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Tested: 3 Chromebooks for the Office

Do most of your work in a Web browser? A Chromebook might be for you. Inc.com reviews three models to find the best value.
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For the past two years, Google has touted the merits of the Chromebook. These "OS-light" notebooks, which run the Chrome OS variant of Linux, have a limited feature set. They can't run standard desktop apps like Photoshop or Microsoft Office, barely let you print, and don't even provide a way to sync files to a service like Dropbox in the cloud.

Worse yet, they seem wholly on the fringe of the computing world. In April, NetMarketShare revealed that people using Chromebooks account for only .02 percent of all Web traffic. That's not a great sign of adoption.

Yet there is one big reason to consider them: the low price. Recently, Acer announced that Walmart would start carrying the Chromebook C7, which now has a fast solid-state drive, for only $199. That's cheaper than some smartphones. And if you already do most of your work on the Web, a Chromebook may give you all the computing power you need--and no more.

I've covered Chrome OS devices for some time, including an early review of the first Samsung Chromebox in Inc. Magazine (sorry, it's not online). As long as you understand the merits and detriments of using Chromebooks, they can fit perfectly into a small business tech strategy--and save you some serious capital expense. Let's look at three newer models:

Chromebook Pixel

I'll start at the top. For the past few months, I've used a Chromebook Pixel ($1299). There's a version that provides 100MB of 4G LTE service for free for two years, but costs $1449. I've already covered this notebook in depth and also made fun of it in my personal blog--it is the best one available by far. Suffice it to say, as long as you can live with the lack of any desktop apps, it is an excellent, technically-minded laptop.

The Pixel is well-built, provides a solid keyboard for fast typing, and has an incredibly clear and bright screen running at 2560 x 1700 pixels. The Intel Core i5 1.8GHz processor with 4GB of RAM meant the Pixel booted in just seven seconds. The 13-inch screen is wide enough for daily work. And, the Pixel weighs just over three pounds and lasts five hours.

Unfortunately, the Pixel doesn't really help with cost savings. That's why you might consider the Acer C7 ($199) or the HP Pavillion 14 Chromebook ($330).

Acer C7

First, let me say this about the Acer C7: It's more like a netbook than a notebook. At just over three pounds, the C7 has only a 12-inch screen and feels cramped for typing. The arrow keys, for example, are so small and hard to find you might need an external keyboard.

The 1.10GHz processor and 2GB of RAM make the C7 a bit sluggish, booting in 10 seconds. You'll also have to learn to live without any of the Pixel's dancing colored lights or the auto-dimming keyboard. The C7 lasts about four hours per charge. For $280, you can upgrade to a version that has a six-hour battery life.

HP Pavilion 14

The HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook was the one I liked least. For starters, the build quality felt cheap to me--especially the keyboard. And like the Acer C7, it's not terribly fast: There's a 1.10GHz processor and 2GB of RAM, so the boot time was nine seconds.

During my test period, I noticed how photos and webcam chats looked washed out compared to the Chromebook Pixel. The 14-inch screen provides more screen real estate but it also means the battery life is just over four hours.

Don't expect any extra frills on this notebook. Unlike the Acer C7 and Chromebook Pixel, the Pavillion 14 doesn't include 12 free passes for GoGo Inflight wireless. However, all three laptops do include 100GB of free Google cloud storage.

So what's the final tally? The Pixel is an exceptional Chromebook and my personal favorite. That being said, it's not exactly the best buy for the money: If you can afford the Pixel, you can also afford a full Windows 8 notebook that runs desktop apps.

The HP Pavillion seems like a budget model. I wasn't impressed with the quality of the materials, and the price seems a bit high for what you get. It doesn't exactly scream "next-gen laptop" like the Chromebook Pixel. More like, 2004 laptop.

That leaves the Acer C7. For $199, it's not the best laptop you will ever own (or hand out to employees). But the C7 never crashed and ran smoothly for Web apps, copying files to a USB drive (and the front-loading camera card port). It's my top pick for business.

Last updated: Jun 26, 2013

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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