With every passing iteration of technology more and more of the things we use most move to the cloud. Google knows this, which is why it created products such as G Suite, which allow users to create, edit, and store documents online.

Chrome, Google’s market-dominating web browser, has turned into an operating system that’s unique to Google-powered laptops called Chromebooks. These budget devices run Chrome OS and are cloud-powered bargains that can help everyone get work done for a fraction of the cost of a MacBook or Windows laptop.

Chromebooks are very different from when they first appeared in 2011. If your business needs easily deployable, flexible, and secure laptops to issue to employees, Chromebooks are worth a second look, especially if you haven’t used one in a while.

TechRepublic’s cheat sheet about Chromebooks is a quick introduction to these laptops, as well as a “living” guide that will be updated periodically as new models and features are released.

SEE: Hardware purchasing task list (TechRepublic Premium)

Executive summary

  • What are Chromebooks? Chromebooks are laptops powered by Google’s Chrome OS, an operating system based on the Chrome browser. Chromebooks are very affordable and are built around G Suite, Google’s online cloud services. Chromebooks are also able to run Android apps, making cross-platform work easier.
  • Why do Chromebooks matter? Cheap laptops running Chrome OS can be easily deployed to students or employees, making the machines very valuable to enterprises. Since most Chromebook work is done in the cloud, the devices are a much lower security risk than typical laptops.
  • What enterprise features do Chromebooks offer, and how do Chromebooks compare to the new iPad? Chromebooks might be a good option for anyone who relies on the cloud or web apps for most of their work, as well as Android users looking for a laptop that’s an extension of their ecosystem. Plus, Chromebooks are safe by default, thanks to Chrome OS having built-in security functions. Chrome OS and Chromebook hardware designs make the devices an attractive alternative to an Apple iPad. Several hardware manufacturers have also launched enterprise Chromebook lines as well.
  • What changes have made Chromebooks more practical? Chrome OS has undergone a number of changes since it first launched, such as easier access to offline storage, Android app compatibility, and a number of quality-of-life changes to make them feel more like full-fledged laptops.
  • Where can I buy a Chromebook? Chromebooks can be purchased directly from Google and at stores like BestBuy; enterprise solutions are also available.
  • Which Chromebooks are ideal for business users? There are a number of different Chromebook models with a range of prices to choose from, each suited to different roles. TechRepublic’s sister site CNET lists the best Chromebooks for 2019.

What are Chromebooks?

Chromebooks are any laptop that, under license from Google, runs the Linux kernel-based Chrome OS. Chrome OS is incredibly lightweight, drawing almost all of its interface from the Chrome browser.

Chromebooks are manufactured by a variety of vendors, including Google, HP, Acer, Samsung, Dell, and others. They range in price from the mid $100 range to approximately $1,000 for the Google Pixelbook, or $649 for the new Pixelbook Go. Educational pricing is available as well.

Android apps are now available for Chromebooks, but not all machines are capable of running them. If you’re curious whether a Chromebook model can access Google Play and run Android apps, check Google’s Chromebook store filtered for Google Play-accessible devices. The Chromium Projects website also has a full list of Chromebooks that can run Android apps.

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Why do Chromebooks matter?

Chrome OS is incredibly lightweight, and so are the machines that run it. Those machines can be updated easily, wiped with minimal effort, and are inexpensive enough to be easily replaceable.

Many schools and businesses are using Chromebooks because the devices are low maintenance. Businesses that use G Suite can get even more use out of Chromebooks—integration is simple and users log in with the same Google account they use for work. Chromebooks also make doing work on an Android device and a laptop more practical since many of these devices now run Android apps capable of sharing data between both devices.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

As Chrome OS continues to evolve and be more practical for everyday use, Chromebooks will matter more and more. Chromebooks have the potential to be cloud-based thin client laptops, potentially disrupting portable computing as we know it.

The world continues to move on to web applications for many aspects of business: Health records are stored in the cloud, banking is done online, and even hardware-intensive games can now be streamed to low-end devices. Chromebooks may have the market cornered on the future of computing-as-a-service.

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What enterprise features do Chromebooks offer, and how do Chromebooks compare to the iPad?

Chromebooks overtook MacBooks in total sales in 2016, signaling a shift in computing priorities: The cloud is king, and the machine is just a terminal. If you use your work laptop primarily for word processing, responding to emails, working with spreadsheets, and performing other basic office tasks, there’s no reason to spend $2,000 on a MacBook when you can accomplish the same tasks on a Chromebook that costs a fraction of the price.

