If you want something more than a tablet, the cheapest options are undoubtedly Chromebooks. These are basically the least expensive laptops you can find, and while we're working on other guides for Windows laptops, we're going to start with Chromebooks. The latest iteration of Chrome OS has true multitasking, more apps, and there are more Chromebook options than ever before, often starting at less than $200. But which one is best?

A Short Overview of Current Chromebooks

Alphabetically, there are current Chromebooks for sale from Acer (C720, C720P, and the new 11/13), ASUS (C200, C300), Dell (11), HP (11/14 and 11/14 G3), Lenovo (N20P), Samsung (Chromebook and Chromebook 2), and Toshiba (Chromebook and Chromebook 2). There's also the Chromebook Pixel, but that's nothing like a budget laptop so we won't discuss that here. The names however don't tell you much about the internal hardware.

Starting at the top, Acer's C720 is basically the incumbent other companies have to beat, as the combination of a Haswell Celeron processor (2955U) and the sub-$200 price point gives potential buyers just about everything they might want. Amazon currently has it on sale for $179, and it's still easy to recommend even more than a year after launch. The 32GB model isn't really worth the $50 ($70 right now) price premium in my book, as a 32GB SDHC Card costs a lot less and offers basically the same functionality. Similarly, there's a model with a Core i3-4005U for $350 (again, not worth it in my opinion). The newer C720P also adds a touchscreen and comes stock with 32GB storage, with 2GB and 4GB RAM options, but the $100 premium for the 2GB model is too much (and nearly $400 for the 32GB + 4GB RAM option is out of the question).

Acer has two newer Chromebooks as well, the Chromebook 11 (11.6" 2GB Bay Trail N2830 with 802.11ac) is a $199 Best Buy exclusive, while the Chromebook 13 (13.3" 2GB Tegra K1 with 802.11ac) is on sale for $233 at Amazon.com. There's another variant of the 13 that includes a 1080p display, 4GB RAM, and 32GB of eMMC that retails for $380. While the TK1 and N2830 CPUs are both generally slower than the Celeron 2955U, at least the graphics in the TK1 is faster than Intel's GPU; unfortunately, finding places where having the faster GPU is truly useful can be difficult. I personally like the 13.3" screen and form factor, as it gives my fingers a bit more room. Finally, the CB13 is also fanless and being able to get 13 hours of battery life (11 on the 1080p model) makes the CB13 the top Chromebook in terms of battery life.

ASUS uses the Intel Celeron N2830 with 2GB RAM and an 802.11ac WiFi solution, with the Chromebook C200 using an 11.6" display while the Chromebook C300 has a 13.3" display (both are 1366x768). Both ASUS offerings come in two variants, the less expensive is currently on sale for $199 and has 2GB RAM and 16GB internal eMMC storage, while the upgraded model has 4GB RAM and 32GB eMMC storage and is currently on sale for $249. (Both are $50 off during Black Friday week, it seems.) They're also available in a variety of color options, which can be an added bonus if you want something a bit less staid.

Dell's Chromebook 11 continues the trend of offering 11.6" displays, and it ends up being very similar to the Acer C720 (Celeron 2955U with 2GB RAM and 16GB eMMC). It costs $279 on sale, with an option for an upgraded Core i3-4005U and 4GB RAM for $379 (on sale). The added cost probably isn't worth it for what is otherwise a standard Chromebook configuration; build quality on the Dell Chromebook 11 however is a bit nicer than some of the other options.

HP has been doing Chromebooks for a while, as reflected in the naming of their Chromebook 11 G3 and Chromebook 14 G3. The previous generation of HP Chromebooks is also available, but I'd give them a pass at this stage. The new models feature the Celeron N2830 in the CB11 and the Tegra K1 in the CB14, with the ubiquitous 2GB/16GB RAM/storage configuration and prices of $246 and $270, respectively.

The Lenovo N20p has something unique to offer, in that it borrows a bit from the Yoga line and features a 300 degree hinge that allows the device to function as either a standard laptop or in "stand" mode. The N20p also features a 10-point touchscreen, though the remaining specs are similar to other Chromebooks: Celeron N2830 CPU, 2GB RAM, 16GB eMMC storage. Pricing is also a bit higher than the competition, with the N20p currently on sale at Amazon for $310, but this is the least expensive touchscreen Chromebook right now.

