Laptop vs Chromebook: which is best for you?

Laptop vs Chromebook, a collage of a windows and a chromebook
(Image credit: Google / Microsoft)

The question of laptop vs Chromebook is one that everyone needs to consider, especially as budgets get tighter and we look for alternatives to the norm. Naturally the biggest difference between Chromebook and laptop is the operating system.

Chromebooks don't run the Windows operating system, but use Google's free ChromeOS instead. This means even the most tech-heavy Chromebooks are generally more affordable than Windows laptops, where the manufacturers have to pay Microsoft for the Windows licence. But you may miss Photoshop and Illustrator, which only run on Windows (and iOS) but not ChromeOS, which is why the former regularly contend with Apple for the best laptops for Photoshop

The big downside of ChromeOS vs Windows, though, is that you can't run most Microsoft software, such as Word, Excel or PowerPoint on a Chromebook. And you can't run desktop versions of Photoshop, which is why the best Windows laptops are generally best for digital art. You can, however, run Google's suite of apps – Google docs, Sheets, Slides and more – all linked to a free Google Drive cloud storage account. These apps are as good as Microsoft's, and free.

The big downside of ChromeOS vs Windows, though, is that you can't run most Microsoft software, such as Word, Excel or PowerPoint on a Chromebook

In fact, the only software you will be able to use are Google Play Store apps, Linux programs, and tools that work in the browser. But this isn't as restrictive as it sounds, as the likes of Autodesk Sketchbook, Infinite Painter and ArtRage are excellent digital painting apps. It's worth noting Adobe has released new creative apps for Chromebooks, which include paired-back versions of Illustrator, Photoshop and Lightroom. We have a guide to the best Chromebooks around at the moment too, for more detail.

So, the choice between ChromeOS vs Windows isn't always clearcut. Some may prefer the former, as it makes your Chromebook a lightweight laptop that's not slowed down by bloated software. ChromeOS generally will run more quickly and smoothly, and won't fill your screen with clutter, and comes with free virus protection software run by Google. So if you're willing to find some workarounds, such as using Google Docs rather than Word, and less art app choice, a Chromebook is still worth considering. 

Windows laptop vs Chromebook: overview

If you're looking to spend as little as possible, then it's a slam dunk: the cheapest Chromebooks are much more affordable than even the cheapest Windows laptops, such as the Acer Chromebook 314. But what if you're looking for some a bit more powerful, a good mid-range product: which one is the better buy then?

To answer that question, below I'm pitting a mid-priced Windows laptop, the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4, with a mid-priced Chromebook, the Google Pixelbook Go. I'll compare them for design and build, connectivity, and more, to help you get a sense of which will work best for you.

Before I get into the differences, though, it's worth mentioning the similarities. They both feature touchscreens. They both offer configurations with 11th-gen Intel chips. And they're both similar in size. (Admittedly, the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 also comes in a larger version with 15-inch screen, but I'll set that one aside for this comparison article.)

For a quick overview of the main specs for each laptop, see the table below. Then read on, as I compare the most obvious differences between these two quite different laptops.

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Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 vs Google Pixelbook Go comparison
Header Cell - Column 0 Windows laptopChromebook
DeviceSurface Laptop 4Pixelbook Go
Display13.5 inches; 2256 x 1504 pixels13.3 inches; 1080p or 4K
ProcessorAMD Ryzen 5 / Intel Core i5 / i7Intel Core m3 / i5 / i7
GraphicsIntel Iris Xe integrated graphics / Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPUIntel UHD 615 GPU
Storage256GB-1TB SSD64GB / 128GB / 256GB
Dimensions‎308 x 223 x 14.5mm311 x 206 x 14mm‎
ConnectionsUSB-C, USB-A, 3.5 mm headphone jack, Surface Connect port2 x USB-C 3.1 ports, 3.5 mm headphone jack
Webcam resolution720p1080p
Operating systemWindowsChromeOS

Laptop vs Chromebook: Surface Laptop 4 

Product shot of Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 (sideways view)

Laptop vs Chromebook, a photo of Microsoft's Surface Laptop 4, one of the best Windows laptops (Image credit: Microsoft )

Continuing Microsoft's popular series of Surface devices, the Surface Laptop 4 was launched in April 2021. And although it's since been superseded by the more expensive Surface Laptop Studio, it remains an excellent choice if you're looking for a Windows laptop at a mid-range price. Even with the lowest configuration, it's a powerful device that’ll run day to day tasks and most software with ease. 

