The choices can be overwhelming: PC vs laptop? Chromebook or Apple? Columnist Marc Saltzman guides shoppers through the computer-buying process. USA TODAY
As you ponder your next computer purchase between a Windows device and new Mac, remember there’s a third major player: Chromebook.
Running Google’s Linux-based Chrome OS, these (mostly) affordable machines are already dominating in the education space, making up roughly 60% of computers used in U.S. schools, according to Futuresource Consulting.
Quite impressive, especially if you consider Chromebooks are only turning 7 years old on June 15.
But does that mean these devices are ideal for everyday tasks? What about beefed-up Chromebooks for business?
To decide if a Chromebook is ideal for you and your needs, the following is a look at four things you should know before you buy.
1. Models and prices vary more than you think
Just like the wide assortment of Windows 10 devices, there’s a hearty selection of Chrome OS machines to choose from. As the name suggests, Chromebooks — short for “Chrome notebooks” — are like a clamshell laptop, but there are a few desktop models and one tablet, too (Acer’s Chromebook Tab 10, for $329).
Some Chromebooks are “convertibles” that can transform into a touch-screen tablet, thanks to a screen on a 360-degree hinge.
Prices for Chromebooks range from $169 for the underpowered Samsung 3 Chromebook to starting at $999 for the feature-rich Google Pixelbook.
Unveiled last week, the Acer Chromebook Spin 15 — the industry’s first convertible Chromebook with a 15.6-inch display — will start at $449, Acer says.
Most Chromebooks, however, cost between $250 and $350. The more you pay, the more power and features are offered. You’ll save some cash by going with a smaller screen, a non-touch display and less system memory (RAM) and storage.
In other words, when it comes to Chromebook pricing, they’re not all cheap — but most still are.
2. You really need Internet access to use them
Because Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome operating system, they often come preloaded with a suite of Google apps, such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Chrome (browser), Google Docs, YouTube and Google Drive.
If you’re a heavy user of these, then a Chromebook might be for you. Just log in with your Google ID, and you should be up and running in seconds.
But because these apps run in the cloud, an Internet connection is incredibly important with Chromebook devices.
Many apps will let you access files offline, sure, but because most Chromebooks don’t offer a lot of storage — 16 gigabytes on the low end — you may opt to pick up a memory card and keep it inserted in the Chromebook.
3. Some Chromebooks work with Android apps (but performance varies)
One major advantage of a Windows-based computer is the huge assortment in software, but Google is upping its game by including access to the Google Play store with some models.
Examples of Chromebooks with Google Play include the ASUS Chromebook Flip, the Acer Chromebook R 11 and 13, Samsung Pro 2-in-1 and Google’s own Pixelbook.
Be aware, however, Android app performance varies — especially when it comes to games. These apps may not load full screen or may load vertically (like a smartphone) instead of your Chromebook’s widescreen display. In other words, don’t buy a Chromebook if you’re looking to play Fortnite, especially as these machines generally have limited graphics power, RAM and storage space.
Because Google’s Chrome OS powers these devices, perhaps it’s no surprise Google Assistant is starting to make its way into some Chromebooks. The Pixelbook has this handy feature, where you press the dedicated button on the keyboard (between Ctrl and Alt) or activate the assistant via the $99 Pixelbook Pen before asking a question or giving a command.
Thankfully, a few hardware-related issues that plagued Chromebooks in the early days — like not making it easy to print to a nearby printer — have been addressed.
4.Chromebooks are always updated and secure
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Because Chrome OS and Google’s apps focus heavily on the cloud, these always-connected devices will automatically download new updates for you (look for the “Restart to update” notification near the clock).
Cybersecurity experts often praise Chromebooks for making protection a priority. Chrome OS takes advantage of various Google-powered security measures, and so it’s not likely you’ll be hit with malware or even annoying pop-up windows or toolbars.
Still, take advantage of two-step verification and ensure Android apps you download are from familiar publishers.
Another advantage to Chromebooks? An all-day battery. Of the 10 Chromebooks Laptop Mag reviewed in the past year, they’ve seen an average of 9 hours and 15 minutes of endurance, via the Laptop Mag Battery Test (which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi).
Are they for you?
Chromebooks have come a long way and aren’t just for the education space any longer.
While not for gamers, they have wide appeal. If budgets are tight and you don’t mind a smaller computer for simple tasks, you can’t go wrong with a sub-$200 Chromebook. This is especially true if you rely heavily on Google’s online services, such as Gmail and Google Docs. Chromebooks run lean and fast, they’re secure and offer good battery performance.
Pricier models offer more power, Android app support, touch and larger screen sizes. But once you reach (or exceed) $1,000 for a Chromebook, such as the Google Pixelbook, it’s more difficult to justify the purchase when compared to a more versatile convertible Windows 10 notebook or sleek MacBook Air.
Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman. Email him at email@example.com.