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Chromebooks have exploded in popularity in recent years. Their demand went up 4x during the pandemic. And most of it comes from students.
There are two primary reasons for that popularity: Chromebooks are affordable and easy to use.
But the truth is, despite their popularity, Chromebooks are only right for some college students. They do great at what they’re designed for. But depending on your academic needs, a Chromebook may be unable to keep up.
So is a Chromebook the right choice for you? Or does a traditional laptop make more sense for your college needs? That’s the question our Chromebook vs laptop for college comparison will answer.
Table of Contents
- Chromebook vs Laptop for Students: What’s the Difference
- Pros and Cons of a Chromebook
- Can a Chromebook replace a traditional laptop?
- How Can College Students Pick the Right Option
- Which Option Works Best For Different Majors
- Chromebook or Laptop FAQs
Chromebook vs Laptop for Students: What’s the Difference
Most people think of Chromebooks as “Android in a laptop.” That image has some exceptions (as we’ll see in later sections). But for the most part, it’s accurate. And that’s what makes Chromebooks different from regular laptops.
Chromebooks are Simple and Streamlined
Chromebooks are designed to do fewer things. But they do them really well. ChromeOS — the operating system powering them — is exceptionally well-polished.
Everything just works.
For the most part, you’ll never need to leave the browser. You can take notes with your favorite app, organize your calendar, take virtual meetings, or write in Google Docs.
But if you need to, you can always turn to Android apps.
That simplicity is where Chromebooks shine. On the flip side, it’s also their biggest limitation.
Traditional Laptops are Robust and Versatile
Chromebooks can’t run robust software or offer the versatile experience that other laptops do. We’ve already discussed the limited software selection available to ChromeOS users. And on top of that, Chromebooks (generally speaking) have weak hardware.
So there’s the rub. If your academic needs go beyond web or Android apps, you’re better off with a macOS or Windows laptop. Traditional machines have stronger hardware and support every software under the sun.
Before you buy a Chromebook
With that in mind, here’s a word of caution.
Do not consider a Chromebook if your college major or courses require specialized software made only for Windows or macOS.
We’ll discuss it in more detail shortly. But unless that specialized software can run within a browser, a typical laptop will serve you better.
Pros and Cons of a Chromebook
We’ve already noted how simple and polished Chromebooks are. Let’s dive deeper into that.
Pros of a Chromebook
Inexpensive: Chromebooks are usually less expensive than Windows or Mac laptops.
Lightweight and fast: ChromeOS is built around the Google Chrome browser. Nothing is bogging it down. So it’s snappy and responsive. The whole experience is simple and streamlined in a way that Windows just isn’t. Die-hard Macbook fans might disagree.
Chromebooks usually boot up in less than 10 seconds.
Ease of use: Chromebooks integrate tightly with the cloud. Your preferences, bookmarks, extensions, and files seamlessly sync everywhere. It’s all very intuitive.
You’ll find fewer options, yes. But also fewer distractions.
That intentional design is excellent for productivity. With a productivity mindset, you’ll find a lot of things easy to do on a Chromebook.
Integration with the Google ecosystem: Chromebooks are also a great option for people in the Google ecosystem. For students who already own an Android phone or tablet, their device will integrate nicely with a Chromebook. You can use it to unlock your Chromebook, see notifications, and share files (just like Apple’s Airdrop).
You Can Run Linux on a Chromebook: One hidden strength that only a few people know about Chromebooks is that you can run Linux on them.
You just have to enable the built-in feature with a single toggle. And you get access to the full Linux experience inside a virtual container. You can run commands and apps, just like you would on any Debian (a flavor of Linux) machine.
It comes with a small learning curve if you’re unfamiliar with Linux.
But on the whole, Linux supercharges your Chromebook.
Battery Life: Acer Chromebook 514 can last more than 14 hours on a single charge. Acer 514 and others like it are where Chromebooks get their reputation for amazingly long battery life. That reputation comes with a caveat, though. We’ll discuss it next.
Cons of a Chromebook
Weak Hardware: Chromebooks don’t need a lot of resources. So naturally, they have weak hardware — it’s why they can be so cheap.
While it’s true that you can get more than 13 hours of heavy usage out of some Chromebook models, it doesn’t hold for them all. Chromebooks have earned a reputation that might be misleading. Actually, a lot of Chromebooks only offer mediocre to average battery life.
Limited Software Selection: Many modern Chromebook models run on underpowered mobile processors. They’re not built for resource-hungry desktop apps.
So, even if you manage to run your favorite desktop app on it (using Linux), its performance might disappoint.
But more importantly, many of these specialized apps just aren’t available for Linux. You can’t run Adobe Photoshop, AutoCAD or Microsoft Office as standalone software on a Chromebook.
Suppose you want to use specialized software not available in a Chromebook’s Google Play Store. You essentially have two options:
- Use the limited web version of the app
- Remote into another desktop from your Chromebook
Limited Storage: Chromebooks also have limited storage. The files are supposed to go to the cloud. While Chromebooks can be used offline, they are designed for online use because of the limited storage.
Poor Durability: Chromebooks aren’t built to last. They only get software updates for 8 years (from the date of their release). And it’s harder to get them repaired.
With the pros and cons weighed, we’re ready to answer the question that led us here.
- Lightweight and fast
- Ease of use
- Integration with the Google ecosystem
- You Can Run Linux on a Chromebook
- Battery Life
- Weak Hardware
- Limited Software Selection
- Limited Storage
- Poor Durability
Can a Chromebook replace a traditional laptop?
The answer is yes, it is possible. But it may not be a good idea for every student.
To get clarity, ask yourself three questions:
Do I need broad software access, including specialized apps?
