Chrome OS has long been seen as a low-cost alternative to Mac and Windows, but 2020 saw Google's desktop operating system establish itself as a direct rival. Data from market share analysts Gartner and Canalys suggest that over 30 million Chromebooks were shipped last year, including at least 11 million in Q4 alone.

The two firms differ slightly on some statistics, but one thing cannot be disputed: 2020 was Chromebook's best ever year by far. However, its estimated market share still sits at around 1.91% in January 2021 (StatCounter), only a slight increase on 12 months earlier.

Nonetheless, these are still impressive figures for an operating system that seemed destined to fail when it launched back in 2011. Early devices like the Acer AC700 and Samsung Series 5 were widely criticised for their direct reliance on an internet connection and lack of functionality when compared to Windows or macOS devices. 

However, Google's persistence with Chrome OS has turned out to be a wise decision. Once the company itself was joined in producing hardware by the likes of Lenovo and HP, it was clear Chrome OS had a bright future. In 2016, less than five years after first launching, Chromebooks were outselling Macs in the United States.

The above figures for 2020 would have been scarcely believable a decade ago, although the pandemic has played a big part. The shift to working remotely for many people sent demand skyrocketing, with Chromebooks' relative affordability making them a popular option. There's less appetite to spend four figures on a new PC, and Chromebooks have proven that it's not necessary for many people. 

Chrome OS is also incredibly popular in the education sector, with Google dedicating plenty of resources to enable effective schooling, even before the pandemic. With many young people having to learn from home, demand looks set to remain high for the foreseeable future. 

Windows 10X could complicate matters

However, it might not be plain sailing for Chrome OS in 2021. Microsoft unveiled a new version of Windows known as Windows 10X in 2019, and it's expected to finally come to market this year. The software is designed for dual-screen devices like the upcoming Surface Neo, but it's coming to regular laptops and 2-in-1s first.

Windows 10X is being marketed as a stripped-back, web-first version of Windows 10. Sound familiar? It sounds a lot like the way Chrome OS is pitched, making it seem almost inevitable that the two will go head-to-head on affordable hardware. Windows 10X's eventual move to dual-screens is unlikely to affect the number of devices powered by Microsoft's new operating system.

In addition to the range of hardware on offer, which one you choose will likely come to which ecosystem you're more familiar with. Chrome OS will still be the default option if you rely on the likes of Gmail and Google Drive, while Windows 10X may win over people who use Microsoft apps on a daily basis.

Chrome OS will likely remain popular throughout 2021, but Windows 10X will take some stopping. One area where Google still holds the advantage is in education, with Microsoft yet to announce any student-specific support in Windows 10X.

Windows 10X is expected to be released this Spring, with the first devices arriving in the months that follow. Until then, if you're looking for a cheap, portable PC that's extremely easy to use, a Chromebook is your best bet. 

Check out our best Chromebook chart for some great options, and if you already have one, here are fixes for the most common Chromebook problems.