Can a Chromebook Trump a MacBook Air?

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With Apple unveiling their latest line of MacBook Pros this fall, the laptop market is abuzz. However, the sticker-shock of an “entry-level” 13-inch MacBook Pro selling for $1,499 will undoubtedly have most laptop users seeking out more affordable alternatives. Stepping down to the MacBook Air model drops the price tag to a more modest $999 (the cheaper 11-inch model has been discontinued); but when compared to sub-$400 Chromebooks like the Acer Chromebook 15, the Dell Chromebook 11, or the Chromebook/Tablet hybrid Asus Chromebook Flip, is the MacBook Air worth the steep cost? For all but the most media-editing or gaming focused consumer, the answer is probably no. Let’s dive in to why a Chromebook trumps a MacBook Air.

Chromebook or Macbook Air: Price versus Performance

MacBooks are expensive. This should be no surprise. The Apple pricing model has always been one of the hardest pills to swallow for the end-user regardless of the product in question, especially when comparing their hardware specs to comparable devices.

In the case of the MacBook Air, a $999.00 investment gets the user:

  • the MacOS Sierra operating system
  • a 13.3-inch LED-backlit 1440×900 display
  • a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (which can be “Turbo Boosted” to 2.7GHz)
  • 8GB of LPDDR3 RAM
  • 128GB of flash storage
  • integrated Intel HD Graphics
  • 2 USB 3.0 ports
  • 2 proprietary Thunderbolt ports
  • an SDXC card slot
  • a 720p webcam
  • built-in 802.11ac/a/b/g/n compatible Wi-Fi
  • onboard Bluetooth 4.0

It is hard to deny the MacBook Air comes equipped with most features a laptop user would have on their wish-list. However, the feature set is not as impressive as it once was. A 1.6GHz dual-core processor is going to struggle with some high-performance tasks like video publication or running modern video games.

Surprisingly, Chromebooks don’t lag too far behind the aging, yet expensive, MacBook Air. Take, for example, the modestly priced Acer Chromebook 15 (CB5-571-C1DZ model). For less than a third of the price of the retail MacBook Air, you get a larger, higher resolution display along with a series of largely comparable components.

Acer Chromebook 15 specs:

  • the ChromeOS operating system
  • a 15.6-inch Full-HD LED-backlit 1920×1080 Display
  • a 1.5GHz Intel Celeron Dual-Core Processor
  • 4GB DDR3L SDRAM Memory
  • 16GB SSD storage
  • integrated Intel HD Graphics
  • an SD card reader
  • an HD webcam
  • 11ac Wi-Fi (Dual-Band 2.4GHz and 5GHz)
  • onboard Bluetooth 4.0
  • 1 USB 3.0 port
  • 1 USB 2.0 port
  • an HDMI port with HDCP Support

Of note is the inclusion of an HDMI port (a common feature in many Chromebook models) allowing the user to easily connect their Chromebook to a compatible monitor or HDTV without the need of any adapters or streaming devices (Apple will gladly offer MacBook Air users an HDMI adapter for an additional $34.95).

Ultimately, the MacBook Air has a more powerful Intel i5 processor, double the RAM, more onboard storage, and both of its USB ports are of the faster USB 3.0 variety (which you would hope to see for spending significantly more). On the surface, this may seem like an insurmountable difference, however for the majority of laptop users, these discrepancies would hardly demonstrate enough of an uptick in performance to merit an extra $600+ investment. When it comes down to it, most users would not notice much of a difference in their day-to-day computing performance using one device or the other.

The Storage (non)Issue

Chromebook storage is largely based on integration with Google Drive cloud storage, so an internal 16GB solid-state drive offers the typical user plenty of space to store local content and application data for offline use. Keep in mind, while there are plenty of reliable offline uses for a Chromebook, they are designed to be largely web-enabled devices. However, with the price of SD cards and USB 3.0 external hard drives continuing to drop, adding gigabytes (if not terabytes) of additional portable, offline storage space to a Chromebook can be done very inexpensively, all while keeping the overall investment leagues below that of the $999 MacBook Air. Odds are, most MacBook Air users would find themselves needing to explore additional physical or cloud-based storage options as well, since the included 128GB of flash storage can (and will) quickly fill up with installed applications and operating system files.

 

How Much RAM Do You Need?

Chromebook multitasking (Buy Chromebook or Macbook Air?)
Chromebook multitasking

The amount of RAM a system needs is heavily reliant on the needs of the user. 4GB of RAM is plenty for everyday computing tasks like word processing, using the internet, checking email, video chatting, listening to music, and streaming video, especially with a highly optimized operating system like ChromeOS that runs with minimal hardware demands. For example, I am, at this moment, using a Dell Chromebook 11 with a mere 2GB of RAM that is running a Plex video stream, Google Chrome with half a dozen open tabs, and a windowed Chrome Remote Desktop session streaming Microsoft Word from my home PC all without a hint of slowdown or latency (I know… I should just use Google Docs. Old habits die hard!).

