Don't buy a Chromebook if you want a long-term relationship

A new report says Chromebooks "aren't built to last". Could your cheap computer be costing the earth?

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The best Chromebooks are brilliant devices, and some of them are among the best laptops for budget-conscious computing. However, they might not be so good for the environment. Budget Chromebooks' low-cost construction and built-in "death dates" when operating system support ends are contributing to a huge e-waste problem, a new report says.

The report comes from the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), as reported by Engadget. The problem, it says, is simple: Chromebooks "aren't built to last" or repairable enough – and when they're being bought in large quantities by organisations such as schools, that makes them a ticking environmental time bomb.

What is a Chromebook death date?

The PIRG report describes "death dates" as the point when Chromebooks are no longer supported with software updates, effectively rendering them obsolete because they no longer get security fixes. While Google supports Chromebooks for eight years, that's eight years from their release date; schools, the PIRG says, often buy older Chromebooks to save money, so they're already a few years closer to their end of life.

Ending software updates isn't the only problem. In schools, where computers tend to be treated a lot more roughly than in the average office, Chromebooks' lack of affordable repairability is a problem too. For example the PIRG found that 14 out of 29 Acer Chromebook keyboard replacements were out of stock, and some of them cost $90 – almost half the price of the actual Chromebooks. It also found that HP only stocked power cables for one of its models, and no other replacement parts.

According to the report, for organisations such as schools Chromebooks may be a false economy: with PCs or Macs there's not the same built-in obsolescence so the laptops can be sold to recoup at least some money after a few years of use. Of course there's a counter-argument to that, which is that many large organisations buy very low-spec PCs whose value and longevity isn't brilliant either. 

PIRG isn't saying you shouldn't buy Chromebooks, and while repairability is a concern for any buyer the death dates are really a schools-specific problem. However, the PIRG does want Google to push manufacturers to support Chromebooks better. "If Google wants to be a trusted source for tens of millions of students," PIRG's Lucas Rockett Gutterman says, "they need to make laptops that families and school districts count on."

Carrie Marshall

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written more than a dozen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote seven more books and a Radio 2 documentary series. When she’s not scribbling, she’s the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR (