Smart Buys: What Is A Chromebook, And Are They The Computing Deal of the Decade?

I have one simple, universal rule that applies to any shopping that I do: I want everything I need, and nothing I don’t. Naturally, this means that I put a fair amount of research into what I am shopping for, and I take the time to consider carefully how the item will be used. The more expensive the item I am looking at, the more time I take, and the more effort I put in.

This process ensures that the money I eventually end up spending is aligned to both my direct needs, as well as my values. After all, why spend the money for a Mercedes, when a Chevy will get you to the grocery store just as well?

One area where I think many often overspend is with technology. We forget just how far computing has come in a relatively short time. Today’s cell phones have more computing power than the desktop PCs of just a few years ago, but the computing requirements of many of our most common activities (accessing email, surfing the web, word processing, etc.) haven’t really changed all that much.

Fortunately, changes in the world of technology have made available more computing power, to more people, for less money, than ever before. One of the major game-changers in this regard is the Chromebook.

So What Is A Chromebook, Anyway?

A Chromebook is essentially a laptop that runs a unique and dedicated operating system (OS). Most phones and tablets run either Apple’s iOS, or Google’s Android OS. Most laptops and desktops run either Apple’s macOS, or Microsoft Windows. A Chromebook, however, runs on the Google Chrome OS.

The significance of this point of distinction is really what sets Chromebooks apart from any other laptop. The Google Chrome OS is based on open-source operating software that is available, for free, to anyone. It’s also a more stripped-down operating system than others, which means less computing power is required to efficiently run it. This being the case, Chromebooks are extremely affordable, since excellent performance is available from even modest hardware, and the core part of the operating system is not the exclusive, copyrighted domain of a single company that can charge usurious amounts for it. In fact, Google provides the Chrome OS to Chromebook manufacturers for free.

Originally, this stripped-down operating system meant that Chromebooks had a lot of limitations. Almost everything had to be run within the Chrome browser, and there were very few applications that could be installed that would run natively within the OS itself.

However, all that has changed in recent years, as Google has moved to more closely integrate its Android OS and Chrome OS. Now, almost any Android application can be installed on a Chromebook, and current Chromebooks are shipping with the Google Play Store pre-installed to facilitate this functionality. This has opened up an immense world of applications and greatly increased the functionality of Chromebooks.

Chromebook Advantages

Cost

Chromebooks are massively less expensive than Apple laptops, and have a much better price/performance trade-off when compared to Windows-based laptops. It’s not at all difficult to find Chromebooks selling for less that $200 (USD), and a Chromebook that sells for just a few hundred dollars will run circles around a Windows-based laptop that sells for anything near it’s price. If you’ve ever used a bargain-basement Windows laptop (pretty much anything under $400 USD or so), you probably know what I’m talking about. They are usually slow, error-prone, and are sometimes rendered unusable for extended periods of time when trying to update.

Performance

Since the Chrome OS is lightweight, and requires only limited system resources to run, even very inexpensive Chromebooks power up in a matter of seconds. Updates are quick, and generally run in the background so as to be almost unnoticeable. This also means that applications run very well, even on systems with modest hardware, as the operating system isn’t asking much of the available resources.

Battery Life

Using more modest hardware means less draw on a Chromebook’s battery. Typically, even inexpensive Chromebooks have batteries that will last for 10 hours or more with moderate use.

Construction

Modest hardware specs mean you can skip the fans, giant batteries, and other appendages that often go hand-in-hand with more powerful laptops. Especially when compared to Windows-based laptops, Chromebooks can be constructed to be incredibly thin and light. Alternatively, education-class Chromebooks are built to withstand the abuse that students may throw at them: they have water-resistant keyboards and can tolerate drops of 30 inches (about the height of a standard desk) without damage.

Software Availability

Now that most new Chromebooks support the installation of Android applications through the Google Play Store, there is an enormous universe of software to be enjoyed. From games to productivity, photo editing to audio recording, it’s hard to imagine an interest that isn’t covered.

Chromebook Disadvantages

Performance

In my view, the whole point of a Chromebook is to get excellent computing performance at a very reasonable price. There are a select few Chromebooks that have very powerful processors, and lots of memory, but these often cost more than $1,000 (USD). At that price, you’d probably be better off with a Windows laptop. Generally speaking, however, the vast majority of Chromebooks have comparatively modest hardware inside.

This being the case, most Chromebooks will not be appropriate for playing high-end video games that require lots of memory, fast processors, or huge graphics cards. However, games that run happily on your phone or tablet will, by extension, also be happy on your Chromebook.

