Chromebooks have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially among those looking for an inexpensive laptop to use for general day-to-day computing. But how are they different from a laptop running Windows or macOS?

Our guide explains all you need to know about Chromebooks, including the software they run, what you can do with them, plus the advantages and disadvantages of the Google's platform. We are very fond of Chromebooks, so here’s why you should be too. 

Does a Chromebook run Windows?

At first glance, a Chromebook looks very much like a typical Windows laptop, but there are significant differences between the two. The term Chromebook (as opposed to 'notebook', which many people use to refer to Windows laptops) is there to denote that the laptop runs the ChromeOS operating system from Google.

This has been around for about a decade now, and you can read more about their history in our 10 years with ChromeOS feature. It puts a focus on using online apps rather than installing them on your hard drive as you do with Windows and macOS. 

So, does this mean that a Chromebook is some weird specialist device that can't run the apps you need? Yes and no. It's easiest to think of a Chromebook as a web browser. So anything you can do online, you can do on a Chromebook. 

If you’ve used the Chrome web browser (and who hasn’t?), then the layout and interface will feel very familiar. Plus, it’s worth remembering that so much of what we do on laptops these days is often already done in a browser (online shopping, streaming music and video, social media) or held online (cloud storage, email, photo libraries, etc.). 

Many Windows programs, including Microsoft Office, have web versions you can use on Chromebooks, and on modern Chromebooks you can also install and run Android apps, which opens up a lot more uses.

One of the most helpful aspects of this approach is that all you need is your Google account details to use a Chromebook. Logging in will give you access to all your apps and data, then if you move a new Chromebook you won’t have to back up your files and move them across. Simply log into the new one and all of your stuff immediately appears. It’s so easy. For more details read how to set up a Chromebook. 

ChromeOS is a stripped back operating system that is fast, simple to use, and works brilliantly for online activities. Chromebooks are the devices on which this software runs. 

What can you do with a Chromebook?

  • Anything you can do in a web browser

As mentioned above, Chromebooks are great for doing stuff online. Whether it’s ordering your weekly grocery shop, checking the latest headlines, hanging out on Facebook or Twitter, video calling your family, binging a new series on Netflix, attending online classes or pretty much anything else you’d normally do in a browser on your existing tablet, smartphone or computer. 

They are also very good for office/admin-style duties, with the free Google Docs, Sheets and Slides apps giving you access to all the basic capabilities you’d find on the MS Office equivalents. 

If you use Gmail, then it’s built right into ChromeOS (not surprising as Gmail is one of Google's services), so you can organise your communications, plus there are also apps for Messages (the Android messaging app), WhatsApp, Slack and others. Of course, most email services allow you to access messages in a web browser. 

What is a Chromebook: Pixelbook Go

You may have seen a pattern emerging here: if you use Google apps, then Chromebooks will feel a very natural fit. Also, if you have an Android phone (especially the Google Pixel range), then again you’ll find that the two will work well together. 

Chromebooks have become very popular with schools, as they are generally affordable, easy to manage, and give kids all they need to accomplish educational-based tasks. They are also a good choice for people who don’t really get on with technology too well. If your ageing parent is looking for a new laptop, then a Chromebook could be an excellent option, especially if you’re going to be the one offering technical support. 

So, what are the drawbacks to Chromebooks?

  • Not designed for serious gaming
  • Not ideal for creatives

Well, if you want to use a specific application then it might not be available on ChromeOS. For example, those who create music, video or graphical content will find the limitations of online services too much, and none of the stalwarts like Logic Pro, Photoshop or Adobe Premiere are available for Chromebooks. 

Gamers will be able to use Android apps, but this isn’t ideal due to the form factor, plus it won’t be anywhere near as good a proper Windows gaming laptop with their powerful GPUs,  processors, and huge choice of AAA games. You can use Nvidia’s GeForce streaming service on Chromebooks though, which does make them more attractive to gamers than in the past. 

Also, if you need a full-blown version of Microsoft Word or Excel, with all the bells and whistles, then again you’ll be out of luck. But, Chromebooks are not aiming for those kind of users. Creative professionals and gamers are already well catered for and heavy-duty Office proponents will always fare better with a powerful Windows PC. 

For everyone else though, who just wants a laptop-style device for administrative tasks, web use, streaming, social media and video calls, a Chromebook has pretty much everything you need.

If you’re interested in a more direct comparison, read Chromebook vs Laptop. 

Can I use a Chromebook offline?

Yes, for certain tasks you can. For example, Google Docs allows you to continue working on a document even when there’s no internet connection. The file is stored on the hard drive until a time when you’re back in range of a Wi-Fi network, then the Chromebook automatically uploads it to the cloud and updates the older version. There are a range of apps that work offline, all of which you’ll find in the Works Offline section of the Chrome App Store.

Will a Chromebook work with my accessories?

This can be a bit hit and miss. External hard drives, thumb drives, and other storage media usually work without a hitch, as Chromebooks recognise pretty much all of the major file types and formats. Printers can be more problematic, but if they are WiFi enabled you should be ok. 

As for Bluetooth speakers, keyboard and mice, they are usually very happy to play with Chromebooks. Google also announced a Works with Chromebook program in 2020, so you can know immediately whether accessories are compatible. 

Should I buy a Chromebook?

If you’ve read all of the content above and feel that a Chromebook could work for you, then we’d certainly recommend you try one out. So long as you acknowledge the limitations of the platform (primarily online, won’t have all the Windows/macOS software, more suited to Android smartphones than iOS), then we think you won’t be disappointed.  

Which are the best Chromebooks to buy?

With Chromebooks growing in popularity, there are now quite a few different models to choose between. To simplify this, take a look at our guide to the best Chromebooks so you can pick up a great machine with which to start your ChromeOS adventure.