The Quick Version
1. Bargain prices.
2. Automatic online backups built in.
3. Runs Chrome OS, which is very secure.
Look at the list of Amazon's best selling laptops and there are an awful lot of Chromebooks. So what are these things? They are laptops, but instead of running Windows, they run an operating system from Google called Chrome OS. Is that a good thing? Oh yes (see Which Operating System? for details as to why).
The key advantages are very low price, excellent automatic backups and bullet proof security.
The security is excellent on a Chromebook. You can wave goodbye to all that malicious software on Windows. It simply doesn't exist on Chrome. Just imagine a poor penniless hacker sobbing his heart out because you removed his criminal income by moving away from Windows. Maybe now he will start doing something for good with his skills.
Have a look at the Security Hierarchy if you want all the techie details on why Chrome is secure.
The Backups on the Chrome operating system are the best I have seen on any system. Everything you do is constantly and automatically being backed up. And I do mean constantly. A bad person could smash your Chrome machine with a large hammer half way through you writing a document and the document would be safely stored at Google right up to the last word you typed. It's not a once a week or once a day thing, it's constant.
What's more, you cannot switch it off, it's just baked into the way the thing works. Does that sound like a bad restrictive thing? It does until you see (as I do) that people switch off the backups on other types of machines by mistake. Chrome's backup is constantly keeping you safe. Here's Google's video on the subject and another explaining how it helps with alien abduction, seriously.
Backups are all very well in theory, but does it work in practise? I can say hand on heart, yes! We have had clients who have lost, had stolen and had broken their Chrome machines and in all cases they bought a new one, signed in and everything was there. It works.
I would like to be able to say that you can do everything on a Chromebook that you could do on Windows or Mac, but it's not the case. However, the important thing is that the Chromebook will do all the things that most people want to do with a home computer. It's certainly true that there are things you can do on Windows or Mac that you cannot do on a Chromebook, but for most people the trade off of advantages is worth the difference. Take a look at The Key Trade Off to understand the differences.
Almost all the major computer manufacturers make at least one model of Chromebook and if you look on the interwebs you will find endless geeky chat comparing their relative merits. The true is, they are all very similar. I suggest you don't spend too much time over thinking which model to get. The differences quickly disappear once you get stuck in and using them. What counts are the bigger questions: Windows or Not? What Shape? Which Operating System?
What's wrong with choosing a Chromebook?
It needs a connection to the Internet to work. There are somethings it can do offline and that list is increasing over time, but really, it's an online machine. That would have been a problem in the old days of unreliable dial-up connections. In these days of always on broadband, it's not so much of an issue. In my day job I work with clients in villages that have everything from 150Mb fiber to 1Mb ADSL. Chrome machines have worked fine on all of those. You have to be someone with a very poor internet connection indeed before this is a problem (and I know such folks exist and if you are one of them I do feel sorry for you. You might want to look at some of the other machines recommended here, like an iPad for example).
A Chromebook will work straight out of the box, but there are a few things that you might choose to add on:
It's possible that your existing printer might not work with a Chromebook. Chances are, if it's more than a few years old, it won't. When Google did printing on Chrome OS they introduced a brand new standard called "Google Cloud Print" and all the printer manufacturers had to run around changing their products to support it. At the time I thought that was spectacularly arrogant of Google (you are probably thinking the same now if you have to bin a perfectly good working printer). Then I thought about all the nonsense I have had to deal with over the years with printer drivers (the software that gets installed on PCs to talk to the printer). That made me feel a lot better about a standard like "Google Cloud Print" and AirPrint from Apple that just works.
If you are printing modest amounts, I have had really positive experiences installing the Epson XP-410/412 (US $79 - UK £71). If you are printing more like an office then Epson's Workforce range is better (US $129 - UK £89). These printers will also work with PCs, Macs, Android devices, Smartphones, Chrome OS computers and just about anything else you or anyone else in the family has. Printers are surprisingly cheap for what they are, because manufacturers hope to make their money on the ink.
Obviously a Chromebook comes with a screen built in, but it's a dinky little thing. That's great for portability, but means you have to scroll around a lot when viewing documents and webpages. Use the built in screen when you are away from your desk, but grab a nice big screen (US $159 - UK £112) to plug in when you're at your desk.
Of course if you are always at your desk, buying a Chromebook is a daft idea. Take a look at a Chromebase.
Wireless keyboard and mouse
Of course you get a built in keyboard and track pad with a Chromebook, but if you are using it with a big external screen, you will probably want an external keyboard and mouse to go with it (US £29 - UK £20). The reason is you will put the big screen dead in front of you. Then you will put the Chromebook between you and the screen so you can type. The flipped up screen of the Chromebook will obscure the big screen. The trick is to put the Chromebook to one side and have the external keyboard between you and the big screen. Fortunately external keyboards are cheap, so it's an easy fix.
But this is all nonsense!
The slaying of myths and misunderstandings
There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So let's prepare you for when someone "who knows about computers" comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.
It won't run Word and Excel!
Oh yes it will. Here is a video of a man doing it using Google Docs and here is another video of another chap doing it using the Online version of Word. Both of these solutions are free (you pay $100 or more on Windows or Mac). It's just another thing that makes Chrome OS look like a bargain. To be fair to the naysayers, there are some documents that refuse to format correctly in either of these systems, but they are the edge cases, not the norm. It's normally when the author has used some extra special function in Word or Excel. Most documents work just fine. For the full details on this see Word, Excel & PowerPoint.
What will I do if I lose my internet connection?