Laptop vs Chromebook: Google Pixelbook Go

PixelBook Go

Laptop vs Chromebook, a photo of Google's Pixelbook Pro, one of the best Chromebooks (Image credit: Google)

The Google Pixelbook Go was launched in October 2019 as the successor to the Pixelbook. It's much more expensive than the average Chromebook, but delivers the kind of high-end specs and performance that justify the extra price. It boasts a fantastic screen, brilliant battery life and one of the best keyboards we've used. Like all Chromebooks, though, you won't be able to run Microsoft software on it, instead you run Google's own cloud apps.

Laptop vs Chromebook: design

Microsoft's range of Surface laptops have always been lookers, and the Surface Laptop 4 is no exception. This thin, light laptop looks as stylish and elegant as its price suggests, and to our eyes, matches the MacBook Air for attractive design.

At 1.31kg, it's perfectly portable and lightweight. It's available in four colours: Ice Blue, Sandstone, Platinum, and Matte Black. And I love the Surface Laptop 4's keyboard. It's one of the most comfortable I've ever used, with large keys that make it easy to type, and a satisfying amount of travel. One of the biggest downsides, meanwhile, is that its webcam only offers 720p resolution.

The Google Pixelbook Go is only just thinner than the Surface Laptop 4, at 14mm to the latter's 14.5mm. It is, however, significantly lighter at just 907g. Looks-wise, it's a bit more basic, but not unattractive. It comes in two colours: Just Black and Not Pink, a kind of salmon-y shade. One big plus over the Surface Laptop 4 is that it sports a 1080p webcam, which is expected given many use the conference app, Google Meet, for work and catching up with friends. 

One of the best things about the Google Pixelbook Go is its keyboard, which again is one of the most comfortable I've used

One of the best things about the Google Pixelbook Go is its keyboard, which again is one of the most comfortable I've used. If I were comparing it to most other laptop keyboards, it would win hands-down, but here it's unfortunately in contention with one that's even nicer!

These are both superbly designed devices, but there can only be one winner. For me, Surface Laptop 4 just edges it in terms of elegance, keyboard design and colour choice. If a super-lightweight laptop with hi-res video calling is your priority, though, the Google Pixelbook Go may still be preferable; the same goes for portability, it's just much easier to slip into a bag or carry around.

Laptop vs Chromebook: screen

Product shot of Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

The Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 has a gorgeous 3:2 screen (Image credit: Microsoft )

The Surface Laptop 4's screen is gorgeous. A 13.5-inch PixelSense touchscreen with a resolution of 2,256 x 1,504 and a brightness of 350 nits, it's configured to work with styluses, especially the Surface Pen (sold separately), and is comparable to some of the best drawing tablets

With an aspect ratio of 3:2, which is taller than the standard 16:9, the Surface Laptop 4 offers an unusual 'square' dimension, which ironically is similar to the old Google Pixelbook. That means extra height when working on documents, but more letterboxing when it comes to widescreen movies, so which you prefer will vary according to use.

The Google PixelBook Go also comes with a very lovely touchscreen. This 13.3-inch LCD display conforms to a more standard 16:9 ratio. Resolution is Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) and the screen offers a maximum brightness of 368 nits. Go for the most expensive configuration, however, and the resolution jumps to 4K.

The higher resolution of the Surface Laptop 4 edges things for me for the cheapest configurations, but at higher priced-versions, the PixelBook Go's 4K screen can't be beaten.