Some of the features that business users interested in Chromebooks should know about include:

  • Automatic updating that prevents users from forgetting to install security patches;
  • User data is encrypted and can’t be accessed from other accounts on the device;
  • Processes running on Chromebooks are all sandboxed, so hacking one won’t grant access to another; and
  • Bootup is verified by read-only code that checks writable code for malicious changes.

Apple has positioned its newest iPad as a direct competitor to Chromebooks, which raises the question of which one to buy. In sheer pricing terms, Chromebooks win out: Cheap models run around $300, whereas the new 9.7″ iPad that Apple is pushing as a Chromebook competitor starts at $329 without a keyboard.

If you’re on the fence about a Chromebook or an iPad with a keyboard, remember to consider the ecosystem; if you already use Android and other Google products, you’ll get more use out of a Chromebook, whereas if you are invested in Apple products like Macs and iOS devices, you should probably go with the iPad.

If you want a tablet option, detachable Chromebooks like the HP Chromebook x2 can function just like a keyboardless iPad, though at a slightly higher price point of $600 compared to the iPad’s $329.

Chromebooks have one more leg up on traditional laptops and even iOS devices: Security. Chromebooks are very secure—check out The Chromium Project’s rundown of Chrome OS security features.

HP announced in October 2019 a new lineup of enterprise-focused Chromebooks and other Chrome OS devices, mirroring Dell’s Latitude Chromebooks rolled out for business earlier in the year.

OEMs are starting to realize the enterprise-friendly nature of Chromebooks, and it might not take long for the trend to spread, especially as more and more work (and recreation) is done using web services and not apps locally installed on a desktop or laptop.

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What changes have made Chromebooks more practical?

Chromebooks have been on the market since 2011, but it’s just in the past few years that they’ve gained momentum. School districts and enterprises are adopting them rapidly, and new features make them even more enticing.

One of the largest changes to Chromebooks since the devices launched is the addition of the Google Play store, which gives Chromebooks access to Android apps and other media hosted on Google’s mobile OS store.

Android apps on Chromebooks can be run offline, which greatly extends their usefulness. While some Chrome web apps can be used offline and documents can be duplicated to local storage, Chrome OS hasn’t made that a very practical option, but Android apps do.

Features such as Open As A Window, local storage access, and window snapping also go a long way toward making Chromebooks more practical for business use.

However, Chromebooks still aren’t full-fledged computers, and replacing your main machine with one may not be the right choice if you would use it to do more than use web applications and mobile apps. Anyone who needs real processing power or wants a work computer that doubles as a gaming machine should look elsewhere. For the average workday, though, Chromebooks can be a great fit.

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Where can I buy Chromebooks?

Chromebooks are meant for people who already use Google’s suite of applications. While G Suite use isn’t a prerequisite for owning a Chromebook, it makes getting up and running much easier.

Chromebooks can be purchased at retailers such as Best Buy, or online directly from Google. Don’t dive into a Chromebook before doing your research, though: The market is huge and features vary greatly. Google has a guide for finding the right Chromebook, and it’s worth looking at it to find the one that will work best for you.

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Which Chromebooks are ideal for business users?

With Chromebooks ranging from around $300 to nearly a grand, it can be tough to figure out which one might be best for you or your company.

TechRepublic’s sister site CNET has published a thorough list of the Best Chromebooks for 2019, and it covers nearly all possible users and applications. From the CNET reviews, here are three Chromebook standouts for business users.

Google Pixelbook: Yes, it’s expensive, but that doesn’t mean Google’s flagship Chromebook isn’t worth the price. According to CNET, the Pixelbook “has a more refined design than many lower-end Chromebooks, and makes for a great everyday work machine.”

Acer Chromebook 15: This Chromebook model is a few years old, but CNET still said it’s a great deal. Its screen size (15.6″) is huge compared withf some other Chromebooks, and it only costs $224.99. In terms of how it works for business users, CNET said “as one of the biggest Chromebooks, the Acer laptop is perfectly priced for anyone interested in a big laptop for basic online use.”

HP Chromebook x2: If a hybrid two-in-one is what you’d prefer to use for work, the HP Chromebook x2 is one to check out. This machine has a detachable keyboard and stylus, both of which are included with the machine at a cost of $475. “HP’s Chromebook x2 raises the bar for the two-in-one category, combining effective design, peppy performance and a fine display at a killer price,” CNET said of the machine.

Additional resources

Editor’s note: The article was most recently updated in October 2019.

Image: James Martin/CNET

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