Confused about Chromebooks? We can help

ACU - ChromebooksYou've probably heard of a Chromebook. There's a lot of information out there about them — both good and bad — but it's a bit difficult to sort through it all and find out the basics about what a Chromebook is, what one can do, and if it's the right platform for you. We're going to take a look at all of that, and hopefully answer some of your questions so you know if you can benefit from getting one, or if you're better off looking for a different laptop.

What is a Chromebook?

Acer Chromebook

That's an easy question with a not-so-easy answer. A Chromebook is a laptop computer that runs Google's Chrome Operating System (ChromeOS) instead of Windows or Mac OS or any of the desktop Linux distributions you may be familiar with. They're built like any number of other inexpensive laptops, with a color screen, a keyboard and trackpad, and ports to connect to things like a USB mouse, external monitor or an SD card. They even look fairly familiar once you turn one on and get started. But that's where things start to drift away from conventional laptops, and start to be a bit different.

A lot of people seem to think that a Chromebook is just a laptop that runs Google's Chrome browser. That's partly true, but Chrome isn't just a browser — especially on a Chromebook. It's a platform for applications, one of which happens to be a browser window. There are apps and games that don't require an active network connection, as well as many apps that are hosted on the web somewhere and you need to be online to use. You can create and store documents offline, as well as use Google Drive through the built in file explorer. Applications are written in popular web languages as well as Google's Native Client for Chrome. The software is far more diverse than just the Chrome browser, but it is true that you will need an Internet connection to get the most out of your Chromebook. This is unlikely to change, and being able to go online is an important part of the way a Chromebook operates.


The way the software is updated is also a bit different than you might be used to. When you're online with your Chromebook, it will check to make sure the software is up-to-date, and if not it will silently download and install an update. The next time you turn on your Chromebook, you'll be using the latest version of the software. All you ever have to do is press the power button.

Google also tries to make you safer online with ChromeOS. Part of this is the way you're constantly on the latest version, but they also have pretty strict guidelines about how and what Chrome applications or extensions can access your data and use it. Everything a Chrome app or extension can do has to be listed in the software manifest, which is parsed and presented to you before you allow software to be installed. There are plenty of things that developers can't do, even if they ask — ChromeOS is a pretty secure sandbox. Of course no software is absolutely secure, but you'll not be worrying about virus scanners or registry cleaners if you use a Chromebook.


Using a Chromebook is just like using Chrome with Chrome apps and extensions on any other computer. The application framework is the same, and the user experience is usually better on the same hardware because you don't have any other overhead running in the background. This is where things really diverge, because you don't have anything else running in the background. You can't install any Windows or Mac apps on a Chromebook, and while the Chrome Web Store has a nice selection of applications and utilities, not everything is there. Google Docs is a fine office suite for many people, but it's not Microsoft Office. There are many image editors available, but you can't run Photoshop. And while ChromeOS and most Chromebooks are capable of playing some online rich 3D games, you'll not find the latest titles like you would for a Windows laptop. You're restricted to what's available in the Chrome Web Store, or what's available to use from a website. The selection is pretty broad, but it's nowhere near as diverse as what you would see for Windows, or even a Mac.

Is a Chromebook for me?

Working on a Chromebook

Maybe. it all depends on what you do while you're at the computer. A Chromebook is great for getting online and heading to Facebook (or any other social media site) or doing some shopping or watching videos at YouTube. In fact, they are very good at those things, and in many cases deliver a better experience than any other low-priced laptop. Once you step outside of this zone, things are different and there's a good chance a Chromebook won't fit your needs.

Do you use Microsoft Excel? Google Sheets is a decent spreadsheet application, but if you need the features Excel has to offer there's a good chance that Google Docs can't do them. Programmers and engineers that need special software probably won't be able to find a suitable substitute on a Chromebook. The same goes for anyone who needs to use specialized graphic arts applications, because they likely won't find them for a Chromebook. And if you're a gamer, you're best bet is to stick with a powerful Windows laptop because the titles you're looking for aren't going to be there, and you won't have the high-powered hardware you need to play them anyway.