Samsung has two Chromebook options right now, the 2012 model Chromebook with an Exynos 5250 is well past its prime and the price of $209 doesn't really help, while the newer Chromebook 2 is $230 and comes with a Celeron N2830 processor. Both models feature 11.6" displays, 2GB RAM, and 16GB eMMC storage. (And yes, I feel like a broken record.)

Last but not least is Toshiba, with two models as well – old and new. The earlier model Chromebook has a Celeron 2955U processor while the Chromebook 2 has a Celeron N2840 (which is the same as the N2830 except the maximum Turbo is 2.58GHz instead of 2.41GHz). Both models have 13.3" displays with 2GB RAM and 16GB storage (again), though there's an upgraded version of the newer model with 4GB RAM and a 1080p display. Prices are $260 for the original and $249 for the new revision, or $329 for the 4GB version that has a 1080p IPS display.

Picking the Winners

I don't think I'd go so far as to call any of the Chromebooks "bad", though a few are certainly priced higher than I'd be willing to pay. It's also a bit difficult to say any are "great", with poor quality LCDs and generally low-end components, but they are certainly inexpensive. There are many similarities among the various Chromebook models, with a few that stand out as better options mostly thanks to a combination of pricing and/or features.

I've spent a fair amount of time with both the Acer Chromebook C720 and the new Acer Chromebook 13, and both deserve recommendations for different reasons. With the current sale price of $180, if you're not sure if a Chromebook is right for you, the base model C720 is a great starting point. It's the least expensive option and it actually works quite well. In many tasks the Celeron 2955U in the C720 is still faster than newer Chromebooks with Bay Trail or Tegra K1, thanks to its Haswell architecture, and I can pretty much guarantee that if you're not happy with the Chrome OS experience on the C720 a different Chromebook isn't likely to change things.

The Acer Chromebook 13 on the other hand delivers the most battery life and thanks to the Tegra K1 it's fanless; the overall design is also quite attractive with the eggshell white chassis. The price is also lower than the competiting HP Chromebook 14 that also has TK1, giving Acer the win. The TK1 also packs more graphics processing power than other options, though this mostly ends up being a minor benefit as there aren't a lot of games for Chromebooks right now. I believe the TK1 is also the only Chromebook processor certified for HD Hangouts, if that's a draw for you.

The ASUS C200 and C300 warrant a mention as they offer 4GB RAM and 32GB storage for just $249. The added storage isn't extremely important but it can be useful, while the doubling of RAM helps keep Chrome from swapping tabs out of memory as often. Then you can decide between a larger or smaller Chromebook, with no price penalty for going either direction. And if you want a touchscreen, Lenovo's N20p has a 300 degree hinge at a reasonable price.

The one Chromebook in the list that has a decent display is the upgraded Toshiba Chromebook 2, which sports an IPS panel. That's great to see, but there's still that question of price. On a high quality laptop I'd be more than willing to spend over $100 extra to get a quality display, but on a Chromebook? We're basically looking at a 50% increase in the total cost just for the improved display, and that's a tough pill to swallow on what is otherwise a clearly budget-oriented platform. It's obviously not in the same league of wrongness as the Chromebook Pixel, and I'd love to see all TN panels just go away, but it ends up as one of the more expensive Chromebook options. If you're happy with Chrome OS and want one of the best designed Chromebooks, this is the one to get; just be preparted to pony up.

Of course the others are all close enough that if you can get any of them at a competitive price, they're going to be about as good as any other Chromebook. It's the old adage: "there are no bad products, just wrong prices". We're also looking at a relatively narrow price range of $200 to $300, and if you're willing to pay more for a Chromebook where you like the looks more, you can certainly do so.

Chromebook Considerations

Wrapping things up, the question has to be asked: can you live with a Chromebook as your primary laptop, or would something like an HP Stream be a better option? It's important to understand precisely what it is you're getting with a Chromebook. There are limitations inherent to Chrome OS, and while you can work around some of them, others are basically just the way things are.

