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Chromebooks versus Windows laptops: Which should you buy?

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Chromebooks versus Windows laptops: Which should you buy?

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In the fight between a Google Chrome OS-powered Chromebook and a Microsoft Windows PC, it boils down to cost versus convenience.

Chromebook vs Windows PC primary better light

Mark Hachman / IDG

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Should I buy a Chromebook or a Windows laptop? It’s a common question, whether asked by parents weighing the best computer option for back-to-school or by people who just want an inexpensive computer for themselves. We’ll help you choose the right one.

Our latest update includes more answers to questions you might have: such as, how slow (and inexpensive) can a Chromebook be before it stops being usable? What does Windows 11 mean for laptops? Read on for the answers, plus our up-to-date buying guide for July 2021 and more.

Who should buy a Windows laptop?

A notebook PC or laptop powered by Microsoft Windows offers several advantages. Windows offers the most flexibility to run just about any app, your choice of any browser, and configure antivirus options, utilities, and more. You can tweak and configure your PC as you choose.

That convenience demands more computing horsepower, and often a higher price compared to most Chromebooks. Prices can soar into the thousands of dollars, and if you need a powerful PC for gaming or video editing, Chromebooks can’t compete, and they don’t try to. But you’ll find some great deals among our more affordably priced, top Windows picks. See our buying guide to the best laptops for even more options. 

Who should buy a Chromebook?

A Chromebook powered by Google’s Chrome OS is a simpler, more optimized affair. Essentially, it’s useful to think of a Chromebook as a dedicated Chrome browser running on top of secure hardware. It can also be hundreds of dollars cheaper than a comparable Windows PC, even with the same processor inside! Numerous American classrooms have settled on Chromebooks for in-person and distance learning, and often made them available for loaning to students.

Now, however, Chromebooks can do much more, including Android apps and cloud gaming, making them entertainment as well as productivity devices. Google is also adding more features to Chromebooks to make them as useful as Windows devices. Amazon’s list of the “best-selling laptops” is often dominated by Chromebooks—see for yourself! Pay attention during the holidays or peak sales periods like Prime Day, when prices can drop really low—down around $100 or more. Just make sure you’re not buying a Chromebook that’s fallen out of the support window. (We’ll talk more about that, below.)

Updates occur behind the scenes, so you can just open the lid and go. Google handles all the security, too—now with better biometric options up front, too. The internet offers much of what you need, whether that means working within web apps or using Chrome plugins. But it’s the workarounds and little inconveniences that you may find annoying.

Two other points: For years, there were plain, clamshell Chromebooks and…not much else. (Chromeboxes, a niche class of standalone Chrome OS-powered cubes that lack a display, are nearly defunct.) Now there are Chrome OS-powered convertibles like the HP Chromebook x360 12b (currently $360 on Adorama), as well as Chrome OS-powered tablets like the Lenovo Chromebook Duet (currently $300 at Best Buy).  In fact, it seems like many Chromebooks are now 360-degree convertibles, available to be flipped around and used as a thick tablet for Android apps.

Google and Parallels have also announced Parallels Desktop for Chromebook Enterprise, a $69.99/user solution that will support—gasp!—running Windows apps on Chromebooks, by building a version of Parallels into Chrome OS. (Parallels can already be used to provide remote access to Windows apps.) You’ll need a very specific enterprise Chromebook to take advantage of it, however.

Read on for a deeper dive into the differences between the Chrome OS and Windows platforms, as well as some recommendations on what to buy. Just be aware that the conversation will focus on inexpensive machines that can accomplish basic tasks. Chromebooks can’t hold a candle to $2,000 gaming PCs, though some cloud gaming services get close. 

chrome windows reflection 2 Mark Hachman

Chrome OS or Windows? The choice is up to you.

What’s the difference between a Chromebook and a Windows PC?

Though you probably already know what differentiates a Windows PC from a Chromebook, here’s a brief refresher: Windows PCs run Microsoft Windows 10 (and soon, Windows 11), the dominant operating system for traditional PCs for more than 25 years. They run Windows applications, from Microsoft titles to a raft of third-party software. Windows PCs are available in desktop and laptop forms, and can be configured in infinite ways to accommodate needs from basic productivity to resource-intensive workstations. 

