Is the best laptop for students a Chromebook? As a platform that’s gaining in popularity and promotion, it’s a question you may well be asking going into the new term.
Windows laptops and MacBooks have established reputations, and may seem like the safe bet, but based on our testing Chromebook laptops can offer great performance for less money than equivalent Windows laptop, and are also much easier to maintain. We run through the pros and cons of Chromebooks for students, and what to look out for when shopping for one.
Find out how to buy the best laptop for your studies in our guide to the best laptop for students.
What is a Chromebook?
For the uninitiated, Chromebooks might need a gentle introduction. A Chromebook looks on the surface like any other laptop, but eschews Windows and MacOS operating systems in favour of Google’s ChromeOS, and there are a couple of key differences that make this innovative operating system stand out.
Firstly, programs or ‘apps’ aren’t used in the traditional sense. Most software is run inside the web browser, meaning you visit a website to get your work done. There’s a particular focus on Google services, so get used to using Google Docs for essays, Sheets for number-crunching and Slides for presentations. And don’t worry about file formats causing problems – Google Drive can open most file formats and you can download your essays in most common document formats when you’re ready to submit.
Chromebooks also run Android apps from the Google Play store. If you have an Android phone, you know the drill here, and in fact that might immediately sound quite appealing. It opens up a lot of possibilities for apps that don’t exist in a web browser, but keep in mind that almost all the apps are designed for phone screens so may occasionally look a bit odd on a proper laptop.
Five Chromebook perks for students
If you still have doubts about the potential benefits of Chromebooks for study, here are a few more things to bear in mind:
- They need next to no maintenance: Chromebooks don’t slow down over time because software and files aren’t stored on the device. This means you won’t be waiting half an hour for an update to install, and your device shouldn’t slow down to the point that you have to make a cup of tea while waiting for your computer to boot up. What’s more, Chromebooks are less of a target for viruses and malware, although you should still watch your step if you visit dodgy websites.
- Free cloud storage: When you buy a brand-new Chromebook, Google will offer you 100GB of free Google Drive storage, which will be applied to your Google account for life. That’s a lot of space for your documents and other files. Once you’ve bought your device and set it up, head to this page to activate your extra storage.
- Feels faster than equivalent Windows laptops: When you don’t spend much on a laptop, the lack of speed is normally fairly obvious. And while a cheap Chromebook will never be fast, its slimmed down software means it feels more perky than many equivalent Windows laptops.
- Great battery life: Chromebooks trend higher when it comes to battery life than laptops in general. Over the years, they have achieved an average battery life star rating in our tests of 4.5, where ‘all laptops’ average 3.5. In real terms, this works out to Chromebooks frequently topping 10 hours of battery life. Models differ, however, so it’s always worth checking the battery test results in our reviews.
- 90-day no-quibbles returns: Currys PC World and Google are currently running a joint campaign, offering a 90-day trial for any Chromebook purchase made in-store or online at Currys. This means you pay for your Chromebook as normal, but if after a few months you realise it’s not for you, you can return it for a full refund for any reason. This is different to a regular returns policy where you’d need to provide evidence of a fault. This offer won’t last forever, though, so it’s worth giving it a go if you were thinking of getting a Chromebook. Head to the Chromebook 90-day trial website for more info.
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How much do you need to spend on a good Chromebook?
Depending on your usage, you should adjust your budget and expectations. Here are a few examples of what to expect.
Premium Chromebooks over £600
The cream of the crop of Chromebooks starts at about £600. Here you’ll find Intel Core processors fast enough to cope with whatever you throw at them, nice bright screens and solid build quality.
Acer Spin CP713-1WN, £800. This 13.5-inch Chromebook has similar specs – and a similar design – to the Microsoft Surface Laptop 2, with the addition of a versatile 360-degree screen hinge and a built-in stylus. Its squarer screen means it’s well suited to working on text-heavy documents, and it weighs in at under 1.5kg, making it reasonably portable.
Lenovo Yoga Chromebook C630, £649. This 15-inch Chromebook is larger than most, but it packs in a good specification including a quad-core Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of Ram. It also has a 360-degree screen hinge, meaning you can fold it up, kick back and enjoy some Netflix with the screen front-and-centre.
Mid-range Chromebooks under £600
You’ll find some decent options under £600, which is a bit of a value sweet-spot for Chromebooks. They’ll happily multitask all day without breaking into a sweat.
HP Chromebook x360 14-da, £550. This Core i3 Chromebook has a 360-degree screen hinge and a thin and light build that should make it ideal for carrying around campus. Plus, it looks the part with a smart white colour scheme.
Asus Chromebook C302ca, £450. Another 2-in-1 convertible, this 12.5-inch Chromebook is more on the compact side, and comes with a stylish metal finish. It still has a Full HD display, which we put under the microscope in our full review.
Cheap Chromebooks under £300
This is classic Chromebook territory, with cheap laptops that manage the basics competently. However, these devices won’t handle loads of web browser tabs and apps open at once without stuttering a little.
Acer Chromebook 14 CB3-431, £199. As a 14-inch model there’s a decent amount of screen real estate here to play with, plus the promise of all-day battery life and the aluminium build gives it a classy finish that makes it seem much more expensive than it is. Our reviews reveals how all this stacks together.
Asus C101, £240. If it’s portability you’re after, they don’t come much tidier than the 10-inch C101. There’s a full metal shell here that gives it a reassuringly solid finish, plus being a hybrid it flips around so you can use it as a tablet.
Should you opt for a Windows laptop or MacBook instead?
The main reason you wouldn’t want to buy a Chromebook is if you’re doing a course that requires specialist applications, such as graphics, 3D computer-aided design (CAD, video editing, audio and photo editing). Chromebooks can’t run the full-fat versions of most industry-standard software, so it’s unlikely you’d be able to do all your coursework on a Chromebook.
And if you have a particular aversion to Google services, Chromebooks definitely aren’t for you. They require a Google account and while you don’t have to use products like Google Drive and Gmail, everything works just a little bit more simply.
There is also a bit of a misnomer about Chromebooks that says they have to always have an internet connection to work properly. This hasn’t been true for a few years: as long as you use Google’s online services, they will automatically save offline and then synchronise with the version stored online as soon as you get an internet connection. That said, while this is all very nice, for some it feels decidedly ropey not to have the comfort of ctrl+s at your fingertips.
Still undecided? Take our quiz to see which platform might best suit your needs.