Buying a Chromebook has always been a little confusing. At first, we had to wrap our heads around the idea that this was a laptop that just ran a browser. Then, we had to figure out how much something like that should cost. Now, we have to think about whether the addition of Android apps — which are still in beta — could take these browser-only computers and turn them into something that can truly compete with Windows and Mac computers.
So let’s simplify it: Yes, Chromebooks are still mostly “just” Chrome browsers. You can run Android apps on a select few, but it’s not a great experience yet and it’s anybody’s guess as to when that will change. But the web-based apps available for Chrome itself are often remarkably powerful, and many can work offline. So when you buy a Chromebook, you can and should just focus on the things that make using Chrome OS itself a good experience: a fast processor, a good screen, long battery life, a nice keyboard, and a reasonable price.
That last one can be particularly hard to parse, because pricing can vary from $150 or so for devices meant for the education market all the way up to northwards of $1,000 for top-of-the-line models. But at the end of the day, you should avoid spending more than five or six hundred dollars on a Chromebook, if only because you can get Windows machines that are pretty darn good at those prices.
That advice may change if and when Google releases real improvements to the Android app system on Chrome OS. Rumors are pointing to a new, top-tier Chromebook Pixel getting released in October. Even though we expect that to cost more than what most people should spend on a Chromebook, we’ll definitely update this article when we find out more information.
In the meanwhile, the best Chromebook you can buy right now is the one that does the best job showcasing what the Chrome browser and its apps can do, with a bit of support for Android apps as future proofing.
The best Chromebook right now: Asus Chromebook Flip C302
The competition for the best Chromebook is a little tighter now than it used to be, thanks to excellent devices from a bunch of manufacturers like Asus, Lenovo, and Samsung. But the best of them hits all the features you should care about on a Chromebook without any major flaws.
It’s the Asus Chromebook Flip C302, which in our review we called the new “standard.” That’s because it hits those basic notes: nice hardware, a good screen, a fast Intel processor, a backlit keyboard, and good battery life. It also has support for Android apps if you need them; they were just added to the “stable” version of Chrome OS for the C302 recently.
The only real downside to the C302 is its price, which often hovers around $500 on Amazon. But the problem with buying a much cheaper Chromebook is that you’ll end up compromising on one (or several) things that will ultimately annoy you. The biggest one is performance. The C302 can handle a dozen or more tabs, while cheaper Chromebooks can bog down when you get more than eight and usually make you look at crappy screens while you wait.
The C302 is also relatively futureproof, not only because it supports Android apps but because it can also be flipped around into a tablet mode. That mode can be useful for watching video and means that as Google continues to improve Chrome OS for touch, the C302 will be able to take advantage.
If I’m honest, I prefer the hardware of Samsung’s Chromebook Pro, which is slightly better looking and comes with a stylus. However, the Chromebook Pro lacks a backlit keyboard, a mystifying omission. The C302 has a good, backlit keyboard but no stylus — which isn’t a huge loss given the state of the software for styli on Chrome OS.
If you need Android apps: Samsung Chromebook Plus
If Android apps are essential on your Chromebook, the best way to run them is with Samsung’s Chromebook Plus. It’s an excellently built machine that’s thin and light. It uses a custom, ARM-based processor called the OP1. ARM processors are similar to what you have on your phone, so on Chromebooks they usually end up being slower and more frustrating that Intel processors.
On the Chromebook Plus, that’s not totally true. While a proper Intel processor will give you better performance using the Chrome browser, the OP1 is surprisingly fast. It performs better than any comparable ARM-based Chromebook we’ve tried, even though it’s not quite as fast as the C302.
Running an ARM processor means that most Android apps require less “translation” work to run well on Chrome OS. Games are less likely to stutter, and overall the experience is better. And though it lacks a backlit keyboard, it does come with a stylus. Even though the software for the stylus isn’t great, it is convenient to have it when you need to quickly mark up a screenshot or document.
The Chromebook Plus is a little more expensive than we’d like, at $449 retail, but if you really need Android apps, it’s your best bet.
(Note: yes, you may have noticed that the Chromebook Plus has a slightly higher review score, though it’s very close. We still recommend the C302 for most people. The Plus’ score reflects its abilities with Android apps and its surprisingly good performance for a slightly cheaper price.)
Quality on Chromebooks can unfortunately vary widely once you get below $400 or so. It’s possible to find something pretty good if you’re willing to forego features like a touchscreen or a backlit keyboard, but you should definitely try them out in person before buying if at all possible. That’s because, by and large, the money savings come from cutting corners on both build quality and the processor.
Like The Wirecutter, we like the Thinkpad 13 Chromebook as a basic option — but only if you are sure you’ll never want a touchscreen for tablet mode. Although the Acer Chromebook 14 for Work seemed promising, we managed to crack the screen without that much abuse because the top of the laptop flexed too much. Acer’s Chromebook 15 is an option if you must have a gigantic screen, but the rest of the laptop disappoints. The Lenovo Flex 11, which is inexpensive at under $300, surprised us with its durability and quality screen for the price, but of course the processor is only good enough for the most basic of tasks.