$250 Chromebooks: Are They the Laptop for You?
PHOTO: Google and HP have teamed up to release the $279 Chromebook 11.

Shopping for a laptop or portable computer these days feels a lot like shopping for a toothbrush. There's an inexhaustible variety of sizes, colors and shapes. There are Windows tablets, Windows tablets that become laptops and then just your average Windows laptops. There's the iPad and then a massive selection of Android tablets. There's also Apple's family of MacBooks.

And then there is a less publicized but increasingly popular category: Chromebooks. While all those other devices can run Google's Chrome browser, Chromebooks -- as you can tell from the name -- only run Google's popular browser. These laptops, which start for as low as $250, are that simple -- they are entirely about using the Web. In fact, as soon as you boot up the computers, you get a desktop and one app in the corner that opens up the browser.

The idea is that you are living in the browser for most of your day on your laptop or tablet already: Do you really need anything else? That is really the question, though. Here's what you need to know about Chromebooks before weighing if you can live life just in a browser.

Why You'll Want a Chromebook

1. Very affordable.

Because Chromebooks run just a browser and don't require higher-end hardware to power more advanced software features they tend to be extremely affordable, ranging in price from $200 to $500. Check out Amazon.com's list of top computers and at the top you'll find Samsung's $250 Chromebook in the lead and HP's newest $279 Chromebook 11 at number four.

Many people bought those Windows netbooks a few years back because they were easy on the wallet. Chromebooks have now taken their place as the most inexpensive laptops you can buy. Additionally, Google throws in some perks, increasing the value of the laptops, including 12 vouchers for GoGo's in-flight Wi-Fi for when you are flying, which is close to a $150 value. It also includes 100 GB of Google Drive storage space, which normally costs $60 a year.

So, yes, if you are looking to save on that credit card bill and get a very basic computer, a Chromebook is worth some serious consideration.

2. Easy to use and operate.

"For everybody." That's one of Google's marketing phrases for Chromebooks and that's because almost everybody knows how to use a web browser. There's really no learning how to use a Chromebook -- if you know how to use a browser, you're all good. No need to teach mom or dad how to get back to the desktop or find an app, everything -- e-mail, Facebook, news websites -- is just a Web address away. While it is mostly a browser, Google has built in some tricks, including pinning your favorite Web apps to the bottom left-hand corner. While you can't run Microsoft Word on a Chromebook, Google's suite of apps, including Google Docs and Google Sheets, are easy to pick up and let you open .doc and .xls files.

3. Fast boot times and good battery life.

Chromebooks don't have big or slow hard drives inside, instead they have small yet fast flash storage. That means the laptops boot and wake from sleep fairly quickly -- the new HP Chromebook 11 can be up and running in less four seconds when you wake it up from sleep -- and they can last a while on a charge. While the HP lasts only about six hours on a charge, HP promises nine hours of juice on its 14-inch version.

Why You Won't Want a Chromebook

1. No Internet, no laptop.

A Chromebook is only as good as the Wi-Fi connection it can connect to. While there are some offline applications, such as a calculator, video player, file manager and photo editor, there really isn't much you can do with the laptop without an Internet connection. And while Google does offer offline support for Gmail and Google Docs, you have to configure that before you lose your Internet connection. If you're only planning on using the laptop at home or at some coffee shops, the Wi-Fi dependence shouldn't be a problem, but if you rely on some apps for offline, this likely isn't the laptop for you.

2. No desktop programs or support.

This also isn't the laptop for you if you depend on some specific desktop apps or programs since you can't run any non-Web-based apps. That means no Skype, no iTunes, no Photoshop or programs that you might need for work.

3. Not very powerful.

It depends on which Chromebook you chose but generally the lower-end laptops are not as fast or powerful as others. While they can surely manage a load of checking email, Twitter or Facebook and some other tabs, don't expect much more. For instance, when using the HP Chromebook 11 to write this article with 10 tabs open it became sluggish. It actually took time for Google Docs to catch up with my typing of much of this article. Google's Pixel Chromebook has a much more powerful processor inside and thus doesn't have the same performance issues, but that laptop also costs north of $1,000. Chromebooks with Intel Core processors are your best bet when it comes to shopping for better performance.

Bottom Line

Chromebooks are about trade-offs. For $250 to $280 you get a very affordable machine with some nice hardware features, but you sacrifice power and more advanced capabilities. That's why Chromebooks can make great secondary machines for surfing the web on the couch or handing off to the kids when you're busy on your own laptop. However, many would say that's exactly what a tablet does well.

Still, if you are looking for an affordable laptop to do some basic web surfing one of Google's laptops will do the trick. If you're looking for more there are a lot of other devices to choose from and the good news is that they all run Google's Chrome. Of course, none of them will keep your teeth clean.

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