In many ways, Chromebooks are not all that different from traditional laptops. They still use the familiar clamshell design of a laptop. Instead, they are really designed for online connectivity with low price tags and portability being key. In essence, they are kind of like a new wave of netbooks but rather than running a scaled back version of Windows, they run the Chrome OS operating system designed by Google which is what their name derivec from. Because of this, many of the issues brought up by my Tablets vs. Laptops article are going to be just as relevant in this discussion.
Size and Weight
Since Chromebooks are essentially laptops, they have the same size and shape of your classic ultraportable systems. This puts them around two and a half to three pounds with dimensions of roughly eleven to twelve inches wide, seven and a half to eight inches deep and about three quarters of an inch thick. These dimnesions and weight makes them larger than the rather dated and large Google Nexus 10 that weighs half as much and is half as thick. Tablets like the Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch and Google Nexus 7 weight abou a quarter of the Chromebook weight, about two inches shorter and narrower and half as thick. This makes the tablets much easier to carry.
While Chromebooks tend to have larger screens than tablets, they sadly offer much more inferior screens than a tablet. Chromebooks feature an 11-inch or larger display and feature a standard 1366x768 display resolution. The Google Chromebook Pixel is an exception to this but it also costs about four times what most Chromebooks do. On the other hand, many tablets feature a 1920x1080 or higher display resolution for roughly the same price as an average Chromebook. Beyond the resolutions, tablets also offer brighter, more colorful images with wider viewing angles. There is no question that tablets are just better when it comes to viewing content.
Both the Chromebooks and tablets are designed to be extremely efficient. They offer just enough performance to deal with most of the basic computing tasks that people have and to do so on very small batteries. Even though Chromebooks have larger sizes, they still don't quite have the same running times as tablets. The HP Chromebook 14 is currently the largest of the Chromebooks with the best battery life. Even with this, it tops out at just over eight hours in video playback testing. Most of the other Chromebooks have six hours or less. In contrast, most small tablets can run for eight hours in the same video playback test with some like the Lenovo Yoga Tablet 10 offering almost twelve hours yet priced the same as most Chromebooks.
The primary means of input for a Chromebook is still using the classic keyboard and trackpad just as with a laptop. This has recently changed with the release of the Acer C720P that does feature a touchscreen but the Chrome OS really hasn't been altered to take advantage of this yet. Instead it acts just like the trackpad pointer. Tablets on the other hand have been designed with just a touchscreen in mind. This makes they very easy to use when it comes to browsing the web, playing touch oriented games and watching media. The downside is that trying to input a lot of text in them can be very problematic as it requires using the virtual keyboards that are slower than a keyboard and take up some of the screen space when in use. Of course just about every tablet has Bluetooth capabilities that allow one to attach a wireless keyboard if you need to type a lot but this does add to the cost and what peripherals you need to carry with you.
Result: Chromebooks for those that write a lot, tablets for those that mainly browse or watch media
Both Chromebooks and tablets have a similar designs for their internal storage. They rely on relatively small solid state drives that offer fast performance but very limited space for data. Typically, this is around 16GB for Chromebooks with a few 32GB models and tablets ranging from 8 to 16GB for the base models and running up to 64GB or more if you are willing to pay a significant increase in price. Chromebooks are really designed for your files to be stored on Google Drive, a cloud based storage system so your files can be accessed from anywhere. Tablets do offer some cloud based storage options but it is highly dependent upon the tablet brand, operating system and what services you may subscribe to. The big difference instead is how easy it is to expand your local storage. All Chromebooks feature USB ports that can be used with external drives for quick and easy expansion. Many also feature SD card slots for flash memory cards. On the other hand, many of the biggest tablets on the market lack both of these but some models do have microSD slots available. Because of this, Chromebooks have a bit more flexibility when it comes to needing to access your files remotely or locally.
Performance is a tough item to discuss as the hardware in Chromebooks and tablets can vary dramatically. For instance, the Samsung Series 3 was the first Chromebook that used the same ARM based processor that can be found in many tablets. conversely, there are some tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 that use an Intel Atom processor previous used in low powered laptops. So in terms of raw number cruching ability, the two platforms are roughly equal and it really comes down to comparing specific models of each to get a better idea of the two. After all, both platforms provide sufficient performance for basic computing tasks and it is only when trying to deal with more complex ones that they tend to suffer and a traditional PC offers a better experience.
Google is the primary company that developed the Chrome OS operating system used in all Chromebooks and Android that is either used for or the basis of many tablets. The two operating systems have very different purposes which give them a different experience. Chrome OS is essentially built around the Chrome browser and the applications are written for that browser. It feels much more like a traditional computer. Android on the other hand is a mobile operating system that has applications natively written for it. The result is that Chrome tends to be a bit more laggy in the user experience than Android, Fire OS or iOS. In addition to the experience of the operating systems, the number of applications available for them is drastically different. The tablet app stores offer a significantly larger number of applications compared to Chrome. Chrome's base is growing and a new beta program should allow for more applications to be written for the two platforms at the same time but the tablets still have an edge when it comes to the speed, number and variety of applications.
Pricing between Chromebooks and tablets is very competitive. Things obviously vary a bit on both sides as you hae more expensive models and larger models. For instance, $230 will get a solid entry level tablet in the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX or Google Nexus 7. At this same price point, you can generally find an Acer C720. If you are looking at larger tablets, the pricing skews more in favor of the Chromebooks. For instance, the HP Chromebook 14 costs around $350 for a larger screen, extra RAM and 4G connectivity. The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9-inch and Apple iPad Mini with Retina are both more expensive than this at $379 and $399 respectively and they do not feature 4G wireless capabilities. Overall though, pricing is very similar between the two platforms.
As the market stands right now, tablets overall offer a better total experience. They are smaller, have longer running times, greater variety of apps for them and just offer better experiences than the current batch of Chromebooks. Having said that, Chromebooks still fill a niche that make them useful for a number of people. If your primary purpose of getting either a Chromebook or a tablet is for writing while on the go, then the Chromebook with its built in keyboard and cloud storage support offers a better experience. If you plan to use it mostly for browsing the web, playing games or watching media, than the tablet is still far superior.