Consumers will see attractively priced Chromebooks on a lot more store shelves this summer. The portable computers, which feature an operating system from Google and hardware from the likes of HP and Samsung, have arrived at retailers including Walmart and Staples. Google announced in mid-June that Walmart would sell Acer's newest C7 Chromebook for a mere $199. Office Depot, OfficeMax, and other retailers are also joining the Chromebook crew, which already includes Best Buy and online outlets such as Amazon.
What is a Chromebook, exactly?Chromebooks are not your usual budget laptops. They use Google's Chrome operating system (basically a fancy version of the company's Chrome web browser) and are designed to be online devices closely integrated with the Google universe (Gmail, Google Drive, etc.). Users store most of their files on the company's cloud servers and use Chrome apps or extensions and online programs to carry out tasks, rather than software stored on a hard drive. Instead of using an installed program to create a document, for example, you'd hop online to use Google Docs. Google has a large number of extensions available for Chrome that can fulfill the tasks of most common software. Chromebooks do have solid-state drives, or SSDs, so you can store stuff offline. You can also access offline versions of some extensions without an Internet connection. But make no mistake: The Chromebook is designed to be an always-connected device. If you lose your Internet connection, you won't be able to do a whole lot with a Chromebook.
How does it compare to a traditional laptop?Chromebooks and other cheap laptops have pretty similar hardware, with the exception of their storage capacity. Chromebooks have speedy SSDs that typically hold only about 16GB (remember, Chromebook users store most of their files in the cloud), compared with the hundreds of gigabytes on many budget-laptop hard drives. Otherwise, both Chromebooks and conventional low-cost laptops tend to have several gigabytes of memory, dual-core processors, a variety of ports, built-in webcams, and high-definition screens. One big advantage of Chromebooks: They start up very fast, unlike Microsoft Windows-based machines that often need at least 30 seconds (sometimes quite a bit more). Price-wise, Chromebooks are often cheaper than budget laptops, ranging from $199 for the Acer C7 sold by Wal-Mart to about $500 for the Samsung Series 5 3G Wireless Chromebook (although the high-end Chromebook Pixel commands $1,300 and up).
Should I buy a Chromebook?For some people, a Chromebook may not be the best choice for a primary computer, but it's cheap enough to make an excellent second system. Students in particular may find Chromebooks useful because they're fairly small (most have 12-inch screens) and very lightweight for carrying around campus. Chromebooks are also easy to use: If you know how to use a web browser, you know how to use a Chromebook. These are low-maintenance devices that update automatically and boast built-in antivirus protection. If you don't feel comfortable keeping your stuff in the cloud, though -- or don't want to pay for online storage (Google includes 100GB free for two years with most Chromebooks) -- a small SSD may not provide enough room. And, of course, you won't be able to install your favorite Windows software on a Chromebook because it has no Windows OS. Although many programs have online substitutes, heavy users of software such as Adobe Photoshop aren't good candidates for a Chromebook.
If you're looking for a cheap, fast, and easy-to-use laptop and feel at home in the Google ecosystem, a Chromebook is a good alternative to a traditional laptop. Yes, it has some limitations, but in this connected world, those limitations are starting to seem quaint. Why buy a pricey laptop with a large hard drive when you can store everything online and access it from anywhere? And Google's array of online tools and apps should cover just about all of your software needs.