Best Chromebooks for 2021
Chromebooks are like normal laptops, but instead of running Microsoft Windows or Apple MacOS they run ChromeOS, which is made by Google.
ChromeOS is a more basic operating system with fewer features and programs. What it lacks in applications it makes up for in speed and ease of use. ChromeOS, for the most part, feels pretty fast no matter what laptop you’re using.
ChromeOS works on the basis that much of what we do on a computer these days – email, writing documents, spreadsheets, social media, and even more demanding tasks such as photo editing – can be done via a web browser. These are accomplished using services such as Google Docs, Office Online, Google Photos and a host of smaller services.
If you’re not sure whether you can make the change, just start using web apps on your current laptop and see how far you get. You might be surprised.
How much do Chromebooks cost?
Chromebooks are generally inexpensive and have more modest components than their Windows or Apple counterparts. That’s because Chrome OS is a more streamlined operating system that doesn’t demand intensive processing power – and that also means that battery life tends to be good with Chromebooks, too.
As such, most Chromebooks are very cheap and not particularly fast. They’ll be fine for basic tasks, but not for editing huge photographs and videos. There are some more expensive devices around, such as the Google Pixelbook, but these are in the minority.
Chromebooks under £200
Budget Chromebooks can cost as little as £150 and are often the thinnest and lightest laptops on the market. They’re not powerful by any stretch and won’t be able to cope with doing more than one task at the same time, but they can be great value nonetheless.
Chromebooks under £500
Mid-range Chromebooks are becoming more and more common. These machines often come with 360-degree hinges so they can fold over and double as a tablet, more powerful processors and can be larger than their cheaper counterparts.
These are still quite rare, but offer the best Chromebook experience. With high-resolution screens, more powerful processor and great build-quality, they can be very tempting if you’re happy using web-based apps.
Pros and cons of Chromebooks
Some people may be wary of buying a Chromebook - it’s a departure from the familiarity of a Windows-based computer and familiar software such as Microsoft Office.
Before considering a Chromebook, it’s important to make sure it’s the right type of laptop for what you need.
- Speed: Even with lower specifications, they feel faster thanks to the lightweight operating system
- Ease of use: They're simple to use since almost everything is done in a web browser
- Design and build: Most models are thin and light
- Software: You'll need to find replacements for your regular Windows software when you first start out
- Files: Sometimes it's not always clear where your files are, either stored on the device, in the cloud or both
- Not always cheerful: Their cheapness can lead to compromised build quality and poorer quality screens
Does a Chromebook need to be online all the time?
Almost everything you’ll do on a Chromebook will be done in a web browser using what’s called a ‘web app’. This includes Google Docs (word processing), Google Sheets (spreadsheets) and Pixlr (image editing). You can also access Microsoft Office Online software if you prefer it.
It used to be the case that a Chromebook had to be online all the time for all web apps, but there’s plenty you can do without an internet connection. All the Google apps – Docs, Sheets, Slides, Files and Mail – have an offline mode (that needs to be activated first), which means you can work on spreadsheets and presentations or write documents and emails without being online. And the next time you do go online all your work will be synchronised with the cloud. Offline editing should be enough to keep you going on a plane or train journey without a wi-fi connection.
Modern Chromebooks come with a surprising amount of storage, too: most come with at least 64GB, and some come with more. While that would be tight for Windows, the Chrome OS doesn’t take up much hard drive space, leaving more room for your files. That means you could easily download a few films to watch offline, for example. Cheaper models might only come with 16GB, however, so check the specification sheet carefully if you need more.
Some Chromebooks support apps from the Google Play Store. This is the same app store as you’d find on an Android phone. However, you’ll need to check the model you’re buying to see if it’s compatible – only some newer Chromebooks have Google Play.
Are Chromebooks good for students?
If you're heading to college, university or are looking for a new device for school, all the pros and cons of Chromebooks mentioned above apply to you. Below, we've listed a few more perks that students might find particularly attractive.
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.
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.