Chromebook desktop

Conversely, for a lot of people a Chromebook is a really good computer! You have access to everything the web has to offer, a nice (and fairly safe) experience while using it all, and you can save a good bit of money. Phil, Andrew and I all use a Chromebook at least part-time, and there is very little we can't do — for work or play — while using one. I work from one for a good part of every day, and very rarely do I have to step into the office and fire up my desktop.

A Chromebook isn't for everyone, clearly. Google poises them as a perfect tool for education or businesses that use Google Docs and Google Apps, as well as the right laptop for the average Internet user. This may be true, but you need to gauge how you will be using a computer for yourself to see if a Chromebook will fit your particular needs.


Reader comments

Chromebooks 101


I want a Chromebook then I think I could get a tablet and then I get confused about what I want to spend money on. I think tablet like the Nvidia Shield Tablet fill a good niche if it had at least a 12 inch display with the same software and specs but had a keyboard accessory that would be fantastic.

That could handle gaming and have access to all Android have to offer, I see HP did a few Android laptops and I wonder how does Android on a laptop compare to ChromeOS?

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Since I got my Chromebook, my iPad has been collecting dust. The Chromebook is much faster loading web pages, and I prefer a real keyboard. It's lightweight, boots up fast, battery life is 8 hours.

This was a fairly balanced article. I agree the Chromebook is not for everybody, but it makes a very good second computer, for travel, the kitchen, or school. It's not for heavy work. Don't expect to run AutoCad on it.

I agree. I sold my iPad after getting a Chromebook - it's just much more of a feature-rich experience.

My iPad had been gathering dust long before I bought my first Chromebook (a Samsung). I really liked the Samsung, but I hated being bound to WiFi locations in order to use it. I sold it at Christmas and tried to re-engage the iPad. I missed the physical keyboard! So this year, I bought the HP Chromebook with T-Mobile 4G. I really like the big screen for a laptop, the keyboard, and the freedom of 4G service (including the 200 megabytes free every month). When I'm not actively using the laptop, it sits next to my television, tethered by HDMI for watching Hulu.

I love the idea of Chromebooks and I really want one as a light machine I can take anywhere and write on (hooray for tethering). That said, Office Online works on Chrombooks and the Google Drive suite of apps can now natively edit Office documents. For power-users in Excel, no it likely won't be enough (though I'd love to test it with some of the add-ones that are available for Sheets).

The updates and security are the real reasons I recommend them to anyone I talk to that doesn't 'get' computers. So long as they don't need specific software like iTunes or Premiere, they'll get along just fine on a Chromebook and it'll be cheaper than a Windows machine with a comparable experience (in terms of speed).

Chromebooks are starting to get more attention now that there's more variety in them and they're getting more and more useful offline for commuters/education/enterprise.

Thanks for the article Jerry, one more question which chromebook do you recommend? I am a student looking for a new laptop.

Hands down the Acer C720P.

It's not the cheapest at $300, but it ticks all the boxes in hardware, and comes with a touchscreen. That might be very important once Android apps start to run on Chrome. I wouldn't buy a new Chromebook right now that doesn't have a touchscreen.

I was gonna ask the same question. Appreciate your opinion Jerry.
And compared to a decent laptop, $300 actually is cheap.

Edit: Do you have a recommendation for one with a larger screen? I was hoping to get a 14 incher

I got the Dell 11 from work, and love it! No touchscreen, but it hasn't affected my experience yet.... that may change with Android mirroring.

Interesting. I have the C720 (non-touchscreen) and am struggling to think of any use case where I'd need a touchscreen. But that just may be ignorance from not having it as an option.

What about the Toshiba Chromebook? I have a 15.6 inch monster Windows laptop at the moment, and I wouldn't want to buy anything smaller than 13 inches, unless I really should. Is the Toshiba a good option?

There are lots to choose from, but I'd recommend the Acer 720 or 720p. Very solid little machines. If you need something larger, get an HP 14, not the HP 11. Don't get a Samsung! You'll be getting an inferior processor.

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What would be a great chromebook to get as a college student on a budget? I also have very large hands and small keyboards won't cut it for me.

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Yes, Woot had refurbished HP Chromebook 14 models with the T-Mobile 4G wireless chip for either $200 (16 GB SSD) or $220 (32 GB SSD). Both models have 4 GB of RAM instead of the more typical 2 GB found in most Chromebooks. The T-Mobile free plan is 200 MB of data per month for the life of the device. That isn't a lot of data, but it will let you access your email several times per month if Wi-Fi is not available. The Woot deal has come up a couple of times recently. Hopefully it will pop up again.

