Chromebooks have come a long way in the last couple of years. Running Google's Chrome OS, which is based on the Linux kernel and Chrome browser, the first devices were launched in 2011, with third-party PC manufacturers following specifications outlined by Google.
Chromebooks were initially designed to provide an affordable alternative to traditional Windows laptops, using inexpensive hardware and relying on an 'always on' internet connection to provide access to online storage and web applications such as Google Docs. Most Chromebooks today provide 100GB of storage on Google Drive free for up to two years, although the terms of this deal can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
First-generation Chromebooks was affordable enough to appeal to the education sector, and many schools and colleges in the US opted for Chromebooks, challenging Apple's traditionally strong base in education. However, that reliance on a permanent internet connection was seen as a serious limitation and, like any new operating system, Chrome OS initially suffered from a lack of apps and software – especially software that would satisfy demanding business users.
In recent years Google has sought to boost the profile of Chromebooks, first by bringing the Google Play Store to Chromebooks, giving access to thousands of existing Android apps, and then by refreshing its own Chromebook hardware in the shape of the high-end Pixelbook laptop and Pixel Slate tablet.
With its high-resolution display and choice of Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, the Pixelbook, in particular, has changed the perception of Chromebooks from that of a budget option for schools to a premium laptop worthy of any Fortune 500 executive. Increasing numbers of apps also provide offline options, so that Chromebooks no longer require an internet connection in order to do any work at all.
A turning point came in 2017, when Microsoft launched a native Android version of Office 365 that could run on Chromebooks. Given Microsoft's dominance of the business market, this effectively gave Chromebooks the seal of approval that they could be taken seriously in the corporate environment.
Also in 2017, Google introduced Chrome Enterprise, whose features include access to Managed Google Play via an approved EMM (Enterprise Mobility Manager), plus integration with on-premises Active Directory infrastructure.
Google's PixelBook still sets the standard for Chromebooks, with performance, design and features that go head-to-head with Microsoft's own Surface devices, but most PC manufacturers now provide their own ranges of Chromebooks with a variety of different designs and price points that cater to a wide range of users.
The cheapest Chromebooks can cost as little as £250, and are still very much intended for education (the UK's BETT show in January acts as the launch venue for many new models each year). However, there's an increasing selection of business-class Chromebooks now available, typically costing £500-£800 (~$650-$1,000) that offer a genuine alternative to conventional Windows laptops for business users.
Acer makes a wide range of Chromebooks, but the Chromebook 13 hits a sweet spot, combining an attractive design, strong performance and a competitive price.
Admittedly, there's nothing fancy about the Chromebook 13. It has a fairly standard clamshell laptop design, lacking a detachable or reversible keyboard that offers a tablet mode, and the chunky bezel around the screen looks rather old-fashioned compared to the edge-to-edge glass offered by many of its rivals.
But Acer gets all the basics right, starting at an affordable £650 (ex. VAT; £780 inc. VAT, or $799.99) that includes an 8th generation Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. The aluminium casing feels nice and sturdy, and the attractive 13.5-inch display offers 2,256 by 1,504 resolution (201ppi) and 3:2 aspect ratio that's well suited to office documents and browsing the web. The 64GB of internal storage is a little meagre (and there aren't any additional build-to-order options either), but a MicroSD card slot is available if you want to add more. The only minor weakness is battery life, which doesn't live up to Acer's quoted 10 hours, and lasted for a more modest eight hours in our tests.
The Spin 13 is Acer's flagship Chromebook, with a smart, convertible design that makes it a serious rival for more expensive Chromebooks such as the Google PixelBook, or even Microsoft's Surface range of Windows laptops.
Prices start at £583.33 (ex. VAT; £699.99 inc. VAT, or $799.99) for the entry-level model that includes a Core i3-8130U processor, 8GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. If you need more power, there's a Core i5-8250U model available with 128GB of storage for £708.33 (ex. VAT; £850 inc. VAT, or $900). Acer's US website also offers a number of additional configurations that aren't currently available for UK customers.
