Chromebooks have quickly grown from a curiosity to a force to be reckoned with. Offering a simple and stripped-down experience, Google’s Chrome OS is extremely easy to use (if you can use a browser, you’re good), and it comes inside several affordable laptops that start as low as $199. According to research firm NPD, Chromebooks now account for 35 percent of commercial channel notebook sales. Plus, 3 out of the top 10 laptops on Amazon are Chromebooks. However, Microsoft isn’t taking this threat lightly.
These days, you’ll find a number of Windows-powered laptops that cost less than $300, and many under $400 offer touch displays. At the same time, Windows 8 continues to evolve, and now offers a more desktop-friendly interface, along with smarter search. Plus, there are simply some things that Windows laptops can do that Chrome OS can’t.
So, which computing platform truly is the best? To answer that question, we put both Windows and Chrome OS to the test and compared them in 11 rounds of head-to-head competition.
In an attempt to bridge the gap between mobile and desktop operating systems, Windows 8 ended up suffering from an identity crisis, alienating some users. It features a Live Tile interface for quickly scanning social updates, weather or sports scores. Then, there’s the traditional desktop view. Thankfully, the Windows 8.1 Update brings back some of the features you’d want. But there are still two very distinct, siloed environments.
The power button is now conveniently placed on the Start screen. Also, we like that it’s easier to see which apps are open and quickly switch between them. However, the Windows 8.1 Update still makes you navigate to hidden menus to perform tasks that prior versions of the operating system placed front and center. In fact, the two biggest improvements in this update — the taskbar and the window bar — both hide themselves in Live Tile view. Plus, while it’s great that Microsoft brought the Start button back from the dead, it merely takes you to a list of all your apps rather than a floating Start menu, as in Windows 7.
In some ways, we find the Chrome OS more reminiscent of traditional Windows than the current Microsoft OS. The current Start-like button sits on the bottom-left corner, and when it’s pressed, a pop-up shows you your apps and a search bar. You can then pin apps to the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. Basic settings, such as Wi-Fi and time, are accessed on the bottom right.
Chrome OS was built as a Web-first operating system, so apps usually run in a Chrome browser window. The same is true for apps that can be run offline.
Both Windows and Chrome are great for working in side-by-side windows. For each OS, all you need to do is drag a window to one side, where it snaps to half-screen mode. However, on higher-resolution displays, Windows will let you snap more than two windows at once.
Winner: Chrome OS. Though it’s less flexible, Chrome OS is a lot easier to use than Windows 8.
MORE: Best Chromebooks 2014
For a laptop to be fully functional, you’ll need a few basic programs, including one for productivity, photo editing, video editing, video playback, music playback and a browser. For Windows laptops and Chromebooks, all of that’s possible, but Google’s OS is still a work in progress.
If there’s a program you want to run, chances are, Windows supports it. And that goes for most games as well. Looking for a more tabletlike experience or have a system with a touch screen? Currently, there are more than 168,000 apps in the Windows Store.
Some of our favorite Windows 8 apps include Facebook, Kindle and Flipboard. All three of those options offer interactive Live Tiles to keep you updated on what’s happening in the world. The Dropbox app on Windows 8.1 is clean and simple to use, as is Adobe Photoshop Express.
The Chrome OS is basically a big browser, so if you can run a program or play a game through a website, you can use it on Chrome. There isn’t exactly software to download, but there is a decent array of apps.
MORE: Top 25 Windows 8 Apps
According to ChromeOSApps.org, the Chrome Web Store currently offers 33,614 apps. A few dozen of those apps offer at least some offline functionality, such as Kindle Cloud Reader and Google Drive for reading and editing on the go.
Apps such as Duolingo bring the smartphone language-learning app to the Chrome desktop with simplicity and a clean design. Windows 8.1 has yet to sport a Spotify or Pandora app, but both can be found on Chromebooks.
There are plenty of programs that don’t run on Chromebooks, such as Cyberlink PowerDirector. Chrome OS does support such popular options as Microsoft Word, Photoshop Express, Spotify and Facebook. But in almost all cases, the “app” is simply a launcher for the accompanying website.
Winner: Windows 8.1. In this case, more is better.
Windows 8.1 offers a plethora of photo editing programs, including support for Photoshop Elements. Adobe’s creative suite, as well as many other options, simply don’t exist on Chromebooks.