I recommend you check out the $349 HP 14 model with 4GB and free 200GB per month of T-Mobile data each month for the life of the Chromebook. It's sold on the HP site and at Wal-Mart.

I absolutely love my Acer C720! Best $200 I've spent on something in a while!

Posted via Android Central App on my white Nexus 4 with StraightTalk ATT

Thank you very much, Jerry, for the overview ...
I was considering a Chrome Book, among other OS options,
Clearly my work pattern won't fit in a Chrome OS environment,
Thanks again.

Are you serious!?! My laptop is dying and I've spent the last hour looking for decent information about Chromebooks. Why couldn't you have written this yesterday?
But thanks for the writeup Jerry. Some pretty useful stuff here.

I don't think I'll ever get a Chromebook. I would love one, but there are a few things I need Windows to be able to that wouldn't be able to get done on the Chromebook. I also like having a 17" display and a nice big keyboard. And for lighter things (like typing this comment) I have my tablet.

I am considering getting my mom a Chromebox for Christmas and setting it up. That would be perfect for her

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Without a proper email client the offered Gmail or Outlook Mail accounts are inadequate, so I rarely use mine

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What would you consider "proper"? If its Linux compatible, you could probably install it with crouton.

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I have had an Acer 720 for a while and love it most of the time. Would be better if I could watch (and cast) Amazon Prime and needs support for MTP to hook phones, iPods etc by USB.

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I'm a huge fan on Chromebooks and I wish I had a reason to get one, but as an engineering major, I can't use one as my laptop and I don't need two laptops! Plus I already have a desktop so I don't need a Chromebase or Chromebox either! However, a Chromebox would be perfect for my parents since they only do online things with very light Word and Excel usage (which could be done on Google docs). Hopefully I will have a use for one later in life, but for now I'll only be able to recommend them to others

Typed on tiny keys just for you

I have a chromebook, and while it's great, it's not anything worth writing home about. Yes for 300 bucks you can get a decent pc, but add another 150 or less, you can get a windows based laptop that also has a DVD player....that's the important one, a DVD player. I would buy another chrome book if they had any with optical drives, but they dont. I'd rather pick up a Lenovo with the amd A10 processor for about 120 bucks more which has anything and everything.. :/.

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I love my Chromebook Pixel. 99% of the time I am in chrome but in that rare time I need a windows software I just remote over to my Desktop and use it. I actually hate using anything but Chrome OS anymore nothing is as fast and solid. Just my two cents worth...

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You bring up a good point. I pretty much "live" on my front porch during the summer, so I picked up a C720 refurb for $150 and just leave it out here. When I need to access something the Chromebook won't do (or is on my Windows laptop) I simply use the Chrome Remote Desktop. You can even go full screen and be "virtually" sitting at your main machine!

Thinking of buying a Chromebook to replace an old Netbook Windows XP. A couple of questions:
1. How secure from hacking is the system? can one do things such as online banking and paying bills without any security issues?
2. Can a printer be attached (cable or wireless)?
3. I understand that virus protection is built in. Does it update?
4. Does it contain a firewall?
I would appreciate any feedback.

You do not have to worry about security on a Chrome book, only printers that work with Google Cloud Print can be used with Chrome books which means, pretty much any WiFi printer you have.

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Printing on Chrome OS is a major weakness, IMO. You have 2 options, either buy a Google Cloud Print ready printer which will work immediately without any other equipment, or (what I have to do) connect it and print through a windows machine. I don't want to buy another printer, already have 2, and having to rely on a windows machine to print through a Chromebook is quite frankly, retarted. They really need to fix printing to work like normal and I'd be 100% happy.

Posted via Android Central App on my white Nexus 4 with StraightTalk ATT

I got my HP14 (I prefer bigger screens) at the beginning of the year. Apart from not being able to use it to enable Helium Backup for my Android devices and bizarrely lacking MTP support (I've heard it's coming but for now I use Airdroid), I've not missed Windows at all. I just adore how fast and smooth everything is compared to my previous creaking Windows machine. You couldn't pay me to go back.

