Chromebook vs. Other Laptops

What sets Chromebook apart?

A laptop is a portable computer with the same functionality and input devices like a desktop computer. By that definition, Chromebook is simply a laptop that runs the Chrome OS operating system. So, how does Chromebook stack up against a MacBook or a laptop running Windows?

Illustration of a person using a Chromebook and a laptop in different settings
Lifewire / Hugo Lin

Overall Findings

Chromebook
  • Larger display but still lightweight.

  • Most Chromebook models are between $200 and $350.

  • Great performance for a low-cost laptop.

  • Small display sizes are a hallmark of Chromebook.

  • Chrome OS depends on the web, so Chromebook models don't offer much storage space.

  • Can only run software designed for the Google Chrome browser.

  • Battery life is comparable with other laptops.

Other Laptops
  • MacBook Air is light, but most Windows-based laptops are heavier.

  • MacBook tends to be higher priced, and there's a lot of variation in Windows-based laptop pricing.

  • If you're willing to spend the money, MacBook and Windows-based laptops will significantly outperform a Chromebook.

  • Other laptops have more display size options and better screen resolutions.

  • Other laptops offer a variety of hard disk sizes, most starting at around 64 gigabytes (GB).

  • Hands-down winners: Both macOS and Windows run the most widely used software in the world, including Microsoft Office.

  • Generally longer battery life, but there's a lot of variation.

If you want power, speed, and access to enterprise apps, you can't beat a more traditional MacBook or Windows-based laptop. But if you don't want to spend a lot of money and use your web browser more than apps, the Chromebook may be worth a look.

Size and Weight: The Edge Goes to Chromebook

Chromebook
  • Generally, the lightest laptops on the market.

Other Laptops
  • More expensive laptops can be light but still have a larger footprint than Chromebook.

Chromebook models typically resemble slim laptops like the MacBook Air and the Dell XPS 13, often with even a smaller display and thinner form factor. For example, the MacBook Air, which helped kickstart the lightweight laptop market, weighs in at 2.9 pounds compared with the 2.54 pounds of the popular Samsung 11.6-inch Chromebook. There are some exceptions, like the Acer Chromebook 15, which sports a 15.6-inch screen and retains a small price tag.

Result: Chromebook. This is a somewhat personal preference because Chromebook models with larger displays are similar in size to other laptops with the same display size, but Chromebook comes in a variety of smaller sizes.

Cost: A Tie at Lower Price Points

Chromebook
  • At lower price points, it's a tie between Chromebook and other laptops.

Other Laptops
  • Apple computers tend to have higher price tags, and there's significant variety in cost among Windows-based laptops.

A big reason Chromebook has become popular has more to do with the weight it takes off your wallet than the weight it puts on your lap. Price is a major consideration for schools and companies that buy computers in bulk, but it's a major factor for anyone who's buying a new laptop.

Make no mistake: You can buy an expensive Chromebook. Google Pixelbook is a high-powered Chromebook with a high-powered price tag (around $1,000). Most Chromebook models, however, run in the $200 to $350 range.

Windows-based laptops have much more variety in price. The cheapest will compete with a Chromebook, while the most expensive will make the Pixelbook look cheap. On Apple's side of the universe, the cheapest MacBook is as expensive as that Pixelbook.

Result: Tie. The price of a low-end Chromebook is similar to that of a low-performance Windows-based laptop.

Performance: Chromebook Wins Among Low-Cost Laptops

Chromebook
  • The internet does the heavy lifting, enabling Chromebook to compete with other laptops.

Other Laptops
  • Other laptops outperform Chromebook models based on sheer processing power.

So, if you can buy a Windows-based laptop for the price of a Chromebook, why buy a Chromebook?

The magic of Chromebook resides in the operating system that powers it. Windows is designed for the enterprise, not low-end laptops. Simply put, it doesn't scale down very well. Windows and desktop apps require more hard drive space, more RAM, and more processing time.

In contrast, Chrome OS is built around the Chrome web browser and brings us full circle back to the days of terminals and mainframes. While those "dumb" terminals depended completely on the mainframe, they had one major advantage: They didn't need to perform well because the mainframe did the heavy lifting.

This is the same model that makes the Chromebook so popular. The internet does the heavy lifting, which means that a $250 Chromebook can perform as well as a much more expensive laptop.

Result: Tie. A Chromebook easily wins the performance medal when it comes to low-cost laptops, but if you're willing to drop the cash, a laptop can run circles around it.