Windows 10 Start menu Preston Gralla / IDG

The Start menu is command central for Windows 10. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Chromebooks are much simpler. They run Chrome OS, essentially a Chrome web browser vehicle, and are often priced several hundred dollars less than a Windows PC. The newest Chromebooks contain a bonus, however: the ability to run some Android apps (more on this later—Android apps are coming to Windows 11, too.). Another perk: the ability to run Linux—not something that most users will care about, but a useful niche addition. (Windows 10 users can run Linux as well.) Chromebooks may be cheap, but they’re surprisingly flexible.

chromebook desktop Mark Hachman / IDG

In a Chromebook, many of the apps reside below the taskbar.

Physically, a Chromebook looks much like a Windows-powered notebook, with a keyboard, a display, a front-facing camera for videoconferencing, and so on. But there are a few key differences: Chromebooks typically include a dedicated search keyboard key, while Windows emphasizes the Windows key.  With Windows, you’ll have many hardware choices, including a typical clamshell notebook, convertibles with 360-degree hinges; 2-in-1 Windows tablets with detachable keyboards, or pure Windows tablets.

Most Chromebooks are clamshells, but we’re seeing a lot more convertibles now that Android apps are supported. Because Chrome OS and Android are now conjoined, a key reason to choose a Chrome OS tablet instead of a clamshell hinges on how often you’ll use Android apps. Android apps run acceptably in a laptop form factor, but they’re arguably more convenient when used as a tablet, and held in your hand. Remember, most 360-degree convertibles/2-in-1s flip the keyboard out of the way, essentially transforming the Chromebook into a big, bulky tablet. We prefer this approach.

cortana on windows Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft Cortana runs within Windows, but the Google Assistant is only in Google’s own Pixelbook devices.

Inside, the only real differences are the processor. Windows PCs have a wide range of microprocessors powering them, usually chips from AMD and Intel, or more recently, a Qualcomm Snapdragon.

Chromebooks generally favor lower-performance Intel Atom chips (branded as Pentium or Celeron), Snapdragons, or lesser-known processors from the likes of Mediatek or Rockchip, that are suited to the lighter demands of Chrome OS. But AMD has made aggressive, recent moves to bring its powerful Ryzen chips into Chromebooks, and Intel’s 11th-gen Tiger Lake Core chips, are headed to Chromebooks as well. Look for CPU buying advice in the next section.

More recently we’ve seen pricier corporate and luxury Chromebooks include Intel Core CPUs, including the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook—but the jury’s still out on who will pay upwards of $1,000 for a Chromebook. (We’d advise you not to.)

Chromebook and Windows PCs features have a lot of overlap, too. Though you’ll find that many Chromebooks and inexpensive laptops feature a similar HD (1366×768) or Full HD (1920×1080) display, Windows usually requires a bit more in terms of memory and storage. Both a Chromebook and a laptop can run acceptably on 4GB of memory, but 8GB is preferred where Windows notebooks are concerned.

Windows notebooks, too, typically include more local storage for the Windows OS and associated apps: 128GB or 256GB is acceptable, though there’s really no upper limit. Chromebooks, meanwhile, don’t need much more than 16GB or so, assuming Google-oriented users are taking advantage of the Drive online storage, or stashing Android apps on an SD card. Less storage means less cost; many Chromebooks also use inexpensive eMMC flash storage to save even further. Both Chromebooks and Windows tablets allow external storage. 

chromebook file explorer Mark Hachman / IDG

Though the Chrome OS Files app within Chromebooks is a little rougher than Windows, it’s been designed with cloud storage (in Google Drive) from the beginning.

The only Chromebook with Google Assistant support so far is the Google Pixelbook. Instead, Google’s built-in intelligence is primarily put to use in the Chrome OS “Launcher.” Like the Chrome browser, you type a search question into the Launcher and Google will return answers. The feature is rolled out on Chrome OS 90.

google launcher Google

It’s not quite the Google Assistant, but it’s getting there.

Microsoft’s own digital assistant, Cortana, is supported on all Windows PCs that include a mic—which is virtually all of them. Now, however, Amazon’s Alexa has also been added as a Cortana partner application or “skill,” which means Windows users get two assistants for the price of one. (The Windows 10 May 2020 Update’s Cortana app does not support Alexa, however.) Cortana is also now an app on Windows PCs and doesn’t play as much of a role as she used to.

