We have removed several models from this roundup and are in the process of testing new laptops to add to this guide very soon. Stay tuned!
Whether you're a wide-eyed college freshman or a worldly senior, you're going to need a decent laptop to get you through school. But given the ludicrous cost of tuition these days, most students are left with little expendable income. Luckily, there are more options than ever before. Chromebooks, known for their low prices and long battery life, are really taking the budget laptop scene by storm.
Chromebooks stand as an affordable option for college students, costing anywhere from $200 to $1,000, but are they worth the money? If you spend most of your time browsing the web, scrolling through Facebook and the like, then yes. These cheap machines like these are ideal for light usage, which is why they've made such a dent in the education market. They're also at lower risk for security issues because they exclusively run web-based applications.
If you just want to know which one's the best, it's the 2-in-1 Asus Chromebook Flip C434TA-DSM4T. It has a sophisticated aluminum design, an excellent battery life, and speedy performance—basically, it checks all the right boxes. However, we went hands-on with a slew of Chromebooks: from traditional 'books to versatile 2-in-1's, we checked performance, build quality, and everything else. Between the speedy performance and premium look, the Asus Chromebook Flip C434TA-DSM4T(available at Amazon for $584.98) ended up nabbing our top spot. Not your cup of tea? Don't worry. Everything on this list has something to offer buyers.
These are the best Chromebooks we tested ranked, in order:
Asus Chromebook Flip C434TA-DSM4T
Acer Chromebook Spin 13 CP713-1WN-53NF
Google Pixel Slate (Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB)
Acer Chromebook Spin 11 (CP311-1HN-C2DV)
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If you’re a young professional, you should definitely check out the Asus Chromebook Flip. Its performance is good enough for everyday tasks like surfing the web and checking email, and its bezels are practically nonexistent (this means you’re getting a ton of screen). But what I like best is the sophisticated design. With its aluminum finish and chrome trim, the C434T looks and feels like a premium product (minus the premium price tag). It’s one of the most elegant-looking Chromebooks we’ve seen in a while.
The only thing that tripped me up was the trackpad. It’s not as responsive as a MacBook touchpad, and it took me some time to adjust to it. I wouldn’t say it’s a deal-breaker, per se, it’s just something to be aware of.
I’m Ashley Barry-Biancuzzo, the former laptop reviewer here at Reviewed and an editor of our Best Right Now buying guides. Not only am I a huge fan of Chromebooks, but I also use one as my everyday laptop. They’re great because they’re largely virus-free and have fantastic battery life.
Our tests for these devices aren’t based purely on processing power. Instead, we look at the overall usability of the laptop, which also depends on the quality of the screen, the keyboard, what interfaces it offers and many other factors. We test all of these factors and assign a score for each. Then, we rate the overall usability of the laptop as a combination of all of these factors by creating an overall weighted score.
First, we look at how well each laptop performs. Because the laptops in this guide are mostly designed for running web applications like Google Docs, we use two web benchmarks: Basemark and Speedometer. These test the processing power of the laptop in a web browser: for all of them, we used Google Chrome.
Most laptop displays do well in a dark room, but what about outdoors? Is a glossy screen better than a matte one? To figure out this information, we test the brightness on the display. We do this with a CS-200: it’s a handheld device that measures luminance. We measure the white levels and black levels at max brightness and then again at 50% brightness.
Next, we tested the battery life of each laptop to see how long you can use them for between charges. With their displays adjusted to a brightness of 200 nits, we set them to continuously cycle through popular websites, simulating the way you would use the laptop when idly browsing the web. We also look at how comfortable the screen is to look at, how easy the keyboard is to type on, and other factors.
What is a Chromebook?
Running Chrome OS (aka Google's default browser), Chromebooks are inexpensive and largely virus-free, a great option for college students. Equipped with low-power processors, Chromebooks typically have good battery life and are fanless. That said, they’re not the most powerful laptops in the world. They can only handle everyday tasks like browsing the web, checking e-mail, and watching Netflix.
