $199 price.

Just because the Chromebook can only run Chrome, that doesn't mean it's terribly limited. There's a whole lot you can do in the browser, from read email to manage Facebook accounts, to access and use the large and ever-growing list of online Software-as-a-Service web-based apps. In fact, I have a Chromebook I often use for my basic productivity activities.

So that's it. That's the Chromebook. It runs Chrome. Period.

Oh, but I did tell you the Chromebook does a few things the Windows machines don't, didn't I? It's true. Here's the first: You can zero out the Chromebook to factory-new condition with a simple click on the browser's settings page.

Don't underestimate the power of that. Zeroing a Chromebook to original condition is a five-minute task at most. That makes it easy to swap among workers or students, easy to issue at the beginning of a work day, easy to loan to a friend without concern, and easy to sell (if anyone is buying).

UPDATE: My ZDNet colleague Ed Bott pointed out to me that Windows 8.x and 10 can do pretty much the same thing in PC Settings. Go to Update & Recovery and click "Remove everything and reinstall Windows" and it does. He says it takes about 10 minutes in his experience. So if all you're looking at is the Powerwash feature of Chromebooks as an advantage, in Windows 8+, you'll get the same basic functionality.

Here's Ed's hands-on review of one of these $199 Windows machines: What do you get from a $199 PC? More than you might expect

The second major feature is related: your account information is all stored in Google's cloud, so you can immediately personalize any Chromebook to your profile simply by logging into your Google account. There's also a guest account, so someone else can log in, use the Chromebook, and when they log out all that profile information simply vanishes.

This makes the Chromebook a maintenance dream. There are no updates. There are no antivirus programs. There is no maintenance whatsoever except power up and powering down once in a while.

This, in fact, is why I'm now recommending Chromebooks instead of Windows laptops for civilians.

But what about Windows? Can't you do a lot more with Windows?

Yes, of course. And that's where the comparison comes in. The $199 Windows machine will do pretty much everything a Windows machine will do, including run Chrome. It's not likely to be much of a powerhouse, being a bit anemic in terms of RAM and storage, but it will run any — and I do mean pretty much any — Windows program you throw at it.

Let me give you an example. I teach a for-credit software development class at the UC Berkeley extension. The learning management system is Angel (a system very much like Blackboard). I can easily access Angel, correspond with students, and grade students from within Angel and on my Chromebook. But...

I have to run my students' submitted programs, and for that I use Visual Studio. Although there is something of an online Visual Studio, we don't support it for student work. For student work, you need to use the full Windows Visual Studio application. That bad boy won't run on the Chromebook.

It will, however, probably run on the $199 Windows notebooks we're seeing. I say probably because, honestly, I haven't tried running Visual Studio in 2GB of RAM; but while it might be dog slow, it should, theoretically run on the cheapo machines.

So if you were taking a Microsoft programming course, you'd want the Windows machine, not the Chromebook.

This, in essence, is the key argument in favor of the cheap Windows notebooks. If you need to run applications that live outside the browser, you'll want the Windows notebooks.

Keep in mind, however, that you gain all the Windows overhead as well. You'll have to deal with constant Windows updates, the need to fight malware and spyware, the complication of updating all your individual software components, the inability to easily share machines, the challenge of zeroing them out before turning them over to someone else, and all the other hassles of Windows machine ownership we've all come to know and, uh, love.

In addition, keep in mind that these are very cheap Windows machines with the least amount of — well, anything — that the manufacturers need to put into them. They're not going to be powerhouses. So they'll run Windows software, but probably slowwwwly.

That said, as I wrote the other day, I do expect them to be quite useful for the sort of off-label uses we geeks normally put Windows machines into service to do.

So there you go. In short, the Windows laptops are able to run any Windows software, but probably not very well, and are more of a hassle in terms of maintenance. The Chromebooks run only Chrome, but are incredibly simple to maintain.

If you're a Microsoft-hater, get the Chromebook (or install Ubuntu on one of the cheap Windows machine if you can break the new BIOS).

If you're a Google-horrible-izer, get the Windows notebook.

If you're an IT manager in an enterprise, and if your organization is mostly on Google Apps already and you want something that's very low maintenance, get the Chromebook.

If you have users who need to run classic Windows applications that can't be substituted by something that runs in Chrome, you'll need to get the Windows notebook, but be sure that your app can run in the very low memory capacity provided.

If you're an end-user trying to make a decision, the key is whether you can live in your browser. If you don't do anything special with the machine, the Chromebook is the easiest choice.

If you're an end-user and you want to run low-end Steam games, or World of Warcraft, you can probably (I haven't tested it) run the Windows machines, but it's not going to be a smooth experience.

And if you want to put the machine through off-label uses like driving a scanner, you'll want the Windows machine, but you'll also want to dust off your profanity dictionary because you'll be using some foul words getting it all to work.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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