I basically live in Google's Chrome web browser. It's a decision I made to save my sanity when it became part of my job to change laptops every few weeks. No need to back up files that way! But it made me wonder how well I could live with only Chrome -- if I could replace my laptop with a Chromebook instead.
Chromebooks are simple. They're internet-computing distilled down to a platonic ideal of typing and looking and clicking and typing. And just as important (for my wallet), Chromebooks are cheap. You can find them for as little as $275. But which ones are any good?
There aren't that many Chromebooks out there, so I just rounded up pretty much every current Chromebook on sale. I put my herd through their paces in as many ways as I could imagine. I worked, and played, and procrastinated on them until they crumbled (or not!) under the demands. What I ultimately found was that my satisfaction with any given Chromebook boiled down to three major components:
- A keyboard that's more than just passable. A Chromebook is, at least in part, for typing. If typing is not a concern for you, I would suggest looking at tablets instead.
- A processor that can at least handle two or three web browser tabs with no problem. As a rule of thumb, multitasking on Chromebooks is not terribly doable. Part of their zen appeal is forcing yourself down into something more focused. But I'm not THAT zen.
- Battery life that didn't leave me tethered to a wall. Bare minimum: 6 hours. 8 is better.
Here's what I found.
The Best Overall: Toshiba Chromebook 2
The $449 Toshiba Chromebook 2 (the one version with the 1080p screen) actually made me go "wow" right when I pulled it out of the box. My MacBook Air doesn't have jack on the beautiful sunset this 1080p screen can deliver. Performance was good enough to handle the 4 or 5 tabs I always have open (Gmail, Tweetdeck, a few random websites), plus a few extra "read it later" tabs I collected over the course of the day. The keyboard is easy to type on, if not mind-blowing, and while the battery life is not exactly great, it gets the job done. I couldn't quite make it through a workday, but a long movie plus a bunch of web browsing was definitely doable.
Toshiba's Chromebook 2 is a jack of all trades and master of none, but in the Chromebook world that's saying something. Every other Chromebook I used had at least one glaring Achilles' heel, but the Chromebook 2 doesn't. It's a perfectly good device for anyone who's just looking to browse the web and watch some Netflix.
The Best Chromebook for Work: Acer Chromebook 13
If you're looking for a good keyboard to type up a novel at Starbucks, or hammering some entries into a spreadsheet on a business trip, I recommend the $US379 Acer Chromebook 13. The Chromebook 13 has a great keyboard -- better than the Toshiba's and worthy of a laptop three times the price. It's also got great battery life: unlike the Toshiba, I was able to get it to hold out for a full eight-hour work day. It's great for long-haul typing sessions, with occasional emailing or web-browsing inbetween. You know, your typical baseline work stuff.
Still, the Chromebook 13 has a pretty gross matte screen; it looks grainy. Acer's Chromebook might boast the same 1080p resolution, but I'd pick the Toshiba for watching movies or looking at photos any day of the week. Also, its guts are not fantastic. That Tegra K1 is really good at some stuff, like playing OpenGL games, but when it comes to just opening a bunch of tabs, the Chromebook 13 isn't particularly special. That, and the high price stings compared to the competition unless you're using it for the one thing it's really good at: Long bouts of typing.
There's also a lower-price but still 1080p version that comes with half the RAM and half the storage. I can't speak to the lower-RAM performance directly (though I imagine it's fine for low tab-count work-type browsing), but I can say that local storage on a Chromebook is mostly worthless, so it's probably a safe downgrade.
We're still waiting on official Australian pricing and availability.
The Best Budget Chromebook: Asus C200 / C300
If price is your main concern, and you're not worried about bells and whistles like a 1080p screen, get a $US250 Asus C200 or C300. The 11-inch and 13-inch Asus machines aren't as good as the Toshiba or the Acer, but they're a hell of a lot cheaper and there's nothing massively wrong with them if you lower your performance expectations. Their Intel Bay Trail guts left me in the cold whenever I tried to load anything with 3D graphics, and four or five simultaneous tabs was a pretty hard upper limit. There is a more expensive version with more RAM, but once you get into that higher price range, you might as well spring for the Toshiba.
But for all their failings, they have got pretty solid build quality (even though the outside scratches easy), keyboards that are eminently typable, fine 720p screens, a surprisingly slick design, and battery life on par with the Acer. If that doesn't sound great, let me put it to you this way: These were the only $US250 Chromebooks that never made me actively angry with their flaws. They won't show you the best that Chrome OS can be, not by a long shot, but they're cheap as hell without being a rip-off.
We're still waiting on official Australian pricing and availability.
The Acer C720 was the best-selling laptop on Amazon for a while. I can't stand the keyboard. It's glossy and shallow and my fingers slide off the keys. Typo city. Bad for $399 in Australia. Spend extra for an Asus.
Ditto the keyboard problems. This version has the touchscreen going for it, which was fun for Angry Birds and potentially if Google ever optimises Chrome OS for touch in the future. For now it's not worth it.
Acer C720 (Core i3 version)
This little sucker screams. Same annoying keyboard, but it blows just about every other Chromebook away performance wise. But with ChromeOS, that's not worth a whole lot; it's a luxury rarely worth the money, especially with the sub-par keyboard.
Samsung Chromebook 2 (11-inch, Intel)
Nice, durable little clamshell with solid build quality, a good enough screen, and a solid keyboard. But the poor performance is unforgivable. I can't even type in a search query without horrendous lag.
Lenovo's N20p is a touchscreen Chromebook and the first to be a convertible, but it only backflips 300 degrees to "tent" mode. that's not cool enough of a trick to save it from its recessed keyboard with a ridge that makes the spacebar near impossible to hit reliably.
Dell Chromebook 11: Sounds like a great Chromebook! Engadget and The Verge gave it great reviews, and The Wirecutter crowned it "The Best Chromebook". I wouldn't know though; I've never touched one because Dell stopped selling them months ago. It's actually listed as back in stock on Dell's website as of this moment so it looks like they might finally be coming back, and I'll try it as soon as they're back for real. For now we can't recommend a product you literally can't buy.
HP Chromebook 11 and 14: About to be made obsolete by HP's upcoming crop. I'll check out the successors as soon as they hit store shelves.
Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch with Exynos): It's got a nice screen, on par with the Toshiba Chromebook 2. But the Exynos processor in this 1080p model just isn't up to snuff.
Chromebook Pixel: $US1300? lol no.