Can You Use a Chromebook as Your Main Computer?

Pros and Cons of Chromebooks

Google Chromebooks
Google

Chromebooks are in their prime today, with just about every major laptop manufacturer making their own versions of these cheap, ultraportable laptops running Google Chrome OS. Chromebooks are great for travelers, students, and anyone else who gets work done mainly in the browser, but they have their downsides as well. Here's what you need to know if you want to use one as your primary work computer.

The Rise of the Chromebook

2014 might have been the year of the Chromebook, with several new Chromebook models introduced by major laptop manufacturers, and Chromebooks beating out other computers on Amazon's three top-selling laptops for the 2014 holiday season.

Chromebooks have been flying off the shelves for a few reasons. First, there's the low price--most Chromebooks cost under $300, and with specials like two free years' of additional Google Drive access (f1TB, valued at $240), Chromebooks suddenly became very attractive impulse buys.

Even without the special offers, though, the features and capabilities of Chromebooks make them a pretty good laptop deal, depending on how you plan on using one.

Benefits of a Chromebook

Designed for portability: Most Chromebooks, such as the HP Chromebook 11 and the Acer C720,  have 11.6-inch displays, although a few others offer more screen real estate, up to 14" (e.g., the Chromebook 14).

With thin profiles, you have a light and compact laptop that won't weigh down your backpack or carry-on bag. (I have the ​ASUS Chromebook C300, a 13-inch, 3.1-pound laptop that's light and easy enough for my young daughter to carry around.)

Long battery life: Chromebooks have battery lives of at least 8 hours.

I took the ASUS Chromebook for a week-long trip, fully charged and powered up on the first night, but forgot the power adapter. With intermittent use over the week and the Chromebook left in sleep mode when not in use, the laptop still had hours left of battery life by the end. 

Instant start-up: Unlike my laptop, which takes a few minutes to boot up, Chromebooks will get up and running in seconds and shut down just as fast. This is a bigger time-saver than you might imagine when you're running from meeting to meeting or need to quickly get to a file for a last-minute, pre-presentation edit.

Chromebook Challenges

All that said, there are a few reasons why Chromebooks probably won't completely replace the main computer for most professionals.

Dismal displays: The Toshiba Chromebook 2 (13.3" 1920x1080 display) and the Chromebook Pixel (13-inch 2560x1700 display) are the two Chromebooks with the sharpest, most excellent displays. The ASUS Chromebook, and others like it, has an "HD display" but the resolution is only 1366 by 768. The difference is notable and pretty disappointing if you're used to full HD displays or want to fit more on that small screen; that said, you can get used to it.

Keyboard Issues: Ultraportable laptops all come with their unique take on the keyboard, but the Chromebook also has a special layout, with a dedicated search key instead of a caps lock key and a new row of shortcut keys to navigate your browser, maximize browser windows, and more. It takes a bit of getting used to, and I quite miss my old Windows shortcuts, which include keys no longer available like the Home button or PrtScn key. Chromebooks have their own shortcuts to get things done more quickly.

Using peripherals and special software: Chromebooks support SD cards and USB drives. To connect a printer, you'll actually use the Google Cloud Print service.

You cannot watch movies from an external DVD drive, unfortunately. Everything needs to be pretty much online (e.g., Netflix or Google Play for movie streaming). 

How much work can you do in just the Chrome browser? That's a pretty good gauge for whether a Chromebook could be your main laptop.