Is a cheap Chromebook enough for distance learning and homework? Sure, depending on what’s inside.
As a parent or student, you may have already weighed the pros and cons of Windows laptops versus Chromebooks. One of the draws of a Chromebook is its cost, especially if a family has to buy more than one. But some of the cheaper Chromebooks we’ve seen come with some big caveats. We will go over the key factors to consider before buying. Consider them while you check out our best Chromebook deals for Black Friday.
Check the expiration of the automatic update
The first thing to do when considering a Chromebook, especially an attractive Chromebook, is to compare it to Google’s auto-update expiration list. While Microsoft has long supported Windows PCs, Google sets a limit – currently around six years from the product’s original shipment date for most consumer models, although some (especially models education and business) get a few more years.
When a Chromebook is no longer supported, Google will no longer upgrade the Chromebook’s ChromeOS, which means no new features or security fixes. If you buy an older Chromebook, it’s already a few years closer to expiration than a brand new model would be. Retailers make not make it known, so it’s worth checking out.
My son spent most of last school year doing his homework on an original 2013 Pixel Chromebook, which was manner obsolete, no problem, but there is no guarantee.
Display quality: Resolution and brightness
A classic feature of cheaper Chromebooks is an inferior screen quality. Whether you’re young or old, staring at a small, low-res screen for hours on end can be tiring at best and detrimental at worst. That’s why you should buy a Chromebook with a Full HD (1920 Ã 1080) display if possible. An HD (1366 Ã 768) display, often found on cheaper Chromebooks, can be tolerated on smaller 11.6-inch screens, but we don’t recommend it. Eye strain can affect both children and adults.
The screens of cheaper Chromebooks can also be dark. They may be sufficient for indoor use, but outside light will wash off the screen. If you can find a brightness specification, look for something 250 nits or more.
Memory matters more than storage
While Chromebooks can store data locally, the vast majority of schoolwork is done online. To my knowledge, none of my kids have ever recorded anything directly to a Chromebook, so the Cut on-board storage rarely matters. PC enthusiasts may also prefer faster SSDs to an eMMC flash drive, but for a Chromebook? It really doesn’t make a difference, and you shouldn’t even really care how much storage a Chromebook has if your work is mostly or always done online.
Memory plays a bigger role, as this is where your browser’s data is loaded. More memory means you can have more browser tabs available for surfing the web.
Most Chromebooks come with at least 4 GB of memory. Anything less than that (like 2GB) can have a bad effect. In fact, Zoom recommends 4 GB of memory. A kid in elementary school might not use a Chromebook for more than Google Classroom, Zoom, and another app. An older child may need to have multiple tabs open for search. With older students, teens, and adults, consider a Chromebook with a bit more memory. (Unfortunately, Chromebooks are generally not designed to be upgraded.)
As with any laptop, smaller, thinner models tend to skimp on ports. Think about what you need to connect, such as a USB drive, headphones, or a monitor. In general, look for an HDMI port (for an external display option), a microSD or SD card slot for uploading photos, and a USB-A port (ideally more than one) for plugging in peripherals. You’ll also see USB-C ports on some Chromebooks, but generally not the cheapest ones. (We’re seeing a lot of discounted Chromebooks completely ignoring HDMI ports, especially those sold for Black Friday or the holidays.)
Choosing an older, cheaper Chromebook may mean suffering from an older Wi-Fi radio. As a general rule, however, Wi-Fi 802.11a / b / g / n or better, plus Bluetooth, should work, even for Zoom bandwidth requirements of 2.5 Mbps for group video chats at 1080p resolution.
Webcam: just make sure there is one
No well-meaning teacher will care about the quality of a child’s webcam while there is one. A better webcam may make it easier to see your child or make their work more visible if they are holding it for inspection, but a well-lit room can probably make up for the shortcomings.
Processor performance: Zoom requires more
Browser-based Chromebooks designed for school work have traditionally not required a lot of CPU power and have often saved costs with low-end chips. Now, however, Zoom and YouTube are playing a bigger role.
YouTube shouldn’t give old, cheap Chromebooks much exercise, especially since YouTube automatically scales resolution to provide a good experience. But with Zoom becoming more prevalent, it might be worth turning to a Chromebook with an Intel processor, either a Celeron or a full-fledged Core chip. System requirements for Zoom require a â1 GHzâ processor for Zoom calls.
You’ll usually find Chromebooks that offer Core chips (much more power than needed), modern Celeron or Pentium chips (probably sufficient), and Arm chips from Qualcomm and Mediatek. We generally agree that even an Arm chip can run a Chromebook just fine (after all, there’s one in your smartphone), but a quick web search for the processor can’t hurt. If the chip was made more than five years ago, you may want to consider a newer model.
This story was updated with additional information on November 25.
As senior editor of PCWorld, Mark focuses on, among other things, Microsoft news and chip technology. He previously wrote for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.