The hidden cost of cheap Chromebooks

What do you need from Chrome OS?
What do you need from Chrome OS? (Image credit: Android Central)

Chromebooks have just crossed a big milestone, reaching more users than macOS in the last year. As more and more Chromebooks saturate the market, there's a consensus that this growth is fueled by cheap, inexpensive Chromebooks rather than more premium devices. With the pandemic dragging on and remote work continuing for a few more months, Chrome OS's market share should continue to grow even further.

Android has yet to fully shake off its "cheap" reputation.

A critique that Chromebooks thrive only in internet-rich places is batted away if everyone has to work from Wi-Fi after all, and grabbing a cheap Chromebook that does most of what you want is better than nothing if you have to have something right now. If cheap Chromebooks primarily carry this growth without a corresponding rise in more expensive, premium devices, this can be a very bad thing for Google. Here are a few reasons why this may be.

The first reason should be somewhat intuitive. Products that are primarily distinguished by their low pricing are often purchased more out of convenience or necessity than personal preference. They tend not to engender loyalty and are often discarded as soon as a user can afford to upgrade to something nicer. Remember when Android and Windows Phones were carried in the U.S. by cheap phones? Both systems picked up a reputation of being laggy and cheap, with poor quality cameras and screens. Even with phones like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra out there besting nearly every other device on the market, and many of the best cheap Android phones being so good now that flagships aren't relevant, you'll still find that Android has yet to fully shake off its "cheap" reputation.

As Android Central's Jerry Hildenbrand once pointed out, Chromebooks are still just emerging from that misunderstood stage that Android languished in for so long. You can find similar commentaries levied at Chromebooks on social media, YouTube comments, and even shades of it in reviews. "Chrome OS doesn't ask too much of a processor, so that's not surprising. But even editing photos in an Android app, opening dozens of tabs in Chrome, and typing this is in Vim using Linux features didn't slow it down at all," reads a recent Wired review of the Lenovo Thinkpad C13 Yoga Chromebook. As far as bars go for a $600 laptop, it didn't slow down while typing is a low one to clear.

Pixelbook and Pixel Phone

Source: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

The second? Cheap Chromebooks are less functional than their more expensive brethren. Yes, that's also obviously intuitive, right? Well, yes, but also no. Some argue that a Chromebook can be purchased for less than $200, with 2GB of RAM. This is because Chrome OS was originally built as a netbook replacement and built around the Chrome browser. You didn't need the best specs to run Chrome OS, and truthfully, you still don't.

However, the cheapest Chromebooks won't be able to take full advantage of all of Chrome OS's current features. Most Android apps will run slow and laggy. You can write games off at the start, and don't even think about Linux or Windows. Things like Phone Hub or Screen Recording will blog down the system, and users will get the overall impression that Chrome OS is just an unstable and fiddly thing. It is these cheap Chromebooks that school districts roll out to students en masse, and they're often what most people first experience Chrome OS on. A first impression like that is hard to shake. A teenager posting on Reddit or Quora about Chromebooks being awful may well be using a low-end, 32GB model, but "Chromebooks are awful" is the takeaway for them.

Samsung Galaxy Chromebook

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

This is not to say that Chromebooks are perfect if you have better specs.

This is not to say that Chromebooks are perfect if you have better specs, but there's a tendency to grade on a curve for these devices. There are a few times I've seen a review for a Chromebook, cheap or expensive, either roll its eyes at a hardware spec because Chrome OS doesn't 'need' it or handwave a foible because it's Chrome OS. Neither are good approaches. The former ignores the intangibles of better hardware, such as simply having a nicer experience with a better screen, better speakers, a keyboard, and so on. Even if you're only using web apps, most modern apps are either web-based or built on web technologies. The power needed to run them won't drop just because you're on a Chromebook. Besides, if a Chromebook is your only computer, then getting an experience that you won't hate is even more important.

The latter approach of handwaving issues could end up painting a picture of an experience that's a little too positive compared to a user's lived experience, examples of which I just raised above. Like any operating system, Chromebooks running Chrome OS do have their foibles. A robust critique is the best way to air these out, and sweeping issues under the rug because of their pricing is unproductive.

Dual Screen Chromebook with the ThinkPad C13 and BenQ monitor

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

This is not to say that there shouldn't be cheap Chromebooks or that Chromebooks should be priced to compete with Macbooks; that's absurd. Rather, it's a reminder to Google and Chromebook OEMs that they really only have one chance to make a good first impression. As it reaches more users, Google's Chrome OS will make its first impression on a cheap laptop. With the overwhelming narrative being that Chromebooks are cheap, disposable tools, best used for working in class and dumping right after, there's a chance that those users — once grown — will not willingly choose Chrome OS again.

Instead, rather than having built a loyal fanbase of users, Google will now have to continue not only to try to attract new users but also fight the stigma of that initial experience. Cheap Chromebooks might be cheap for buyers, but the cost may end up being rather high for Google in the long term.

