I get asked quite often, “Which Chromebook should I buy?” In many ways, I’m humbled that people trust me to help them make this decision. In other ways, I’m at a loss to help. For many people, they’ve decided to get a Chromebook because of marketing or because their child wants one or because they’ve been told to by someone who is tired of providing family tech support.
After answering this single question so many times over the years, I’ve actually come up with a pretty simple line of comeback questions that help me assist people in making the right decision for themselves. After all, the landscape of Chromebooks is rapidly changing and evolving. Not only are there new devices, there are price fluctuations that are too big not to make a massive difference in someone’s purchase decision. In a market like that, there’s no single answer to the question, but there are better ways for potential buyers to better discern what is best for them at any given time.
So, let’s go through those questions I ask to every person who asks me about which Chromebook to buy. My hope is that after you’ve thought through these five questions, you’ll be fully equipped to walk into Best Buy or surf over to Amazon and sort out what devices work best for your needs.
Is a Chromebook even a good fit for you?
First things first, I always start with this question. For most people, the answer ends up being yes. For some it means an adjustment to how they handle a handful of task and for others, it means shifting the way they go about computing in general to a more web-based approach. For many, though, when looking at computing tasks as a whole and how much of it is done in the browser, the idea of Chrome OS makes a whole lot of sense.
If you want to know if it makes sense for you, the test is fairly simple. Take a few days and don’t stray outside of the Chrome browser on your PC or Mac. You can use web apps that run in Chrome, but that is all. From a purely functional standpoint, Android apps that are available on Chromebooks can fill gaps here and there, but they just haven’t shown themselves to be replacements for full-blown desktop apps yet.
There are web equivalents of many things. Google’s office sweet versus Microsoft Office. Pixlr X instead of Photoshop. Gravit Designer instead of InDesign or Adobe Illustrator. The list goes on and on, but you really need to force yourself into a web-first environment to know if it is a change you can make. While I won’t sit and extol the virtues of web-based computing, the ease of moving between machines and knowing that all my tools and files are always at my fingertips with an internet connection is a shift I’ve made that makes Chromebooks the best possible fit for my daily work needs.
What sort of form factor fits your needs?
Once we’ve established that Chromebooks and Chrome OS are a good fit for your computing needs, we’ve only just begun the process. Now we need to figure out exactly what sort of hardware it is you need. Will a simple clamshell do? Do you like a touch screen? Stylus? Would you like it to be a convertible or detachable? Do you just need a desktop box? Or maybe an all-in-one?
Chromebooks/boxes/bases come in all these variations and shopping for one gets insanely easier if you know what you want going in. For me, I’ve learned that I don’t use a stylus and I rarely convert or detach Chromebooks that have that ability. My primary use is in clamshell mode, so I can shop around knowing that I don’t value those things.
I do value other things that we’re going to hone in on shortly, but knowing what form factor excites you will greatly help you reduce the sheer number of options on the table and make buying your Chromebook easier. Think of it like buying a house: you know all the stuff you really want, so you can easily filter out great-looking, eye-catching options that don’t meet the initial criteria. Same goes here. You may like one feature on a Chromebook that is missing key ingredients you know you want. Stick to your guns and filter those to the side if you are sure that those criteria are firm.
Consider also how you will use the device. Are you on the go or at a desk all the time? Are you lugging tons of stuff around in a backpack where a lighter, smaller device would make sense? These types of questions can greatly help you decipher what you are after and then allow you to choose between a few devices rather than dozens.
How concerned are you with quality and feel?
Now that you’ve answered the first two questions, you should have an idea about what sort of device you are after. A Chromebook with a large screen or a Chromebox with the best possible internals may be your criteria so far, but let’s dig a bit deeper. With internals being one of the things of lesser importance with Chromebooks due to the lightweight nature of Chrome OS, there are other factors that matter much, much more, and I’d argue that build quality is one of those.
Sometimes, Chromebooks are cheap. Sometimes they are pricey. Sometimes they are thin and light and some are big and clunky. All these variations come with a wide variation in build quality. Best Buy is doing a better job by the day of carrying more Chromebook in-store and allowing users to simply walk in and touch them. This sounds simple, but build materials are most definitely not consistent in Chromebooks. Even at similar price points, we’ve reviewed devices that are far flimsier feeling than they ought to be.
