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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How fast of a Chromebook do I need to buy?

Buying a laptop is relatively easy: simply look for an up-to-date AMD or Intel processor, and look for the lowest price. But Chromebooks can have a variety of low-end microprocessors to choose from, some of which you may have never heard of.

PCWorld’s Alaina Yee recommends buying a Chromebook with a Pentium or Celeron processor—and that’s a good place to start if you don’t feel comfortable parsing Chromebook specifications. Anything more powerful than that, like an Intel Core chip, is just fine too.

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, and both are honestly about equal in this regard. Chromebooks can run Microsoft’s Office apps as Android applications, while Windows PCs can run Google Workspace apps on the web. (Google Workspace was formerly named G Suite, and before that Google Apps.)

You might think that Office would be restricted to Windows, but that’s not true either: Office.com, also known as Office Online, runs in a web browser, and—assuming you have a subscription to Office 365 (now called Microsoft 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 Microsoft 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 Workspace suite also runs online, though it’s focused on the essentials, with fewer features than Office but a renewed focus on collaboration. 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 Workspace 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 may want to pay for a subscription for either Office or Google’s suite of apps to get maximum benefit and storage space. You may also find Windows PCs a bit more easy to configure for printing.

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 cramped detachable keyboard on the Lenovo Chromebook Duet, for example. 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. However, Microsoft’s new Edge browser is also based on Chromium, meaning that Edge can use Chrome plug-ins beginning in the Windows 10 October 2020 Update. They’re almost identical!

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. Chromebooks usually ship with less memory than a PC, however, so you’ll be able to open fewer tabs. You can use other browsers with Chromebooks, like Opera, but they're typically the mobile version of the browser running as an Android app.

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 on-the-device gaming is concerned. However, there are also games that are “exclusive” to Chromebooks, thanks to 2016’s Chrome OS 53, and its ability to run Android apps and games. All Chromebooks made since 2019 (and some earlier models) have this capability. But the distinction is not quite as profound as it once was.

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.

While you won’t be playing the latest Battlefield game on a Chromebook, at least as a native app, cloud gaming services could come to your rescue—and you have several options these days! In addition to the older Parsec cloud gaming service, you now have Nvidia GeForce Now, the Blade Shadow service (hailing from Europe), and Google’s own Stadia, though it’s had a rocky start, all of which allow you to “subscribe” to a virtual PC that exists in the cloud, upon which you can play ordinary PC games. 

Google believes strongly in cloud gaming, and as of February 2021 Google began pre-installing Stadia on all new Chromebooks. The service is available as a web app, optimized to get you up and running in no time.

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.

There’s another huge bonus for Chromebook owners, though: They can play Xbox games in the cloud. Xbox cloud gaming is available as an Android app, and a Chromebook that runs Android can run those apps. Confused? Don’t be. We explain how Xbox cloud gaming runs on a Chromebook. Microsoft’s Xbox Support Twitter page originally claimed that ChromeOS wasn’t supported for cloud gaming, but our tests, and others, show that that isn’t true. Just make sure that you either have an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription in place, or own an Xbox outright.

In June 2021, Xbox cloud gaming arrived on PCs via the Web browser. We’ve already tested Xbox cloud gaming on the Web, and it runs pretty well.

But wait -- the PC will be able to run Android apps and games, too, as part of Windows 11.  That capability will arrive this fall, and won't include the Google Play Store; PCs will run Android apps from Amazon instead. 

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.

App compatibility is a big deal. Keep reading to find out which is better. 

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