Last Updated on August 22, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
Should I buy a used Chromebook? I asked myself that question for years. And argued with myself about it. Finally I decided to take the plunge and bought one. Here are the pros and cons to buying a used Chromebook, and what you should look out for to protect yourself.
Overall I recommend them. For less than the price of a year of Lifelock, you can do something that really will make a difference in how secure your personal finance is.
Limitations of Chromebooks
Always keep in mind that Chromebooks have numerous limitations. You can’t upgrade the storage. They have an SSD soldered to the motherboard. It’s a small and lame SSD at that. The RAM is soldered to the board too, and you can’t upgrade it. What you get is what you get. And when it comes to the other stuff, you’ll get about an 11-inch, 720p screen. The keyboard usually isn’t terrible, but probably isn’t great.
And for better and for worse, they run Chrome OS. This makes them really secure. But one of the reasons they’re really secure is because they are so limited. If you can live with the limitations, the security is a feature and a benefit.
So should I buy a used Chromebook? Not if you’re looking for a top-of-the-line computing experience. That’s not what Chromebooks are for.
Security professionals often use Chromebooks for specific, specialized purposes, like online banking and travel. And they advocate traveling executives do the same. Chromebooks are great for traveling to hostile countries, and they’re great for taking to security conferences where everyone and their brother will be looking for something to hack.
Uses for Chromebooks for ordinary people
So what if you’re not a security professional? What advantage does a Chromebook offer? Should I buy a used Chromebook if I’m not a security guy?
I’m a big advocate of buying a cheap Chromebook and using it for your online banking and billpaying. Use it for that, and only for that, and don’t use any other computer for banking and bill paying. On a Chromebook, banking trojans can’t worm their way into your browser and empty your bank account while rewriting your computer display to make it look like everything’s fine.
If the spooky stuff social media does makes you nervous, but you don’t want to disconnect from it completely, get a Chromebook that you use just for social media, and use a different device for everything else. Although it’s possible to follow you from device to device, it’s a lot harder and they’re more likely to make mistakes when doing it. Make them work for the data they want.
And while Chromebooks have very modest specs, I’m impressed with how zippy they are, especially when you use them for limited duty.
Security practices when using a Chromebook
Chrome syncs everything across your devices when you log in using the same Gmail account. So if you use a Chromebook just for banking or social media, use a burner Gmail account to log in to make it harder to trace you between your Chromebook and other devices. Or use a different browser like Firefox on your everyday computer.
There’s little downside to using a burner e-mail account on the Chromebook you use for banking and social media. The idea is for you to not read your e-mail on it anyway.
Chromebooks don’t need antivirus, but I do recommend you hard-code their DNS settings.
Should I buy a used Chromebook? No.
The problem with used Chromebooks is that it probably came from a school. Some kids take really good care of their stuff and some don’t. Schools replace their textbooks every few years for a reason. Student-issued Chromebooks live a hard life. So when you buy a used Chromebook, you’re going to get a beater.
What kind of a beater? Expect to see scuffs, broken corners, and even missing bezels around the screens. The less it costs, the worse for wear it will be.
There’s one more caveat. Chromebooks do have an EOL date, beyond which they aren’t guaranteed to receive updates. Check out any model you’re considering against Google’s Auto Update Policy page. If you see a $50 Chromebook, make sure it’s not a model at, near or beyond its expiration date.
You could load Chrome OS on an old laptop yourself, and if you do that, you can use pretty much any old laptop. You don’t have to buy a retired Chromebook to do that. One possibility is something like an HP 6910p, which will be cheap because it’s old, but has more than enough power to run Chrome OS and has a nice screen and keyboard. Any Dell Latitude or HP Elitebook laptop made in the last 10 years or so will be faster than a standard Chromebook.
Should I buy a used Chromebook? Yes.
Computers depreciate in value quickly, and Chromebooks depreciate even more so. If you’re willing to live with some wear, a $200 Chromebook depreciates to $50 in as little as a year. That’s a bargain for you on a device that’s still a few years from being obsolete.
While the laptops will sustain a lot of wear and tear, they are solid state. There’s no spinning hard drive to break from the impact. So they hold up surprisingly well to the abuse.
Just keep in mind what you’re getting.
A grade D Chromebook can cost as little as 50 bucks. Just make sure the listing says it comes with a power adapter. Sometimes that’s missing and the adapter costs $20. These laptops will be beaters, with busted cases, perhaps a missing bezel, and even possibly imperfections on the screen. For a burner laptop, these are perfect because they’re so cheap.
A grade C Chromebook will be better, looking more used than abused. Again, make sure it comes with a power adapter. Expect to pay $75-$90 for something in this condition.
At this level, a grade B Chromebook will be in pretty nice shape. Expect to pay $100-$125 for one in this condition. These are a good bargain at the lower end of the price scale. I tend to gravitate toward these, myself.
A grade A Chromebook will look nearly new. Expect to pay $125-$150 for one in this condition, which is a slight discount off new. These are harder to find, for obvious reasons. That said, it seems like there’s more distance between a Grade C and a Grade B than there is between a Grade B and a Grade A.
What about brand?
I don’t worry much about brand. With these, you’re getting a low-margin device no matter what you buy, but since they don’t have to pay for the operating system, they at least have a little bit of margin to play with. These are throwaway computers, but they store their data in the cloud so at least you don’t have to worry about losing your data if they do give up the ghost. Not that you’re storing much data on these anyway if you use them exclusively for sensitive tasks.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.