Chromebook: Hmmm…. x86 or ARM CPU?

I’m just going to get this out of the way before I start going on about stuff that the majority of humanity couldn’t care less about…

CPU doesn’t matter! Buy the Chromebook that you physically like the best.

There ya go folks. You’re welcome. Now, if you’re interested in how I came to this conclusion, by all means keep reading.

Just as Mac OS is not Windows and Windows is not DOS, ChomeOS is not Linux or anything else either. It is important for the buyer to accept this concept going into their purchase of a Chromebook, because it sets the proper expectation. A Chromebook is not a desktop PC or gaming console crammed into a convenient notebook form factor. A Chromebook isn’t even a traditional notebook (aka “laptop”), but that’s OK, because it’s not trying to be one. Instead, Chromebooks are designed to do specific things that comprise their “core functionality”, such as:

– Browse the web in its full, standard format – for fun, research, whatever!
– Media streaming, such as Youtube or Netflix.
– Managing personal media and online storage.
– Simple content creation, such as documents, blogs, books, basic photo manipulation, etc.
– Video conferencing with Skype, etc.

When you think about the countless reasons why one would “browse the web”, from looking up a recipe to troubleshooting that strange sound their car makes in the morning, the browser functionality of ChromeOS alone makes a Chromebook an exceptionally useful tool. However, ChromeOS does have its own app market place, where Google and other developers offer programs for specific tasks and functions.

So what kind of processing power is required to do that stuff?

Not much, really.

A modern dual core x86 (Intel or AMD) or ARM (Samsung, Nvidia, Rockchip, and many others) CPU can handle all of those things without a problem. In Chromebooks made in 2014 and later, you’re most likely to find a quad core ARM or a dual core Intel x86 CPU. If you care about those choices enough to have read this far, I think the choice really boils down to two simple questions,

1. Do you plan on running an alternate Linux environment?
– If “Yes”, buy x86 (Intel)

2. Do I need the battery to last longer than 10 hours?
– If “Yes”, buy ARM

As I said in the beginning, neither of these things are important to the majority of people who would be interested in buying a Chromebook; They could pick either CPU type and be happy. A Linux user on the other hand would be much better off to use an x86 based Chromebook, simply due to the sheer compatibility between virtually all GNU/Linux (open source) software and x86 CPUs. As a Linux user, why jump though hoops to get the software you want to work on an ARM based CPU when you just don’t have to? And if you don’t care about any of that Linux stuff, but you really want the longest battery life possible, then you’re better off buying an ARM based Chromebook, because you will get longer battery life and you’ll most likely never notice a difference in CPU performance.

Let’s take a moment to have a look at some of the processors that I have found available in Chromebooks at various retailers in Canada. This should give you a better idea about how I came to the above conclusions. Of course, for more information on each chip and for benchmark data, hit up your favorite search engine! Lot’s of great reading out there on the web.

Intel Celeron N2830 / N2840
– Dual core x86 CPUs, with the N2840 having a higher standard and turbo speed than the N2830.
– Built using the power efficient 22nm (nm = nano meters) HKMG process.
– Turbo clock speeds over 2.4GHz make these CPUs significantly better than Intel’s older low power CPUs, delivering the kind of performance one would expect from a basic office desktop/notebook.
– Can run full versions of Windows XP/Vista/7/8/10, Linux, as well as ChromeOS.
– Graphics are good enough.
– Battery life is actually pretty good, comparable to quad core ARM CPUs when paired with a slightly larger battery.

Nvidia Tegra K1
– Quad Core ARM Cortex A15 CPU
– Also has a 5th hidden Cortex A15 core, which is specially fabricated to be extremely low power. It is used seamlessly to maximize power savings when system is idle, by shutting down the 4 main cores and using itself instead.
– Has a powerful Nvidia graphics processor that is useful for video and games.
– Can run ARM variants of GNU/Linux software.

Rockchip 3288
– Quad Core ARM Cortex A17 CPU
– Has some more advanced features than the Cortex A15 designs, but lacks the special low power 5th core.
– Built using the 28nm HKMG process, which is competitive in terms of battery life savings.
– Least expensive quad core ARM, while also benchmarking close to the competition.

Samsung Exynos 5250
– Dual core ARM Cortex A15 CPU
– The only thing this CPU has going for it is battery life, simply because it only has two cores to draw power.
– Built using the older 32nm HKMG process, which means every transistor inside the chip is a little bigger than on the 28nm HKMG CPUs, such as the Rockchip 3288. This means each 32nm CPU requires a bit more electricity. But… the Exynos 5250 only has 2 CPUs which actually makes it more power efficient in the long run.
– Graphics chip is “OK”.
– Definitely geared for modest use, such as reading, writing, low resolution Youtube (480p), and general internet browsing.

Samsung Exynos 5410
– “Octo-core” CPU, which in reality is a dual quad core design, because it only ever uses one group of 4 at a time. They refer to this as big.LITTLE.
– Quad Core ARM Cortex A15 paired with low power drain quad core ARM Cortex A7.
– Really smart design, but probably not as power efficient as the Nvidia Tegra K1 design in general use, because the Tegra K1 would definitely use less power while idle.

Intel i3 and i5
– Dual core x86 CPUs with Hyperthreading. They act as quad core CPUs in many workloads, but they use less power, because they achieve this with half the physical hardware as a true quad core CPU.
– Full sized or standard mobile processors, these are essentially low clocked desktop processors with strict power management features to maximize battery usage. You’re trading battery life for CPU speed, which may or may not provide tangible benefits to you on a Chromebook. It really depends on what you’re doing – devices with 1080p or higher resolution screens and folks who use 20+ browser tabs at a time might see some benefit.
– Offered only in premium priced devices (none of which I can actually find for sale in Canada at this time), usually paired with a high quality chassis and screen.

And that’s about it for what I can actually find on the market these days. There is a surpising amount of selection out there, with new Chromebooks ranging in price from $189 to $799. CPU choices seem to be evenly spread out over the whole price spectrum as well, which means it’s likely that you will be able hit your personal “sweet spot” of chassis quality, hardware features, cpu power, battery life, and pice. As far actual makes and models of Chromebooks go, suffice it to say that when I do buy one, I will tell you which one I bought and why I personally chose it, but no one is paying me to advertise for them, so… I won’t; This site is a resource for you and a creative outlet for me.

Personally, my priorities for a Chromebook are:

1. x86 – While I really love the concept and battery life of ARM based Chromebooks, I do plan on using additional Linux software, so I may as well make that as easy as possible.

2. A keyboard with a normal sized ENTER key and otherwise traditional layout/size.

3. Replaceable battery with 10+ hours life.

4. Chassis that won’t fall apart for at least a few years.

In a perfect world, I would buy a MacBook Air, but an x86 based Chromebook is sufficient for a notebook, while also having just the right amount nerdiness to be entertaining. Realistically, a Chromebook is all I need.