As an example, I recently spent a few hours trying to do some mundane spreadsheet tasks using Google Spreadsheets on a Chromebook instead of using my usual Windows laptop, and let me tell you: it was an exercise in frustration. Something I could have done in 15 minutes using Excel ended up taking me over an hour. Reading the web, this is hardly an isolated incident; things have improved since Chrome OS first launched, but there are still a lot of rough edges to the experience.

There are counter examples as well. I have a daughter in middle school that uses a Chromebook for her classes on a regular basis, and she hasn't ever complained about missing features – it's what she's been taught to use, and it fits the requirements of the school district. And sometimes, that's all you really need from a laptop. There's also the benefit of not dealing with virus infections and malware, though that tends to be more for others than for tech savvy folks in my experience; still, not having to help your dad/mom/grandparents/etc. fix a virus problem again is a nice perk.

Of course you can always use Chrome Remote Desktop with another PC to basically get a lightweight and inexpensive way to work with your home PC while on the road. And it can surf the web natively and handle light office and email duties as well. Google has also demonstrated Android apps running natively on Chrome OS, and there will apparently be an increasing number of supported apps in the future.

As is often the case, what it really boils down to is a question of compromise. Chromebooks are not the fastest or best built laptops, but they can boot up the OS and get you on the web far faster than any other $200 class laptop. You also have access to all your tabs and shortcuts if you move between computers, though using the Chrome browser on any PC or tablet basically gives you that same functionality.

What you're really getting with a Chromebook is an alternative to a moderate tablet that has the benefit of providing full keyboard functionality while being quite a bit bulkier than any tablet. But if you're typing anything more than a few sentences that's a tradeoff I'd personally be more than happy to make. Then again, I'd much rather have full Windows laptop functionality.

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  • aryonoco - Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - link

    Jarred, first of all thanks for the article, and especially thanks for always keeping an eye on Chromebooks (which do not have such a great rap here).

    But I have to say, I strongly disagree with you here. Have you ever actually used a Toshiba Chromebook 2 for any significant period of time? The panel is great, not only is it IPS, it is very well calibrated, good contrast, deep darks, accurate colours. These are things that AnandTech pays a lot of attention to on its tablet reviews. Why do they not matter in a Chromebook in your opinion?

    Secondly, it's not just the panel. It's one of the very few Chromebooks that has a decent speaker. You might not care so much for that, but a lot of the target demographics of Chromebooks (my aging Dad for example) do. That's the one thing he cares about in a laptop, and he'd gladly pay $100 just for that.

    Then there is the build quality, the very good keyboard, etc.

    In all, I think right now the Toshiba Chromebook 2 is head and shoulders above others, and it well justifies its premium. But it would be great to see a review of this unit, or any of the TK1 models here on AnandTech.
    Reply
  • Minion4Hire - Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - link

    I think the biggest problem here is that a better screen is a luxury. It does not change the underlying experience that users are going to have with Chrome OS. If the OS itself is suitable to their needs then a better screen is worth considering. But for those who aren't familiar with it or already have a notebook/ultrabook and are looking for a Chromebook as a supplemental device, spending more money than necessary isn't likely to happen.

    But the following article should highlight the most important aspect here: http://goo.gl/Ygh64f

    Chromebooks MAY grab 5% of all PC sales by 2017. And that's assuming that sales to its primary market of K-12 education continues to rise. Chromebooks and Chrome OS offer such a niche product that devoting a substantial amount of time to reviewing and testing them here is arguably a bad idea for the type of review site that Anandtech is. Their core audience isn't interested in them. If you personally are then that's grand, but you are likely the minority.

    I can understand wanting more from an article that appears on Anandtech. But to be honest I was surprised to see a Chromebook article here all. The article's (relatively) short length and depth equally reflects Chrome OS's very small standing in the marketplace.
    Reply
  • aryonoco - Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - link

    This completely misses the point of the Chromebooks.

    I can't talk about marketshare (and I know from years of watching Analyst houses with their horrendous record of predicting Android and Windows Phone/Mobile marketshare never to pay any attention to what they say), but I do see that OEMs are expanding their Chromebook lineups and while initially Chromebooks started with just Samsung (and to a lesser degree Acer), now every PC OEM is on the Chromebook bandwagon. Surely they're in it because they see profits in the segment.