Acer hasn't made too many compromises to keep the price down, with a thin and light convertible design that works well in both laptop and tablet modes. The screen is a delight too, with 2,256 by 1,504 resolution (201ppi) and wide viewing angles that will work just as well for business presentations as leaning back and watching some streaming video. Battery life is good too, giving us a healthy 10.5 hours in our tests, and Acer even throws in a stylus for sketching and taking notes as well.
Asus describes its new Chromebook Flip (C434, successor to the well-received C302) as "the 13-inch laptop with a 14-inch display", thanks to its NanoEdge design that reduces the bezel around the edges of the screen to a maximum of 7mm. In fact, at just 321mm wide, the Chromebook Flip is actually 4mm narrower than Apple's svelte 13-inch MacBook Air. The Chromebook Flip's compact design and aluminium chassis are well suited to travel, and the 360-degree screen/keyboard hinge lets you use it as a laptop for work, or switch to tablet mode when off duty.
The Chromebook Flip was launched at CES in January, and only the entry-level model has reached stores so far. This costs £499.16 (ex. VAT; £599 inc. VAT, or $580) with a Core m3-8100Y processor and a modest 64GB of internal storage. There are more powerful Core i5 and i7 models planned for spring launch, although Asus has yet to announce pricing.
The Chromebook Flip C434 is well connected, with two USB-C ports and one USB 3.1 port, as well as a MicroSD slot for storage expansion. The only sign of cost-cutting is the modest FHD (1,920x1,080 pixel, 157.3ppi) resolution of the 14-inch screen, but that should still be adequate for routine work with Microsoft Office and other productivity apps.
Dell's range of Chromebooks tends to focus on education and home users, but the new Chromebook 14 7000 recently arrived in the 'for work' section of its website.
There's only one configuration available at the moment, costing £539 (ex. VAT; £646.80 inc. VAT, or $530) with a Core i3-8130U processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. It's a little odd that Dell provides a generous 128GB of storage, yet skimps on the 4GB of RAM (with no additional build-to-order options either), but the Chromebook 14 7000 should still be able to run Microsoft Office and other productivity apps without any problem. And with a convertible design, the Chromebook 14 7000 can easily switch into tablet mode when you need to take a break. A stylus is included in the price, with a dock on the underside of the chassis that's accessible in tablet mode.
The low price of the Chromebook 14 7000 also means that its 14-inch screen is limited to a modest FHD (1,920x1,080 pixel, 157.3ppi) resolution, although that's still fine for document editing at work, or watching some streaming video after hours. Our only real complaint is that the 1.8kg/3.99lb device is a little on the heavy side, even when compared to other 14-inch laptops.
Google shook up the Chromebook market with its Pixel laptop a few years ago, and its current Pixelbook is a sleek and powerful convertible laptop that can go head-to-head with the Microsoft Surface or MacBook Air.
The Pixelbook is certainly one of the most expensive Chromebooks currently available, starting at £832.50 (ex. VAT; £999 inc. VAT, or $999) for a model with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage, and going up to £1415.83 (ex. VAT; £1,699 inc. VAT, or $1,649) for the top-of-the-range Core i7 model with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB NVMe SSD. Google's online store doesn't specify the precise processors, but the Core i5 model appears to use a 7th generation Core i5-7Y57.
It may be pricey, but the Pixelbook's no-compromise design is hard to fault. The slimline laptop measures just 10.1mm thick and weighs 1.1kg, so it's easy to carry around in a backpack or briefcase. The 12.3-inch screen is a delight too, very bright and colourful, and with a finely detailed 2,400 by 1,600 (234.5ppi) resolution. It's a shame, though, that those high prices don't include a stylus: Google's optional Pixelbook Pen costing a hefty additional £82.50 (ex. VAT; £99 inc. VAT, or $99).