Windows 11, the successor to Windows 10, is expected to roll out in the fall of 2021. It provides a visual refresh of Windows…that looks rather like a Chromebook, actually. You can read our Windows 11 superguide for more. 

How fast do I need a Chromebook to be?

Buying a laptop is relatively easy: simply look for an up-to-date AMD or Intel processor, and look for the lowest price. But Chromebooks can have a variety of low-end microprocessors to choose from, some of which you may have never heard of.

PCWorld’s Alaina Yee recommends buying a Chromebook with a Pentium or Celeron processor—and that’s a good place to start if you don’t feel comfortable parsing Chromebook specifications. Anything more powerful than that, like an Intel Core chip, is just fine too.

Is a Chromebook or laptop better for office work?

Productivity apps—word processing, spreadsheets, and the like—represent the majority of the working day. Here, both Windows and Chromebook users alike have several choices, and both are honestly about equal in this regard. Chromebooks can run Microsoft’s Office apps as Android applications, while Windows PCs can run Google Workspace apps on the web. (Google Workspace was formerly named G Suite, and before that Google Apps.)

You might think that Office would be restricted to Windows, but that’s not true either: Office.com, also known as Office Online, runs in a web browser, and—assuming you have a subscription to Office 365 (now called Microsoft 365)—offers nearly all the functionality that the Office 365 suite does. (Microsoft Office apps are also available as Android apps, but it’s simpler to run them within the browser.) In fact, given that it’s powered by the cloud, you’ll find that Office Online sometimes gets updated with new features before they arrive on Microsoft 365. Office is typically used by most enterprises, and if your company administrator allows it, even shared corporate resources may be accessible via a Chromebook. 

There’s one tweak: as of August 2021, Microsoft won’t support the Android version of Office apps on a Chromebook. That doesn’t mean you can’t run Office on a Chromebook; you’ll just need to use Office.com (AKA Office Online) instead.

The Google Workspace suite also runs online, though it’s focused on the essentials, with fewer features than Office but a renewed focus on collaboration. I spent over a year exclusively working on a Chromebox (the nearly defunct desktop version of a Chromebook) and found Google’s simple interface and instantaneous autosaves superior to the Windows version of Office at the time. (Office apps like Word now autosave, too.) For our purposes, both Google Workspace and Office Online will run on either a plain Chromebook or Windows PC; however, if you need access to a local copy of Office, only a PC will suffice. 

Microsoft office 365 online Mark Hachman / IDG

Office Online (Office.com) is accessible via a browser from either a Chromebook or Windows PC.

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Leaked Alder Lake prices strike at Ryzen’s CPU dominance

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Leaked Alder Lake prices strike at Ryzen’s CPU dominance

Here’s what leaked retailer pricing tells us about the performance of Intel’s upcoming Alder Lake S CPUs.

6core vs 8core cpus

Intel / AMD / janniwet / Shutterstock

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Intel’s 12th-gen Alder Lake processors aren’t upon us yet, but another price leak indicates they might indeed compete with AMD’s best CPUs, unlike current top-end Core offerings.

The latest oopsie comes from retail IT vendor Provantage, which puts the top-end Core i9-12900K at $605. The IT vendor also lists the Core i7-12700K at $420, as well as a Core i5-12600K for $283.

After news reports of the part numbers and prices surfaced, Provantage removed the listings. The latest leak follows reports two weeks ago—supposedly from European retailers—that placed the Core i9-12900K at $705, the Core i7-12700K at $495, and the Core i5-12600 at $343.

Before you jump to any conclusions, we want to point out that as reliable as a leaked retail price might seem, they can very unreliable too. Often times stores prep for impending launches by using placeholder prices and specs. Those listings are then updated when the stores receive the final information.

The leaked info itself from Provantage would indicate it’s not quite baked yet. For example, we know the top-end Alder Lake S chip will feature 8 performance cores and 8 efficient cores (Intel’s Alder Lake chips feature a radical new mixture of big and little cores), yet the listing at Provantage lists the top-end chip as an 8-core design. 

alder lake provantage Provantage via Hothardware.com

Hothardware.com snapped this image of Intel’s 12th gen Alder Lake CPUs at retailer Provantage. that has since been removed.

