Ever since the advent of the iPhone and iPad, some people have been using their laptops a lot less. Do you even need one at all? Kimber Streams, who tests laptops at The Wirecutter, a product-reviews website owned by The New York Times, offers some advice.
Q: For people who basically use their laptop to browse the web and send email, is there a cheap option?
A: Definitely. For those people, I recommend a Chromebook.
It’s a laptop in the traditional sense, but it runs Chrome OS, a lighter operating system by Google that’s basically just a web browser. And you can get a great one for around $400. A Windows laptop that’s just as good costs at least $500, and they tend to be bigger and heavier, with worse battery life.
Q: With a Chromebook, can I use all the Google apps and store documents and spreadsheets on Google Drive?
A: Yes. Google’s apps (which I use all the time for work) can open spreadsheets and documents, including those created in Microsoft Office. And most Chromebooks come with 100 gigabytes of free Google Drive storage for two years. Chromebooks encourage people to store documents in the cloud, because the machines have very little local storage (usually about 32 gigabytes).
Microsoft also offers Office 365, a way to access Word, Excel and such on the web, if you need to use those particular programs.
Q: What’s the cheapest Chromebook to buy and what do you recommend?
A: There are $200 Chromebooks, but we don’t recommend them because they usually have 2 gigabytes of memory and poor processors, which means you can’t have more than a couple of tabs open and everything loads very slowly. They’re truly painful to use, even for light browsing.
Our top pick, the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook, is $430, and our budget pick, the Dell Chromebook 3380 Education, costs $300. That one is fast enough, but it has a shallow keyboard and a dim, low-resolution screen. Even so, it’s the cheapest viable Chromebook.
Q: I always wondered why these things can’t run the apps that can run on phones, so I can do more things with them.
A: Well, Google’s working on that! But it’s pretty rough around the edges right now. Google perpetually updates Chrome OS, so it’s possible that apps will improve over the next couple of years.
Q: When I buy a laptop, do I still need to be concerned about specs?
A: Yes, but only a little bit.
Right now, a Chromebook shouldn’t have fewer than 4 gigabytes of memory, and a Celeron processor. A Windows laptop for everyday work needs at least 8 gigs, and we recommend a Core i3 or Core i5 processor and a solid-state drive. For gaming or video editing, you’ll need 16 gigabytes of memory, at least a Core i5 or i7 processor, a dedicated graphics card and a solid-state drive.
Processors aren’t improving as quickly as before, so any of the past few generations are fine, as long as they’re Core i processors.
Q: If I still need a real laptop, what should I be thinking about? Do you even recommend the best cheap Windows machine?
A: Not really. Chances are, if all you need is a cheap laptop, then a Chromebook would work just as well and offer better performance.
If you have only $500 to spend, then the cheap Windows laptop is your only option. It’ll do everything you need it to, but it’s large, bulky and has poor quality.
If possible, I encourage people to save up an additional $200 or so and get the budget pick from our review of the best Windows ultrabooks: the Asus ZenBook UX330UA. It’s thin, lightweight, has excellent quality and battery life, and costs only $750. It’s an amazing computer for the price.
It’s so good that we discussed whether to recommend it over the Dell XPS 13, which has been our best Windows ultrabook since it was introduced in early 2015. We ultimately decided that Dell’s superior trackpad, Thunderbolt 3 support and portability made it worth the splurge if you can swing it, but the ZenBook is still a great option.