Choosing the Best Chromebook for Developers

By March 2, 2016Reviews

Can you use a Chromebook for development tasks?

I see lots of questions on Reddit and Quora asking whether a Chromebook can be used for coding and web development. The answer is YES. Not all Chromebooks are appropriate hardware for your use case though, and this article helps you find the right Chromebook for your programming use case.

Skip to Recommendation (Just tell me which one to get)

It’s easy to understand why there is so much interest in Chromebooks for productivity. Chromebooks are more portable and have better battery life than many other laptops. Chromebooks can be very inexpensive, which makes them attractive for travel.  Google would like you to do everything in the cloud, and the nice thing about that is if you lose your laptop, you don’t lose much work. If you have your browser settings configured to sync, then you could log into a different Chromebook and start working immediately.

Programming-Specific Requirements

To evaluate the which is the right Chromebook for programming, I took into account that web and application developers have a special software toolset, including:

  • syntax-highlighting text editor
  • secure shell and file transfer programs
  • team communication tools like Slack or IRC.

Some of the tools you’re used to may not be available on Chrome OS. In order to use your favorite tools, you may want the flexibility of running Linux either side-by-side with or instead of Chrome OS. You will likely also find that you need to use a cloud-based IDE.

You should choose a Chromebook that has a processor that will make it easy to install Linux, in case you decide to do that immediately or down the road. That’s because if you want to use Crouton on your Chromebook to have OS-switching at a keystroke, you need an Intel/AMD x86/64 processor, or you will not be able to run certain programs. You could also dual-boot your Chromebook with Linux variants like Ubuntu.

Besides the processor requirement, you will also have specific hardware needs. When you want to work on images or in the command line for long periods, you need a:

  • high quality screen
  • comfortable keyboard
  • powerful processor
  • full-sized HDMI video output port.

Crouton- and Linux-Compatible Chromebooks

In this review, I’ve taken all the software and hardware considerations together, and there are come clear winners. Let’s meet the contestants. All of these models have 4GB RAM, as that’s just table stakes for programming on Chromebook. Any of these would be a good Chromebook for Ubuntu or Crouton.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links below are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase. Please understand that I try to find the best fit for the need with products made by great companies, and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

11-Inch Chromebook

C720 popular chromebook for developersThe Acer C720-3404 is quite popular for turning into an inexpensive developer laptop. Its decent battery life upwards of 8 hours and weight under 3 pounds makes it the best portable option. The tradeoff with the lightness is that the build quality is so-so. The 11.6″ anti-glare screen with 1366 x 768 pixels is adequate for travel and coffee shop usage. With a larger (by Chromebook standards) 32GB SSD, you may not need any externally attached storage. The Acer C720’s keyboard is not bad but “a little shallow and spongy” according to PC Advisor. This little laptop can be very inexpensive, but for development purposes, you should really spend the extra $40 to get the Intel Core i3-4005U 1.7 GHz processor, which has an Octane score* of 14600. That’s the version I’m recommending here.

*Octane score is a benchmark that measures JavaScript performance, a measure particularly suited to comparing the relative power of Chromebooks.

13-Inch Chromebooks

Google Pixel is the deluxe option for developersThe Pixel is Google’s premium Chromebook offering. It is know for its top-of-the-line hardware and build quality similar to that of a Macbook Pro. Similar to Apple hardware, you will pay a premium for that quality. The Pixel really delivers, boasting a battery lasting 12 hours in an all-aluminum body weighing 3.3 pounds. The 8GB of RAM and 32GB of storage are overkill for the purposes of Chrome OS. This is the one Chromebook that you could run VMs on, but with only 32GB of local storage, you would need to carry around an external drive. The Pixel does come with 1TB Google Drive cloud storage for 3 years. Because Google is using USB-C for everything, you would need an HDMI adapter to plug this in to an external monitor. Since the screen is a 2560 x 1700-pixel 12.85″ touchscreen, you would likely want to attach it to a monitor at times. The 2.2GHz Core i5-5200U processor results in an Octane score of and incredible 25000.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 - best overall chromebookThe Toshiba Chromebook 2 (model CB35-C3300) is an excellent value at under $300. The 9 hour battery life is great, especially considering the laptop only weighs 3 pounds. The build quality is slightly better than others in its price range, and the keyboard is backlit and “plasticky but satisfying to type on,” according to ComputerWorld. The Toshiba Chromebook 2 comes with the standard 16gB SSD for internal storage. The 13.3″ IPS display has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The Toshiba’s Intel Celeron 3215U 1.7 GHz Processor gives this Chromebook an Octane score of 17600.

Dell Chromebook 13 is an excellent choice for developersA little more expensive but still less expensive than an average laptop, the Dell Chromebook 13 comes with a 12-hour battery life in a sturdy 3.2 pound package. The Dell has a carbon fiber lid with a magnesium alloy keyboard deck and aluminum base. The build quality is different from but equivalent to the Pixel. The internal storage is a 16GB SSD. The IPS screen is 13.3 inches and 1920 x 1080 pixels. The Dell Chromebook 13’s keyboard is backlit and “comfortable typing feel, with pliant if plasticky keys and good travel” according to ComputerShopper. You could get this Chromebook with the Celeron 3205U, but for just $60 more you can get far more power, which is why I’m recommending the Core i3-5005U model with a fantastic Octane score of 20300.

15-Inch Chromebook

Acer Chromebook 15 has the biggest and best screenFor its size and weight (4.8 pounds), the Acer Chromebook 15 actually has a good estimated battery life of 9 hours. The price is certainly right, and I would consider this for use as a main (non-portable) laptop. The Chromebook 15 has “okay build quality, but it flexes and creaks under pressure,” according to one reviewer. The standard internal storage is 16GB SSD, but 32GB is also available. The screen is good – a 15.6″ IPS Screen with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The Keyboard is “quiet and comfortable to type on,” according to the Verge. The processor in the Acer Chromebook 15 is a Core i3 that produces an Octane score of 20300.

