Chromebooks versus Windows laptops: Which should you buy?

In the fight between a Google Chrome OS-powered Chromebook and a Microsoft Windows PC, it boils down to cost versus convenience.

Chromebook vs Windows PC primary better light
Mark Hachman / IDG

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Should I buy a Chromebook or a Windows laptop? Whether you’re seeking out the best computer for your child or just weighing which inexpensive computer would make a great holiday gift, weighing a Chrome OS-powered Chromebook versus a PC can be a tough choice—and we can help you choose the right one. 

Who should buy a Windows PC?

A notebook PC powered by Microsoft Windows offers several advantages: Windows offers the most flexibility to run just about any app, as well as the choice of any browser you choose. You can tweak and configure your PC as you choose.

That convenience demands more computing horsepower, and often a higher price compared to most Chromebooks. Prices can soar into the thousands of dollars, and if you need a powerful PC for gaming or video editing, Chromebooks really don’t offer that much competition. But you’ll find some great deals among our more affordably priced, top Windows picks.

Who should buy a Chromebook?

A Chromebook powered by Google’s Chrome OS is a simpler, more optimized affair, a locked-down PC that’s little more than the Chrome browser—but it can be hundreds of dollars cheaper than a comparable Windows PC, too. Amazon’s list of the “top-selling laptops” can often be dominated by Chromebooks—see for yourself! Holiday deals have also been really low: down around $100 or more, though you'll probably want to pay a bit more for a better experience.

Updates occur behind the scenes, so you can just open the lid and go. Google handles all the security, too. The internet offers much of what you’ll need, whether it be working within web apps or Chrome plugins. But it’s the workarounds and little inconveniences that you may find annoying in the end.

There’s one more wrinkle: For years, there were Chromebooks and...not much else. Now there are Chrome OS-powered convertibles like the Chromebook Flip, as well as Chrome OS-powered tablets like the Google Pixel Slate. (Chromeboxes are a separate, niche class of standalone Chrome OS-powered boxes that lack a display.) Besides the obvious physical differences, a Chromebook is no different than a Chrome tablet. Google recently swung back into the laptop form factor, launching the Google Pixelbook Go: Available in various configurations from $649 all the way to up to $1,349, the new clamshell Chromebooks boast up to a Core i7 and a 4K screen. And they're surprisingly good.

Read on for a deeper dive into the differences between the Chrome OS and Windows platforms, as well as some recommendations on what to buy. Just be aware that the conversation will focus on inexpensive machines that can accomplish basic tasks. Chromebooks can’t hold a candle to $2,000 gaming PCs, though some cloud gaming services might allow them to eventually. 

chrome windows reflection 2 Mark Hachman

Chrome OS or Windows? The choice is up to you.

What’s the difference between a Chromebook and a PC?

Though you probably already know what differentiates a Windows PC from a Chromebook, here’s a brief refresher: Windows PCs run Microsoft Windows 10, the dominant operating system for traditional PCs for more than 25 years. They run Windows applications, from Microsoft titles to a raft of third-party software. Windows PCs are available in desktop and laptop forms, and can be configured in infinite ways to accommodate needs from basic productivity to resource-intensive workstations. 

Windows 10 Start menu Preston Gralla / IDG

The Start menu is command central for Windows 10. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Chromebooks are much simpler. They run Chrome OS, essentially a Chrome web browser vehicle, and are often priced several hundred dollars less than a Windows PC. The newest Chromebooks contain a bonus, however: the ability to run some Android apps (more on this later). Another perk is on its way: the ability to run Linux—not something that most users will care about, but a useful niche addition. (To be fair, Windows 10 users can run Linux as well.)

chromebook desktop Mark Hachman / IDG

In a Chromebook, many of the apps reside below the taskbar.

Physically, a Chromebook looks much like a Windows-powered notebook, with a keyboard, a display, a front-facing camera for videoconferencing, and so on. But there are a few key differences: Chromebooks typically include a dedicated search keyboard key, while Windows emphasizes the Windows key, and Cortana. (Google’s latest Pixelbook Go includes a Google Assistant key instead.) With Windows, you’ll have many hardware choices, including a typical clamshell notebook, convertibles with 360-degree hinges; 2-in-1 Windows tablets with detachable keyboards, or pure Windows tablets.

Chromebooks generally assume the clamshell form factor, though we’ve seen some Chromebooks designed as convertibles. And in 2018, we saw the evolution of the Chromebook into a full-fledged tablet. Because Chrome OS and Android are now conjoined, a key reason to buy a Chrome OS tablet (as opposed to a clamshell), in our view, is how often you’ll use Android apps. Android apps run acceptably in a laptop form factor, but they’re arguably more convenient when used as a tablet, and held in your hand.

cortana on windows Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft Cortana is all over Windows, but the Google Assistant is only in Google’s own Pixelbook devices.

Inside, the only real differences are the processor. Chromebooks generally favor lower-performance Intel Atom chips (branded as Pentium or Celeron) that are suited to the lesser demands of Chrome OS. (Qualcomm just introduced the Snapdragon 7c and 8c, which could make for some great Chromebooks -- but Qualcomm hasn't indicated that it will go in that direction with them.) Pricier versions, such as Google’s own hardware, often include Core chips. Windows PCs have a wide range of microprocessors powering them, usually chips from AMD and Intel.

Chromebook and Windows PCs features have a lot of overlap, too. Though you’ll find that many Chromebooks and inexpensive laptops share a similar HD (1366x768) or Full HD (1920x1080) display, Windows usually requires a bit more in terms of memory and storage. Both a Chromebook and a laptop can run acceptably on 4GB of memory, but 8GB is usually preferred where Windows notebooks are concerned. Windows notebooks, too, typically include more local storage for the Windows OS and associated apps: 128GB or 256GB is acceptable, though there’s really no upper limit. Chromebooks, meanwhile, don’t need much more than 16GB or so, especially if Android apps are being stored on an SD card.

