If you’re looking for a cheap computer, the first thing you should do is check out just how much you can get with a Chromebook.
Chromebooks are increasingly looking like the perfect laptops for a whole lot of people. Sure, they don’t have the wide desktop app ecosystem that Mac and Windows laptops have. But ask yourself how many of those apps you actually use each day, and of those, how many you actually need. Could you trade Outlook for outlook.com? Would you be fine in Google Docs instead of Office? (And if not, would your answer change if it meant saving several hundred dollars?)
Most of our time is spent online, and Chromebooks stick to the basics, offering just enough power to do that. The best of them should let you browse the web without problem and manage to impress you with how nice they are for the price.
But even though Chromebooks have been getting better and better, they’re still all about tradeoffs. For $300, you can get a surprisingly good screen and surprisingly good performance, but you can’t get the best screen or the best performance. (If you want that, tack another $1,000 onto your budget.)
Instead, the best Chromebooks are the ones that do the best job of balancing all of these tradeoffs. They have a nice screen and fluid performance, they’re still pretty darn cheap, and they’re something you might not even mind using as a primary computer for a couple years.
There’s one Chromebook that hits all of those marks, and it’s the one I’d recommend to most people looking for a cheap laptop.
Acer Chromebook 11
Acer’s Chromebook R11 doesn’t look like it should be the best Chromebook. It’s this goofy, blocky white machine that could almost pass as a kids toy. But there’s something about its lighthearted design that makes it easy to love — and that unassuming quality permeates the experience of using this machine.
The R11 has an 11.6-inch touchscreen display with a resolution a little above 720p. It’s not going to blow you away if you’re used to 4K or Retina displays, but it’s bright, clear, and easy to read — a rarity among Chromebooks, when there are some out there that’ll literally hurt your eyes. The display also flips all the way around so the R11 can be used as a tablet. It’s light enough to do that (for a bit) if you really want to, but the best use here is simply propping the display up in front of you every now and then.
Despite its unassuming appearance, this machine can handle a serious workload. I was able to run well over a dozen tabs, including Slack and TweetDeck, without issue, while pushing a second monitor. Many Chromebooks have underpowered processors or not enough RAM to do multiple tasks, but the R11 continually managed to stay responsive and smooth. And the battery lasts long enough to get through most of my (long) workday this way, pushing seven hours with heavy use.
The R11 is also going to one of the first Chromebooks to support Android apps, which could become a huge advantage. Right now, support is pretty buggy and limited. But the apps I could get running worked just fine — I was even able to play some Hearthstone. Until apps are updated to work better with mouse and keyboard, the R11’s touchscreen should come in handy here.
Acer doesn’t overlook the basics of a laptop, either. The R11 has a great keyboard, a smooth trackpad, and more ports than most other Chromebooks are offering, including two USB ports, an HDMI connection, and an SD card reader. If this is really going to be your laptop, those are ports you’re going to want to have. It’s also cheap, with a price around $300 depending on the configuration. That’s really the sweet spot for a cheap laptop.
There’s no one area where the R11 doesn’t hold up, and that’s what makes it so nice to use. Now, it certainly isn’t the best in any area either — other Chromebooks have better screens, or better performance — but they all fall short in some other key area. And the R11 doesn’t. That’s why if you want a Chromebook that’s going to get the job done, no questions asked, this is your best bet.
(A quick note on configurations: if you can still find one, pick up the R11 with a quad-core processor and 4GB of RAM. I also tested a newer configuration, which is becoming more widely available, that includes a dual-core processor and 4GB of RAM for a lower price. It was sometimes slower to initially load webpages, but there was no appreciable slowdown after that. The important thing is to avoid the older R11 model with only 2GB of RAM.)
The (very close) runner up
Dell Chromebook 13
Dell’s Chromebook 13, on the other hand, looks like it should be one of the best Chromebooks. And it absolutely is.
The Chromebook 13 has a 13.3-inch, 1080p display that looks great. It’s brighter and sharper than most other Chromebooks out there, and its matte surface is nice and easy on your eyes. The laptop also has a solid trackpad, a great keyboard, and plenty of ports (two USB, one HDMI, and an SD card reader).
Performance and battery life were also excellent, holding up without issue throughout the same heavy workday test I put the R11 through. The Chromebook 13 even held up a bit better on both battery and speed, which suggests it’ll do well with Android apps (although, unlike the R11, there’s no timeline on when it’s supposed to get them).
So if the Chromebook 13 tops the R11 in those key areas, why is it the runner up? There are a few reasons. The first is simply that it’s more expensive, starting at over $400 and going up much higher. Adding $100 or so may not sound like much if you’re coming from the world of expensive Macs, but it’s a considerable jump above a $300 machine. That’s pushing toward the range where you’d want to consider a Windows laptop, too, so the extra cost really has to be worth it to you.
There are also two major downsides. Dell’s machine is a little bigger and bulkier than the R11, enough that I wouldn’t want to carry it around all the time. And, unless you want to pay another $200 for an upgrade, the Chromebook 13 doesn’t have a touchscreen, which will be a big omission come the support of Android apps.
That all said, there’s reason to consider this over the R11, too. Its larger screen makes the Chromebook 13 a great option for use around the home. And if you know that you’re never going to want a touchscreen, even for playing Android games and using apps that — in their early days, at least — will be distinctly designed for one, then there’s less of a trade off. And you get the benefit of a nicer display and somewhat snappier performance.
Chromebooks are all about tradeoffs. If you’re willing to make a few, Dell’s Chromebook 13 is the way to go.
Photography by Amelia Krales
Video by Mark Linsangan
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