13-inch laptops: These smaller laptops are great for carrying around, and more than suitable for light work like writing papers and browsing the web.
15-inch laptops: Mid-sized laptops are a bit less portable, and won’t necessarily work in space-constrained spaces like airplane seats. But the larger display is useful for photo editing and watching videos.
17-inch laptops: This is very large, and only recommended if you are doing video editing or other intensive work that requires a lot of screen real estate—and you don’t mind lugging it around.
There can still be varying sizes within those categories—for example, the XPS 13’s smaller bezels make it much smaller than most 13-inch laptops—and sizes in between, like the 14-inch Lenovo Yoga C930. But in general, picking a size range you’re comfortable with can help narrow down the field.
You’ll also want to consider how many USB ports the laptop has, whether you need HDMI and Ethernet, and how comfortable the keyboard and trackpad are to use—this can vary quite a bit from model to model, and it’s important to get something responsive and durable. Touch displays are generally reserved for more premium products.
Windows is still the dominant OS these days, and if you’re going to play games, edit photos and videos, or need certain software for work, you’ll probably stick with Microsoft’s offering. If you spend all your time on the web, though, a Chromebook may serve you better than you’d think—between Netflix, Gmail, Google Docs, and even online photo editors like Pixlr, you can do almost anything in a browser, and many of those web apps even work offline for those rare occasions you don’t have Wi-Fi. Chromebooks have the advantage of being cheaper (since they don’t need as much processing power) and virtually virus-free (since they run Linux under the hood).
Under the Hood
Finally, you’ll need to consider the guts—the processor, graphics chip, RAM, and storage that determine your laptop’s capabilities. For browsing the web and using office software, lower-power chips like Intel’s i3 and i5 are more than adequate. 4GB of RAM is usable in a Chromebook, though even web browsing can eat up RAM these days, so 8GB is recommended if you tend to open lots of tabs, use lots of browser extensions, and want a laptop that’ll last you well into the future—I wouldn’t generally advise 4GB for most Windows laptops these days.
Other Chromebooks We Tested
Acer Chromebook Spin 13 CP713-1WN-53NF
The Acer Chromebook Spin 13 is a great option for the college student, as it’s budget-friendly and has a wide selection of ports (which eliminates the need for an adapter). We also like that the stylus is included and that you can store it inside a little compartment in the laptop’s shell. What surprised us most about this laptop was its tall display, as I expected it to be awkward to handle. Fortunately, the hinges are tight and strong so the screen didn’t wobble at all.
Though we adore this laptop, there are some trade-offs. When we put the Spin through our battery test, which cycles through websites like Twitch and Amazon, it died in about five hours. Additionally, the laptop itself feels pretty bulky. Weighing a little over three pounds. That said, it’s definitely durable. There’s hardly any flex to the display and the keyboard didn’t creak when I pushed down on it with both hands.
Google Pixel Slate (Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB)
If you’re always-on-the-go, the Pixel Slate is a good option. Weighing a little over a pound, the Slate is super lightweight. Its gorgeous display is great for Netflix binges, while its powerful internals makes it easy to work on multiple projects at once. You can also use it as a tablet or prop it up like an easel with the Pixelbook Keyboard.
The only downside is its high price tag. Its least expensive configuration cost about a grand, so it might not be a good fit for someone on a tight budget. In addition to its costly starting price, you have to pay extra for the Pixelbook Keyboard and Pixelbook Pen, as they’re considered standalone accessories.
This sleek convertible has a lot of cool features. Thanks to the 360-degree hinge, you can swing the screen around and use it as a tablet or prop it up like a painter's easel. The included stylus is nice as well, especially if you're big on doodling.
The most surprising thing about this tiny laptop is how durable it is. Between the rubberized bumper around the bottom and the polycarbonate plastic, it's basically klutz-proof. The touchscreen is also coated in Corning Gorilla Glass, which protects it against scratches.
The only drawback is that the screen is really small. It's not the best screen for watching streaming services on, but the picture quality is still acceptable. If you're looking for a super rugged machine, you can't get much better than this.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.