Speaking of storage, it’s less of an issue. Both Chromebooks and Windows tablets allow external storage to be used, though Google would prefer you to store your apps and files in the cloud. A Windows PC typically includes a USB-C or USB-A slot that can connect to an external hard drive. (Some Chromebooks do too, or use an SD card.) You’ll simply find less need for local storage on a Chromebook than on a Windows PC, which helps lower the price and simplifies the experience. 

chromebook file explorer Mark Hachman / IDG

Though the Chrome OS Files app within Chromebooks is a little rougher than Windows, it’s been designed with cloud storage (in Google Drive) from the beginning.

Weirdly, while both Google and Microsoft have developed their own digital assistants, the first Chromebook with Google Assistant support was the Google Pixelbook. Microsoft Cortana fans will find “her” on all Windows PCs that include a mic—which is virtually all of them. Now, however, Amazon’s Alexa has also been added as a Cortana partner application or “skill,” which means Windows users get two assistants for the price of one. 

Is a Chromebook or laptop better for office work?

Productivity apps—word processing, spreadsheets, and the like—represent the majority of the working day. Here, both Windows and Chromebook users alike have several choices, the most popular being the Google Apps suite of office apps and Microsoft’s own Office.

You might think that Office would be restricted to Windows, but that’s not true either: Office.com, AKA Office Online, runs in a web browser, and—assuming you have a subscription to Office 365—offers nearly all the functionality that the Office 365 suite does. (Microsoft Office apps are also available as Android apps, but it’s simpler to run them within the browser.) In fact, given that it’s powered by the cloud, you’ll find that Office Online sometimes gets updated with new features before they arrive on Office 365. Office is typically used by most enterprises, and if your company administrator allows it, even shared corporate resources may be accessible via a Chromebook. 

The Google Apps suite also runs online, though its focused on the essentials, with fewer features than Office. I spent over a year exclusively working on a Chromebox (the nearly defunct desktop version of a Chromebook) and found Google’s simple interface and instantaneous autosaves superior to the Windows version of Office at the time. (Office apps like Word now autosave, too.) For our purposes, both Google Docs and Office Online will run on either a plain Chromebook or Windows PC; however, if you need access to a local copy of Office, only a PC will suffice. 

Microsoft office 365 online Mark Hachman / IDG

Office Online (Office.com) is accessible via a browser from either a Chromebook or Windows PC.

The gist is that productivity is possible on either a Chromebook or Windows PC with a minimal amount of effort, though you’ll probably need to pay for a subscription for either Office or Google's suite of apps.

From a hardware perspective, it’s our view that a laptop form factor is more convenient than an add-on keyboard, or external Bluetooth keyboard option. Take the keyboard on the Google Pixel Slate, for example: Google chose an arty, circular-key design. While tablets make Android apps more convenient, the tradeoff is less productivity when in laptop mode.

Which is better for web browsing, a Chromebook or Windows PC?

It’s not quite true to say that Chromebooks and a Windows PC are equivalent in web browsing, but this is probably the closest point of intersection. Browsing the web using Chrome on a Chrome OS device is virtually identical to using Chrome on a PC. A Windows PC will allow other browser options, however, including Microsoft Edge, Opera, and Firefox. 

Because of the simplicity of Chrome OS, some complex sites simply feel more responsive within a Chromebook. On a Chromebook, with the same ad blockers, the site can actually be more responsive. Be aware, though, that the reduced memory footprint of a Chromebook may restrict you to fewer tabs than you would normally use on a PC.

Can a Chromebook play games as well as a Windows PC?

With the vast history of classic PC games available to Windows machines, the PC is clearly dominant as far as gaming is concerned. But there are still thousands of games that are “exclusive” to Chromebooks, thanks to 2016’s Chrome OS 53, and its ability to run Android apps and games. Dozens, though not all, of Chromebooks have this capability.

Asus Chromebook Flip C101PA Mark Hachman / IDG

If you buy a Chromebook that supports Android in tablet mode, then presto! Your Chromebook is now a large tablet.

Chances are if you have an Android phone you’re already aware of what games are available on Android—here are some older suggestions. In any case, don’t expect to play the latest Battlefield game on a Chromebook, at least as a native app. Some ”cloud gaming” services such as Parsec allow you to download an Android client, then “subscribe” to a virtual PC that exists in the cloud, upon which you can play ordinary PC games. It’s not cheap, as you’ll need to essentially sign up for a computer in the cloud, but it does allow you to play PC games on a Chromebook.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance IDG / Hayden Dingman

You’ll never reach PC levels of graphics quality, like 2018’s Kingdom Come, without a cloud-gaming assist.

Again, however, if you’re trying to decide between a low-cost Windows PC and a Chromebook on the basis of games, don’t. Though the PC is superior, the best low-cost “PC” for gaming is an Xbox One game console.

Which offers more apps, Chromebooks or Windows PCs?

Games certainly fall into the category of local apps, but so do the numerous apps and utilities that can make everyday tasks a little easier. Here, it’s also a mixed bag.

chrome web store chromebook Mark Hachman / IDG

Chrome apps can be found within the Chrome Web Store, where there are both utilities, educational tools, and more.

Android apps can include both games as well as mobile productivity apps. At press time, there were about 2.7 million total in the Google Play app store in June 2019, though Microsoft has stopped publicizing the number of Windows apps. That number says nothing about the quality of apps in either store, obviously, but does probably signify that Android has many more.

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