This one is self-explanatory. Laptops running on Microsoft Windows or Apple’s macOS support almost every software you can think of. For broad software access, those laptops are the obvious winner.
If yes: go with a Windows laptop or Macbook
Do I prefer robust customization over a simple, streamlined experience?
Traditional laptops give you complete control over your operating system. You can tweak, customize, and personalize it until it’s just perfect.
Pretty much every Chromebook looks and behaves the same. For the most part, Google focuses solely on delivering a simple and clean user experience.
If customization is important, we recommend a regular laptop.
If you want a simple, streamlined experience and ease of use, go with a Chromebook.
Do I need powerful hardware?
Chromebooks are lightweight, both in hardware and software. So if you need a laptop for gaming or running fluid simulations, a Chromebook just won’t cut it.
If yes: go with a Windows laptop or Macbook
Now, if you answered yes to all three questions, typical laptops will fit your needs better. And if you answered no to all, Chromebooks might be the right choice.
But how do you know for sure if you are a student? Let’s find out.
How Can College Students Pick the Right Option
Your major, budget, and daily tech needs are the last pieces of our puzzle. Considering all the context you’ve read so far, you’ll have everything you need to finalize your choice.
Be Clear on Your Budget
The affordable pricing of Chromebooks makes them a tempting choice for students. But even in the Chromebook category, you’ll find many high-end options. These premium Chromebooks can hit the $1000 mark. For example, the HP DragonFly Pro Chromebook starts at $1000.
Having said that, it doesn’t make sense for a college student to go for a premium Chromebook. Investing in a traditional option in the same price bracket is better. You can check out our list of best laptops under $800.
You’ll find the best Chromebooks in the $250-$350 range.
If you only need a browser and some Android apps, picking a Chromebook over a regular laptop is a no-brainer. It’ll work just as smoothly for half the price.
Consider your Major
Your college major can help you make a better decision too. Chromebooks are a solid fit for some majors; standard laptops are better for others.
OK, so how do you know?
You have to determine if your major requires you to work with standalone software. For instance, STEM majors usually require heavy-duty programs.
Consider Your Daily Tech Needs
Beyond academics, consider your day-to-day tech needs. And how well either option fits into that picture.
Say, if you game on your laptop, dabble in music production, or create content, you’ll have to evaluate your tech needs accordingly.
Once again, a Chromebook will be the perfect choice for solely web-based workflows. We have also created a deep dive into gaming on a Chromebook.
Which Option Works Best For Different Majors
Here, we will discuss different majors with the strengths and weaknesses of Chromebooks and laptops. For each major, we’ll declare a clear winner.
Liberal arts majors mostly use their computers for word processing, research, and reading. The cloud-based design of Chromebooks is perfect for their purposes. They can sync and access their files across devices. For liberal arts, Chromebooks are the clear winner.
Computer science majors need IDEs for coding. You can run your favorite development environment on a Chromebook within the Linux container.
But again, the performance will be limited. You’ll need a robust and flexible laptop for advanced development and testing. So for computer science students, a traditional laptop is a no-brainer.
Chromebooks don’t support specialized software for simulation and CAD. So you’ll need a high-performance laptop that can run those demanding tasks. A regular laptop is the right choice for engineering majors. And we have a selection of the best laptops for AutoCAD for you to choose from.
Art and Design
For art and design, the industry standard is the Adobe Creative suite (which includes apps like Photoshop and Illustrator). And Chromebooks don’t support it.
Additionally, design apps and files take up a lot of space. And Chromebooks have minimal storage.
These two reasons make powerful laptops the best option for art and design students.
Business, Finance, and Economics
Like liberal arts, business, finance, and economics majors must also read, research, and write often. Google Workspace and its cloud-based sync do perfectly for those needs.
While it’s true that you may need statistics software for some economics and finance courses, you can likely find web-based alternatives.
A Chromebook can be a good bet for you if you’re primarily studying one of these subjects. You might have to do some research for statistics software before you buy your Chromebook though.
If you find Chromebooks too limiting for your business, you can check out some of these best laptops for MBA students.
Head-to-Head: Summary of Results
|Liberal Arts||Winner (1)||–|
|Computer Science||–||Winner (1)|
|Art and Design||–||Winner (1)|
|Business, Finance, and Economics||Winner (1)||–|
Chromebook or Laptop FAQs
What’s the difference between a Chromebook and a laptop?
The operating system is the primary difference between a Chromebook and a laptop. Chromebooks run on a lightweight operating system called ChromeOS, while Windows, macOS, or Linux power traditional laptops.
Additionally, Chromebooks are intentionally designed to run on the internet and only have limited offline usability.
Is a Chromebook good for college?
Chromebooks can be an option for college students if they’re buying in the $250-350 range and don’t need broad software access. For liberal arts, business, finance, and economics majors, they’re a solid alternative to standard laptops.
Can you run Android apps on Chromebook laptops?
Yes, you can run Android apps on a Chromebook and sync them with your other Android devices. They’ve been called “Android laptops.” Modern Chromebooks come preloaded with the Google Play Store. You can also sideload Android apps using APK files.
As we saw, there’s no universal winner when deciding between a Chromebook or a laptop for college. Chromebooks, with their tempting price tags and simple but solid ChromeOS, are a great choice. But they don’t fit the needs of all college majors.
To figure out if a Chromebook will be a good companion in your college journey, you need to evaluate your major and budget. And of course, be ready to make compromises on software availability.
Traditional laptops, on the other hand, work for everyone. And for some specific majors, they’re the only realistic option. But they can cost more, and their mileage may vary regarding the user experience. You can check out our pick of the best laptops for college students next.