There are about a dozen different Chromebook models (from different manufacturers) each offering something a little but different. After comparing all the current models, I believe the Dell Chromebook 11 is the best bang for the buck. Unfortunately this model isn't offered in all regions (as an example it is not listed on Dell's Canadian site).
What is a Chromebook
Many of you found this page knowing what a chromebook is, so you can skip to the next section. For everyone wanting to know what a chromebook is, read on.
A typically Windows computer requires a Windows license, malware protection and constant updates. A couple of years ago, Google realized that many users had migrated from a traditional PC use model, where everything was running locally, to a web-centric model, where everything is running on the web.
When I switched from a Windows machine to a Mac last year, I realized just how much of my day to day computing is actually done in the cloud (Evernote, Google Gmail, Google Docs, Google Photos, etc).
To support this new computing paradigm, Google created a brand new operating system called ChromeOS. It is a specially designed Operating System built on Linux specifically to run the Chrome browser. There are many benefits to this new computing model but the first one most people think about is cost. And yes, ChromeOS Chromebooks are cheap but:
- ChromeOS is lightning fast - Because ChromeOS is stripped down minimalist and small footprint OS, many manufacturers use small solid state drives in their chromebooks which means boot time is incredibly fast. Fast because of the SSD (solid state drive) and fast because the operating system is small and lightweight. It is very common to see a Chromebook book completely from a shutdown state in under 10 seconds.
- No user maintenance - Most people want their computers to be like their toaster... They want it to "just work", A traditional PC (Mac or Windows) requires maintenance to keep in tip top shape but ChromeOS does not. ChromeOS is as maintenance free as a device can be. In an extreme case where things have gone awry, just use the built in "Powerwash" feature and your device will perform like new. All your data is in the cloud, there is nothing to backup, nothing to save and nothing to lose. Updates to ChromeOS are automatic and pushed by Google without any user intervention.
- ChromeOS is more secure - A Windows or Mac computer requires a slew of security oriented applications to keep you safe and to protect your data. Google designed ChromeOS with a "Defense in Depth" approach which means there are multiple layers of security built-in.
- Google keeps your device constantly patched which means any vulnerabilities are automatically and very quickly patched
- Each webpage or web-app is sandboxed (meaning it is logically separated from every other instance which means one webpage or web-app cannot attack or steal data from another webpage or web-app).
- If malware somehow manages to get installed and modifies ChromeOS to steal information, it will be detected and removed. Everytime a ChromeOS device is booted, there is a "Verified Boot" checker that verifies the integrity of the installation. If anything is modified, the device will automatically PowerWash itself and bring itself back to a known good state without any user intervention
Who shouldn't use ChromeOS
As amazing as ChromeOS is, it isnt the magic bullet and not everyone will want it. ChromeOS is designed for an always connected world. Google is making many of the functionality offline compatible (like Google Movies, Google Docs, Google Sheets, etc) but a ChromeOS device will always be happiest when it is connected to the big beautiful internet.
Chromebooks are internet terminals and as much most devices come with super fast but small SSD drives (16/32GB). You won't keep your entire photo collection locally.
Some always on the move people may need to buy a 3G/4G capable Chromebook which costs more and requires a carrier data plan.
ChromeOS was built as an internet access device and as such doesn't run apps locally (I know you can hack a version of Linux on most devices but that isn't something the average user will do). As a result, you won't be able to use your "normal" desktop apps like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, etc. The truth is most users can get along just fine with the free web alternatives but they just need a kick in the pants to try them. I switched from Microsoft office to Google Docs at home and haven't looked back. It does everything I need for home use, is free, fast and always available from any browser. I also like Apple's new web-based Pages wordprocessor (which does work on a Chromebook).
Google Free Chromebook googies
Google is always offering free goodies to make your Chromebook experience better like Free Google Drive storage, Free Gogo in-flight WIFI vouchers, Free Google Play Movie vouchers, etc
Google has setup an interesting page entitled "How to get Chrome Goodies for your Chromebook" that you can checkout for current offers (link).
What to look for
When shopping for a Google ChromeOS compatible Chromebook, you should be evaluating these different elements:
- Build quality and durability
- High quality and responsive keyboard & mouse
- Connectivity options and stability
- Longest battery life possible
- Large, bright and sharp display
- Light and easy to carry
I've listed the elements in the order of importance (according to me). The Dell Chromebook meets everyone of the above elements. It has a one of the best Chromebook keyboard currently available. The keys keep solid and clean when you press them. The keyboard layout is reasonable and the trackpad responsive.
Even though the device is all plastic, it feel solid and well built. It doesn't flex or crack when you use it.
The Dell Chromebook 11 supports 802.11 a/b/g/n for WIFI and Bluetooth 4.0. In my testing, the WIFI connection never dropped and WIFI performance was comparable to other much more expensive Dell laptops. The Dell Chromebook does not have 3G/4G connectivity options but I would rather tether my cell phone anyway instead of buying an additional dataline from my almost monopolistic always expensive carrier.
Dell claims battery life of 10 hours and my tests came up just shy of that number with very active use. I was typically getting 6-8 hours of solid use but this may be because of a ChromeOS bug rather than hardware issues. Every other Chromebook also performed well under the manufacturer stated limit. Dell was actually one of the best battery life performers. Hopefully Google will improve battery life through future software updates.
All of this in a reasonably small package weighing in at a mere 2.9 lbs.
Dell markets this Chromebook as a student device but don't let that fool you, this is currently the best general purpose Chromebook in the market.
Whereas some lesser Chromebooks are noticeably and sometimes annoyingly slow, the Dell Chromebook 11 always felt zippy. My wife is a perfect example of a typical web user and always keeps dozens of tabs open (I typically have 3-4 at any given time). On most Chromebooks (HP, Toshiba, Acer, etc) switching tabs (when 20-30 are open) take 30-45 seconds and older tabs have to be redrawn. The Dell Chromebook 11 never suffered any of these issues. Switching tabs is fast and pleasant. For webpages with active content like Java, the Dell Chromebook 11 was almost twice as fast as the slowest models (Samsung and HP). This speed is directly attributable to the hardware specifications (Intel Haswell based Celeron 2955U processor, 16GB of very fast SSD storage and 4GB of RAM). Dell chose an excellent configuration for this device making it snappy and responsive like a device should be.
From an expandability perspective, the Dell Chromebook 11 has 2 USB 3.0 ports and an SD-card slot. The SD-card slot means you can load content and use while disconnected (pictures, music, etc). Great addition for a 16GB device.
So the Dell's screen is good but not the best. The screen itself is respectable and outperforms most other Chromebooks but the IPS one on the HP is just that much better. The Dell's screen is also glossy which means it has smaller viewing angles and reduced visibility in bright sunlight.
Like anything else in this price range, you will need to hookup an external Bluetooth speaker to get anything worth writing home about. I have this same complaint for traditional laptops even some costs close to $2000. The Dell Chromebook 11's speakers are weak but so are those in most laptops anyway (except those in my beloved Macbook pro which rock).
Eventually we may need a touch enabled Chromebook once Google allows Android apps to run in ChromeOS but at about $300 a pop, that future requirement shouldn't influence your decision to buy today.