Chromebooks vs laptops: which is the best for students?

Deciding between a Chromebook and a Windows PC laptop can be tough, and the decision must be based on the student’s needs. 

Whether you’re looking for the best computer for yourself or your child, or you’re looking for an inexpensive option for class, we can help you make the right choice.

In this Chromebook vs laptop guide, we’ll explore the pros and cons of the devices. 

(Image credit: Future)

What is a Chromebook?

A Chromebook is a personal computer that has the Chrome OS operating system. Anything you can do with the Google Chrome browser, you can do with a Chromebook. 

No need for updates or software, with a Chromebook you can just charge it up, open the lid and start using it right away. 

We go into more detail in our What is a Chromebook? guide. Also, make sure you check out our best Chromebooks guide for more buying advice.

What’s the difference between a Chromebook and a laptop?

Physically, a Chromebook and a Windows laptop look very similar. Both are notebooks with a keyboard, a camera, a built-in screen, and usually include a trackpad. Many Chromebooks are clamshells, with some having touchscreen displays, and the ability to convert to tablet form.  

Inside the devices, however, there are some important differences. Windows laptops have various microprocessors powering them, usually chips from Intel and AMD. 

Meanwhile, Chromebooks have lower-performing chips that better suit the relatively slim demands of Chrome OS. There are some expensive Chromebooks that run on Intel Core chips, but most low to mid-range Chromebooks have lesser-known processors.

Traditional laptops run on an operating system called Windows 10, and they run Windows applications. Windows PCs offer a robust array of features, including high powered graphics cards, so they are more versatile. Your student can use the same computer to write a term paper during the day and play Overwatch at night.

There are also laptops that run Linux, an open source operating system, but they are relatively rare. Also, Apple makes its own laptops that run on its macOS operating system, and are known as MacBooks.

Chromebooks are far less complex. They run Chrome OS, which is based on the Chrome web browser. The newest Chromebooks can run Android apps, giving them greater versatility than in the past. 

It’s also worth noting that Windows laptops also usually have a lot of local storage, from 128GB on the low end. Chromebooks typically include about 16GB of storage. This is because Chrome OS, and the apps it runs, do not need as much storage space as Windows. Chromebooks are also designed to save your documents online in the ‘cloud’, using services like Google Drive.

Is a Chromebook or laptop better for school work?

A Chromebook is a good choice for a student that is primarily using the computer for web browsing, word processing, or streaming video and audio. Storage isn’t a problem if Google-focused students can store their files with Drive. They can also use SD cards and USB drives to keep hold of their documents.

A Chromebook is also a great low-cost option, with prices dipping as low as $100/£120/AU$140 during the holiday season for the low-end models. However, the price of a Chromebook can skyrocket to $1,000/£1,000/AU$1,400 if you choose a corporate or luxury option like the Google Pixelbook.

For school work, the Chromebook is a winner because it has so few features. Without extra games or a lot of applications, the Chromebook becomes a homework powerhouse, allowing students to access their lessons online with few distractions. 

Students can write their papers with Google Docs and share their work straight from the Chromebook to their teacher or parent, no printing necessary. The Microsoft Office suite is also available online, so students can create Word documents with ease.

The Chromebook is also just a hard device to break. If your student is prone to installing virus-laden programs, the Chromebook can be wiped and reset with ease. If the child isn’t particularly tech-savvy, there are few confusing functions: the Chromebook is a plug in and play device. Some of the newer Chromebooks are a little more delicate physically, but most can take a tumble, as many of the parts are plastic.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

As for a Windows laptop, it’s more of an investment, but it provides a lot of versatility and convenience. You have the ability to create almost anything on a laptop and store files on it as well. 

A laptop also has a lot of the drawbacks of owning a full-fledged computer. It will take time to boot up, it will require updates, and even the occasional “blue screen of death” can occur. Chromebooks very rarely crash, and when they do, a simple restart is an easy fix.

However, there are some tasks that are just easier on a Windows device. Chromebooks have traditionally struggled with direct printing, while laptops make quick work of printing out documents. Accessing and organizing files can also be a bit of a pain on the Chromebook, but there are workarounds.

In some way, though, a Windows laptop’s versatility is a weakness, as there are more features available for hackers to attack on a laptop. PCs need regular maintenance to keep them secure, even if it’s just keeping on top of scheduled software updates.

Chromebooks require far less upkeep, and Google has developed Chromebooks with safety and security in mind, and there are defenses working behind the scenes to keep you protected while you browse the web.

One way to determine the right option for you is to give a Chromebook a test drive. You could try using Google Chrome exclusively as your browser on your desktop computer for a few days, and determine whether your student needs more features than the browser can provide. Only use Chrome extensions, and use online apps like Google Docs.

However, Windows offers a far more complete computing experience, but Google OS is a much cheaper, scaled down alternative that may be just what your student needs in the classroom.

Back to School 2020 is certainly going to be different, and we’re here to guide you through what you’ll need. Whether you’re truly going back to school or remotely attending classes online, we’re rolling out a series of in-depth guides for students, teachers and parents to ensure you’re buying the right technology and accessories.

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