Once upon a time, there was a relativley large divide between large and small-core Intel-based Chromebooks. Up to just a couple years ago, small-core Intel devices with Braswell or Apollo Lake chips were really hard to recommend to just about anyone. With cheap build quality, cheap components, and painfully slow performance, I even disliked the fact that my young kids had to cope with these Chromebooks while at elementary school. Even worse, since they were always the cheapest options, many people used these Chromebooks and thought “THIS is what it feels like to use Chrome OS.” It was a bad look all around.
Fortunately, that isn’t the case any longer. Affordable Chromebooks are getting better and better as time goes by and what you can get in the sub-$350 range these days completely demolishes what was standard fare just a couple years ago. With better quality in the builds, better screens and – most importantly – better small-core processors from Intel, the affordable Chromebook market is finally a place that is fun to hang out in.
As a reference device for this video, CTL was kind enough to send over the Chromebook NL81T for us to check out and it is a pretty standard, affordable Chromebook. It is all plastic, but the build feels substantial and well designed. The touchscreen is anti-glare and 280 nits, so it looks great in nearly all lighting conditions. The keyboard is nice to type on and the trackpad – while plastic – is smooth with a satisfying click. At 14-inches, the 1080p screen is comfortable to work on and the I/O is all you need with a USB Type A on either side, a single USB Type C port, microSD card slot, headphone/mic jack, and a full-sized HDMI port.
All in all, I spent a solid week working every day from this Chromebook and you know what? I didn’t hate it. If I’m being honest, there were times I totally forgot I was operating from an affordable Chromebook at all. Even when hooked up to my QHD ultra-wide monitor, this device kept up with my daily workload, the screen was bright enough to handle my proximity to the windows, and the keyboard/trackpad was delightful to use. There’s no reality where I would have said this about an entry-level Chromebook just a few years ago, yet here we are.
Now, I don’t want to mislead anyone. This CTL Chromebook we’re talking about has the last-gen Gemini Lake Pentium Silver processor inside (N5030), 8GB of RAM and 64GB of storage and retails at $389 when not on sale. Similarly-built and spec’d devices from other manufacturers hit somewhere in the same price range. That’s not exactly low-end or affordable in the Chromebook world, but it holds true that I’ve been equally impressed by the standard Gemini Lake Celeron N4020 processor that powers affordable Chromebooks we’ve done videos about that are far more inexpensive than the CTL I was just talking about. Simply put, affordable Chromebooks are getting good.
And as we roll into the middle part of 2021, we can’t help but be even more excited by the promise of Jasper Lake processors from Intel. We’ve had some hands-on already with these processors and the performance gains are impressive versus the Gemini Lake processors from just a year ago. When they start arriving – and they WILL be arriving soon in large numbers – we’d expect to see a wave of affordable Chromebooks that will have performance that won’t hamper the experience at all. This means manufacturers are free to spend their device budget in other ways like better screens, better build components, and more RAM and storage for the same generally low prices.
With all of that in play, the low-end Chromebook space is becoming more exciting than ever. Where I once despised affordable Chromebooks for their poor build quality and painfully slow performance, we’re starting to see much better attention to detail and performance that doesn’t degrade the Chrome OS experience. And the best part is the price. There’s no reason not to expect these devices to stay in the $300-$400 range and simply be better overall Chromebooks than anything we’ve had in this price range prior.
And all of this puts pressure on the higher-end Chromebooks to be better and better to substantiate their higher asking prices. It’s a win-win and an evolution of the Chromebook ecosystem that I’m more excited about than nearly anything else right now. The thought of an army of sub-$400 Chromebooks that feel great, look great, and perform great is awesome to think about, and I think we’re right around the corner from that reality playing itself out as we come into the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2021. It’s going to be a very, very interesting time in the life of the humble Chromebook, and we’ll be here to cover it all. Don’t miss out: be sure to subscribe to the newsletter below if you want to keep up on all the latest in the world of Chrome OS!