Chromebook vs. Netbook vs. Laptop: Which one is right for you?

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With portable computing options taking on a life of their own, consumers have some hard choices to make when it comes to buying a new notebook. Traditionally grouped together as notebooks are 2 subcategories most people are already familiar with, laptops and netbooks. Recently, however, Google threw another competitor into the marketplace with the addition of the Chromebook.

So which one is right for you? Let's take a look at the pros and cons to help you make your decision.


What is a Chromebook?
Named for its operating system, Google Chrome OS, the Chromebook is the latest portable computer in the notebook realm to hit the market. Soon to be offered by Acer and Samsung, the Chromebook integrates seamlessly with everything Google, from Gmail to Google Docs. Storage is in the cloud, so you'll never lose a file again.

Major selling points for the Chromebook are its 8-second boot time and instant resume from standby. Combine that with a lengthy 8-hour battery life, and you can understand why some think the Chromebook can compete with tablets currently on the market. The Chromebook also comes with a solid state disk drive, so there are no moving parts inside, which means less of an opportunity for the disk drive to crash.

Connectivity with a Chromebook is a breeze. Built-in wifi is easily configured for your home network or public access points on the fly. If you're willing to pay the additional cost, Chromebooks are also available with 3G access to Verizon's network. They come with a paltry 100MB per month of data access, but this can be a lifesaver in a pinch. Pay-as-you-go plans range from a 24-hour unlimited pass to monthly usage up to 2GB. And with the starting cost of a Chromebook coming in at around $500, its 3G connectivity may be its best value-added feature.

What you can't do with a Chromebook

Chromebooks have some major limitations, however, which can be a deal-breaker for someone who needs the missing functionality. For starters, there really isn't a file system like you would expect on a Windows or Mac computer. Since Chrome OS is based in the cloud, Google expects all of your storage to take place there. There are no optical drives and minimal support for external devices such as hard drives, at least until manufacturers release new drivers for their products.

Last but not least, despite having an almost full-sized keyboard, all the usual keys aren't there. Gone are the function keys, along with the delete key, Windows or Mac key, and so on. There are work-arounds, but you'll have to search the internet to find them. And with a meager 12.1" display, the Chromebook's not exactly our first choice for watching videos, either.

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More functionality with a netbook
The netbook could be considered one step up from a Chromebook. Netbooks offer most of the functionality that the Chromebook lacks, and they come with a keyboard layout and operating system that you're used to using. Along with this operating system (primarily Windows, these days), you'll usually have access to a fairly good-sized hard drive, and all the programs you're used to using (such as MS Office) are available.

But all that glitters is not gold, and the netbook is no exception. While most netbooks support the production tools you'll need for business on the road, you won't find a lot more in the way of connectivity than you would on a Chromebook. Again, there is usually no optical drive, so leave your DVDs at home. Screen sizes are roughly the same, with a few netbooks coming in slightly larger than the Chromebook.

As their name implies, netbooks are primarily designed for internet access on the go, with productivity tools to boot. Because of this, wifi is standard on any netbook. With netbook priced from the affordable mid $300 range on up, it could be hard to see the Chromebook's overall appeal.

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Power and portable computing
For those who want the full portable computing experience, nothing compares to a good laptop. The usability of laptops for specific purposes varies greatly, however, and so does the price. An entry-level laptop can be found for about $400 at a big box store like Walmart, but a high-end gaming rig can run upwards of $2,000 at a specialty dealer.

Today's laptops come with built-in wifi, so internet access is just as easy as with a netbook. Most laptops include a nice variety of ports, from FireWire and USB to SD cards and HD video output. DVDs aren't a problem, either, with DVD-ROM drives pretty much the standard and DVD/CD-RW drives available as an upgrade from most manufacturers.

So what's the downside to a laptop? Well, its size, for starters. While laptops are great for watching videos and gamers enjoy the 17" and up screen sizes, that means that laptops are heavier than any of the other options we've looked at. If you're not opposed to lugging around a 6-pound device, then this won't be an issue. By comparison, a netbook can weigh under 3 pounds, and the Acer Chromebook comes in at 2.5 pounds. The Samsung is a bit heavier.

The other general downside to a laptop is the price. Because laptops feature beefier computing power and additional features like the ones we've touched on, the parts simply cost more. A mid-range laptop that can run most non-gaming programs will still run you more than a netbook. Just remember, you get what you pay for, and all of these extras come at a cost.

Eeny, meeny, miney, moe
The bottom line is that a laptop can be an excellent on-the-go replacement for a desktop system. If you're looking for full office functionality on the road, a laptop could quickly become your go-to device.

That's not to say that netbooks don't have their place. They do. You'll have the same internet access, and many programs will run on a netbook too. But if you need full-screen video, strong connectivity options and an optical drive, this option isn't for you. If those features aren't a requirement, though, then you can save some money by considering a netbook for your next portable computing device.

Not to be left out, Chromebooks have their place as well. Schools may soon be using Chromebooks for students because they are secure, updates are automatic and free, and administration is a breeze. For personal use, Chromebooks carry strong appeal for your average internet surfer. If your primary use will be recreational internet surfing with minimal workload, then this could be the system for you, especially if you need 3G connectivity.

Post by Michael Arcand

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