July 01, 2022

7 min

Chromebooks Versus Laptops: What's the Difference?

What are the biggest differences between Chromebooks and macOS/Windows laptops? Is there really that much of a difference? Find out here.

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What's Inside

Deciding between Chromebooks vs.  "normal" laptops with macOS or Windows is a concern of many budget-minded consumers, business-oriented users and students alike. But what exactly are the biggest differences between these device types? In this article, we’ll compare them based on their operating system, pricing, storage options, software options, graphic capability, computing power, gaming capability, display and more.

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What is a Chromebook?

Chromebooks are devices brought to you by Google that come as clamshell laptops, 2-in-1s and tablets. They are a budget-friendly offering with much of the same functionality as traditional laptops with a few key differences, most notably, the Google Chrome web browser-based Chrome OS operating system on which they run. Rather than running traditional desktop-based applications, Chromebooks are mostly used with cloud- and web-based applications like those offered within Google Workspace. Many users enjoy them due to their lower price point, ease-of-use, portability and strengths when it comes to web-based capabilities.

Chromebooks vs. Laptops: Operating System

You may be familiar with the popular Chrome web browser—Chrome OS, the operating system of Chromebooks, is based on it. Chrome browser users will feel at home with Chromebooks since that is the primary user interface.  The earliest iterations of Chromebooks needed an internet connection to run its web apps, but that has shifted in more recent years. Post 2017, Chrome OS supports Android apps, Linux apps and offline document editing, making Chromebooks increasingly capable without an internet connection. Chrome OS is a lightweight OS which allows for fast bootup times—you don’t need to wait long to connect to the web and get going on your next task.

Chromebooks vs. Laptops: Pricing

Chromebooks cost significantly less (usually in the hundreds of dollars) and are also smaller and lighter since they don’t have much in the way of big, expensive components. This has made them a popular choice for schools that issues laptops to students, since most K-12 learners and college students don’t need blazing technical specs to do most of their work, unless they are design, film, or engineering majors in need of high-intensity design, video editing or CAD software. 

CPU, GPU, storage and build quality are typically more robust with PCs and Macs, although recently many Chromebooks have been released with specs that approach them (and likewise, higher price points). There is even a special line of “Enterprise” Chromebooks intended for the needs of business users who may need a more powerful device than what a typical Chromebook can offer.

Chromebooks vs. Laptops: Storage

Storage is typically minimal on Chromebooks versus regular laptops since they’re more focused on cloud storage, namely that of Google Drive—you won’t find a ton of Chromebooks that exceed 128GB of storage, which is pretty much the baseline for PCs and Macs. Chromebook users can also store apps on SD cards or external hard drives if needed, just like Windows or Mac users can. 

Most Chromebooks don’t feature solid-state drives (SSDs) which Macs and PCs typically have. They contain what’s called eMMC flash storage, which is commonly found in tablets, mobile devices and laptops as a less-costly alternative to the higher-bandwidth (but not necessarily faster) SSD. SSDs are becoming more common in newer Chromebooks, however. The Galaxy Chromebook for instance has a 256 GB NVMe SSD, which you could commonly find in new laptops as well.

Difference between Chromebooks and Laptops: Software

Chromebooks are devices most effectively used with an internet connection. Fortunately, almost every app offers a web-based alternative with most of the same features as their desktop equivalents, including Microsoft Office, Spotify, Netflix, YouTube and most everything you could imagine doing these days on a computer—even Photoshop and other Adobe offerings. If you’re looking to purchase a Chromebook and need access to a particular app, it would behoove you to make sure it’s offered as a web app first and it has the features you need. 

Chromebooks are not natively compatible with Mac/PC software, meaning you won’t be able to run either Mac or Windows software out of the box.  There are a few ways to work around this, however: 

  • VMware allows you to run virtualized versions of software on Chromebooks, so you could in theory use Windows and macOS
    applications on a Chromebook with this technology. 
  • Chrome Remote Desktop also allows for a similar capability in which you can connect remotely to a PC running Windows by accessing the remote Windows desktop inside yourr browser.  

