Is a cheap Chromebook good enough for distance learning and
homework? Definitely—depending on what's inside.
As a parent or a student, you may already have weighed the pros
and cons of Windows laptops vs Chromebooks. One of the
appeals of a Chromebook is cost, especially if a family has to buy
several. But some of the cheapest Chromebooks we've seen come with
some big caveats. We'll go over the key factors to consider before
you buy. Consider these while you check out our best Chromebook deals for Black Friday.
Check the Auto Update
The first thing you should do when considering any Chromebook,
especially one that's enticingly cheap, is to check it against
Update Expiration list. While Microsoft supports Windows PCs
for a long time, Google sets a limit—currently about six years from
the product's original ship date for most consumer models, though
some (especially education and enterprise models) get a few years
When a Chromebook goes off support, Google won't upgrade the
Chromebook's ChromeOS any further, which means no new features and
no security patches. If you buy an older Chromebook, it's already a
few years closer to its expiration than a brand-new model would be.
Retailers do not publicize this, so it's worth checking
My son spent most of last school year doing schoolwork on an
original Chromebook Pixel from 2013, which was way out of
date, with no problems whatsoever—but there are no guarantees.
Resolution and brightness
A classic feature of cheaper Chromebooks is a lower-quality
display. Whether you're young or old, looking at a small, low-res
screen for hours at a time can be fatiguing at best and detrimental
at worst. That's why you should buy a Chromebook with a Full HD
(1920×1080) display if at all possible. An HD (1366×768) screen—o
ften found on the cheapest Chromebooks—can be tolerated on smaller
11.6-inch displays, but we don't recommend it. Eye fatigue can
affect kids as well as adults.
The displays on cheaper Chromebooks can also be on the dim side.
They may suffice for indoor use, but outdoor light will wash out
the screen. If you can find a brightness spec, look for something
250 nits or higher.
Memory matters more than
While Chromebooks can store data locally, the vast majority of
schoolwork is performed online. To my knowledge, neither of my
children have ever saved something on to a Chromebook directly, so
the size of the onboard storage rarely matters. PC
enthusiasts may also prefer faster SSDs over an eMMC flash drive—b
ut for a Chromebook? It really makes no difference, and you
shouldn't even really pay attention to how much storage a
Chromebook has if your work is mostly or always done online.
Memory plays a bigger role, because that's where your browser
data is loaded. More memory means you can have more available
browser tabs for surfing the Web.
Most Chromebooks come with at least 4GB of memory. Anything less
than that (such as 2GB) may have a detrimental effect—in fact, Zoom
recommends 4GB of memory. A child in elementary school might not be
using a Chromebook for more than Google Classroom, Zoom, and some
other app. An older child might need to have multiple tabs open for
research. With older students, teens, and adults, consider a
Chromebook with a bit more memory. (Unfortunately, Chromebooks
aren't usually designed to be upgradeable.)
As with any laptop, smaller and thinner models tend to skimp on
ports. Think about what you need to connect—such as a USB drive, a
headset, or a display. In general, look for an HDMI port (for an
external display option), a microSD or SD card slot for loading
photos, and a USB-A port (ideally more than one) to plug in
peripherals. You'll also see USB-C ports on some Chromebooks, but
usually not the cheaper ones. (We see a lot of discounted
Chromebooks ignoring HDMI ports entirely, especially the ones being
sold for Black Friday or the holidays.)
Choosing an older, cheaper Chromebook might mean suffering with
an older Wi-Fi radio. Generally, however, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi or
better, plus Bluetooth, should work, even for Zoom's bandwidth
requirements of 2.5 Mbps for group video chats at 1080p
Webcam: Just make sure
there is one
No well-meaning teacher is going to care about the quality of a
child's webcam as long as there is one. A better webcam can make it
easier to see your child, or make their work more visible if
they're holding it up for inspection, but a well-lit room can
probably offset any shortcomings.
performance: Zoom requires more
Chromebooks designed for browser-based schoolwork traditionally
haven't required much processor power—and often saved cost with
lower-end chips. Now, however, both Zoom and YouTube play a more
YouTube shouldn't give even old, cheap Chromebooks much of a
workout, especially as YouTube automatically scales the resolution
to deliver a good experience. But with Zoom becoming more
prevalent, it might be worth leaning toward a Chromebook with an
Intel processor, either a Celeron a full-fledged Core chip. Zoom's
system requirements call for a 1 GHz processor for Zoom calls.
You'll typically find Chromebooks offering Core chips (far more
horsepower than necessary), Celeron or modern Pentium chips
(probably sufficient) and Arm chips from Qualcomm and Mediatek.
We'd typically agree that even an Arm chip can run a Chromebook
just fine (after all, there's one in your smartphone) but a quick
web search of the processor can't hurt. If the chip was
manufactured more than five years ago, you may want to consider a
This story was updated with additional information on