What do you do when you have less than $300 to spend on a new laptop, one that you’ll use mostly for Web browsing and light applications? You buy a Chromebook. At least, that’s what more and more consumers — especially students — are doing.
Chromebooks are laptops that run on Google’s Web-browsing software and have minimal capacity for running traditional desktop apps. Hardware makers like Samsung, Acer, HP and Lenovo all have their own versions of a Chromebook. When you consider the long history of the PC, Chromebooks haven’t been around for very long, yet they already claim a small slice of the PC market.
Now Toshiba has a Chromebook. It costs $275. Its biggest differentiator is that it offers the first low-cost, 13.3-inch display in a Chromebook. Google’s own Pixel Chromebook has a 13-inch display, but costs more than $1,000. Most others have 11-inch displays.
I like a good 13-inch laptop. That’s what I normally use. A 13-inch display means not only more screen real estate, but also a more spacious keyboard. Cramped fingers do not a happy reporter make. Also, the Toshiba showed surprisingly good battery life in my tests. Those are its two standout features.
The Toshiba is — how can I put this — okay. It gets the job done. It’s not going to blow your socks off and make you shout, “Chromebook, where have you been all my life!” If Chromebooks were pizza, this one is a slice from a mediocre chain, not a deluxe pie from a top-notch joint.
And for $300, you can get a Chromebook — the Acer C720P — with a touchscreen display and 32 gigabytes of flash storage, instead of the common 16GB. So it’s possible to get a slightly more premium-feeling laptop for just a little bit more.
Before I get into the specifics of the Toshiba device, it might help to explain a little bit about how Chromebooks work. (If you’re already familiar with Chromebooks, you can skip to the next part.)
Chromebooks are all Google, all the time. They run on Google’s Chrome operating system. Some first-time users will feel like someone grabbed their Mac or Windows laptop, slapped some Android-like apps on the desktop, and told them they couldn’t use iTunes or PowerPoint anymore. But if you find that most of the functions you perform on your laptop are Web-based anyway — browsing, searching, or using cloud-apps for storing files — then this won’t feel much different.
On the lower left-hand side of the Chromebook desktop you’ll see an icon for Google’s menu of two-dozen apps, including Chrome, Play, Maps, Drive, Gmail, YouTube and more. If you click on the lower right-hand side of the desktop, you can open the Settings menu and adjust the laptop’s wallpaper, trackpad speed, default search engine and privacy settings for all of your Chrome activity. It’s pretty easy to find your way around a Chromebook right out of the box.
Even though you can’t install something like Microsoft Office on a Chromebook, you can still open, edit and save Word documents and other files. You can also view photos and Adobe PDFs. But the files will open, by default, in some type of Google app.
For example, when I attached an external hard drive and opened up a saved Word doc on the Chromebook, it defaulted to a Google app called QuickOffice, which allowed me to edit and save some changes. (Unfortunately, this app also crashed on me a couple times, obliterating other changes, which was frustrating).
And you can still perform some functions when the computer is offline, provided that the app you’re using has an offline mode.
Now, on to the hardware: The Toshiba Chromebook has a silver plastic body. It weighs 3.3 pounds and is 0.8-inches thick. The textured plastic casing is probably supposed to make it feel more substantial, or at least a little bit “industrial,” but it’s hard to ignore the cheapness of it. The smooth plastic around the screen and keyboard looks sleeker.
This Chromebook display has a 1,366 by 768-pixel native resolution, which in normal speak means that it’s not nearly as brilliant as the screens on some high-end laptops, but it’s not bad. Colors looked good, but it did feel shadowy as I moved it around and adjusted viewing angles.
It has a 1.4-gigahertz Intel processor, 2GB of RAM and a 16GB solid-state drive. It booted up quickly, and never felt slow or sluggish while I was browsing the Web or streaming video. On the right side of the laptop, there’s a headphone jack, two USB 3.0 ports and an HDMI port. On the left side, there is a charging port and a slot for an SD card.
The Toshiba Chromebook’s keyboard is comfortable and roomy. It looks strikingly similar to the keyboard on a MacBook. It has a large, generally-responsive touchpad.
The laptop’s speakers had surprising oomph. I mostly listened to quiet music while doing work, but sound was clear and undistorted even when I popped up the volume for streaming videos, or maxed it out for tests.
Finally, the battery test: Our harsh tests on laptops and tablets usually involve turning off all power savers, popping the display up to full brightness, running an email app and playing locally-stored iTunes files on a continuous loop. Since you can’t install iTunes on a Chromebook, and there are no power-saving settings, I tweaked this test a bit. Instead, I streamed music nonstop through Google Play. I also installed a Chrome browser extension called Keep Awake that kept the laptop from going into sleep mode.
In my test, the Chromebook lasted a solid five hours and 56 minutes. This is less than Toshiba’s claim of nine hours, but it beats out Samsung’s Chromebook, which my colleague Katie Boehret reviewed last year.
The Toshiba Chromebook isn’t the most inspiring example of its class on the market, but for $275, it’s a decent, low-cost option.