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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Windows 11, though, introduces a huge wrinkle: some PCs simply won’t be upgradable to Windows 11, because they lack the required hardware, including what’s known as a TPM. 

Which can be personalized more, a Chromebook or a PC?

Typically, Windows PCs have offered an enormous variety of options to allow you to tweak things as you like, which we’ve covered in our feature of how to personalize your PC. Most of this is already built into Windows, though there are wallpaper theme packs and even a Bing Wallpaper app to allow further customization.

Chromebooks have generally not offered these capabilities, though there’s now an option to personalize your lock screen with either one of your own photos or an image preselected by Google. Music controls are available, too.

Which lasts longer, a Chromebook or a PC?

The longevity of a PC is basically determined by how demanding Windows is, compared to the hardware powering it. The willingness of the PC maker and component makers to provide drivers also plays a role. Hardware failures will eventually occur. Every processor that Intel launches is accompanied by statements comparing the new chip to a 5-year-old PC, with performance improvements in the 30 to 40 percent range. Otherwise, a PC’s lifespan could go on for years, even decades.

Or we thought so, anyway. As the previous section noted, Windows 11 suddenly cut off millions of PCs from an upgrade to Windows 11, because of new hardware restrictions. Older PCs, even Surface devices made by Microsoft, are being cut off. Could Microsoft do this again in the future? We don’t know.

A Chromebook lasts as long as Google is willing to support it, and that’s much easier to determine: Google tells you. In the beginning, it was just five years after the original production date for any Chromebook (keep this in mind if you’re buying an older Chromebook, or a used one). More recently, Google’s begun extending the time it supports Chromebooks by about six months to a year, and even up to eight years in some cases. Beginning with Chrome OS 80, in February 2020, it appears you’ll be able to dive into the Settings menu and discover exactly when your device will lose support. 

Google also said recently that it’s working to separate the security aspects of Chrome OS from new features. Right now, when a Chromebook exits the support window, that’s it: no new features, no new security updates. In the future, though, Google’s support window may put a hard stop on new Chrome OS features, but may keep adding security patches for longer.

How does Windows 11 influence my purchase?

Windows 11, Microsoft’s next operating system, will debut this fall. (You can follow our Windows 11 superguide here, or read our Windows 11 FAQ here.) Essentially, it revamps the look and feel of Windows 10, offers new features such as Android apps, and cuts off millions of existing PCs in the name of security. If you buy a new PC, however, you simply won’t have to worry about the hardware issues. 

Chromebooks continue to add on to Chrome OS, just like Windows 11 does to Windows 10. It’s these profound changes to the OS that justified the new name for Windows 11.

Which Chromebook or laptop should I buy?

Of the Chromebooks we’ve reviewed, we’d highly recommend these four: The HP Chromebook x360 12b is inexpensive but very well designed—finally, a budget pick for discerning users. The Lenovo Chromebook Duet has a detachable keyboard, so it can be used as a tablet. Google’s own, luxurious (though aging) Pixelbook and Pixelbook Go embody sleek luxury and workhorse practicality, respectively. And we like the Lenovo Flex 5, though the display isn’t quite up to snuff.

Because Chromebooks have a decent (and fixed) support cycle, don’t be afraid to buy a slightly older Chromebook at a discount, but make sure you check its end-of-life date.

As far as notebooks are concerned, we have a number of preferred laptops from which to choose. If you have the budget for a Chromebook but prefer Windows instead, the  Acer Aspire 5 (A515-43-R19L) is Amazon’s choice, and ours as well. Our best budget convertible, the Lenovo Yoga C740, is a fantastic two-in-one for under $700—decidedly more expensive than a Chromebook, but not dramatically so. And there’s a reason that we gave the HP Spectre x13t a full five stars.

There’s one other factor which may influence your decision: a list of free Chromebook “perks” that Google makes available to Chromebook owners. They’ll change from time  to time, but at press time included a free trial of Google’s Stadia service, 100GB of Dropbox space, a Google One subscription, and a three-month subscription to Disney+. 

Which is better, a Chromebook or laptop?

While we can’t say for certain which platform you’ll prefer, here’s a suggestion: 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. We love both.

It’s fair to say that Windows offers a more comprehensive experience, but Chrome OS 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 September 8, 2021, with details of Google's new Google Cursive app for Chromebooks.

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