Chromebooks vs. Tablets on a Budget

A comparison of two low-cost laptop alternatives

Man using tablet, laptop and smartphone

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If you can't afford a new laptop, a Chromebook or a smart tablet may be a suitable alternative depending on your needs. Chromebooks are designed for productive tasks, such as writing and editing, while tablets are made primarily for media consumption.

Information in this article applies broadly to a wide range of devices. Compare specific models for a better idea of the differences between devices.

Overall Findings

Tablets

  • Higher quality display.

  • Longer battery life.

  • Better for browsing and playing media.

  • Apps run faster.

  • Smaller and lighter.

Chromebooks

  • Better for typing.

  • More storage options.

  • Can run both Chromebook and Android apps.

While Chromebooks have the familiar clamshell design of a laptop, they come with a lower price tag because they are designed primarily for accessing the web. They are similar to netbooks, but rather than running a scaled-back version of Windows, they run Google's Chrome OS. Chromebooks can't run most Windows and Mac programs, but you can install and run Linux on a Chromebook.

Tablets made by Apple run on the iOS operating system, and most other tablets run on some version of Android, another Google property. Tablets are ideal for reading, playing games, taking pictures, and watching videos on the go.

Size and Weight: Tablets Are More Portable

Since Chromebooks are essentially laptops, they have the same size and shape of your classic portable computer. This puts them around two and a half to three pounds with dimensions of roughly eleven to twelve inches wide, seven and a half to eight inches deep, and about three-quarters of an inch thick.

Even the giant iPad Pro 12.9-inch is thinner and lighter than your average Chromebook, but most people get smaller 7-inch (measured diagonally) tablets that are half as thick and half the weight of a Chromebook. Thus, tablets are easier to carry but also easier to break or lose.

Displays: Most Tablet Screens Look Better

Although they are larger than tablets, Chromebook displays are often inferior. Chromebooks typically feature an 11-inch or larger display with a standard 1366 x 768 display resolution. The Google Pixelbook is an exception, but it also costs about four times what most Chromebooks do.

Tablet resolutions really depend upon the price and size of the tablet. Most smaller tablets feature displays that are less than 1080p, but most premium tablets offer higher resolution displays. Tablets tend to use better IPS panels that offer superior viewing angles and color than Chromebook screens.

Battery Life: Tablets Have More Longevity

Both Chromebooks and tablets are designed to be extremely efficient. They offer just enough performance to deal with most of the basic computing tasks on very small batteries.

Even though Chromebooks are larger than tablets, the best Chromebooks tend to top out at just over eight hours in video playback testing. Most models offer less as they have smaller batteries to keep costs down. Most small tablets can run for eight hours in the same video playback test. Tablets like the Lenovo Yoga 10 can last up to twelve hours.

Input: Touchscreens vs Keyboards

Some Chromebooks feature touchscreens, but the primary means of input for a Chromebook is a classic keyboard and trackpad just like a traditional laptop. Tablets, on the other hand, have been designed with just a touchscreen in mind. This makes them very easy to use for browsing the web and playing touch-oriented games.

The biggest downside to tablets is that typing is problematic because the virtual keyboards are slow and take up most of the screen. Every tablet has Bluetooth capabilities that allow you to attach a wireless keyboard, but that adds to the overall cost, and the smaller screens weren't designed for word processing.

Storage Capacity: Chromebooks Offer More Flexibility

Both Chromebooks and tablets have similar designs for their internal storage. They rely on small solid-state drives that offer fast performance but limited space for data. Typically, this is around 16GB for Chromebooks (with a few 32GB models) while tablets range from 8 to 16GB for the base models and up to 128GB or more if you are willing to pay a high price.

Chromebooks automatically store your files to Google Drive, a cloud storage system, so that your files can be accessed from anywhere. Tablets do offer some cloud-based storage options, but it is highly dependent upon the tablet brand, operating system, and what services you subscribe to.

Chromebooks make it convenient to expand your local storage. All Chromebooks feature USB ports that can be used with external drives for quick and easy expansion. Many also feature SD card slots for flash memory cards. On the other hand, many of the biggest tablets on the market lack these features, although some models do have microSD slots available.

Performance: It Depends on the Model

Performance is a tough item to discuss as the hardware in Chromebooks and tablets can vary dramatically. For instance, the Samsung Series 3 was the first Chromebook that used the same ARM-based processor found in many tablets. Conversely, there are some tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 that use an Intel Atom processor previously used in low powered laptops. So, in terms of raw number-crunching ability, the two platforms are roughly equal. It really comes down to comparing specific models.

Either way, both platforms provide sufficient performance for basic computing tasks. Neither, however, can compete with traditional laptops.

Software: Tablets Win Hands Down

Chrome OS and Android are both made by Google, but the two operating systems were created for very different purposes. Chrome OS is essentially built around the Chrome browser and Google Drive applications like Google Docs and Google Sheets.

Android, on the other hand, is a mobile operating system that has applications built specifically for tablets. While Chromebooks can run some Android apps, these programs tend to lag when running on Chrome OS.

Apple tablets only run apps made for iOS, and Amazon Fire tablets are restricted to apps from the Amazon store by default; however, it is possible to root your Kindle Fire and install apps from the Google Play Store. Even with the limitations of Android and iOS, tablets support a larger variety of programs than Chromebooks.

Cost: Tablets Vary Widely in Cost

Pricing between Chromebooks and tablets is very competitive. At the entry-level, tablets tend to be more affordable with many Android tablets available for under $100. Most Chromebooks are closer to $200, yet the high-end Apple tablets can cost twice that much. The difference between an expensive tablet and a cheap one usually reflects the quality of the screen, while most Chromebooks are more or less the same.

Final Verdict

If you want a cheap school laptop for writing papers and conducting research on the web, then a Chromebook could be what you need. If you want a device for watching movies, playing mobile games, and listening to music, then a tablet is a better investment. If you want to play massively multiplayer online games, then save up your money for a gaming PC.