Some of you may care greatly about perfectly balanced hinges and ultra-firm chassis, and some of you may not give a second thought to how flexible the keyboard deck is on a Chromebook. Either way, what you need to know is price does not guarantee quality. I wish it did, but that simply isn’t the case. We try our best to review as many Chromebooks as we can so you can at least see them in someone’s hands and get a feel for the ones that are built well and the ones that aren’t. If build quality and feel are of great importance to you, I’d never order a Chromebook sight unseen. If you can’t find a good review or go play with it in a store, make sure the return policy is solid where you buy it.
For those of you that don’t care that much, you may be able to find cheaper Chromebooks that don’t feel quite as solid, but still offer great internals or a solid screen. Either way, you need to know what things are important to you or the person you are buying the device for and make sure to do your research before pulling the trigger on a great deal.
What are your expectations when you open the lid?
Now we’re getting into the territory where I’m probably most picky. Again, you may not care that much, but there are parts on the inside of the device you really need to consider. Here, we’re talking screen, keyboard, and trackpad. The screen is important for some and a shoulder shrug for others, and you need to know where you land. A 14-inch Chromebook with a 1366×768 screen that has terrible viewing angles is a deal-breaker for me but not for everyone. If you are picky about screens, make sure the resolution is at least 1080p, it has an IPS panel for great color and viewing angles, and that it gets bright enough for your use.
On the other hand, if you are not too worried about poor screen quality, you have the advantage of not worrying about this part of the spec sheet when you see an insanely cheap Chromebook on the internet. I’ve met plenty of people that aren’t too concerned with viewing angles, punchy colors or great screen brightness. For them, other things matter more. Know which you are and, again, do your homework before purchasing.
The other part of the Chroembook under the lid is the input methods. Keyboards and trackpads make up the majority of the way you will interface with your Chromebook, so if you are picky about those things, you need to watch reviews to get a good idea of the quality on offer from different devices or simply get into a Best Buy and feel them for yourself. If a Chroemboook nails the screen, keyboard, and trackpad, I can forgive a flimsy build and non-stellar screen, but that’s just me.
Just like all the other parts, there are some of you not concerned with the travel on the keyboard or the smoothness of a glass vs. non-glass trackpad. Everyone will differ, but for many users these parts will define the experience you have with your Chromebook, so you need to decide accordingly and make sure to look at all the info you can when making your choice.
Are you a power user or casual one?
Finally, think about your use of a computer. Are you the type that has 50 tabs open, listening to music, messaging people, and playing an app or two on the side? Or are you the type that keeps a few tabs open, checks Facebook and watches a few videos?
These are important questions as they will drive the last part of your purchase decision. There are processors out there that simply aren’t great. Anything with a Celeron or Pentium chip label needs a critical eye. The latest gen versions of these chips are actually pretty great, but older ones aren’t. Look for the N4000 or N5000 if you run into devices that meet your needs otherwise. If you see a Core i processor, you are good to go. Core m is great as well for Chromebooks.
In general, Chromebooks made mid-2019 and up are all going to be fine. If you are doing more graphic work or plan on having massive amounts of tabs open without wanting to get your machine bogged down, you need to steer yourself towards the Core m3, i3, i5 and i7 machines. They are generally more expensive, but you pay for performance. Oh, and don’t get to concerned with 8th-gen or 10th-gen naming: Chromebooks perform fine on 6th-gen Intel chips, so don’t let that be a determining factor.
While RAM and storage aren’t as prominent to consider on Chrome OS versus Windows and MacOS, they still matter. I wouldn’t purchase anything with less than 64GB of storage, but you may find yourself looking at a great deal on a device that is perfect with only 32GB of storage. If you leverage Chrome OS fully and utilize the cloud, this won’t be a huge issue, but make sure the device is equipped with an SD card slot just in case.
RAM is fine at 4GB, but I prefer machines with 8GB. With 8GB, I never even think about memory management issues. If you are a heavy user, however, you may find yourself running into some issues with a 4GB Chromebook. More and more models are shipping every day with 8GB of RAM, so the options are much broader, but you will generally have to pay a bit more for them.
I sincerely hope this has helped you out in some way. Choosing the right Chromebook is a harder process than it has ever been, and it only stands to get more confusing in the next 12 months with more models hitting the market pretty regularly in the next 4-6 months. If you can answer all the questions above and then use shopping filters to narrow down your choices, the process becomes much simpler.
Just remember to figure out what things are most important to you in a device. It’s not all about specs. Devices like the Pixelbook Go are a pleasure to use every day and it doesn’t really light up the spec sheet. With Chromebooks, specs are only part of the story. How a device will meet your needs in real life ends up being a much more nuanced affair, and getting to the bottom of the above-mentioned questions should greatly help you get to the point where you can make an educated decision.