Laptop vs Chromebook: connectivity

The Surface Laptop 4 comes with one USB-C port, one USB-A port and a 3.5 mm headphone jack on the left. On the right there's a Surface Connect port for magnetic charging and docking.

The Google Pixelbook Go has one USB Type-C port and a 3.5 mm headphone jack on the left side, and another USB Type-C port on the right. That means there's no USB-A port, and so if you've got any older devices you need connecting, you'll need to buy a USB-C hub or adapter separately.

Both laptops are light on slots, but the Surface Laptop 4 at least supports USB-A connections. Google Pixelbook Go is clearly designed for a leaner use, and given even the cheapest graphics tablets offer USB-C it likely won't be an issue for many.

Laptop vs Chromebook: battery life

Product shot of Pixelbook Go laptop

Laptop vs Chromebook, a photo of the Pixelbook Go's battery keeps going and going (Image credit: Google)

Microsoft claims the Surface Laptop 4 can last for 17 hours on a single charge. However, our own tests found this to be closer to 13 hours. For such a powerful laptop, that's still very impressive though, and it's certainly enough to complete a full working day without having to plug in. 

Google makes more modest claims for the Google Pixelbook Go of up to 12 hours. We achieved closer to 11 and a half hours in tests, but again, that's still impressive for a laptop at this level, and good enough to fit most people's work schedule. 

Laptop vs Chromebook: price

The 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 4 starts at $899 / £905 for the Platinum version (other colours cost more). That will get you an AMD Ryzen 5 processor, 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD storage. Upgrade to an Intel Core i5 chip and 512GB SSD, and the price jumps to $999/ £1,2699. For 16GB RAM, you'll pay $1,199 / £1,499, and the top-end version with an Intel Core i7 processor is $1,399 / £1,699.

The cheapest version of the Google Pixelbook Go has an Intel M3 processor and 64GB storage for $649 / £629. This rises to $849 / £829 with an Intel Core i5 chip, 8GB RAM and 128GB storage; $999 / £949 if you raise RAM to 16GB, and $1,399 /£1,329 with an i7 processor, 16GB RAM, 256GB storage, and a 4K screen.

While it's difficult to compare like with like, given the complexity of configurations, it's clear the Pixelbook Go is broadly lower in price. Most significantly, the cheapest version is significantly cheaper than the cheapest Surface Laptop 4.

Laptop vs Chromebook: which should you buy?

Product shot of Microsoft Surface Laptop 4, viewed from back

Laptop vs Chromebook, the Surface Laptop 4 is our overall winner (Image credit: Google)

As the lower end of the price bracket, the difference between Chromebook and laptop is pretty straightforward. If you want the cheapest device possible, and you can live without Microsoft, Adobe and some other third-party software, get a Chromebook. If you can't, get a Windows laptop. 

With the mid-range, though, it's a slightly different story. In this Surface Laptop 4 vs Google Pixelbook Go comparison, both models score highly in terms of design, screen, connectivity and battery life, but the Surface Laptop 4 edges the Pixelbook Go in all but the second category, where it draws.

Given that the Surface 4 is superior in all sorts of other ways, we feel the Pixelbook Go in particular isn't the best place for your money right now

Still, though, the Google Pixelbook Go wins on price, which is where all Chromebooks tend to win over other laptops, including Apple. If you're watching the pennies, and don't mind the reliance on Google apps rather than full software releases, then the cost is enticing – particularly if you're heading back to school and need a light laptop for writing and video streaming and lectures.

If everything else was equal, we'd suggest that losing the opportunity to run Word, Excel, Photoshop, and more might be worth saving a couple of hundred bucks. But given that the Surface 4 is superior in all sorts of other ways, we feel the Pixelbook Go in particular isn't the best place for your money right now. 

We're sure, though, that a time when the best mid-range Chromebook can truly challenge the best mid-range Windows laptop will come. After all, the Pixelbook Go is now getting a little old in the tooth. And we wouldn't be surprised if Google brought us a newer, leaner and more capable model any time soon. Here's hoping.

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Tom May

Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects. 

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