Can You Get Through College with a Cheap Chromebook?

A photo of the Ideapad Duet.The lovely IdeaPad Duet Chromebook. Justin Duino

Shopping for a college laptop is a major challenge. You don’t have a ton of money, but you need something reliable and lightweight with a battery that’ll last all day. Chromebooks fit the bill—but can a “browser in a box” really get you through your college career?

Most people head off to college with a cheap bulky Windows laptop. And like those who went before you, you can probably get through your college career with a chunky Windows machine. But you’ll feel like a hostage because of it. The battery life will suck, you’ll spend forever waiting for software to start up, and you’ll always find yourself fighting your laptop when it’s least convenient.

A cheap Chromebook offers the exact opposite experience. Even the weakest $250 Chromebooks feel snappy during regular use and offer 10 hours of battery life. Chromebooks don’t require a lot of horsepower, so they’re much slimmer than their Windows counterparts, and they sport a modern UI that anyone can navigate. With Android and Linux app support, a clean browsing experience, and full integration with Google’s productivity suite, you couldn’t possibly need anything else, right?

Check Your Curriculum. What Software Do You Need?

A screenshot of the ChromeOS desktop.MIchael Crider

While Windows laptops prioritize apps, Chromebooks prioritize the web. Why run a bulky program like Microsoft Excel on your computer when it’s available through your browser? Google’s approach to computing is intuitive and efficient, and it guarantees that even the cheapest Chromebooks run without a hitch.

This isn’t to say that Chromebooks are “just a web browser.” They work beautifully with Android apps and can even run some Linux software. But most of your college classes, regardless of their subject, require nothing but a browser. You submit assignments through Canvas or Blackboard, work on group projects through Google Docs, and attend remote lectures through Zoom.

Still, some professional software just isn’t available through the web. You can’t run Adobe Premiere Pro or Photoshop on a Chromebook, for example. And while tools like AutoCAD and Microsoft Excel are available as both web and Android apps, they lack advanced desktop features that you might need for upper-level engineering and accounting classes.

If I were writing this in 2019, I would suggest buying a Chromebook for everyday assignments and using your school’s computer lab for fancy-pants software. Even with a full-time schedule, you probably need professional software for just one class each semester.

But we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and a computer lab probably isn’t the safest to hang out right now. So take a good look at your class curriculum, email your professors, and try to figure out if you need Windows-only software for your classes. Consider knocking out some required language or gen-ed courses this semester if you’re on a tight computer budget, or look into financial aid if you need help buying a mid-range or high-end Windows machine.

Bonus Points: Chromebooks Are Entertainment Heaven

A screenshot of Chromebook Perks.Google

College students have a lot of crap to deal with, so it’s easy for them to forget about leisure and entertainment. And that’s where your trusty Chromebook comes in. It’s lightweight, it can plug into any TV or desktop monitor, and you already know that it has an amazing battery life.

But your Chromebook gets brownie points thanks to Google’s “perks” program. Chromebook users can redeem a variety of useful perks to save a ton of money on streaming services, cloud storage, apps, and games. At the time if writing, Google offers 3 months of Disney+ for free, along with some free games like DOOM and Stardew Valley.

Chromebooks can’t play a ton of games, but they’re perfect for Android games and lightweight titles like Stardew Valley. Hardcore gamers can use the Stadia game-streaming service to play cutting-edge games like Red Dead Redemption 2 in their browser. However, the Stadia service isn’t stable on weak internet connections and costs more than traditional PC or console gaming.

Which Chromebook Should You Buy?

A photo of the Google Pixelbook.Google

Shopping for a Chromebook is easier than you might expect, even when you’re working on a limited budget. You just need to look out for features that you care about, like screen size, port selection, and battery life. Internal hardware like CPU and RAM don’t matter much—so long as a Chromebook’s got an Intel or AMD processor and at least 4 GB of RAM, you’re golden.

To make shopping a bit easier, I’m going to point out two of our favorite Chromebooks. These computers illustrate the diversity and power of Chromebooks, but they only cost $300 and regularly go on sale for $250.

First is the Lenovo IdeaPad Duet; a shining example of how cheap Chromebooks can tick all the boxes. It’s a 10.1-inch tablet with a detachable magnetic keyboard, a stylish kickstand case, and an insane battery that can almost be tracked in days instead of just hours. The IdeaPad Duet is small enough to fit in a backpack, it works as a tablet or a laptop, and it can connect to a desktop monitor when you need a bigger screen.

On the opposite end of the Chromebook spectrum is the Samsung 4, a 15.6-inch computer looks way fancier than its $300 price tag. The Samsung’s HD display is big enough for multitasking, so you’re always ready to stream a movie or take on challenging homework assignments. The Samsung 4 is packed to the gills with USB ports, and its 12-hour battery life is the tops.

These aren’t the be-all-end-all Chromebooks; they’re just two of our favorites. Think of them as the benchmark for what’s possible in the world of Chromebooks. You could save a bit of money buying HP’s $220 Chromebook or blow your wallet on the $600 Acer Chromebook 714, but you should take a good look at the IdeaPad Duet and the Samsung 4 first.

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