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Should your next laptop be a Chromebook?

By Guest Blogger(view all posts by Rick.Broida)
at 10:56AM Tuesday November 27, 2012
under Stuff We Like

If there's one thing stealing headlines from tablets these days, it's Chromebooks. Perhaps you heard the recent news: Acer and Samsung now offer these Google-powered laptops for $199 and $249, respectively. With prices like those, you might be seriously tempted to make one of them your next portable PC.
That's a temptation you should probably resist.

Remember netbooks? They were cramped, underpowered laptops with appealing price tags but poor all-around performance. Chromebooks share many of the same characteristics, bringing a few additional limitations to the table even while improving on speed and battery life.

For those unfamiliar with the category, Chromebooks look and function more or less like traditional laptops, but instead of running Windows, they rely on Google's Chrome Operating System (a.k.a. Chrome OS).

Objectively speaking, that OS is pretty nice, but anyone already familiar with Windows will face a learning curve. What's more, it doesn't run Windows software; it's an app-centric operating system that has more in common with, say, Android. (No surprise there: both are made by Google.) The Chrome Web Store is home to thousands of apps, but if you're looking for the likes of Quicken, Microsoft Office, or Adobe Photoshop Elements, you won't find them.

What's more, Chrome OS is, by design, cloud-based, meaning your apps and data reside online instead of on your hard drive. You can keep local copies of, say, your documents, but ultimately the OS benefits from an always-on Internet connection. Consequently, certain functions will be limited when you're working on an airplane or anywhere else without Web access.

As for the hardware, both the $199 Acer C7 Chromebook and $249 Samsung Chromebook features an 11.6-inch screen, a dual-core processor, and 2GB of RAM.

However, it's worth spending the extra $50 for Samsung's model, which measures a trim 0.7 inches thick, weighs 2.4 pounds, and comes with flash storage, which helps it to boot in under 10 seconds. The Acer C7 is thicker, heavier, and comes with a traditional hard drive--which gives you significantly more local storage, but doubles the boot time.

What's more, Samsung promises 6.5 hours of battery life, versus four hours on the Acer C7.

So, yeah, there are some positive points to owning a Chromebook. The Samsung model in particular is thin, light, and able to run almost a full day on a charge. Plus, it boots faster than any traditional laptop.

But it's small. It has only 16GB of local storage. It can't run Windows software, and it's limited when you're not connected to the Internet. For example, you can view your Google Calendar and Google Docs, but you can't edit them. You can read your Gmail, but only the messages you downloaded during your last connection.

In other words, a Chromebook imposes some compromises, which might seem worth living with until you remember that you can buy an entry-level Windows laptop--one with a bigger screen and keyboard, faster processor, and, well, Windows--for as little as $299. Sometimes even less.

I can see where a Chromebook might prove attractive to a student or someone who needs little more than e-mail, Web browsing, and basic productivity. But overall I see few advantages to choosing one over a Windows-powered PC, and more than a few disadvantages.

Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and, and also writes for PC World and Wired.