What is a Chromebook?
Chromebooks are laptops but instead of running Windows, they come with Chrome OS from Google. Visit Chrome Advisor for more about Chrome OS and Chromebooks, but below you will find reviews of the top Chromebooks you can buy this year.
Chrome OS offers pretty much the same experience as using the popular Chrome web browser, which you might well already use on a Windows PC or laptop, but with a few extra features added to the mix.
An internet connection is central to how a Chromebook functions. Nearly all its apps and services are online and don’t run locally. There are a few exceptions to this, with Google’s own Document and Spreadsheet apps capable of working offline and then seamlessly syncing any work you’ve done to the cloud once you’re back on Wi-Fi.
This simplicity allows Chromebooks to use less powerful hardware than many Windows laptops, without it affecting the overall performance. You won’t find capacious hard drives, high-end processors or large 15.6in screens on Chromebooks. Instead, Google offers 100GB of online storage with every machine, mobile processors are the order of the day (negating the need for noisy fans), and the usual screen size is around the 11.6in. One of the most notable benefits of such modest accoutrements is that prices for Chromebooks tend to be below £300, with many selling for nearer £200.
There are many similarities across the available models, with a generally standard keyboard layout and screen resolution, and fast bootup times, but those with specific needs should still be able find a machine to suit them.
You can’t buy a Chromebook from Google. The company’s expensive Chromebook Pixel is discontinued, but this doesn’t mean Chromebooks are on the way out. In fact, Google has said that all new Chromebooks in 2017 will run Android apps with support for the Play Store out of the box. This is a real boon, and should help Chromebooks compete with forthcoming budget laptops running Windows Cloud.
Chromebooks have come a long way since they launched. The range of screen sizes now spans 10-14in and not only are there certain models with touchscreens, but some have hinges that allow the screen to fold right back flat against the underside so you can use it like a tablet.
There’s also a rugged option Dell’s Chromebook 11 is designed for use in schools, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t also be great for home use, especially if you’re buying one for the kids to share.
For most people who just want a laptop-style computer for browsing the internet, creating documents and spreadsheets, streaming videos or giving to the kids as an inexpensive, virus-free homework device, an inexpensive Chromebook is an excellent choice.
There are, of course, still very good reasons to buy a Windows machine – they offer a far bigger choice of software they can run and don’t rely so heavily on the internet, for starters – but Windows laptops at the low end of the market, especially in the price range that Chromebooks occupy, tend to be underpowered or cumbersome. (Not all are, though, as our guide to the Best Budget Laptops shows.)
Really, though, Chromebooks are intended as a second device: you’ll still have a laptop or PC in the house, but the Chromebook is a portable, lightweight alternative which is great for web browsing and email. You might think you’d prefer a tablet for these and other tasks, but ChromeOS means you’re getting a very compatible web browser, so you shouldn’t hit the kinds of limitations that you often find with an iPad or Android tablet and have to resort to using a Windows laptop. Generally, that doesn’t happen with a Chromebook.
Should I buy a Chromebook?
We’re not saying that Chromebooks are a perfect solution, as there are still limitations you need to consider. The most significant is that, unlike Windows machines, Chromebooks can’t run most of the software you might be used to. So, no Photoshop, no iTunes (and therefore no iPhone compatibility). Gaming should get a boost thanks to the new ability to run Android apps, though.
Full versions of Microsoft Office won’t run on a Chromebook, although you can use the web-based suite with reduced functionality. Google’s own Docs suite is also a very good alternative if you don’t need Office’s advanced features, while its online collaboration is better than Microsoft’s offering.
The other main consideration is how far you’re willing to embrace the cloud. Chromebooks generally come with no more than 16GB of internal storage, as the premise of Chrome OS is that you use the internet rather than your machine to run programs and store data. So if you live in an area with patchy broadband, or don’t want to store your information on Google, Microsoft or Dropbox servers, then a Windows machine might be a better solution.
Peripheral support is also hit and miss, so if you need printers or other external devices to get your work done, then it’s worth investigating whether your printer and other gadgets will work with a Chromebook before you buy one.
To find out more about the practical implications of Chromebooks, read our feature: Living with a Chromebook: can you use a Chromebook as your only laptop?
Best Chromebooks 2017 UK – best Chromebook reviews
1. Dell Chromebook 11 (3120)
- Reviewed on: 9 March 16
- RRP: £202
Dell knows what it’s doing when it comes to Chromebooks. This new, rugged model has plenty to offer in terms of speed and durability, but you don’t feel like you’re sacrificing much in return. With the long battery life and unique waterproofing feature it does seem like a device that’s built to last, which is good as you’ll want to keep using it for a long time to come.
- RRP: £249.99
If you’re looking for an inexpensive convertible that doesn’t feel cheap, then the C100PA should go to the top of your list. In Chromebook terms it’s one of the best we’ve used, but only if you’re happy with a small screen. Road warriors will appreciate the long battery life and lightweight chassis, while everyone else could soon find themselves beguiled by its design aesthetics and no fuss performance.
3. Acer Chromebook 14
- Reviewed on: 11 January 17
- RRP: £249.99, US$299.99
There’s a lot to like about the Acer, including it’s smart design, larger screen size, and impressively long battery life. These are offset by a few less than desirable components. The display is adequate at best, the keyboard is also average, and performance feels hampered by the low memory allocation. It’s a solid machine, but the compromises may be too much for some.
4. Acer Chromebook R11
- Reviewed on: 2 March 16
- RRP: £229
The R11 is a decent, if unspectacular device. Having the option to position it in a variety of modes is fun, but the sometimes sluggish performance makes it hard to recommend to anyone who wants to do more than a couple of simultaneous tasks. If your needs are light and you value the flexible hinges though, it’s a nice machine all the same, but we’d still opt to wait for the 4GB alternative.
5. HP Chromebook 11
- Reviewed on: 19 October 13
- RRP: £229
The Chromebook 11 looks great, is small and light and has the best screen we’ve seen on a Chrome OS device. However, build quality isn’t quite up to scratch and – more importantly – neither is performance. With several other rival Chromebooks about to be launched, it’s definitely worth waiting to see if one can combine good performance with a good screen at the right price. HP’s aims well with its latest effort, but misses the mark by a good margin.
6. Asus C300
- Reviewed on: 10 October 14
- RRP: £199.99
The C300 might not be as svelte or quick as many of its Chrome OS brethren, but the lightweight chassis makes it highly portable for those who prefer things a little larger on-screen. The colours won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for us it’s a selling point that captures the essence of a Chromebook.