You’re probably distantly familiar with Chromebooks, the Google-powered laptops that run a souped-up version of the Chrome browser and cost the same amount as artisanal brunch for two in Brooklyn. But if you consider yourself a “power user” of sorts, you’ve probably written off the entire Chromebook line as being unworthy of your time and attention.
It’s time for that to change. All the major laptop manufacturers are now selling serious Chromebooks with very tempting specs for a couple hundred dollars, way less than what you’d pay for a “real” Windows laptop. At the same time, Chrome is growing up, more and more apps are moving to the web, and more modern Chromebooks can now run Android apps.
In other words, it’s time to give Chromebooks another chance.
So, for the last two weeks, I ditched my Surface Book in favor of an Acer R13 Chromebook. This is not a fancy, developer-oriented machine like the Chromebook Pixel that costs $1,000. It’s a laptop you can buy for $400 right now on Amazon, and less than that when it comes on sale. For comparison’s sake, my Surface Book cost me about $2,000 once you account for the three chargers I’ve had to buy after they keep dying.
On paper, this shouldn’t be a fair fight. My Surface Book has 16GB of RAM, a Core i7 processor and a discrete graphics card, plus a fancy QHD screen that can detach and be separately used as a tablet with an included stylus.
The Acer Chromebook has a 1080p screen, a pathetic-looking 4GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a MediaTek processor that no-one has ever heard of. In theory, the two laptops aren’t even in the same league.
But a strange thing happens when you start using the Chromebook. My normal work use involves Chrome with 10-20 tabs open, Spotify, and Slack. With the Chromebook and its 4GB of RAM, I expected that to slow the computer to a halt in seconds. I kept waiting for the crash, but it keeps chugging along quite happily. In some cases, I’d even say it’s faster than the Surface Book, which is the last thing you’d expect.
The difference is the operating systems on both devices. Windows takes up a lot of memory just to run, and Chrome for Windows sucks up RAM like a fat kid with a jar of Nutella. Chrome OS requires far less power just to run, and Chrome runs perfectly on top. For what I’d call “heavy web browsing” — Slack, Spotify and emails pinned open, and 15 other tabs in the background, there’s no discernable performance slowdown.
I know what you’re thinking: what about stuff that doesn’t happen in the web browser? It’s a serious concern, but I’d say that unless your work is absolutely tied to a Windows-based program, there’s nothing you need outside of the browser any more. Most services, like Slack and Spotify, have fully featured web browser options these days. The Microsoft Office suite runs great in a browser, and there are Android apps (or, again, online services) to do light stuff like photo editing.
Sure, you’re not going to do any video editing or run a CAD program on a Chromebook, but I’m willing to bet that most people buying a MacBook Air or a Dell XPS 13 are doing any of that. Most people want a laptop to send emails, type notes, edit PowerPoints, and watch Netflix. A decent Chromebook has enough power and functionality to handle that easily.
And then there’s the advantages. Battery life on even a basic Chromebook handily beats any Windows laptop I’ve tested recently. I take the Chromebook R 13 off charge in the morning, work all day, and plug it in before bed, just like a cellphone. I get about 10 hours of heavy use out of it, which is easily double what my Surface Book does. Other not-insignificant benefit: it charges off USB-C, so I’m not tied to using a proprietary $100 charger made by Microsoft.
Even the Surface Book’s most-vaunted feature — the touchscreen and stylus — don’t save the day. I find using the touchscreen on the Chromebook to be more accurate and responsive than on the Surface Book, assuming you’re just touching with your fingers. Sure, there’s no stylus to draw fancy artwork with, but I’m again betting that two-thirds of the people who own a Surface don’t really use the stylus much.
I’m not trying to say that this Chromebook (or any other) is a perfect replacement for everything a Windows laptop can do. But for the bulk of people who own a laptop, it’s starting to become a real, viable option. Even for heavy power users, I’d say that a $400 Chromebook and a $1,000 desktop rig would be a far, far better experience than buying a $1,400 ultrabook, good as it may be.