Display: Other Laptops Offer Better Display Sizes and Resolutions

Chromebook
  • Smaller displays with lower screen resolutions can't complete with other laptops.

Other Laptops
  • Wide range of display sizes and outstanding screen resolutions.

This is a category where you get what you pay for. Chromebook models are known for smaller displays—typically 10.5 to 12 inches (measured diagonally)—although you can buy a Chromebook with a 15-inch display. Laptops are typically in the 12- to 15-inch range, with some higher-end laptops sporting 17-inch displays.

Display size isn't the only factor, though: Screen resolution determines just how crisp images and video are, and this is where many of those mid-range and high-performing laptops pull away from the pack. Those 10.5- and 12-inch Chromebook models typically sport lower screen resolutions than laptops. The gotcha here is that those same-price-as-a-Chromebook laptops often have a display similar to that Chromebook.

Result: Laptop. You have to move to a higher-end Chromebook to approach what a laptop is capable of in terms of display size and resolution.

Storage Capacity: Other Laptops Win Hands Down

Chromebook
  • Chromebook is powered by the web, so it doesn't need as much storage space.

Other Laptops
  • Other laptops need larger hard disks because the operating system and apps take up considerably more room.

You won't get much in terms of hard disk space when you buy a Chromebook. The good news is that you don't need as much. Chromebook is designed to be powered by the web, and this includes using cloud-based storage and streaming websites like Pandora, Spotify, Hulu, and Netflix to reduce the need for extra gigabytes of storage for your laptop. The average Chromebook comes with a 32-GB hard disk, although higher-end models can have 64-GB or 128-GB disks.

The storage capacity of a Windows-based laptop tends to start at 64 GB and go up from there, but this may be a bit misleading. Windows 10 requires about 20 GB of storage compared with the 4 to 5 GB that Chrome OS takes up. Similarly, software for Windows and macOS takes up more space than the average app for Chrome OS. Simply put, Windows and macOS need more storage than Chrome OS.

Result: Laptop. The advantage of the Chromebook is that it doesn't need as much storage, but with Chromebook supporting Android apps in the near future, you may want more storage.

Software: Other Laptops for the Win

Chromebook
  • Can only run apps built for the Chrome browser.

  • Google Play and Android apps are in the Chromebook future.

Other Laptops
  • The app options for Windows and macOS can't be beat.

The biggest and best feature of Windows and macOS is the software. You buy these laptops not because of what they are but what they can do. Windows and macOS have more software support and, more importantly, more sophisticated software options. They run full versions of Microsoft Office; games that rival consoles; and a host of other software, from a music studio to drafting architectural plans and designing 3D animations.

Chromebook will get a big shot in the arm in the near future when the Google Play Store and Android apps come to Chrome OS. Until then, Chromebook relies on the apps built for the Chrome browser and web apps.

Result: Laptop. The question is, Do you actually need the software that won't run on Chrome OS?

Battery Life: Other Laptops by a Nose

Chromebook
  • The battery in Chromebook models generally don't last as long.

Other Laptops
  • Battery life depends on settings, whether the apps you're funning a graphics intensive, and so on.

The average laptop tends to have longer battery life than a Chromebook, although the newest Chromebook models are catching up. However, although laptops can brag about 10 to 12 hours of battery life, the actual results may vary.

The battery in a laptop isn't used at a specific rate. How quickly a laptop burns through its battery depends on how much power the laptop is using, which in turn depends on how hard the CPU and the graphics card (GPU) are working. A laptop may brag about 12 hours of battery life, but you won't get 12 hours if you're playing Call of Duty at the highest settings.

Chromebook is designed to shift the heavy lifting to the web, which makes its 8 to 10 hours of battery life a bit more predictable.

Result: Depends. High-performing software bleeds a laptop's battery dry, but under the same conditions, laptop batteries tend to last longer.

Final Verdict: It Depends on Why You Want a Laptop

Chromebook is perfect for people who primarily want to surf the web, browse Facebook, catch up on email, stream music (even from an iTunes library) and movies, create documents in Google Docs, and balance their checkbook in Microsoft Office 365.

Windows-based laptops and MacBook models are for people who need to leave the browser for installed apps and are willing to pay the price to do so. Cheaper laptops in the Chromebook range tend to be too frustratingly slow to be worth it, and a decent laptop will easily double or triple the price of a Chromebook. But, if you need specific software or higher-end performance, traditional laptops are worth the extra price.