What you will find on the Web-based Chrome OS platform are some basic editing options, such as Photoshop Express and Pixlr Touch Up. Using the latter, we took a high-resolution photo of a tiger and quickly added effects, an overlay and text, and adjusted the color for brightness, contrast, focal blur and much more. It’s an easy-to-navigate program with straightforward tools. For casual photo editors, these are likely to be what you need. You won’t be able to access Photoshop Express offline, but Pixlr Touch Up works the same online as it does offline.
As nonprofessional photo editors, we were quickly lost in a sea of tool options when we used a Windows 8.1 machine to try to edit the same photo in Photoshop Elements. However, we could see how the added precision and nuance of the various adjustments that could be made would be preferable to someone with a more critical eye.
Filmmakers will also find the Chrome Web Store a lonely place. You will find simple, no-frills options, such as Magisto and WeVideo that offer autocorrection and editing with a few clicks. But you won’t find Cyberlink PowerDirector and its professional suite of tools. That falls to the Windows 8.1 crowd, exclusively.
Winner: Tie. If you’re a pro, you’ll definitely want the extra options behind a Windows 8.1 laptop, but for casual users, a Chromebook could be just fine.
Prefer a variety of browsers? Microsoft Windows wins hands down. You can download and install almost any browser you want on a PC, including Safari, Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome. But on a Chromebook, you get only one option: Chrome. Considering how good Chrome is, that’s not necessarily terrible, but we’d prefer a choice.
When we tested page load times on both machines over the same network, the Chromebook loaded Laptopmag.com in just 3 seconds, compared with 5 seconds for the Windows machine. Similarly, ESPN and NYTimes.com took 7 seconds to load on the Acer Aspire V3 but only 3 seconds on the HP Chromebook 14. (Note that this speed difference could be at least partially due to the Wi-Fi card in each laptop.)
Winner: Chrome OS. As long as you’re OK with using only the Chrome browser, you’ll get better Web surfing performance on a Chromebook.
Windows still provides a traditional and familiar folder of files, which appears in the simple Windows Explorer program. You can also save to your desktop, pin documents to the bar and create new folders in a jiffy. You can even access your Microsoft OneDrive files to see what you’ve stored in the cloud.
There’s also a Files folder in the main menu for Chromebooks. But it’s not pinned to the bottom nav bar by default, as it is on Windows 8. From here, you can access your Google Drive files or any files that have been downloaded and saved to the machine’s hard drive.
The main drawback for Chromebook users is the smaller amount of space you’re likely to have on the machine’s hard drive. The HP Chromebook 14, for example, offers 16GB of local storage, and Google offers 15GB of cloud storage for free. For two years, you can access 100GB of cloud storage for free, but then you’ll have to pay for it. Also, you can purchase up to 1TB of online space for $9.99 per month, if you need more.
In comparison, the Windows-powered Acer Aspire V3 comes with a 500GB hard drive, and 15GB of OneDrive storage is available for free through a Microsoft account.
Winner: Windows 8.1. For those who keep tons of photos, files, videos and the like, you’ll want the local storage space that Windows offers. However, the management of those files is very similar with both platforms.
Being the go-to, business-friendly operating system, Windows 8.1 is the standard when it comes to getting stuff done. As such, many businesses use software that is only compatible with Windows. For instance, you won’t be using AutoCAD on a Chromebook.
Microsoft’s own Office suite — which includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint — is also the standard bearer for productivity software. But that’s not your only option on a Windows machine. You can use Google Drive, OpenOffice or any number of third-party software programs.
On Chromebooks, you can still access Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but they’re Microsoft’s Web-only versions of the apps through OneDrive. These options require that you be online to use them. You can download files to your local storage and edit them there, but your system will open them as Google Drive files.
There are third-party productivity options for Chrome OS, including Zoho and Polaris, but most of those require a Web connection as well. Google Drive, however, does work offline, and we really like the real-time collaborative editing and number of useful add-ons.
Winner: Windows 8.1. If you’re not wedded to Google Drive for all your productivity needs, Windows is the way to go.
Most hardcore games require some serious specs, including discrete graphics chips, plenty of on-board storage and advanced processing power. That’s totally doable on a high-end Windows 8.1 machine, such as the Alienware 17. But the lower-end machines won’t be able to handle it. The same is true of Chromebooks, but most hard-core games aren’t available for the Chrome OS platform.
You will not be able to download or play World of Warcraft, Civilization 5, Diablo 3, League of Legends or Dota 2 on a Chromebook. The games simply aren’t supported by Google’s operating system. You will find some casual and popular games in the Chrome Web Store, including Despicable Me: Minion Rush, Need for Speed World and Plants vs. Zombies, so it’s not a total bust. Of course, all those same casual games are available on Windows 8.1 as well.
