You may be tempted by the low prices of various Chromebooks but were frightened away by fears of limited productivity. Reader Meghan Morrant had the same issue, wondering whether she should take the risk and try an unfamiliar operating system or pay more money and stick with a familiar Windows or Mac OS laptop. She writes:
I need a new computer but don’t have a big budget. I’ve been looking at the various Chromebooks, since they’re so cheap, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do everything I need. I spend most of my time on Facebook or watching TV through Netflix and Hulu, but sometimes I’ll need to edit Word documents or work on PowerPoint presentations.
Should I get a Chromebook or stick with a budget Windows notebook?
Much like high-powered gaming notebooks are best suited for a select group of people, Chromebooks will be good enough for some users while proving limiting to many others. Since Chromebooks run Chrome OS, Google’s operating system, it relies heavily on Google’s suite of applications. Although users can log into Chrome OS as a guest, users should log into the system with Google credentials in order to have the best experience.
MORE: Best Chromebooks 2014
The Chromebook is optimized for Google’s apps, such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Drive. This deep integration can be a positive or negative feature, depending on how you use a PC. Getting set up on a Chromebook will be easy if you already use Google’s services for email, calendaring and documents. However, if you use other popular programs, such as Microsoft Outlook, AIM or Yahoo Mail, it might take some time getting adjusted to Google’s OS.
Unfortunately, Microsoft Office Suite isn’t available on Chromebooks, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to work on your files. Microsoft Web Apps, the free cloud version of Office, is compatible with Chromebooks, and you can always use the native Google Drive to open and run documents and spreadsheets. With Drive users can create everything from text documents to spreadsheets and presentations. All your old Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint presentations can be imported directly into Drive, allowing you to work on your files.
But it may be best to stick with Microsoft Web Apps if you already have a large number of Office files that you’re bringing over to your Chromebook. There are often formatting issues when importing third-party documents into Drive, so the first few minutes of work may be fixing anything that’s broken. Fortunately, Google Drive allows you to save documents into Microsoft formats, so you’ll still be able to share these documents with non-Chromebook users.
Another issue that could influence your decision about getting a Chromebook is the prevalence of Internet connectivity. Chromebooks are designed to have a heavy reliance on the Internet, which means that many apps simply won’t work if you’re out of Wi-Fi range. There are a growing number of “offline” Chrome apps, which can work without Internet connectivity, including Gmail and Google Drive. However, offline mode isn’t enabled by default, so you’ll have to install a few plugins in order to access your email or documents sans the Web.
You’ll still be able to play games on the Chromebook, but you’re limited to the games available in the Chrome Web store. Classics such as Angry Birds and Cut The Rope are there, but you won’t have the same title selection as with a Windows or even OS X notebook. Chromebooks generally have limited graphics processing power, so even if a game such as “Bioshock Infinite” were available it would not play smoothly on these notebooks.
MORE: 10 Best Chromebook Games
If battery life is a big priority, sticking with the HP Chromebook 14 or the Toshiba CB35-A3120 Chromebook are your best bets. Both notebooks lasted about 8 hours during our battery test, with the Toshiba landing in at 8 hours and 2 minutes and the HP lasting 7:57.
The smaller Chromebooks didn’t fair as well, with the Acer Chromebook C720P lasting nearly 2 hours less at 6:18 and the HP Chromebook 11 failing to complete the full battery test. We were able to run the Peacekeeper Web-based battery test on the Chromebook 11, and it lasted a short 3:54.
For a price in the $300 range, you might very well find a solid Windows 8.1 system like the $329 ASUS K200MA on sale.
Overall, users who are looking to spend less than $300 who are content with living in the cloud will find a Chromebook a viable solution. You also won’t have to deal with nagging Windows updates. However, if you’re willing to be spend $400 or more, a Windows 8.1 laptop may give you a lot more versatility.