Chromebooks vs. Windows Laptops: What Should You Buy?

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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. 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. There’s even the $199 HP Stream 11, which features an Intel Celeron processor and 2GB of RAM. 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. 

Interface

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.

windows-interface

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.

While it’s great that Microsoft brought the Start button back from the dead, it’s not as useful as it was in Windows 7. Left-clicking merely takes you to the Start screen if you’re on the desktop and right-clicking displays a menu of options.

chromebook-interface

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

Apps and Software

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. 

windows-apps

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 180,000 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.

chrome-apps

MORE: Top 25 Windows 8 Apps

The Chrome Web Store currently offers more than 34,000 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. Plus, Google has connected such selected Chrome and Android apps as Evernote and Spotify for a seamless experience across devices.

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.

Photo and Video Editing

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.

chrome-photo

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.

windows-photo

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.

MORE: Top 8.1 Windows Tablet-Laptop Hybrids

Web Browsing

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.

windows-browser

We ran the SunSpider synthetic benchmark on the $349 HP Chromebook 14 (1.4-GHz Intel Celeron 2955U processor, 2GB of RAM, Intel HD graphics and a 16GB SSD) and the $370 Acer Aspire V3-111P ( 2.6-GHz Intel Pentium N3530 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive) running Windows 8. It’s a good measure of JavaScript functionality and thus browser performance. A lower score in milliseconds is better. With both systems running Chrome, the HP Chromebook notched 398.2 milliseconds, while the Windows-powered Acer scored a slower 470.3 milliseconds.

We also tested browser performance with Peacekeeper, another JavaScript and HTML5 browser test. In this case, higher numbers are better. The HP Chromebook scored 2,753, but the Acer with Windows scored a less impressive 1,399.

chrome-browser

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.

MORE: Best Windows 8.1 Browser: Chrome vs. Firefox vs. Internet Explorer

File Management

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.

windows-files

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.

chrome-files

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.

Productivity

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.

windows-productivity

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.

chrome-productivity

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.

MORE: Chromebook vs. Tablet: Which Should You Buy?

Gaming

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.

chrome-window-gaming

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.

Media Playback

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.

Security

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-security

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 eye 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.

MORE: Mobile Security Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Hardware Options

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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 10 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.

Value

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 $200. However, you’ll be giving up processing power, screen size and other amenities.

The Windows-powered HP Stream 11 costs just $199, and for that price, you get 6 hours and 34 minutes of battery life, a comfortable keyboard and a cute design. The 11.6-inch screen model with a 32GB flash drive and an Intel Celeron CPU handles 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. Our favorite Chromebook is the Toshiba Chromebook 2 for $329. For that price, you get nearly 8 hours of battery life, an attractive design and a brilliant 1080p display. You’ll also enjoy an Intel CPU, but only a 16GB SSD. 

Winner: Chrome OS. Chromebooks offer more bang for your buck.

Overall Winner: Windows 8.1

chromebook-scorecard

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.

AUTHOR BIO
Anna Attkisson
Anna Attkisson
A lover of lists and deadlines, Anna Attkisson covers apps, social networking, tablets, chromebooks and accessories. She loves each of her devices equally, including the phablet, three tablets, three laptops and desktop. She joined the Laptop Mag staff in 2007, after working at Time Inc. Content Solutions where she created custom publications for companies from American Express to National Parks Foundation.
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  1. pedro gomez Says:

    Dear Mrs Attkisson,

    Even though we agree in that a windows laptop offers much more, I don´t understand how you could give 5 points to a chromebook.

    There is nothing that a chromebook can do better than a Windows PC. The only thing a person can really consider is price, and there are lots of cheap PCs too.

    No one should buy a chromebook. Sooner or later they will be constrained by its limitations.
    Best,
    Pedro

  2. Rob Says:

    Pedro

    Chromebooks are a lot more portable, well designed and have a far greater battery life than its windows counterparts. They also run a lot smoother than the windows laptops in that price range, due to SSD storage and a more lightweight OS. If you can live without software that requires windows to be installed, Chromebooks are a far better choice than budget windows notebooks.

    Best regards

    Rob

  3. Loren Says:

    They still don’t get it. There is a difference between SSD and a slow 5400 spin HD. For storage, there is a thing called USB 3.0 of which the Chromebooks and Chromebox will have. The two OS are simply used differently. For something lightweight, and easy on system resources, with great battery life, and snappy online performance, you use a Chrome OS device. For surfing the Net, doing all Net stuff, like email and such, it works just fine. Yes, you can use the Cloud — is it not Microsoft which is telling us the goodness of the Cloud? It absolutely has its limits. It will not outperform an $800 Macbook Air or Windows with SSD, and will not be running programs. For something simple, easy to understand, pretty safe for all to use, inexpensive and plain easy to live with — always up to date, the Chrome OS device is great. Will it do all of which Linux, OS X and Windows can do — well you know the answer, and you also should now understand it is a different beast and not meant to do heavy lifting.

    The Windows comparisons just will not work, if you consider what the average person is doing, and equal cost factored in. Windows will be slow and those updates are the woes. Any inexpensive laptop will be slow with Windows. If investing $800 in a laptop, Windows, OS X or Linux will be very fast — that is if you buy the right tool. Macbook Air comes to mind. Sub – $300 laptops — I am thinking Chromebook rules. Linux works fairly well on cheaper laptops.

  4. pjcamp Says:

    Hey! Pay attention! the HP Spectre 13 no longer exists and hasn’t for 6 months now. Why do you guys keep putting it in your stories?

  5. gareth malham Says:

    Windows is a dinosaur, a big brontosaurus at that. I have to use a windows desktop for work due to software but its just a pain, big fat bloated thing. Chromebook is on another level, sleek and fast, I’ve a acer c720 with a celery dual core. On paper its about a quarter of the speed of the i5 desktop I use but its about twice as quick when it comes to web based stuff. Clean lean operating system.

  6. wayne Says:

    You can install a linux distro such as ubuntu on a chromebook and get far more power while still being more lightweight than windows. And for most linux distros they come with an insta

  7. wayne Says:

    You can install a linux distro such as ubuntu on a chromebook and get far more power while still being more lightweight than windows. And for most linux distros they come with an installer that allows you to install it with 6 clicks and then you enter your user information.

  8. Matt in VA Says:

    I’m looking for a laptop for my wife. For her, gaming doesn’t matter, so that list item goes. For me, I would much rather she be forced to back up everything to the web than blame me for losing files stored locally, so file management goes to Chromebook. Also, she doesn’t use media files outside of web browsing, so that bullet get’s eliminated. She currently just uses a spreadsheet for finances (can’t get her to switch to Mint), and a word processor for writing, which makes the “apps and software” item a draw.

    So, I tally that up and it is 5 for chrome, 1 for windows, and 4 ties (which I think should be separate). Solution – probably a tablet with a keyboard, as she wants to fit it in her purse. That’s life – lists don’t always apply to an individual choice.

  9. Jeremy Says:

    So running an celeron powered chromebook, with crouton and ubuntu installed. It runs civ 5 under ubuntu very well, Dota 2 will run if you the 4gb ram models, but this is like a 150 dream. Yes i had to learn ubuntu and lots of terminal, but to run steam and a lot of linux games on a fanless 2.4ghz dual core chromebook is fantastic.

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