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.

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One of the best features of a Chromebook that’s easily overlooked is Google’s approach to updates and security. Everything takes place behind the scenes. Windows download some antivirus and other updates in the background, but others require reboots. If you don’t have Windows properly configured, those reboots can even occur while you’re using the PC, which can be hugely annoying. While Chromebooks occasionally need to be rebooted to apply updates, the process is quicker and less intrusive, as Google reloads the pages you were on quite quickly. 

In fact, “quick” is one of the best features of a Chromebook. While they’re less full-featured than a Windows PC, booting and resuming them just generally feels more efficient than Windows. Part of that is the simplicity: Google takes care of most of the mundane tasks of powering a PC, like security and driver updates. “Blue screens of death” occur on Windows; Chromebooks rarely crash—a fact Google emphasizes in its latest commercial.

Still, some of those more mundane tasks can be irritating to Chromebook users, too: such as printing, file management, and utilities: These small, minute-to-minute tasks can be where differences between the two platforms can become abrasive, especially if you’re used to doing things in a certain way.

Take printing, for example. The world’s printers were designed from the ground up for Windows and Macs, and can print either over a wireless network or from a USB cable. Chromebooks, on the other hand, can struggle with direct printing or using the more advanced features of certain printers, and prefer that you set up a “cloud printer” to print documents over a wireless network. The latter’s not especially difficult, but does require that you own a Wi-Fi enabled printer and understand how to set it up. (Ironically, “cloud” printing using a traditional wired printer requires it to be connected to a PC or laptop running Chrome.)

Certain tasks also require a different way of doing things on a Chromebook versus a Windows PC. Sure, there’s the Chrome OS keyboard shortcuts, where taking a screenshot or a portion of one requires knowing to press the CTRL + “switcher” key. When you take that screenshot, you’ll see it saved inside a folder—but you won’t be able to rename that file without opening it. Windows allows you to right-click a file and perform any number of operations on it; ChromeOS does not.

Even accessing those files on ChromeOS requires clicking the “home” circle in the lower left corner, then either swiping or clicking the exposed up arrow to access the ChromeOS apps, some of which can be stored in the taskbar dock for easy access.

windows hello Adam Patrick Murray

Staring soulfully at a Windows Hello-enabled PC for a second or two can automatically log you in, a capability Chromebooks don’t provide.

The same goes for alternative input modalities. While Chromebooks allow for inking—you’ll generally need to supply your own stylus or use your finger—and can record audio, don’t expect a Chromebook to include speech dictation or pen input that’s translatable into text. These are both capabilities that, for now, Windows exclusively provides.

Which is more secure, a Chromebook or a Windows PC?

Security isn't a question that can be answered absolutely, but Chromebooks and Windows PCs differ fundamentally here. The relative simplicity of a Chromebook offers a far smaller "attack surface" than a Windows PC does. The complexity of Windows PCs, including the software Windows supports, providers hackers many more opportunities to attack. 

Google developed Chromebooks with security as a priority, using everything from isolated, "sandboxed" processes to verified boot to help protect your system. (Our sister site, TechAdvisor, has a more detailed explanation.) For people who worry about websites that hijack your browser or download malware, a Chromebook's defenses protect you without making you think about it much. 

Keeping a Windows PC safe is a much more complicated business. Security starts as soon as you begin setting up a new PC. Regular maintenance is required for both your antivirus software and the Windows operating system. Still, holes are constantly being discovered, such as the Meltdown/Spectre vulnerabilities revealed in January, as well as the more recent Foreshadow/L1TF exploit. You have to be vigilant, or at least not too lazy, to protect your Windows PC

Login security works about the same on both platforms. Logging into a Chromebook requires a Google account and its password. While U2F hardware keys for logging in can be used, a typical home user probably wouldn't. Windows PCs also prefer a Microsoft account and password (though you can log into the PC locally without one). Authentication options include Windows Hello (either via a fingerprint reader or depth camera, or else with a short PIN), which provides a casual level of security that also lets you resume work quickly and easily. It’s a cross between ease of access and security that Microsoft has invested heavily in, and it’s a convenience that most Windows users appreciate. 

Which Chromebook or laptop should I buy?

Of the Chromebooks we’ve reviewed, we’d recommend two: the Asus Chromebook Flip C101PA, a 10-inch tablet for just under $300 with decent performance and a convertible form factor that emphasizes its Android aspect. We’d also suggest you check out the Acer Chromebook Spin 11, another convertible that adds a pen. If a tablet's your thing, check out the HP Chromebook x2. Given the relative simplicity of Chrome OS, buying the latest hardware isn't as much of a concern.

As far as notebooks are concerned, we have a number of preferred laptops from which to choose. Our best budget convertible, the Asus ZenBook Flip, is a great two-in-one for under $800—decidedly more expensive than the Chromebook offerings, but not so much that it will break the bank.

Which is better, a Chromebook or laptop?

While we can’t say for certain which platform you’ll prefer, here’s one suggestion to try: if you think that a Chromebook could be right for you, take a Windows PC, download the Google Chrome browser, and then work exclusively within it for a day or so. A Chromebook will also be more attractive if you own or are familiar with Android apps, too.

Granted, the Chrome browser within Windows isn’t directly comparable to the Chrome OS experience (especially where file management and printing is concerned) and you’ll need to find online (or Android-based) alternatives for apps like Windows’ Photos app within the browser. The keyboard isn’t quite the same, either. If you don’t mind spending a little more for a PC, you can approximate the Chrome OS experience. But you can’t really run Android apps on your PC without a separate app serving as the middleman.

It’s fair to say that Windows offers a more comprehensive experience, but ChromeOS is a significantly simpler, cheaper alternative. The buying decision usually works out to something like: “I can do almost everything in Windows with a Chromebook, but...” It’s that last little bit—printing, file management, etc.— that will guide your decision. Good luck! 

Updated on March 7, 2019 to include details on Chrome OS tablets, and to update our buying recommendations.

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