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Google vs. Microsoft: a cheap laptop showdown

You have $400 to spend on a laptop. Should you buy Toshiba's Chromebook or NB15t?

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My parents have had three laptops in the past two years, and they’re still looking for the right one. My mother is very specific: she wants to check her email, browse Facebook, YouTube, and QVC, create and save documents, and maybe store some photos. And she doesn’t want to spend more than $400. She’s always owned inexpensive Windows machines before, and they’ve all gone wrong — one was too slow, one presented the Blue Screen of Death a few months in, and one just stopped working for no apparent reason.

This time, my parents have new choices when they go looking for a fourth computer. Chromebooks are the newest players in the laptop world, providing low-cost alternatives to Windows machines. They all run Chrome OS, with Google’s Chrome web browser controlling the entire device. And despite the limitations of operating a computer with a browser, Chromebooks have been doing exactly what Google wanted them to do — lessening dependence on inexpensive Windows devices for people like my mom. When my parents inevitably go searching for another laptop, they’ll essentially have to choose between the two operating systems, in addition to very differently designed machines.

Luckily I ran into the perfect chance to decide between them: Toshiba just came out with its first Chromebook model, for $299, right as it launched the $379 Satellite NB15t netbook running Windows 8. I tested both to see which operating system is worth your money — and my mother’s.

Toshiba Chromebook

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Toshiba’s newest laptop is a breath of fresh air for Chromebooks. It’s the first with a 13.3-inch screen — although it will soon have to compete with Samsung’s upcoming faux-leather Chromebook of the same size. Its design is what really sets it apart: its dimpled silver body is sleek and the black chiclet keys are matte and satisfying to type with. Unlike the bright pink and blue colors of the HP Chromebook 14, your friends might mistake this silvery Chromebook for a MacBook Air. But while the design looks high-end, it feels flimsy, and the 3.3-pound body is also somewhat heavier than I expected.

The design looks high-end, but feels flimsy

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Other than its good looks, Toshiba's Chromebook isn't very different from any other. The $299 machine has a Haswell-based Intel Celeron processor, 2GB of RAM, a decent but unremarkable 1366 x 768 display with washed-out colors, and a 16GB hard drive. It runs Chrome OS easily and quickly, and when I experienced problems they were due to Chrome OS’s limitations, not its performance.

I'm used to saving things in carefully named and organized folders on my hard drive, and I still get nervous when I realize I can’t really do that on a Chromebook. You technically can save files to the desktop of a Chromebook by saving them into the Downloads folder, but there’s only a tiny 16GB of storage. A few Chrome apps are also coded to work offline, including Pocket and Wunderlist, and you can program services like Gmail and Google Docs to work offline in a few steps.

That’s still the biggest gripe people have with Chromebooks: they rely too much on the internet and cloud storage. My gut reaction was to have that same issue, but I eventually realized that most of the things I do on any computer require a connection of some kind. I constantly have dozens of tabs open, including Twitter and Facebook, and multiple apps running whether I’m working or just lounging around my apartment.


At this point, the only time I don’t need a connection is when I'm editing photos or writing in a plain-text editor. If the internet is down or even running slowly, I often close my laptop and just do something else entirely. For me and for many others, the fact that Chrome OS all but requires an internet connection really isn’t an issue outside of the psychological security we feel when we save something to a hard drive.

Chrome OS's biggest threat is our psychological attachment to the desktop

And even as Google continues to beef up the offline functionalities of the Chromebook, the need may already be waning. As of the end of 2013, Google Drive had 120 million active users; it's creeping up on Microsoft OneDrive's 250 million users, and it's comparable to Dropbox's 175 million registered users. Storing things locally now seems more like a backup for those times you don't have an internet connection and absolutely need to open a document for a presentation. Our personal lives are increasingly up in the air — in the cloud and on the web.

Toshiba Satellite NB15
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Desktop and hard drive luxuries, at a price

Even though local saving and offline functionality are as easy as ever on the Windows 8-powered Toshiba Satellite NB15t-A1304, it’s still a challenge to get anything productive done on it without an internet connection. It has both the Live tile and traditional desktop views, but really the most you’ll get done offline will be in Microsoft Office on the desktop screen. You could write in an app like Evernote in the Live Tile view, but you’ll still need to have a connection to sync to your account and see updates.

The $379 NB15t runs on an Intel Celeron processor and beats the Chromebook in memory and storage with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. That means you can not only save documents to the hard drive, but you can also run larger and legacy programs like Photoshop. It also runs through email, Facebook, and YouTube easily, although the sound quality is weak and the battery only lasted me about six hours. It lasts far less if you’re running more laborious programs. (Unfortunately, the Chromebook fared about the same.)

The best part of the NB15t is its 11.6-inch touchscreen — when it behaves. Within the first half-hour of using the NB15t, I had to restart it twice because the screen froze or became unresponsive. But since then I haven't had any issue, and the screen's 1366 x 768 display nicely shows both the live tiles and apps of Windows 8. I found myself using the touchscreen even more because scrolling with the trackpad is a bit choppy and frustrating compared to just using my finger.