Here is a table to quickly compare the features.

[table “6” not found /]

Out of the running

Some Chromebook models were easily eliminated. The Lenovo 100S, HP Chromebook 11 G4, and Acer Chromebook 11 have unimpressive performance. Both Samsung Chromebook 2 and ASUS C201 were eliminated because they don’t have the right processor type. These models all have their good points, especially in the price department, but they are not suitable as developer laptops. I love my 11-inch Dell, but the screen is not comfortable for long sessions.

Differentiating Features for Programming on Chromebook

All the aforementioned models meet the requirements. Why would you choose one over another, especially when it comes to the three different 13″ options?

Best overall Chromebook value – The Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-C3300) is the best combination of price, portability and power.

Best Portability – considering weight, battery life and durability, The Dell 13 is the best price-to-portability value. Google Pixel performs great in this category, but of course it’s twice the cost of the Dell. If you are only concerned about weight, the Acer C720 is the lightest, and the Toshiba is second lightest.

Best screen – The screen won’t be the most important factor for people using mostly command line applications and web browsing. It might be the most important factor if you don’t have an external monitor to hook up to when you need to do some intensive work. Google’s Pixel is reported to have the best available screen, although at 12.85”, it doesn’t have the most screen real estate. Also, the Pixel’s touchscreen will not be necessary for your work. If both screen size and quality are the most important, then the Acer Chromebook 15 is your best choice.

Most powerful computer (by Octane score, as reported by Zipso) – Google Pixel at a score of 25000 is the best-performing Chromebook. The Dell Chromebook 13 with a score of 20300 is excellent, as well, making it the best price-to-performance value.  The Acer Chromebook 15 ties with the Dell 13 because it uses the same processor. The Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-C3300 is close behind with 17600, compared to next models down, the Acer models, both in the 14000 range.

Which is the Best Chromebook for Developers?

That depends on the developer, of course!

If you want a secondary cheap and ultraportable Chromebook, the best choice is the Toshiba Chromebook 2. If you really want an 11″ Chromebook get the Acer C720-3404 – it won’t blow you away, but it gets the job done.

If you want the Chromebook as your main development machine, the most powerful and durable are the Dell Chromebook 13 for the budget price and the Google Chromebook Pixel for the splurge. If you do not have a separate monitor, consider the Acer Chromebook 15.

What’s the most important feature for you when choosing your Chromebook? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Join the discussion 175 Comments

  • andmalc says:

    Thanks for paying attention to keyboard quality which is too often disregarded.

    IMO an ARM processor is fine when using all the core command line apps (vim, tmux, ssh, git etc.). Same for apps written in high level languages like Python or Ruby except when they rely on C language extensions.

    Kinda wondering why the C720 made your list considering its poor quality and fragile screen (which you did mention), keyboard, and also how old it is at this point (2.5 years I think). Wouldn’t the screen on your Dell 11 be better? I own one and I agree the screen isn’t the best but it seems like a step up from all those dull older screens.

    Wouldn’t the most portable Chromebook be an 11″? I’ve used the Dell 13 and it’s a great machine but not super portable like the Flip or the C201.

    I agree about the Acer 15. Great all round machine.

    • Kain Young says:

      I agree about the C720 – there wasn’t anything better in the 11″ category once I took into consideration processor speed. Even the presumed successor model, the C740, doesn’t have any more power than the C720.
      On the most portable option, I had to make a call about what factors to consider, and I decided to include durability. With the low price of these units, I suspect they get rougher handling.

  • John Patterson says:

    I have an Acer Chromebook 15 C910 but went for a higher spec. than you have shown in your article. My processor is an Intel i3 with 32GB SSD which may be more appropriate for developers.

    • Kain Young says:

      Thanks for the note – I’ve updated the article accordingly.

    • Regarding the importance of a fast processor: how is this important for software development any more than for general users? I understand a work computer needs to be fast but why more so for editing scripts or web pages? I could understand if the developer was working in a compiled language and maybe recompiling the Linux kernel a few times per day but for writing Python, Ruby, Javascript or HTML?

      I’m just a casual hobbyist developer so quite likely I don’t understand the needs of professionals.

  • Very nice article. I’ve done quite a bit of programming on my Toshiba Chromebook 2 and c9.io. It’s a really good combo. Also, I’m used to a multi-monitor setup and sometimes find myself using both the Toshiba and an Acer C720 at the same time to program (with the C720 open for tailing log files, etc).

  • Can a mouse be used in lieu of the Touchpad? Can the Touchpad be disabled with any brand of Chromebook?

  • You may want to consider the HP chromebook 13 it is currently out of stock right now but it looks awesome and it a lot cheaper then the pixel but has about the same in specs, plus it is on the list to get the play store by the end of the year.

  • Hello and thank you for this article, I have been looking into switching to chromebooks for some time now. What I don’t know yet are 2 really important information for me on how chromeOS works (might be really straight forward for people owning chromebooks).

    a) do chrome-devtools work on chromeOS?
    b) can I add a second (larger) monitor and extend or mirror?

    • Kain Young says:

      Constantinos, glad you found it interesting.
      a) Yes, since the devtools are part of the Chrome browser, they are also available in ChromeOS.
      b) Yes, it extends the desktop by default, and you can change that to mirror. When you mirror, you are limited to the screen resolution of the Chromebook. If you plan to mirror to a much larger screen, you will want a Chromebook with 1080p resolution. Also, look for a full-size HDMI connector if you don’t want to use an adapter.

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