Back to School: Is a Chromebook right for you?

Saturday , August 16, 2014 - 9:06 AM

By LESLIE MEREDITH
Standard-Examiner contributor

It's back-to-school time and a brisk season for new computer sales. This season, you have a third option beyond a pricey Mac or a standard Windows laptop — a Chromebook. Although the streamlined devices have been around for just over three years, it is only now that they're poised to take off.

Launched by Google in 2011, the laptops were designed to be used with an Internet connection, running Google's Chrome operating system. They were designed for people accessing documents and services from the cloud — well before the public understood a cloud was something other than a weather phenomenon. Chromebook was ahead of its time. But a lot has changed in three years.

Sales of Chromebooks will reach 5.2 million units in 2014, a 79 percent increase from 2013, according to research firm Gartner. Schools are leading the surge. In fact, 85 percent of all Chromebooks were purchased by educators last year. Over the next several years, Gartner said, sales will nearly triple, as manufacturers introduce more powerful machines that serve the needs of always-on WiFi users.

Chromebooks are cheap, simple machines that run on the most secure and fast operating system available. Prices start at around $200 and just top $300. Priced like the now-defunct netbook, Chromebooks deliver much more. Netbooks were underpowered, battery life was minimal and configuring them could be difficult.

In contrast, new Chromebooks are available with powerful processors such as an Intel Core i3, battery life of up to 13 hours, start-up time of around 10 seconds and a simple, familiar interface. Because it's made to be used primarily online, there's less that can go wrong with the hardware, which is a big benefit for schools as well as for parents.

● Is a Chromebook right for you?

The answer depends on the way you use your computer. If you spend the majority of your computer time online, the answer is yes. But even if you don't — say you spend much of your time on Microsoft Office — that doesn't mean you should reject a Chromebook. You could switch to Microsoft Office online to create documents, which is a painless transition. Further, with Drive (Google's equivalent to Office), you can save and share your Google documents in Office formats, including Word, Excel and Powerpoint. And, Google offers offline versions of Gmail and Drive, as well as Google Play movies, so you still have options without a connection.

However, if you edit video or handle heavy photo editing, a Chromebook is likely not the best option for you. Likewise, PC gamers need more powerful machines. But if you stream movies on Netflix, use Facebook and other social media, email and browse the Web, Chromebooks offer excellent value.



● The one to buy

Just last week, Acer introduced its Chromebook 13, the first to use Nvidia's Tegra K1 quad core processor for the longest battery life of any Chromebook on the market and the second to offer a full HD 1080p touchscreen display. (Samsung Chromebook 2 was the first, but the Acer is less expensive.) It also comes in a lower resolution model with a 1366 x 768 display, but for $20 more — $299 — you can have full HD.

Both models come with 16GB SSD and 2GB of RAM. You can upgrade to 32GB SSD and 4GB RAM for $379 total. But remember, nothing happens locally on the machine as it does on a standard laptop, so the base specs should be sufficient.

The Chromebook 13 weighs 3.31 pounds and is 0.71 inches thick -- the right size to slip into a bag. It has two USB 3.0 ports, one HDMI port, a webcam (optimized for Google Hangouts), a full-sized keyboard and a generously sized trackpad. You can preorder it now from Amazon and Best Buy, which is not a bad idea since Dell's Chromebook 11 has been sold out for several months. Acer is expected to ship the new units in September.

Bottom line: You won't find a speedier, more reliable laptop at a better price. In fact, you could spend $400 or more on a Windows laptop and wind up with less. For those PC users who haven't made the jump to Windows 8.1, the move to ChromeOS will be far easier.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past six years. She has designed and manages several international websites. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.

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