Chromebook vs. laptop: What are the differences?
10 mins read

Chromebook vs. laptop: What are the differences?

Those who navigate the waters of laptop shopping long enough will eventually encounter a subspecies of web-based PCs called Chromebooks, which beckon budget buyers with a siren song of affordability, security, and user-friendliness. They come with some notable quirks that can cap their value for certain types of users, and are generally reserved for those who care more about practicality than premium features. That said, a fall 2023 update has somewhat leveled the playing field between them and other budget machines.

If you’re not sure which will serve you better, read on for a primer on the key differences between Chromebooks and regular laptops.

What is a Chromebook?

Chromebooks are lean, lightweight, and low-cost laptops that run on ChromeOS, Google’s cloud-based operating system. The tech giant rolled out an initial crop of Chromebooks in 2010 as part of a school pilot program, and the first consumer-facing models made by Acer and Samsung hit shelves a year later. Additional manufacturers entered the fray soon after, including ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Google itself. (Google now no longer makes its own own Chromebooks, called “Pixelbooks,” having discontinued the line in 2022.)

By the mid-2010s, the Chromebook market expanded to include more sizes and convertible/hybrid models with touchscreens that doubled as tablets. Nowadays, you’ll also encounter a handful of Chromebook variants specifically designed for business and cloud-based gaming.

There are several factors that separate Chromebooks from standard laptops (mostly concerning software), but their relationship is best summarized by that age-old “square and rectangle” phenomenon: All Chromebooks are laptops, but not all laptops are Chromebooks.

Chromebook vs. laptop: Operating system

a screenshot of the menu of a chomebook

Above all, ChromeOS keeps things simple.
Credit: Screenshot: Haley Henschel / Mashable

Chromebooks are powered by ChromeOS, whereas regular laptops run on Windows or macOS. Their interface is effectively just the Chrome web browser plus some preloaded Google productivity apps like Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Photos. (The nice thing about this is that it makes setting up a Chromebook as easy as signing into a Google account.) They’re designed to be used while connected to the internet, though they do have some offline functionality if you enable certain settings before disconnecting.

Chromebook vs. laptop: Apps

Chromebooks aren’t capable of running native Windows and Mac apps like regular laptops, but they do support Android apps — including the Microsoft Office suite — which you can download from the web and through the Google Play Store. These apps are meant for mobile devices, i.e. smartphones and tablets, so they look and work differently from any desktop counterparts, which may take some getting used to. You can also add extensions to the Chrome browser via the Chrome Web Store.

Chromebook vs. laptop: Security

Chromebooks have several layers of built-in protection against malware and viruses, including automatic software updates every four weeks. All models released in 2021 or later get 10 years of these updates. Meanwhile, Windows laptops and Apple MacBooks require separate antivirus software. (Yes, even MacBooks.)

Chromebook vs. laptop: Specs

Most Chromebooks are designed for simple everyday tasks rather than demanding workloads and multitasking, so they offer pared-down specs compared to regular laptops: a minimal amount of RAM, either 4GB or 8GB, and an entry-level to mid-range processor. (Intel Core i3/i5, Celeron, and Pentium; AMD Ryzen C-Series; MediaTek Kompanio; and Qualcomm Snapdragon chips are all common.) The average Chromebook also forgoes a dedicated graphics card, including those few newer models geared toward cloud gaming.

Space-wise, most Chromebooks come equipped with 32GB to 256GB of onboard storage, which is slower eMMC flash storage on the low end (that stands for “embedded multimedia card”) and zippier UFS (“universal flash storage”) or an SSD (“solid-state drive”) on the upper end. That’s a fraction of other laptops’ storage capacities, which generally start at 256GB, but it’s not necessarily a knock against Chromebooks since they stash most of their data in the cloud — you don’t need as much local storage.

Chromebook vs. laptop: Design and build quality

a top down view of an open lenovo thinkbook and an open hp chromebook plus on a wood table

A 14-inch Lenovo ThinkBook 14p Gen 3 (left) and the HP Chromebook Plus 15.6-inch (right) seem comparatively sleek at a glance, but the latter’s exterior shell is made of smooth plastic instead of metal.
Credit: Haley Henschel / Mashable

Chromebooks have always prioritized durability over aesthetics, and while they’ve gotten much more polished over the years, they still tend to look and feel cheaper than other laptops (because they usually are). The typical visual indicators of a Chromebook are thick bezels and a plastic chassis. On the plus side, they often skew lighter than other laptops because of their plastic builds and lack of heavy-duty hardware.

