Chromebooks vs. Tablets on a Budget

A comparison of two low-cost laptop alternatives

If you can't afford a new laptop, a Chromebook or a smart tablet might be a suitable alternative. Chromebooks are designed for productive tasks, such as writing and editing, while tablets are made primarily for mobile gaming and media consumption. We've compared the pros and cons of tablets vs. Chromebooks to help you decide which will meet your needs.

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

Chromebook vs Tablet
 Lifewire

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.

  • Some models 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 word processing and 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. Amazon Fire tablets use a modified version of Android called Fire OS. Tablets are ideal for reading, playing games, taking pictures, and watching videos on the go.

Size and Weight: Tablets Are More Portable

Tablets
  • Fits in a purse, handbag, or large pockets.

  • Screen protectors are available to prevent cracks and scratches.

Chromebooks
  • More durable design with protected screen.

  • Requires a case or backpack to carry around.

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 there are smaller 7-inch tablets (measured diagonally) that are half as thick and half as much as a Chromebook. Thus, tablets are easier to carry, but they are also easier to break or lose.

Displays: Most Tablet Screens Look Better

Tablets
  • Quality varies based on price and model.

  • Wider color gamut.

Chromebooks
  • Larger display.

  • Lower resolution.

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 resolution. The Google Pixelbook is an exception, but it also costs about four times what most Chromebooks do.

Tablet resolutions 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

Tablets
  • Requires a micro-USB or Thunderbolt charger.

  • Power saving features extend battery life.

Chromebooks
  • Requires a model-specific power cable.

  • Limited power conservation options.

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

Tablets
  • Entering passwords and filling out forms can be tedious.

  • Mouse and keyboard peripherals available for extra costs.

Chromebooks
  • Made for word processing.

  • More compact with fewer keys than traditional Macs and PCs.

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

Tablets
  • Few options for external storage.

  • Built-in cloud storage support depends on the model.

Chromebooks
  • Very limited internal storage capacity compared to laptops.

  • Syncs with your Google account so that you can save your files online.

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 budget 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. Most tablets 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. Some models also feature SD card slots for flash memory cards. Many of the biggest tablets on the market lack these features, although some models do come with microSD slots.

Performance: It Depends on the Model

Tablets
  • Runs fast even with multiple apps open simultaneously.

  • Frequent operating system upgrades can cause compatibility issues with apps.

Chromebooks
  • Faster than some laptops.

  • Slower than some tablets.

  • Receives reliable automatic updates from Google.

The types of hardware found 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. On average, the two platforms are roughly equal in terms of raw number-crunching ability. It really comes down to comparing specific models. Both platforms provide sufficient performance for basic computing tasks, but neither can compete with traditional laptops.

Software: Tablets Win Hands Down

Tablets
  • Thousands of new apps are introduced every day.

  • Some apps aren't available for all mobile operating systems.

Chromebooks
  • No support for desktop programs or PC games.

  • Only some models can run Android apps.

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

Tablets
  • Depends largely on the size and screen quality.

  • Hundreds of options available at various price points.

Chromebooks
  • Depends mostly on the internal hardware specs.

  • High-end Google Pixelbooks are pricier than budget laptops.

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.