For some things, you need an expensive computer. But most people don’t do those things. If you’re not trying to play games or run Photoshop, if all you want is a computer that’s great for watching Netflix and keeping tabs on your email, you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a good-looking, fast computer with all-day battery life. Just buy a Chromebook.
Google’s Chrome OS picks its compromises cleverly. Chromebooks aren’t the most capable of laptops; they’re not able to run Photoshop at all, nor do they work especially well offline. But if you do pretty much everything in a browser anyway — and you probably do — you don’t need more than a Chromebook. And you can get a good one for less than $400. Often much less.
All Chromebooks are not made equal, however. The perfect Chromebook would have a great screen, all-day battery life, a good keyboard and trackpad, solid performance, and gorgeous design. Sadly, that doesn’t exist. No one has yet built the perfect, do-everything Chromebook that flawlessly marries quality and price.
But there are a bunch of good options, including one that’s awfully close to ideal.
Note: Just as we were getting ready to publish this piece, the Dell Chromebook 11 — our original winner — became really hard to find on sale. (Thanks a lot, Dell.) That's hopefully a temporary problem, and if you can find it the Chromebook 11 remains the best on the market, but if you need an easy-to-buy Chromebook right now, luckily there's another great choice.
The best Chromebooks combine high-end touches with low-end prices, and the C720P has more of both than most. First and foremost, it has a latest-generation Intel processor. That alone makes the C720P feel like a fully capable laptop, not a tablet or smartphone. If you’re looking for a Chromebook to use as your primary computer, don’t buy anything without Intel inside. The C720P also has all the ports and trappings you’d expect from any good laptop, a keyboard that works fine without being totally exceptional, and a really good trackpad. This is a pure workhorse machine, but it’s truly a workhorse.
The biggest difference between the C720P and the cheaper C720 is the touch capabilities of its 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display, and that it has a 32GB solid-state hard drive instead of the standard 16GB. Having a touchscreen isn't a necessity at the moment, but it's a really nice addition — being able to flip through a website with a finger or even play some of Chrome OS' simple games is really nice. And as more and more apps come to the browser-based OS, having a touchscreen is going to be more and more important.
Acer’s only problem is its design — the C720 is just ugly. It’s not that it's cheaply made or particularly breakable, and at 2.98 pounds it’s plenty portable. It’s just poorly designed. Plastic on plastic, seams everywhere, exactly nothing to get excited about. Nearly every one of Acer’s competitors make a better-looking device.
But beyond that — if you don’t agree or don’t care — it’s hard to find true fault with the C720P. It does absolutely everything it needs to, without any kind of fuss, and it's going to work well for some time to come.
Something a little different
Samsung Chromebook 2 (13.3-inch)
Chromebooks don’t have to just be for work. Maybe you want a cheap computer on your coffee table for quick IMDB lookups, or you need a way to pound through email when you’re not at your desk. Maybe you need a computer in the kitchen or for your kids. That’s when the 13-inch Samsung Chromebook 2 becomes an interesting idea.
It’s the highest-resolution affordable Chromebook, with a 1080p display that makes your photos and Netflix’s movies look better than almost any other Chrome OS device. It has a decent set of speakers and long battery life, too, making it one of the better media machines you’ll find. (Though you’ll need an extra hard drive, because like every Chromebook, there’s basically no built-in storage in the Chromebook 2.)
Samsung did almost everything right here, actually. The Chromebook 2 has a nice, leathery build; it’s thin and light and actually quite attractive; it has a good, roomy keyboard and a big, responsive trackpad; and it never gets loud or hot.
But the reason all that is possible is also the Chromebook 2’s crippling flaw: with Samsung’s Exynos processor inside, this laptop runs more like a tablet or a smartphone. It’s fine for doing one thing at a time — reading a website, or watching a video — but nothing more. And while we’re all used to waiting a bit longer on tablets and smartphones, a slow laptop feels really slow. If you’re trying to get real, multitasking work done, the Chromebook 2 won’t keep up. This is likely the blueprint for the next round of great Chromebooks — high-res display, good design, light and thin body — but it’s not quite the finished product.
The 11.6-inch Dell Chromebook 11 comes with everything a good Chromebook needs. It’s powered by 4GB of RAM and an Intel processor, which gives it both plenty of power and plenty of battery life. Its screen isn't perfect, but it's good enough, as are the keyboard and trackpad. And even though it’s plastic, it’s shockingly well-made for a laptop this cheap. The Dell Chromebook 11 isn't the best Chromebook I can imagine, or even the best I can realistically hope for, but right now it’s the best Chromebook you can buy. (It's also hard to find on sale right now, which is why it's not currently No. 1 on the list.)
The Acer C720 is essentially the C720P, minus the touchscreen and with a slightly lower price tag. It’s not nearly as future-proof a machine, since touch appears to be the interface of the next few years, but it has a lot of other things going for it. It's powerful and usable, with an Intel processor, a good keyboard and trackpad, and the same great battery life. And it’s really hard to find fault with its price tag. If you want the cheapest Chromebook that works, the answer is the Acer C720.
The latest version of Acer's C720 features a more powerful Intel Core i3 processor. That makes virtually everything faster, from browsing pages to running benchmarks. But it's not dramatically faster than earlier models and it doesn't dramatically change the experience of using a C720. Despite those minor improvements to performance, the new C720 is significantly more expensive than the lower-specced models, and you're better off going with one of those and pocketing the difference.
Toshiba was among the first to attempt a 13-inch Chromebook, in an effort to bring Chrome OS to a more work-oriented market. It almost worked, too: the CB30 is well-designed, attractive, and mostly quite functional. It’s a little heavy, though, at 3.3 pounds, and a little larger than most Chromebooks. It’s also not a device you’d feel comfortable tossing into a bag every day — it creaks and bends all too easily. It’s a good, solid machine to use on a desk, but not quite the go-everywhere machine a great Chromebook ought to be.
Google launched the Chromebook Pixel basically to prove that it could. That a Chrome OS device, a laptop that’s just a web browser, could be truly great. And it is truly great. It’s beautifully designed, has an excellent keyboard and trackpad, and its 12.5-inch screen is as high-res and accurate as any you’ll find. It’s all good news, except that it starts at $1,299.99. The Chromebook Pixel is an excellent laptop and a completely crazy way to spend your money.
Chromebooks are usually understated, usually light, usually portable above all else. The HP Chromebook 14 is none of those. It’s big and powerful and colorful, its many USB and HDMI ports making it a more serious productivity machine than most. But its 14-inch, 1366 x 768 display is bad enough to convince you of a need for glasses — it’s pixelated and glossy and just plain hard to look at. It kills the whole appeal of an otherwise solid Chromebook.
The smaller Samsung Chromebook 2 has all of the same problems as the larger model, but few of its advantages. It’s slightly cheaper, slightly smaller, slightly lighter, but it doesn’t have a great screen and still has big performance issues. Plus, it’s more expensive than the Dell Chromebook 11, which offers better battery and better performance. You can do better than this, cheaper.
Google itself launched the Chromebook 11, and advertises it heavily — it’s supposedly “the Chromebook for everyone.” But it’s not the best Chromebook, or even close. It’s starkly designed and relatively cool-looking, with a flashy multicolored light, but nearly everything about the Chromebook 11 falls short. It’s plastic and cheap, it’s slow and has poor battery life. It has a lovely screen, proof that 11.6 inches and 1366 x 768 can both be good things when executed properly, but that can’t save the Chromebook 11 from the rest of its flaws.