    And I know from personal experience that Chromebooks are much more than a supplementary device. Google was wrong to position them initially as that, and now in 2014, you can pretty much do everything that an average consumer may want to do on a Chromebook. My dad, my aunt and my in-laws all now use Chromebooks as their only computing device (in addition to their smartphones). Chromebooks do everything they want, and it's been a liberating experience for me. As the family's support person, I don't have to worry about viruses and malware on their computers anymore (I tried educating them for over a decade on what to click on and never to download things from untrusted sources etc to no avail, every single holiday I spent hours cleaning their windows machines from viruses). I don't have to teach them about file management and back up and where to save things and how to save them anymore, it's all "there in the cloud" and they can get their pictures and documents without knowing where they actually are. Everything is automatically backed up, everything is automatically synced. Lost your laptop? No problem, here is a new one, just sign in and everything will be exactly how you left it off.

    I'm buying two more Chromebooks for my family this holiday season, and after that, that's it. If any family member wants me to help with their computer needs, they have to have a Chromebook. I'm done supporting Windows machines.

    You can argue all you want about how "real power users like the AT crowed" don't use Chromebooks, but for me, Chromebooks have been the biggest thing that happened to my family's computing experience since Windows 95. I am one of AT's core audience, I've been a sysadmin for a great part of my working life, and I care more about Chromebook reviews than I care about a lot of other stuff that AT does cover in depth.
    Reply
  • janderk - Thursday, November 27, 2014 - link

    Exact same experience here. Since recommending Chromebooks to friends and family whose computers I used to clean up twice a year. Not a bleep anymore. No virus, no bloatware, no slowdowns after a period. Just happy users who are amazed that for so little money they got a thin and portable device that also lasts hours on a battery. A thing that with Windows or Apple computers you only manage for 1000 euro's or more. Now if programming (PHPStorm, WebStorm, Android studio) worked on them, I might even consider switching. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 27, 2014 - link

    I understand where you're coming from as I have seven siblings, and all of them have come to me for computer support at one point or another due to a virus infection (not to mention both my parents as well). The problem is that many of the infections come from doing things you can't do on a Chromebook.

    One brother has had at least three infections in the last year from his son looking for "free games" or similar options, but he wants to play games on the PC. Sure a Chromebook would prevent the infection...and it would prevent playing anything other than browser-based games in the process. My dad is in the same boat -- I'd love to recommend a Chromebook, but what's he going to do with the thousands of photos he takes each year? Pxlr can do some interesting stuff, but if you're going through hundreds of photos it's a real pain in the rear.

    I suspect the next time my mom needs a new PC she'll be getting a Chromebook. She's the one that does the least on her laptop right now (basically just email and web stuff), but even then I know there are some specific applications that she uses that are not currently available in a web-based form.

    My question is this: you are happy to have your family members and others using Chromebooks as it means you no longer have to help them out with computer problems; but do you use a Chromebook as your primary PC? It sounds like aryonoco at least merely views them as a great way to stop family and friends from getting into trouble -- along with a lot of other things -- but he's still using a Windows system. If it's not good enough for you to use, the only way it's good enough for others is if they don't do as much on the PC. Chromebooks might suffice, but that's about as far as I'd take it right now.
    Reply
  • aryonoco - Friday, November 28, 2014 - link

    Jarred, the three family members that I spoke of that have switched to Chromebooks absolutely Love their machines. They think they are fast, light, and "just so nice to use". I've heard the word "speedy" used to refer to them on more than one occasion. Go to amazon and have a look at the average rating of Chromebooks, and then compare that with average rating of similarly-priced Windows machines. There is a huge gap there, and there is a reason why users love Chromebooks.

    The vast majority of people do not take thousands of photos and then edit them with Photoshop. From where I sit, most people are just taking pictures with their smartphones these days, and they actually love the G+ Photos integration between Android and Chrome OS where their pictures are backed up automatically to the cloud and when they open their laptop, it's there. My Dad did have a camera before, but he never could master the process (connect your camera to your laptop, transfer the files, now delete the originals off the camera, now back up your photos, etc). I've seen time and time how these people struggle to get their head around concepts like files and folders (which is why the Desktop becomes a dumping ground).

    There was only one application that they used that they couldn't find on Chrome OS and that was Skype. But they have now switched to Hangouts and seem happy with it.