Winner: Windows 8.1. You simply cannot run many of the games you might want to play on a Chromebook.
Neither Windows 8.1 nor Chrome OS supports every file type ever made, but for Microsoft-powered machines, you have the option of downloading codecs to play those files on your laptop. QuickTime files, among several other types, cannot be played back on a Chromebook.
For media files, Chromebooks support .3gp, .avi, .mov, .mp4, m4v, .mp3, .mkv, .ogv, .ogm, .ogg, .oga. .webm and .wav. That means there’s no .aac file support, and thus no iTunes. You also won’t find .h264 files, which is the backdrop for some 60 percent of all Web videos and the default codec that many cameras record in. Chrome OS doesn’t support .tiff files for images, either.
In addition to all the file types supported by Google’s OS, Microsoft’s Windows Media Center natively supports .aac, .asf, .asx, .m2ts, .m3u, .mpg, .mpeg, .qt, .wmv, .vod and .wma files.
Winner: Windows 8.1. You’re unlikely to find a file you can’t play on Windows 8.1.
Windows has long been a known target for hackers looking to infect PCs with viruses, malware, botnets and keyloggers. In fact, the very first thing anyone should do with a new Windows laptop is install an antivirus suite. However, Microsoft’s Windows Defender does come built in, and that’s better than nothing.
Windows Defender runs in the background and notifies you if you need to take actions, such as performing a virus removal. The SmartScreen feature also warns you when it doesn’t recognize an app, to help prevent phishing attacks. Plus, the secure-boot feature means that every time you turn on your laptop, it will check itself for digital certificates of authenticity before it boots. That means it will not load infected software.
Chromebooks have not yet caught the attention of many hackers. But more than that, Google promotes the security of its operating system as a key selling point. A Chromebook automatically checks for and applies security updates, while including Web filters and sandboxing media.
If something does get into your Chrome OS system, restoring to factory settings requires only a couple of clicks on the mouse pad. The only security problem Chromebook owners really face is thieves looking to hack the sites you use, where a lot of personal data is stored.
Winner: Chrome OS. Assuming you can keep your Google password to yourself, you’re probably more secure on Chrome.
Variety is the spice of life, and fewer types of technology offer as much variety as Windows PCs. The screens alone can range in size from 11 to 18 inches, both with and without touch capability. Eight major manufacturers create Windows laptops, offering Intel and AMD chips, onboard memory that varies wildly from 2GB to 16GB, and storage sizes that go up to the terabyte level.
Some machines are plastic, and some are metal. Some come in colors. Some are meant to be portable, while others are more deskbound. There truly is an option for everyone when it comes to Windows.
The Chromebook market is smaller. In fact, there are only eight current models, made by six companies. The display size ranges from 11 to just 14 inches, so you won’t be getting a big-screen experience here. Only a couple of models offer a touch screen. Chromebooks are incredibly portable, though, usually weighing between 2 and 4 pounds.
Winner: Windows 8.1. Microsoft’s ecosystem gives you more options, which means that you’re more likely to find something you really like.
With variety comes a wide range of prices for Windows 8.1 laptops, with the top end being a few thousand dollars for a gaming rig or high-powered workstation. At the opposite extreme, you’ll find budget laptops that cost as little as $300. However, you’ll be giving up processing power, screen size and other amenities.
The Windows-powered Acer Aspire V3 costs just $369, and for that price, you get 6 hours of battery life, excellent speakers and a lightweight design. The 11.6-inch screen model with a 500GB hard drive and an Intel Pentium CPU handle everyday computing tasks fine, but it wouldn’t be up for editing video or demanding games.
The price range for Chromebooks is much more narrow, generally ranging between $200 and $400. For a basic Internet appliance of sorts, a $200 price tag may be reason enough to pull the trigger. You can pick up the HP Chromebook 14 for just $299. For that price, you get about 8 hours of battery life, 200MB of free 4G service, an attractive design and a colorful display. You’ll also enjoy an Intel CPU, but only a 16GB SSD.
Winner: Chrome OS. Chromebooks offer more bang for your buck.
Microsoft’s Windows came out on top in this battle — out of 11 rounds, it won six and tied in another. It simply offers shoppers more — more apps, more photo and video editing options, more productivity programs, more games, more file-type support and more hardware options. You can also do more offline.
If you’re a budget-conscious shopper who is comfortable with living in the cloud, and you want to get stuff done in a secure yet simple environment, a Chromebook will suit you nicely. However, if you need power and versatility, Windows 8.1 still reigns supreme.