There's no MicroSD card slot for quickly adding extra internal storage either, and the Pixelbook relies on just two USB-C ports for expansion and accessories.
The Pixel Slate is something of a mixed bag. Some reviewers have praised its outstanding 12.3-inch display with 3,000 by 2,000 (293ppi) resolution, and sleek design that measures just 7mm thick and a mere 0.73kg in weight. However, other aspects of the design have proved rather less welcome, such as the lack of a MicroSD slot and 3.5mm headphone socket.
And that streamlined design comes at a price that might make even Apple blush. Like Microsoft's Surface Pro, the Pixel is sold as a standalone tablet, so if you need a keyboard for work then you'll need to fork out another £157.50 (ex. VAT; £189 inc. VAT, or $199) for Google's Slate Keyboard.
That's disappointing, especially as Google's pricing information for the Pixel Slate is somewhat misleading. Google's online store says 'from £549/$599' but, in fact, the entry-level Celeron-based model has been out of stock in both the US and UK since the start of 2019 (possibly discontinued following criticisms of poor performance). The actual starting price is now £624.17 (ex. VAT; £749 inc. VAT, or $799) for a model with an 8th generation Core m3 processor (not specified by Google, but apparently the Core m3-8100Y) with 8GB of RAM and 64GB of SSD storage.
There are also Core i5 and i7 configurations available, with the top-of-the-range Core i7 Pixel Slate (16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Slate Keyboard) coming in at a hefty £1,448.83 (ex. VAT; £1,738 inc. VAT, or $1,798).
The Chromebook x2 is HP's top-of-the-range Chromebook, and its light, slimline design provides an affordable alternative to a Windows ultraportable laptop. With the keyboard attached, the Chromebook x2 weighs a modest 1.44kg and measures just 18mm thick, while the 12.3-inch screen is coated with Gorilla Glass to protect it when you're travelling.
It's a detachable design too, so you can use it with the keyboard in document-creation mode, and simply remove the keyboard and switch to tablet mode as required. We're also pleased to see that both the keyboard and stylus are included in the price, so there are no hidden extras to worry about.
The Core m3-7Y30 processor isn't exactly a speed demon, with just 1.0GHz standard clock speed, but the TurboBoost option can lift that up to 2.6GHz, which should be more than adequate for routine productivity apps. The Core m3 is also very power-efficient, with HP quoting 12.5 hours of battery life for the x2. That's all topped off with an impressive 12.3-inch display with 3,000-by-2,000 (234.5ppi) resolution, and 3:2 aspect ratio that works well for document creation or browsing the web.
The only minor oddity is that the less expensive model available in the US has half the RAM and storage of its UK counterpart, costing $600 with 4GB of RAM and a 32GB SSD, while the UK model doubles up to 8GB/64GB for £665.83 (ex. VAT; £799 inc. VAT).
You don't get a lot of choice with HP's Chromebooks, with both the x2 and x360 models simply offering a single, fixed specification. Even so, the Chromebook x360 offers an attractive alternative to a conventional Windows laptop, providing good performance and a smart, convertible design at a competitive price.
It's a little on the heavy side, weighing in at 1.68kg, but that's not too bad for a convertible laptop with a large 14-inch display, and the sturdy, 16mm-thick device is easy to carry around in a backpack or briefcase.
The Core i3-8130U processor has a clock speed of 2.2GHz, with TurboBoost taking that up to a healthy 3.4GHz (not 4GHz as quoted on HP's website), and with 8GB of RAM and 64GB of SSD storage, the Chromebook x360 is more than capable of running Microsoft Office when you're on the road. It's well connected too, with three USB 3.1 ports, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a MicroSD card slot for adding extra storage if required.
The only sign of cost-cutting is the 14-inch screen's modest 1,920 by 1,080 (157.3ppi) resolution, although that's still good enough to stream high-def video from Netflix when you're relaxing in the evening.