    No I don't use ChromeOS as my main OS. I can't. I do Android and Web development and the tools that I need for my work aren't there yet (though surprisingly they are getting there, there are now good Web IDEs available that are more than usable, and adb and fastboot are now available too, and there are good LaTeX editors too). But I don't see the relationship between what I do, and what the average user does with their computer. My family members aren't developers, they don't need the tools I need. Sure they don't do as much with their PC as I do.

    In pretty much every family, there is a computer nerd/geek type that provides tech advice and buying advice to their family. We the AT readers are generally those people. But in giving this advice, we always take the user's requirements into account. We don't recommend them the same thing we necessarily are using ourselves. I for example need at least 16GB of RAM in my machine (32GB is probably even better) to do Android dev. Does the average user need 16GB of RAM? No they don't (at this point). Do I recommend them a laptop with 16GB of RAM? No I don't. Why is the advice on what platform to use any different?

    What I'm trying to say Jarred is that yes there are certain limitations that come with Chromebooks. But in my eyes, and in the eyes of many users, those limitations are actually features. You seem to think that "Chromebooks might suffice" for some users. That's not how I see it. The way I see it, Chromebooks introduce a new computing paradigm to average users, and one that I find vastly preferable to Windows or OSX or Linux. There are people that are buying Chromebooks not "in spite" of them running ChromeOS, but absolutely because they are running ChromeOS.

    You seem to suggest that the only reason why anyone would buy a Chromebook is price. Sure, price had a lot to do with the initial popularity of Chromebooks, but right now, Chromebooks are a whole lot more. There are users, my Dad as an example, who are more than happy to spend $300 or $400 or even more on a quality device, but they do actually prefer Chromebooks for their usage model. For them, it's a no brainer to spend a bit more money and get a decent screen and good speakers, and that's something I think you are missing from your Chromebook coverage.
    Reply
  • Morawka - Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - link

    your forgetting the cost of color calibrating the display. Once at the panel factory, and again during final assembly. Now Toshiba might not be doing this, but from the sounds of the reviews, it sounds like it is calibrated.

    This could add costs as well. also the Toshiba Chomebook 2 is no slouch. It has a Dual core Celeron, and 4GB Ram. What other chromebook is faster and under $350?
    Reply
  • RShack - Thursday, November 27, 2014 - link

    > If I'm buying a Chromebook, I'd probably be going after minimum cost
    > as the primary consideration

    Well, that's the problem right there: you seemingly fail to understand that Chromebooks do what 95% of people require. It's inappropriate comments like yours that lead folks astray and keep the focus on the cheapest box.

    For most people who use PC's, Chromebooks have finally delivered on the great unfulfilled promise: a PC without all the usual PC bullshit. Whoever comes out with a top-quality mid-range Chromebook will gobble market share faster than most so-called analysts would believe possible.

    The problem isn't that a good screen costs $100 more. The problem is that nobody makes one with a great screen, a great backlit keyboard, and a bit more storage for $200 more. We don't need another $200 cheapie. What we need is a $500 machine that puts quality where people see it with their eyes and touch it with their fingertips.
    Reply
  • janderk - Thursday, November 27, 2014 - link

    "IPS on the Toshiba is worth mentioning, and I'll fix that, but does it warrant a $100 price premium?"

    Currently the Toshiba 1080p IPS is #3 on the best selling list on Amazon. Apparently some people do care. And for a device that many use to watch video's, Netflix, etc. many will be prepared to a pay $389 for. Which is still a whole lot less than what you'd pay for an Apple or Windows computer with a similar display quality.
    Reply
  • jgstew - Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - link

    Thanks for the article. It is definitely helpful to get a good overview of the options out there.

    I am a bit disappointed in the lack of variety in the options. There are too few that come with touchscreen options, which I don't think is necessary for most users, but would be nice to have, especially if google is going to bring Android apps to ChromeOS.

    I'd also really like to see more options with cellular connectivity, if nothing else to take advantage of the T-Mobile 200mb of free data per month offer. This seems like an obvious way to make a Chromebook more useful on the go, even if it is in a limited way. I really like the idea of being able to pay T-Mobile for extra data in the times when you really need it, especially when it is often much cheaper than paying an Airport or Hotel for WiFi.
    Reply

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