The Chromebook buying guide: Which model should you get?

Options, options, options. When it comes to Google's Chrome OS-based Chromebooks, we've never had as many interesting choices -- and consequently as many difficult decisions -- as we do right now.

There's the HP Chromebook 11. The HP Chromebook 14. The Acer C720 Chromebook. The Chromebook Pixel. Then the various holdovers from last year, like the Samsung Chromebook and the Acer C7.

The systems all have a lot in common, but they also have some important differences. And it can get pretty overwhelming to try to figure out which one is right for you.

I've spent the past several weeks getting to know all the devices in the current Chromebook lineup, and I've discovered that each model has its own specific advantage -- and, in most cases, its own specific downside. The real question is what qualities you care about the most -- and what compromises you're willing to make.

Chromebook Comparison Chart

Here's a quick 'n' simple breakdown of what the current Chromebooks have to offer -- and, based on your own needs and desires, which makes the most sense to get.

(You can also click the chart at right for a side-by-side glance at all the included systems' specs.)

For the best all-around Chromebook experience money can buy...

Chromebook Pixel

If you can justify dropping $1300, get the Chromebook Pixel. It's Chrome OS at its best: beautiful design; luxurious, high-end hardware; a 4.3-million-pixel touch-enabled display; outstanding speakers; the best keyboard and trackpad on the market; near-flawless performance; and 32 to 64GB of local storage with a full terabyte of Google Drive space for three years.

The Pixel's only meaningful downside is its battery life -- the system tops out at around five hours per charge, which isn't great -- but that aside, there's little not to love about this top-of-the-line laptop.

The 32GB Wi-Fi Pixel sells for $1299; a 64GB LTE-enabled version is also available for $1449.

Hands-on coverage:

Chromebook Pixel review: A luxury laptop for life in the cloud

Chromebook Pixel revisited: 6 months living with Google's luxury laptop

Putting the Chromebook Pixel in perspective

For the best display, design, and build quality in a low-cost Chromebook...

HP Chromebook 11

Get the HP Chromebook 11. The entry-level laptop was created with close involvement from the same Google team responsible for the Pixel, and that influence shows: The Chromebook 11 is sleek and modern with a striking minimalist design. Its build quality, while obviously not at the same level of the Pixel, is fantastic: There's not a single screw or vent visible on the device, and the computer's impressive-sounding speakers are elegantly hidden beneath the keyboard (as they are on the Pixel).

The 11's strengths extend beyond mere looks: The laptop is thin, light, and sturdy. Its IPS LCD display looks quite good and is by far the best you'll find on a low-cost Chrome OS device today. The same goes for its keyboard and trackpad; they're a pleasure to use and unmatched in quality within this product class. The Chromebook 11 also utilizes a standard micro-USB port for charging, which should be a welcome touch for anyone who uses Android.

The Chromebook 11 does come with a couple of caveats: The system works well enough for light to moderate use but struggles to keep up with more resource-intensive computing; as such, if you tend to keep a lot of tabs open at once or simply want an elevated level of performance in general, the 11 probably isn't the device for you. It also lacks USB 3.0 support as well as native HDMI-out and SD card capabilities (though the latter two can be overcome with the aid of adapters).

The Chromebook 11 costs $279.

Hands-on coverage:

HP Chromebook 11 review: Affordable style for life in the cloud

Acer Chromebook C720 vs. HP Chromebook 11: What's the deal?

For higher-level performance in a low-cost Chromebook...

HP Chromebook 14

Get the HP Chromebook 14 (4G model). The computer combines solid performance with reasonably good design and build quality. It's definitely a step down from the Chromebook 11 in the latter department -- the display, keyboard and trackpad, and overall design and build are noticeably less premium and pleasant to use than what you get on that machine -- but it's still an attractive and above-average entry-level system.

The biggest advantage of the Chromebook 14 compared to the 11 is power: The laptop uses 4GB of RAM and a newer Haswell-based chipset that gives it significantly better performance than its smaller sibling, especially when it comes to more resource-intensive use.

(Note that this level of performance is specific to the 4G model of the Chromebook 14; HP has also announced a Wi-Fi-only model of the device that'll launch for $299 later this fall, but that model is slated to use half the RAM and will likely have lower-level performance as a result.)

The Chromebook 14 also has more connectivity options than the 11: It has two USB 3.0 slots, an SD card slot, and a dedicated HDMI-out port. It has the potential to connect to T-Mobile's 4G HSPA+ network for mobile data, too, which is a pretty compelling perk. The system comes with 200MB of monthly data for two years and additional bandwidth can be purchased contract-free in a la carte packages as needed.

The Chromebook 14 is a bit bulky and heavy compared to other models -- and, as mentioned, it's not as nice of a system as the 11 in terms of its exterior -- but it's an excellent option for folks who need more power within the entry-level range.

The Chromebook 14 (4G) is available for $349.

Hands-on coverage:

HP Chromebook 14 (4G) review: Solid performance in a plus-sized package

For good performance at the lowest possible price...

Acer C720 Chromebook

Get the Acer C720 Chromebook. The C720 cuts a lot of corners to keep its $249 price tag -- its display is lackluster, its design uninspired, its keyboard subpar, and its general build quality rather cheap and disappointing -- but it does get one thing right: performance.

The C720 uses the same exact chipset and 4GB of RAM as the Chromebook 14, and consequently, it runs just as well, regardless of what you throw its way. The device offers commendable battery life, too, with around 8.5 hours of use per charge.

You can definitely do better in terms of overall user experience, but if your primary concern is performance and you want to keep costs low, the Acer C720 packs an awful lot of punch for its price.

UPDATE: Acer has also released a new model of the C720 that has a glossy touch-enabled display (along with, unfortunately, half the RAM of the original). See my hands-on impressions for detailed thoughts on that device.

Hands-on coverage:

Acer C720 Chromebook review: High on power, low on panache

Hands on: The first things you notice about Acer's C720 Chromebook

Acer Chromebook C720 vs. HP Chromebook 11: What's the deal?

Hands on: Getting to know Acer's $300 touchscreen Chromebook

The wildcards

Toshiba still has a Haswell-based Chromebook that's supposed to launch sometime this year, but we don't know much of anything about it yet (including when, precisely, it'll launch). I'll update this page once it's here and I've had a chance to use it.

[UPDATE: The Toshiba Chromebook arrived in early 2014 with a $300 price tag -- but aside from coming in at an in-betweener 13-in. size, there really isn't much distinctive or noteworthy about it.]

There are several other systems rumored to be under development, too, but that's always the case. Take my word for it: There will always be something bigger and better on the horizon; such is the nature of the tech beast. Sooner or later, you've just gotta decide to take a leap.

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One thing's for sure: The level of choice and diversity within Chrome OS has never been greater. All we need now is that elusive midrange option, and our little OS will be all grown up.

[SEE ALSO: 3 major misconceptions about Google's Chrome OS]

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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