Chrome OS machines can do some work offline, but it's true that they are a bit hobbled without a connection. People do say to me "but that's madness, my internet connection does sometimes go down". To which I would say it's that old problem of relative risk I keep banging on about. If you are on Windows the chances of Viruses and Junk Software are high, as is the danger of data loss from poor backups. Those are the twin elephants in the room. These things are just not an issue on Chrome OS. Modern broadband connections don't go down much, if yours does you need to beat up your ISP until they fix it. It's not normal behaviour.
Making any purchasing decision is about weighing up the relative risks and rewards. Infections and data loss are big risks with a big impact. Losing your connection doesn't happen much and doesn't have a killer impact (you can always use your neighbours', go to the coffee shop at the end of the street or connect at work just whilst it' s getting sorted). If you lose your data or get scammed on Windows the photo collection stays lost and your money remains stolen.
It can't print!
Oh yes it can! Admittedly you can't print to every type of printer ever created. If you have some ancient old ink jet you won in a church raffle in 1997 it's not going to work with Chrome (so please don't call me). However, if you buy a new printer (which are surprisingly cheap [home printer US $79 - UK £71 - office printer - US $129 - UK £89]) make sure it will support "Google Cloud Print" which is the Google standard for printing from Chrome and it will work just fine. Occasionally I come across people who find it very difficult to let go of a working printer, so they buy a Windows Laptop and take on all the risks involved in that (see Viruses & Junk Software). This, of course, is madness. Printers are cheap, security breaches are not, move on.
It can't scan!
It can if you choose the right printer. Both Epson and HP do printers that will scan directly to email or Google Drive, which comes up fine on Chrome. Unfortunately Canon don't have a solution for Chrome, which is a shame as I like their printers. There is a fiddly workaround which involves scanning to a memory card and plugging that into the Chromebook. Hey ho, printers are cheap. If you have a Canon and it bothers you, time to move on.
It won't run my software!
Have a look at The Key Trade Off. Don't rush to count out the Chrome because it won't run the exact piece of software you are accustomed to running on Windows. A little looking around and you will probably find there is something that does the same job on the Chrome. It might even be better.
But there's no anti-virus software!
People say to me things like "I couldn't possibly go on the Internet without Norton/McAfee, I feel safe with that, it will protect me". This is ironic because at any one time we will have a workshop full of infected Windows machines, all of which will have up to date anti-virus software installed. It's not that the anti-virus software companies are doing a bad job, it's that they are standing on quicksand. The way Windows is designed makes it possible for a constant war to be waged between bad guys writing evil software and good guys trying to keep them out. This is not a one sided battle. The anti-virus software doesn't always win. If it did the vast malicious software industry wouldn't exist, but it does and it's making serious money out of scamming people just like you.
In order for anti-virus software to work it has to really get its hooks into a system. It has to be able to monitor all the inner workings of what's going on. Chrome is so locked down no app on it has that sort of access. That's great, that's exactly what we want. It makes it a desert for the bad guys, as they can't get their hooks in either. So the reasons that you can't run anti-virus software on Chrome OS are exactly the same reasons as why it' s not needed anyway.
Your anti-virus safety blanket is a like a bit of wet kitchen paper compared to the armour plating of a system that was designed to be secure in the first place.
It has lower specs that Windows PCs!
A beginners trap is comparing the specs of a Chrome OS computer with a Windows PC and thinking they are the same thing. For example, you look at a Chromebook with 16Gb hard drive and a Windows laptop with a 500Gb drive and think it's obvious that the Windows machine is vastly superior. This is wrong on two levels:
Firstly Chrome OS is not about having all your files on your local drive. You send it all to your encrypted locker at Google so it's backed up and kept safe. It doesn't matter if you only have a small local drive. You can have 1,000Gb or more in your locker. The system figures out which of those files you are accessing and brings them down to the local hard drive. The size of the hard drive is an irrelevant technical detail for geeks to obsess about. You can safely ignore it. What counts is how big the locker is. Google gives everyone 15Gb for free forever. If you buy a Chrome OS machine they give you 100Gb for 2 years. For a lot of folks the 15Gb of space is enough for all their stuff. But if you do go over the limit Google ask for some money, just not very much money. The 100Gb plan, for example is only $1.99 a month. And remember, that's not just to store your data, that's to provide a constant automatic online backup so that if your machine breaks or is lost or stolen, you get everything back. It's very good value and it works beautifully.
Secondly there are hard drives and there are hard drives. The hard drives in Chrome OS computers are solid state units (they have no moving parts). That's a good thing because solid state drives are much faster than traditional spinning drives. If you buy a high end computer for lots of cash you would expect it to have a solid state drive and to go like greased lightning. The solid state hard drive is a key part of getting that speed. When people buy computers they think it's all about the processor. It's easy to think of the processor as being the engine, just like on your car. A 2Ghz processor: a 2 litre engine. 3Ghz: 3 litres etc. However, any system runs at the speed of the slowest component. That super duper whizzy processor will spend most of its time sitting around waiting if the hard drive is slow. Therefore a computer with a fast hard drive and a modest processor can be quicker than what looks like a hotrod because it's listed with a fire breathing processor.
The summary of all that is: interpreting these specifications is a more subtle process than you might think. The truth is that all the machines I have recommended here are plenty powerful enough for normal everyday tasks. Yes there are specialist tasks that require specialist machines (like professional video editing), but that's not what these pages are all about. This is about normal people doing normal everyday things with their computers.
Don't be shy, say what you think. The comment system below is there for anyone to ask a question or make a point. Especially don't hold back if you are a normal person just trying to make sense of it all. It's easy to get the opinions of geeks on geeky matters. Much more interesting to hear how this works out for you or what bits need more explanation. No such thing as a silly question, jump in.