To be fair, 8GB of RAM is always going to be better than 4GB of RAM, but it is relative to what you are asking your system to do. For example, I have 16GB in my main PC that I use for games, video editing, and running my home audio studio. That being said, for a user looking for basic media, web-browsing, and desktop publishing features, the MacBook Air’s 8GB is overkill. The extra 4GB of RAM will likely sit dormant inside the case. That 8GB of RAM is included to entice users seeking to engage in high-level audio production, video-editing, and image work; in these niche cases the MacBook Air may seem like more of a viable option than even a high-end Chromebook. This can be deceiving.

Keep in mind, the MacBook Air’s dual-core 1.6 GHz processor will likely bottleneck most of the performance gains provided by an extra 4GB or RAM when it comes to the most system intensive tasks. If you are someone who takes video production, high-end image editing, and/or studio-quality audio production seriously, the MacBook Pro series offerings (and their much higher processing power and costs) are the only viable choices in the long run if you are locked into needing Apple-exclusive software in a portable package. The $999 MacBook Air won’t cut it.

 

Creatively Overcoming the Power Divide with a Chromebook

Chromebooks represent a tremendous value when it comes to the power and speed that user gains for a minimal relative cost. The main tradeoffs for these undeniable benefits are a lack of native software compatibility (you won’t be installing Windows or OS X programs in ChromeOS) and the inability to perform many high-end performance tasks. There are creative ways, however, to overcome these deficiencies and still come in under the steep $999 price of the MacBook Air.

Chrome Remote Desktop is one way to harness the power of an internet-connected PC or Mac from a Chromebook. There is inevitably some latency involved, but I routinely run programs like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, Sony Sound Forge, Ableton Live, and even turn-based games like Civilization V on my Chromebook by connecting remotely to my desktop PC; just don’t expect Chrome Remote Desktop to run a fully featured video editor like Final Cut Pro or reaction-based first-person shooters like Doom or Call of Duty in any usable way on your Chromebook. It’s not going to happen.

There are local options for unleashing a Chromebook’s power as well. Web-based image editing software like Pixlr have made consumer-level photo work possible on a Chromebook. The addition of Android software compatibility to ChromeOS adds a swarm of new programs for Chromebook that were previously only available on Android phones and tablets. Adventurous users can even side-load popular Linux operating systems like Ubuntu to add increased software compatibility (be warned that there are Terms of Use implications with this type of activity!) for things like the Steam gaming environment and open-source video editors like Pitivi. As with most “put Linux on X” projects, this is not for the faint of heart as compatibility issues and the occasional need to compile programs from source can be more of a headache than simply using a device where Linux runs natively.

 

Conclusion: Chromebook or MacBook Air?

A solid Chromebook in the $199-$400 range will deliver everyday functionality and reliability in a more cost-effective way than the $999.00 MacBook Air or the even more expensive MacBook Pro models. For higher-end production and gaming demands, users could purchase a solid $200 Chromebook like the Dell Chromebook 11 along with an off-the-shelf PC with twice the power of the MacBook Air and still come in under the $1,000 price point. The most complex tasks will need to be relegated to a non-Chromebook device, but odds are a MacBook Air would leave high-end users in a similar predicament.

Simply put, if you are a user who is dead-set on purchasing an Apple laptop, the MacBook Air is your cheapest option. If you are a user looking to do heavy audio or video production work on the go using Apple-exclusive software, the MacBook Air will get you in the door, but you are likely going to need the power of one of the more expensive MacBook Pro models to contend with the steep processing demands. If these very specific use cases do not describe your portable computing needs, a Chromebook or a Chromebook paired with a strong PC desktop will leave you more than satisfied in your computing exploits and keep some money in your pocket at the same time.

If you were looking to spend around $1,000 max on a portable computing solution, which setup would you prefer: a MacBook Air, a Chromebook, or a Chromebook paired with another computer? Share the setup that would best suit your needs in the comments below!

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3 Comments

  1. Mike T. says

    I am set up with the chromebook and a decent Windows laptop that stays on all the time at home. I have the Dell chromebook 11 also but mine has 4gigs of ram. Great setup for me, but I don’t play games. In fact, the only reason I even do this is for one program I need that will not run in Linux.

  2. Sheldon Huelin says

    This article is the reason why I am selling my Macbook Pro and investing in a medium range Chromebook-hopefully the Samsung Chromebook Pro when it is released.

    1. Sheldon Soper says

      Glad you liked the article and are joining the Chromebook community! (…and always glad to help out a fellow Sheldon!)

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