Chromebook vs. laptop: Price

Chromebooks’ minimalism has its drawbacks for certain tasks, but it does make them reliable, easy to use, and, above all, cheap. The most basic Chromebooks start at $200 to $300 — or even less, if you find them on sale — while a perfectly capable mid-range model will run you $400 to $600. (Look for the “Chromebook Plus” branding; more on that shortly.) Scooting your budget up to $700 will get you the nicest specs, like 256GB of SSD storage and a touchscreen display. For comparison’s sake, budget Windows laptops typically cost $500 to $700, while the cheapest MacBook starts at $1,000, assuming you pay full price.

Chromebooks that cost upwards of $800 to $1,000 do exist, but mainly for enterprise purposes. (And if that’s the kind of budget you’re working with, you’re better off deferring to a regular laptop — you’ll get more functionality and features for your buck that way.)

What about Chromebooks Plus?

Chromebook Plus is a new category of Chromebooks that Google introduced in October 2023, and it’s been a game-changer for the genre. For starters, all Chromebooks with the “Plus” label are guaranteed to meet certain upgraded hardware and performance requirements, making it easier to pinpoint models that aren’t total clunkers. These requirements include:

  • At least a 12th-generation Intel Core i3 or AMD Ryzen 3 7000 series processor

  • At least 8GB of memory

  • At least 128GB of storage

  • A 1080p webcam with temporal noise reduction

  • An IPS display with a resolution of at least 1080p (Full HD)

On the software side, Chromebook Plus models come with new features that greatly amplify their usability online and offline, including built-in Google apps, a File Sync feature that automatically downloads drive files, and exclusive AI tools like custom generated wallpapers and blurred video call backgrounds.

Perhaps most notably, Chromebook Plus has also added support for multimedia editing apps like Google Photos Magic Eraser, Adobe Photoshop on the web, Adobe Express, and LumaFusion. (Google really wants you to try them: Anyone who purchases a Chromebook Plus gets free three-month trials of those two Adobe product and a LumaFusion discount.) These apps aren’t as robust as software like the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, but a Chromebook capable of running this kind of stuff was unthinkable a decade ago.

Chromebook Plus is available as a software update for about two dozen recent-year Chromebooks and as eight new devices made by Acer, ASUS, Lenovo, and HP. It’s worth mentioning that the latter start at just $399.99, which is a ridiculously good value.

Final thoughts: Should you get a Chromebook or a laptop?

Chromebooks have historically been cheap and overly simplistic compared to other laptops by design, making direct comparisons a bit unfair, but the Chromebook Plus update has dramatically elevated them to a position where they can earnestly compete with cheaper Windows machines.

A regular Windows laptop or MacBook will of course still be the “best” option for most people, especially if the money thing is irrelevant, as they don’t make you go all-in on ChromeOS or restrict you to made-for-mobile apps. But for some budget-conscious users, those limitations can be assets — namely, those with uncomplicated workloads who want an equally uncomplicated device. This would primarily cover kids and students, but it could potentially include some working professionals with chill email jobs, too, so long as your work revolves around the Google ecosystem and doesn’t require any fancy specialty software. Along similar lines, creatives and gamers would be wiser to think of Chromebooks as fallback plans or last resorts for extremely casual use.

Outside of the classroom or office, a Chromebook can also excel as a travel companion for on-the-go work and entertainment, provided you (again) keep things basic: It’s lightweight enough to toss in a backpack, and it probably won’t take serious damage if it gets bumped around. You might not even care if it gets dinged up if it only cost you a few hundred bucks.

Ultimately, the answer to the “Chromebook vs. laptop” debate will boil down to a combination of three factors: your budget, your individual use case(s), and the kind of software you’re trying to run on a daily basis. The freer functionality that comes with a regular laptop can be a necessity for some but glut for others. Sometimes you just need an ol’ reliable.

Once you’ve made up your mind, be sure to check out Mashable’s guides to the best laptops and the best cheap laptops for some hands-on tested buying recommendations.

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