Michael Allison
  • As a teacher who's students are given cheap chrome books I agree 100%. Coming from a MacBook (which yes I know you can't compare) and then trying to help the kids use their chrome books, the chrome books are painfully slow. With that being said, the new Lenovo's the younger kids got seem to be a lot better than the HP they gave our students so maybe it's just the HP brand. 
  • very good article...well done
  • A lot of the rise and fall of netbooks was low pricing creating huge demand from people who thought that a cheap ~ couple hundred dollar computer would be useful. Those same people ended up largely hating those computers in the end though. Small bad displays, small bad keyboard, bad build quality and performance. The cheap chromebook is definitely better than those bad windows machines were and will not disappear like they did, but I could easily see a lot of people coming to associate chrome os with bad school computers.
  • What harmed Android - to the extent that the most successful operating system in the history of the world being produced by at the time a small (it is true, it was #2 to Yahoo even) company barely 10 years old that had never created a single commercial product can be considered "harmed" - was Google's abject refusal to create software for the platform. Which was inexcusable since - unlike Apple - Google is a software company to begin with. The "app gap" was mentioned as a major obstacle for Android from the beginning. There was nothing preventing Google from acquiring app companies and having them create Android apps. Lest we forget, this is actually how Wintel became dominant despite Apple's superior hardware and OS: Microsoft bought up a bunch of software companies to create what became Office and a ton of other products. ChromeOS: the same problem. A $400 Chromebook is as capable in theory as a $600 Wintel device and more capable than a $1000 MacBook Air (or at least it was when said Air still had a dual core Intel CPU instead of the M1). In practice, there isn't much that someone who isn't a command-line Linux user can practically DO with a Chromebook beyond browser stuff and Android apps. Meaning that if your opinion of ChromeOS was formed prior to 2016 before Android apps arrived (or for that matter before 2018 when Linux arrived and Android apps ceased being the buggy nightmares that they were shortly after launch) then paying any more than $350 for a device with a recent Pentium processor and 4 GB of RAM was a ripoff anyway. Again, this was Google's fault. They were hoping that third party developers were going to make all these browser plugins and - even worse - PWAs and cloud apps that are expensive to deploy/maintain and require monthly subscribers to be viable on a platform that has a small userbase outside the education and kiosk sectors. ChromeOS had record years in 2019 and 2020. We all know about the 30 million blowout last year, but the problem is that the 17 million before was ALSO a record. With a user base that small, who was going to make money servicing it with cloud apps? Again, Google should have stepped up and put in the work to make cloud computing viable just as - again - Microsoft put in the work to make personal computing viable in the 1990s. Even now, look expensive Chromebooks means productivity and gaming on Linux. Well, Google only delivered support for virtualization, Thunderbolt3 and discrete GPUs last year. We have yet to see the first Chromebook or Chromebox take advantage. Google has been too busy trying to push Pixel ChromeOS devices designed to take on the iPad Pro and (cheaper) Microsoft Surface instead of the MacBook Pro and Mac Mini. Google also hasn't created Linux software or forked existing Linux applications for use with Crostini. They haven't even produced a Linux app store - one with Google curated flatpak apps would be perfect - to take advantage of existing ones. So tell me ... without cloud-based apps, Android apps actually designed for tablets or Linux apps accessible to anyone beyond tech workers then why should anyone pay anything more than $300-$500 for a Chromebook? What are they going to do with it? Honestly, I wouldn't recommend it. I mean, I COULD tell someone to pay for a Chromebook or Chromebox with an Intel Core i5 CPU and 8-16 GB of RAM and tell them how to install Flathub, but even there most Linux apps are not user friendly - and are sometimes buggy - because they lack commercial polish (as well as support). Unless you are a professional Android app and maybe frontend web developer, a Lenovo ThinkPad or Dell XPS is going to be a better deal. Especially since there are - gasp! - Ubuntu options for both now to accommodate Windows dissenters who don't want to pay the Apple tax. The real "hidden cost" is Google refusing to do their jobs to give us software and perform the other heavy lifting needed to make ChromeOS a viable option. After all, never forget that Android succeeded because its open nature allowed Samsung and the rest to contribute the stuff to Android that Google never would have and in many cases actually opposed.
  • Hummm. The author doesn't give enough credit to the intellect of Chromebook buyers. My first Chromebook was cheap because I was being cautious. I was testing the waters. But it worked so well over the ensuing years, that the next Chromebooks that I bought were premium. In all markets, not just Chromebooks, people buy premium when they can afford and justify it. Grade school students aren't using Linux. They're using Web apps. And those work quite well on even the cheapest Chromebook. The most important thing, in my opinion, that Google can do to promote Chromebooks is to continue to push PWAs and make them synonymous with Chromebooks. The goal should be for Android, Linux, and Win app capabilities to be temporary stopgap measures in the absence of a PWA.