Launched at MWC in Barcelona in February, the new Lenovo 14e Chromebook is an affordable 14-inch laptop designed for 'firstline worker productivity' in fields such as hospitality, travel and manufacturing, as well as for students, teachers and businesses generally. UK pricing hasn't been confirmed, but the US price will be just $279, with pricing for the Eurozone at €279.
Despite that low price, Lenovo hasn't cut corners on build quality, and has managed to come up with a sturdy design that's well suited to use in busy workplaces. The 14-inch laptop weighs just 1.48kg and measures 17.7mm thick, yet Lenovo claims that it provides 'military grade' durability, with reinforced hinges and a water-resistant keyboard. Twin microphones also provide noise-cancellation features in order to improve sound quality for voice or video calls in noisy warehouses or public venues.
The low cost of the Chromebook 14e means that its 14-inch screen only provides FHD (1,920x1,080) resolution, but that's hardly a flaw at this price. There's a touch-screen option too. The 1.6GHz-2.5GHz AMD A4-9120c processor should be more than adequate for running Microsoft Office and other productivity apps. And if you still prefer Windows, Lenovo offers a similar '14w' model with Windows 10 Pro for just €20/$20 extra.
Modern laptops tend to focus on portability and lightweight design, but Lenovo's Yoga Chromebook C630 pushes the envelope with a 15.6-inch touch-screen and a weight of 1.9kg that makes among the biggest, heaviest Chromebooks available.
The Yoga Chromebook C630 is a convertible device with a 360-degree screen hinge that allows you to use it as a tablet, although its weight means it'll probably be propped up on a desk rather than held in your hand as you go about your work or play.
The C630 packs plenty of power, running on a Core i5-8250U processor with a standard clock speed of 1.6GHz, rising to a healthy 3.4GHz with Intel's TurboBoost option. The 8GB of RAM will handle Microsoft Office and other productivity apps with ease, and its integrated UHD Graphic 620 GPU can even handle a spot of photo or video-editing for presentations if required. There's only 64GB of internal storage, but the C360 includes USB-C, USB 3.0 and a Micro-SD card slot, so you have plenty of options for adding extra storage and other accessories.
The FHD (1920x1080) resolution is modest for a display of this size, but that's forgivable given the C360's affordable price. A Yoga Chromebook 630 model with a 4K (3,840x2,160) display is due later this spring.
Most of the early limitations of Chromebooks, such as poor software support, and the need for an always-on internet connection, have now been overcome. And with business users able to run native Microsoft Office apps that allow them to share their work with Windows-based colleagues, there are few reasons why Chromebooks should be second-class citizens in the modern BYOD workplace.
The limited storage of most Chromebooks might deter some users, but this is easily upgraded, and the free online storage provided by Google is a valuable and useful added extra – especially for those who need to sync documents and data across multiple devices.
It's arguable that premium devices such as Google's Pixelbook defeat the primary aim of the Chromebook, which is to provide a low-cost alternative to conventional Windows laptops. But the Pixelbook is the exception that proves the rule, and even high-end models such as the HP Chromebook x2 or the Lenovo Yoga Chromebook C630 are competitively priced.
The current generation of Chromebooks are also adapting to the needs of different industries. Models such as the Lenovo 14e Chromebook offer an affordable, rugged design that's ideal for use in warehouses or outdoor locations, while frequent fliers can easily slip a slimline convertible Pixelbook or detachable HP Chromebook x2 into their hand luggage.
No longer just for use in homes and schools, the Chromebook is growing up and ready to start work.
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Previous and related coverage:
Chromebooks in 2018: Ready for take-off? Chromebooks account for a small percentage of the PC market, but shipments are on the rise. Will the trend continue, or will Microsoft's Windows 10 S ecosystem halt the advance of Chrome OS?
Windows is coming to your Chromebook If there are a couple of Windows applications holding you back from using a Chromebook, Google will soon let you run Windows 10 on your high-end Chromebook.