Nvida shield is an excellent tablet for gaming.I got my first chrome book and its my first laptop.The best feature I think is on the Chromebook is the automatic updates. Every person I've ever known to have a laptop has had a major virus and they got to spend extra money to get it fixed.I highly recommend a Chromebook for a very good overall experience.

I just picked up the Asus Chromebox, it came with only 2 gb of DDR3 ram and a `16gb ssd. I took the bottom off it and everything is upgradable. I put two 4gb DDR3L chips of low powered ram and also put in a 32gb ssd. Very easy to make a back up of the Chrome OS, everything is from the Browser. I hooked up a 22 inch Asus screen and keyboard and for a little under 400 bucks I have a bad ass Chrome book. This thing flies, I can run over 30 tabs and 10 hd videos without a hiccup. I might have over done it on the ram but for a few bucks more I went with 2 4gb chips rather than 2 2gb chips. I find myself using this frankenbook about 95% of the time. The best thing about the Chromebox is everything is upgradable and it is very simple.

One item I have not seen mentioned is the ability to partition the hard drive and install linux on the second partition. I get many of the windows functionality within linux and still have chrome OS for everything else.

You don't even need second partition you need a program called crouton. Just google Ubuntu on Chromebook and pick the CNET article. Takes about 30 minutes and you can have a real desktop and install real software and even program in it if you want!

I ha e the HP LTE 14 inch chromebook with 32gb drive and 4 GB of ram in march and love it. Never thought I would go to first over my netbooks but I do. I want to get an 11 inch tote to work. The battery life is great at 8 hours. This laptop is just great.

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One thing you can do that I have been contemplating is RDP into a Windows machine when you just need more computer.

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These have really picked up since people already use a lot of google services and the laptops themselves are very affordable. They're also getting picked up in schools since they're more affordable and easier to maintain administratively than iPads are.

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Just got the brand new Acer C720 core i3 4gb version. The thing absolutely flies! I wouldn't recommend any less of a processor.

One thing you can do that I have been contemplating is RDP into a Windows machine when you just need more computer.

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This is a great article. I've had my Chromebook for almost a year now. I love it. I have my Nexus 5, Nexus 7, and my Chromebook all playing nicely together. My only advice to anyone considering a Chromebook is to stay away from ARM processors i.e Samsung and the HP Chromebook that Google is pushing. I have a Samsung and my friend has an Acer C720 and his handles multitasking and such much better than my ARM based Samsung. So get an Intel based Chromebook when you take the plunge. I'm getting a Asus c200 next or the Acer c720P with the touchscreen. Either way if you love android then a Chromebook is right up your alley.

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Thanks Jerry. How do you see the Android Apps on Chrombooks situation evolving? Convergence seems to be a strong trend at Microsoft and Apple; I keep expecting to see Google do that, by turning Chrombooks into Android laptops.

There were some hints along those lines at IO, but what do you expect to see in over the next year or so?

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the first few day i treated it like a toy and then starting using it as i was a chrome browser user, i know quite using my MS laptop and use my ultra light chromebook... It syncs well with all my other computers and as has access to Google Drive for all my docs. A great surprise..

Evaluating Chromebooks requires setting proper expectations. Chromebooks are a great choice for education, as a second home laptop, or for users that spend most of their time in a browser and want a device that starts up fast and is easy to use.

If you're considering Chromebooks but also need access to Windows applications you can look at solutions like Ericom AccessNow, an HTML5 RDP client that enables Chromebook users to securely connect to any RDP host, including Terminal Server and VDI virtual desktops, and run their applications and desktops in a browser.

AccessNow does not require any client to be installed on the Chromebook, as you only need the HTML5-compatible browser.

For an online, interactive demo, open your Chrome browser and visit:

Please note that I work for Ericom

I wanted to get one for my parents, but there is a lack of Chromebooks with an AZERTY keyboard (which we use in Belgium)

My Chromebook is a great secondary laptop. I wish I had gotten an Acer C720 instead of a Samsung, though. In fact, I think I'll get the Acer before going back to school, and sell the Samsung.

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thinking of getting one for my wife. She mostly uses a computer for some social media, checking some email and organizing a few Google Calendars mixed with a dash of casual gaming and I think it would be a good fit for a good price for her.