The keyboard works against this laptop

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Windows 8 is a beautiful OS that works best on tablets and high-end PCs, but on a cheap laptop like this one hardware gets too much in the way. It’s a very old-looking laptop, with its clunky body and dark gray back, and since its smaller dimensionally than the Chromebook but weighs the same, it feels heavier than a netbook should. The keys are small and narrow, and when I typed at my normal pace I frequently missed letters and made errors. I wanted to detach the screen and use it as a Windows tablet; I got more use out of the touchscreen than the entire laptop. Attaching a keyboard to a tablet provides a lot of practicality for certain situations, but only if the keyboard works with the screen, not against it.

The hardware might feel disconnected, but overall the NB15t ran Windows 8 in an extraordinarily normal way: it flipped through the Live Tiles view and the regular desktop view with few hiccups, web pages loaded quickly, and eventually I was able to ignore my frustration with the keyboard and trackpad and get some work done.

There’s no question that Windows machines technically let you do more than Chromebooks — the Windows Store is large and growing, and there's a huge set of legacy apps that are available. But for me, and my parents, almost everything that’s worth doing is done online, so Windows’ advantages don’t make them more practical or functional than Chromebooks. And if you really need what it exclusively offers — the ability to run programs like Photoshop or play games — you shouldn’t be buying a machine that’s less than $400. Windows 8 meshes perfectly with a device like the Acer Aspire S7, but makes less sense on a cheap machine like this.

Ultimately, choosing between Windows machines and Chromebooks comes down to what you’re willing to sacrifice for price. At $379, the NB15t gives you extra storage and the flexibility to work in the cloud and on the hard drive, but you’ll have to deal with sub-par hardware and software design that doesn’t translate well into the laptop’s hardware. Windows 8’s most distinctive feature is its Live Tiles, which are built to be touched, not used with a trackpad and keyboard. More importantly they’re built to be connected, constantly updating with new information. When for $299, you can get the well-designed Chromebook that runs Chrome effortlessly and lets you perform the same basic tasks, if you’re willing to rely on internet connectivity most of the time and work with the limited number of supported apps.

I had a better experience with the Chromebook, and I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. I used it at home to check Twitter and email, watch Netflix, listen to music, and start a Google Hangout with my family. I even used it at work, writing in Evernote rather than my preferred plain text editor I use on my MacBook Air. All of these spaces have fairly reliable Wi-Fi, but even when my office’s internet blacked out for a few minutes, everybody’s laptops — not just my Chromebook — were rendered useless.

And the Chromebook is just a better device. Its size feels more natural in my hands when I carry it and to my fingers when I type on it, in comparison to the NB15t which feels cramped. A huge reason for buying a low-cost laptop instead of a tablet is to have the flexibility and practicality of a keyboard, and the Chromebook delivers a better typing experience.

I’m so used to working in the Chrome browser that transitioning to Chrome OS was quick and painless. I easily let go of my affinity towards hard drive saving and placed my trust in web-based apps. And really, I was already doing that: I use Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, and similar apps to complete most of my projects, so Chrome OS just gave me that extra push to go all-in with those programs without looking back. Once Chrome OS expands to support more web-based programs, it will be one step closer to convincing users to embrace having all the information they’re used to seeing on their desktops on the web.

As for my parents, I think my biggest challenge will be teaching my mother how to use these web-based apps, not convincing her to switch in the first place. She’ll come around, and she won’t be the last to rethink what an inexpensive laptop can and should be able to do.

Photographs by Dante D'Orazio

Ultimately, choosing between Windows machines and Chromebooks comes down to what you’re willing to sacrifice for price. At $379, the NB15t gives you extra storage and the flexibility to work in the cloud and on the hard drive, but you’ll have to deal with sub-par hardware and software design that doesn’t translate well into the laptop’s hardware. Windows 8’s most distinctive feature is its Live Tiles, which are built to be touched, not used with a trackpad and keyboard. More importantly they’re built to be connected, constantly updating with new information. When for $299, you can get the well-designed Chromebook that runs Chrome effortlessly and lets you perform the same basic tasks, if you’re willing to rely on internet connectivity most of the time and work with the limited number of supported apps.

I had a better experience with the Chromebook, and I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. I used it at home to check Twitter and email, watch Netflix, listen to music, and start a Google Hangout with my family. I even used it at work, writing in Evernote rather than my preferred plain text editor I use on my MacBook Air. All of these spaces have fairly reliable Wi-Fi, but even when my office’s internet blacked out for a few minutes, everybody’s laptops — not just my Chromebook — were rendered useless.

And the Chromebook is just a better device. Its size feels more natural in my hands when I carry it and to my fingers when I type on it, in comparison to the NB15t which feels cramped. A huge reason for buying a low-cost laptop instead of a tablet is to have the flexibility and practicality of a keyboard, and the Chromebook delivers a better typing experience.

I’m so used to working in the Chrome browser that transitioning to Chrome OS was quick and painless. I easily let go of my affinity towards hard drive saving and placed my trust in web-based apps. And really, I was already doing that: I use Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, and similar apps to complete most of my projects, so Chrome OS just gave me that extra push to go all-in with those programs without looking back. Once Chrome OS expands to support more web-based programs, it will be one step closer to convincing users to embrace having all the information they’re used to seeing on their desktops on the web.

As for my parents, I think my biggest challenge will be teaching my mother how to use these web-based apps, not convincing her to switch in the first place. She’ll come around, and she won’t be the last to rethink what an inexpensive laptop can and should be able to do.

Photographs by Dante D'Orazio

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