Still, both combined retail leaks reinforce what we’ve already come to conclude so far: Intel’s 12th-gen Alder Lake S will at least suit up with the intent to take on AMD’s 16-core Ryzen 9 5950X.

That’s a marked change from the $550 8-core 11th gen Rocket Lake CPU, which lost badly to AMD’s $550 12-core Ryzen 9 5900X chip. With the 11th-gen desktop chips, Intel didn’t even try to field a CPU against AMD’s $750 Ryzen 9 5950X.

With its increased core efficiency, newer manufacturing process, and physically more cores than previous Intel consumer desktop CPUs, it’s entirely possible Intel’s 12th Core i9 will actually end up being somewhere between $604 and $705 when it comes out.

intel alder lake performance core benchmark Intel

Intel is touting a marked increase in core efficiency with its 12th gen Alder Lake CPUs.

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One of founding fathers of hardcore tech reporting, Gordon has been covering PCs and components since 1998.

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The best Windows backup software

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The best Windows backup software

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The best programs for keeping your data and Windows safely backed up.

Rob Schultz/IDG

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We need backup software for our PCs because our storage drives won’t last forever. Backup software ensures we’re covered when the day comes that our primary drive up and dies.

It would be nice if Microsoft itself provided Windows users with something like Apple’s Time Machine: an effective, set-it-and-forget-it, total system recovery and backup solution that requires little interaction or thought on the user’s part. 

Instead, Microsoft delivers a mishmash of restore points, recovery discs, file backup, and even the un-retired System Backup (Windows 7), which was probably originally put out to pasture for its propensity to choke on dissimilar hardware. Online backup services are another option, but desktop clients tend to offer far more flexibility. 

Plenty of vendors have stepped in with worthy alternatives, and while none are quite as slick or transparent as Time Machine, some come darn close—and many are free. Read on for our top picks. 

Updated on 9/15/21 to include our review of the newest version of Aomei Backupper 6. It remains our favorite free backup software for Windows because it provides a near-total backup solution, with a generous number of features. As a paid program, however, there are better options. Read more about it below. And scroll to the bottom of this article to see links to all our backup software reviews.

Best overall backup software

There’s a reason True Image is renowned in the world of backup software. It’s capable, flexible, and rock-solid reliable. Indeed, it’s easily the most comprehensive data safety package on the planet.

Besides offering unparalleled backup functionality that’s both robust and easy to navigate, True Image integrates security apps as well, which protect against malware, malicious websites, and other threats using real-time monitoring. Read our full review.

Best free backup software

Among the free programs we tested, Backupper Standard wins primarily because it has the most features, including imaging, file backup, disk cloning, and plain file syncing, plus multiple scheduling options (see our full review). This was the case with Backupper 4, and the latest version has only added more options, making it a surprisingly well-rounded free offering. We hit a few performance snags with less-conventional system setups, but for the average user, it should perform as expected.

What to look for in backup software

As with most things—don’t over-buy. Features you don’t need add complexity and may slow down your system. Additionally, if you intend to back up to a newly purchased external hard drive, check out the software that ships with it. Seagate, WD, and others provide backup utilities that are adequate for the average user.

File backup: If you want to back up only your data (operating systems and programs can be reinstalled, though it’s mildly time- and effort-consuming), a program that backs up just the files you select is a major time-saver. Some programs automatically select the appropriate files if you use the Windows library folders (Documents, Photos, Videos, etc.).

Image backup/Imaging: Images are byte-for-byte snapshots of your entire hard drive (normally without the empty sectors) or partition, and can be used to restore both the operating system and data. Imaging is the most convenient to restore in case of a system crash, and also ensures you don’t miss anything important.

Boot media:  Should your system crash completely, you need an alternate way to boot and run the recovery software. Any backup program should be able to create a bootable optical disc or USB thumb drive. Some will also create a restore partition on your hard drive, which can be used instead if the hard drive is still operational.

Scheduling: If you’re going to back up effectively, you need to do it on a regular basis. Any backup program worth its salt allows you to schedule backups.