  • Google, in partnership with Parallels, offers Parallels Desktop for Chromebook Enterprise for a regular subscription fee, which builds Windows and non-native app support into Chrome OS for select Chromebook devices. 

  • Many of your favorite apps probably have a progressive web app, or PWA version that has almost the same capabilities as their desktop app equivalents, much like a mobile app you’d use on a phone or tablet that can also be used offline. 

  • Since Chromebooks are Linux-based, you can also run Linux-based apps on them. A good number of apps out there have Linux versions so you may be able to run them on your Chromebook natively. Be sure to do your due diligence before purchasing one.

Difference between Chromebooks and Laptops: Graphics/GPU

Chromebooks won’t cut it for advanced photo- or video-editing, or any other desktop applications that are GPU-intensive, for the most part. Chromebooks traditionally don’t have discrete GPUs, meaning they don’t have GPUs separate from their CPUs. Discrete GPUs consume more power and generate a fair amount of heated on top of being capable of running tasks like creative editing and AAA gaming titles.  

For now, if you need to run Adobe Creative Cloud or CAD programs, you would be best off with a macOS device or Windows PC with a discrete GPU. A higher-end Chromebook may be able to run limited PWAs of the big-name creative software but can’t run at the professional level (yet).

Difference between Chromebooks and Laptops: Computing Power/ CPU

Lower-cost Chromebooks commonly feature lower-performance chips such as Intel N-Series Celeron and Pentium processors or AMD A4/A6 processors since Chrome OS isn’t as demanding as other mainstream operating systems. Some mid-level to high-performance Chromebooks have MediaTek or Qualcomm Snapdragon CPUs. More powerful CPUs will keep your machine running smoothly when running multiple apps, browser tabs or general multitasking.

Some advanced use Chromebooks utilize the same juggernaut CPUs as Windows and Mac machines, including the AMD Ryzen series and Intel Core series. Depending on the Chromebook you buy, they run a wide gamut on the spectrum of CPU power. Not sure which you need? Check out our Chromebook buying guide.

Chromebooks vs. Laptops Pro and Con: Gaming

Chromebook gaming, while in its early stages, is possible. Chromebooks can run games from the Chrome Web Store or web browser-based games. Google has been working with Epic Games and Valve’s Steam to bring those gaming clients to Chrome OS. We may see a budget-friendly gaming Chromebook soon running Fortnite and other big-name titles.

There is an alpha version of Steam now available through the Chrome OS dev channel but they’re still working out the kinks. It’s only usable on a select number of Chromebooks with more powerful components.

Chromebooks vs. Laptops Pro and Con: Battery Life

Chromebooks excel when it comes to battery life since the less-demanding Chrome OS operating system and lower-powered components lend to less overall power consumption. Average battery life is about 10-12 hours and can even exceed 14 hours. This would be tough if not impossible to find with a typical laptop, especially one at a low price point. If you’re always forgetting your charger at home, a Chromebook is your best friend.

Read more about Chromebook pros and cons.

Chromebooks vs. Laptops: Size

Chromebooks tend to be thinner, smaller and lighter for the price. Typically, Chromebooks fall into the 2-3lbs range, making them easy to tote around without much trouble. For a powerful Windows or macOS laptop, you’ll have to pay quite a bit for it to be as portable as a Chromebook.

Chromebooks vs. Laptops: Display

The higher end Chromebooks these days oftentimes have the same resolution displays as macOS or Windows machines. Budget Chromebooks will commonly have 1366 x 768 px displays, a standard resolution for non-full-HD laptops. However,  it’s not unusual for Chromebooks to have 1920 x 1080px (full HD) displays. Some newer models even have 4K or OLED displays found in top-of-the-line laptops. Learn more about the different types of computer displays.


The line between traditional OS laptops and Chromebooks continues to blur over time. Given the rise of robust PWAs and specialized software, you can do nearly everything on a Chromebook you can on a MacBook or Windows-based machine, with Chromebook capabilities increasing every year. CDW sells Chromebooks, Apple products of all kinds, and laptops and 2-in-1s from all the top brands in the business. Whatever your purchasing decision ends up being, CDW gets IT.