Chromebooks are just like any other tech products - some are good, and some are not so good. While they avoid some of the pitfalls of Windows laptops, like spinning hard disks and bundled malware, you still have to deal with potentially under-powered hardware or a lack of support for certain features.
This guide highlights what you should avoid when buying a Chromebook, especially older models that often appear as refurbs at major retailers, or used on sites like eBay and Swappa.
Check the support status
Chromebooks don't get indefinite updates like PCs. While you can run the latest build of Windows 10 on a computer built a decade ago, every Chromebook model has a fixed support life. When Google develops a new hardware platform (which manufacturers turn into consumer products), it will support that platform for at least 6.5 years. Some legacy products only have a lifespan of five years.
The first thing you should do when considering a Chromebook is to look it up on Google's Auto Update Policy page. It lists the end-of-support date for every Chromebook ever released, so you can know exactly how long your computer will receive Chrome OS updates.
Software support for Google's Chromebooks.
Once a model reaches the end of support, it may receive Chrome OS updates, but they are not guaranteed. You should keep in mind how long you intend to use the Chromebook, and if the support lifetime matches or exceeds that. For example, if you just need a computer to last for a school year, picking up a used Chromebook with only 16 months left of support isn't a bad option (unless you plan to re-sell it later and the buyer reads this article).
This step is especially important when buying used or refurbished Chromebooks. There have been multiple occasions where Best Buy, Newegg, and other retailers have heavily discounted Chromebooks that have little or no mainstream support left. It's definitely a scummy move - but now you won't fall for it!
Avoid low-power Intel CPUs
Chrome OS, even with the recent addition of Android app support, is remarkably capable on low-end hardware. For example, even with only a dual-core Celeron CPU, the CTL Chromebox CBx1 we previously reviewed can handle most workflows fine.
However, there are some processors that are too sluggish to even run Chrome OS properly. For example, many Chromebooks have Intel processors based on the Goldmont and Silvermont architectures, which are minor evolutions from the Intel Atom CPUs of old. Remember how terrible netbooks were? Yeah, you don't want a Chromebook with those same processors.
You should be wary of any Intel CPUs in the Apollo Lake and Bay Trail families.
You should be wary of any Intel CPUs in the Apollo Lake and Bay Trail families. Some examples include the Celeron N3350, Pentium N3510, and Pentium N3310. Intel has largely stopped using the Atom brand in consumer products, so now they throw these low-power chips under the Celeron and Pentium umbrellas.
That's not to say every single Apollo Lake and Bay Trail CPU is unusable, but you should keep in mind that performance will be limited. Last year we reviewed the Acer Chromebook 15, which has a Pentium N4200 (Apollo Lake) processor. Jordan noted that once he passed about 3-4 Android apps and five Chrome tabs open, the laptop started to lag.
Remember netbooks? Many modern-day Chromebooks use processors similar to the Atom CPUs netbooks had. (image source)
What are the alternatives, you may ask? In most cases, you'd be better off with an ARM-based Chromebook, which are typically found in the same price range as laptops with Apollo Lake/Bay Trail chips.
For example, the Asus Chromebook Flip C101PA and Samsung Chromebook Plus (V1) have an ARM-based Rockchip OP1 processor. The OP1 performs slightly better than most of the above-mentioned processors, but because it's using the ARM architecture, you get improved battery life and more-optimized Android apps.
As a quick note, Chromebooks with Intel m3/m5/m7 processors are not based on Atoms - they're more closely related to the standard Intel Core series.
Check for Android app support
With a few exceptions, every Chromebook released from 2017 onwards has the Google Play Store. On these models, you can install Android applications and run them alongside Chrome windows. The feature has made Chromebooks far more versatile, as you no longer have to rely only on websites and browser extensions.
If you're not sure if a certain model has the Google Play Store, you should check this list. Some Chromebooks are listed as 'Planned,' but you should treat these as if they will never receive Android app support. Some models have been marked as 'Planned' for years, and it's likely many (or all of them) will never actually get the Play Store.
Hopefully, this guide has helped you make an informed purchasing decision on a Chromebook. Let us know in the comments if you have any more tips!