This further applies to other processor-intensive activities like video editing. Most Chromebooks will simply not have the power to accomplish these tasks efficiently.

Storage

To keep prices low, and to help ensure Chromebooks are compact, they don’t come with a lot of storage space. Even the very highest-end Chromebooks typically have just 512 GB of storage, along with 16 GB of RAM. Much more common is 32GB or 64GB of storage along with 4GB or 8GB of RAM. Of course, these storage limitations can be mitigated by adding an SD card, or utilizing cloud storage options such as Dropbox or Google Drive.

Software

There are many software titles that are only available to Windows and Apple users, and have not been made available for Chrome OS or Android. If there are applications that are absolute must-haves for you, you’ll want to check if they are available to you before buying a Chromebook. Fortunately, given the increasing popularity of Chromebooks, more and more software is becoming available all the time.

Who Are Chromebooks Best Suited For?

There are a number of people who would be ideal users of a Chromebook, given the inherent advantages they possess. As long as your needs are more mainstream, focused on browsing the internet, word processing, photo editing, light gaming and other applications that do not require oodles of processing power, here’s the people for whom a Chromebook may be perfect:

Travellers

A small, very thin, very light Chromebook can be an ideal travel companion. It’s easy to pack, without taking up a lot of luggage space. It’s also inexpensive enough that if it’s lost, stolen, or the airline destroys it, you won’t be in tears in the departure lounge.

Education-class Chromebooks are ideal for the more adventurous. Tough as nails, they’ll stand up to significant abuse without complaint, although this does add a little to the weight and bulk.

2-in-1 Chromebooks go a step further, with a screen than can fold around 360 degrees, so it can be used as either a laptop, or a tablet. Perfect for reading your favorite novel on a long flight.

Students

An education-class Chromebook is an ideal tool for students. It’ll put up with a lot of clumsy accidents and is straightforward to use. You won’t be getting a lot of hard questions about the progress of updates, how to manage network connections, or how to install applications, as all of the core functionality is dead simple.

Seniors

One of the huge advantages of the Chrome OS, besides it’s simplicity, is that it is very intuitive and the user interface is very easy to see, even for someone with some visual impairment. It’s also very secure, so it’s unlikely that users that are less computer savvy will accidentally get a nasty virus that wreaks havoc on their system.

Writers

Writers and Chromebooks go together like peas and carrots. Whether for print or online, nothing beats tossing a small, rugged laptop into your purse or pack, heading down to your local cafe, and spending the next several hours in blissful pursuit of perfect prose. Plus, if you haven’t yet hit the big-time, you can have this freedom without laying out a lot of precious cash.

My Personal Chromebook

My personal Lenovo 300e Chromebook.
My personal Lenovo 300e (2nd Generation) Chromebook.
Get it direct from Lenovo Canada.
Chromebook SD card adapter.
The SD card adapter (the orange part), that allows the flush-mounting of a MicroSD card in a short SD Card slot.
Get it from Amazon: https://amzn.to/30h2ej7

Just before the holidays, I went shopping for a new computer to replace my 8-year-old Windows laptop. After thinking carefully about how it was likely to be used, I realized that I didn’t need anywhere near the latest-and-greatest computer wizardry available. So, I started to look at Chromebooks.

In the end, I ended up purchasing a Lenovo 300e (2nd Generation) Chromebook. It features a MediaTek 4-core processor, 4 GB of RAM, 32 GB of storage and has an 11.6-inch touch-capable screen. It’s a 2-in-1, so I can use it like a tablet for reading, and I upped the storage by adding a 64GB SD card. It’s an education-class Chromebook, which means I can toss it into a backpack or sling bag without worrying about protective covers or sleeves.

I’ve used it for writing, watching movies, surfing the web and editing photos, and so far it has been flawlessly fast, and drama-free. It’s my new go anywhere, do anything, worry-free companion.

My only niggling complaint is that, I suppose for space-saving reasons, an SD card won’t fit fully into the SD slot. It hangs quite a ways out of the chassis which makes it awkward to simply leave in permanently. I got around this by installing an appropriately-sized SD-to-MicroSD adapter that allows a flush fit, so the MicroSD card can be left in permanently without getting in the way.

At the time I was shopping, the most-advertised price I saw for this particular model was around $400 CDN (about $305 USD), but I got mine on sale, direct from Lenovo Canada, for just $255 CDN (about $195 USD).

To me, that is absolutely the computing deal of the decade.


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