Versioning: If you’re overwriting previous files, that’s not backup, it’s one-way syncing or mirroring. Any backup program you use should allow you to retain several previous backups, or with file backup, previous versions of the file. The better software will retain and cull older backups according to criteria you establish.

Optical support: Every backup program supports hard drives, but as obsolescent as they may seem, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are great archive media. If you’re worried about optical media’s reliability, M-Disc claims its discs are reliable for a thousand years, claims that are backed up by Department of Defense testing.

Online support: An offsite copy of your data is a hedge against physical disasters such as flood, fire, and power surges. Online storage services are a great way to maintain an offsite copy of your data. Backup to Dropbox and the like is a nice feature to have.

FTP and SMB/AFP: Backing up to other computers or NAS boxes on your network or in remote locations (say, your parent’s house) is another way of physically safeguarding your data with an offsite, or at least physically discrete copy. FTP can be used for offsite, while SMB (Windows and most OS’s) and AFP (Apple) are good for other PCs or NAS on your local network.

Real time: Real-time backup means that files are backed up whenever they change, usually upon creation or save. It’s also called mirroring and is handy for keeping an immediately available copy of rapidly changing data sets. For less volatile data sets, the payoff doesn’t compensate for the drain on system resources. Instead, scheduling should be used.

Continuous backup: In this case, ‘continuous’ simply means backing up on a tight schedule, generally every 5 to 15 minutes, instead of every day or weekly. Use continuous backup for rapidly changing data sets where transfer rates are too slow, or computing power is too precious for real-time backup.

Performance: Most backups proceed in the background or during dead time, so performance isn’t a huge issue in the consumer space. However, if you’re backing up multiple machines or to multiple destinations, or dealing with very large data sets, speed is a consideration.

How we test

We run each program through the various types of backups it’s capable of. This is largely to test reliability and hardware compatibility, but we time two: an approximately 115GB system image (two partitions), and a roughly 50GB image created from a set of smaller files and folders. We then mount the images and test their integrity via the program’s restore functions. We also test the USB boot drives created by the programs.

All of our reviews

If you’d like to learn more about our top picks as well as other options, you can find links below to all of our backup software reviews. We’ll keep evaluating new programs and re-evaluating existing software on a regular basis, so be sure to check back for our current impressions.

Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate link policy for more details.

Jon is a Juilliard-trained musician, former x86/6800 programmer, and long-time (late 70s) computer enthusiast living in the San Francisco bay area. [email protected]

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Razer just made gamer thimbles

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Razer just made gamer thimbles

Or maybe they’re yoga pants for your thumbs?

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Razer has never been afraid to take a shot on products that seem unusual at first glance. Witness its RGB-infused N95 mask, the now-defunct Razer Game Store with its own zVault currency, or the first-gen Firefly mousepad, which has evolved into something special but originally prompted us to review it against a ripped-up piece of cardboard. The company’s latest offering might just take the cake though. This week, Razer introduced gamer thimbles.

Yes, thimbles. You know, like the Monopoly piece (or the sewing accessory for more worldly folks out there). Seriously.

Well, not quite. If you simply can’t abide sweaty palms and greasy fingerprints interfering with your marathon mobile Fortnite sessions, the new Razer gaming finger sleeve may be up your alley. “Slip on and never slip up with Razer Gaming Finger Sleeve that will seal your mobile victory,” Razer’s site breathlessly boasts.  “Woven with high-sensitivity silver fiber for enhanced aim and control, our breathable sleeves keep your fingers deadly cool in the heat of battle, so you’ll always have a grip on the game.”

Razer says the 0.8mm-thick sleeves are sweat absorbent, and that they’re made from nylon and spandex. So maybe they’re more like gamer yoga pants? But you know, for your fingers?

Either way it’s ludicrous. And unlike most of Razer’s gear, the gamer thimbles understandably (yet sadly) lack RGB lighting. But if you want to wear your dedication to the Cult of Razer on your slee…thumb, or maybe just look snazzier when you’re passing Go and collecting $200, you can pick up a pair of Razer gaming finger sleeves on the company’s website for $10. The truly dedicated can double down to look especially gamer:

razer gamer thimbles 2 Razer

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