Google’s venture into the operating system market is in conjunction with Korean technology firm Samsung / AP

Can Google's new lightweight laptop take a budget bite out of its rivals?

Let's face it: everyone needs a computer – but when it comes to operating systems, choices are few. There's Mac OS X – the most elegant and intuitive set-up of all, but it only works on Apple Macs. Microsoft's latest Windows 8 system, which launches on Thursday, is a radical rethink of how you'll interact with your computer, showing a screen of apps before you get to the familiar PC desktop. On the same day that Windows 8 arrives, the latest laptop using Google's Chrome operating system goes on sale, which the search giant hopes will steal customers from both of its rivals. The Chrome system is designed for users wanting a simple, minimalist experience, who are always online. Google describes the Samsung laptop dedicated to this OS as "the perfect additional computer".

The Chromebook is meant to be a light, portable and speedy. It boots up quickly: from power off to ready to go in around seven seconds. It's also very quiet: storage is on SSD rather than a hard drive and this flash memory has no moving parts so doesn't need a fan to cool it. Above all, it's highly affordable – prices start at £229.

The 11.6 inch display means that if you squint, you could almost mistake it for a MacBook Air, but when you touch it, you couldn't. Apple's thinnest notebook is clad in aluminium, whereas this one uses silver plastic. It lacks Apple's micron-tolerance build quality, but then again it is more than £600 cheaper.

But the main event here is the software, and since the first Chromebook appeared last year things have improved hugely. It's still simple and accessible, arguably more familiar-looking than the new Windows 8, and is centred around a Chrome web browser. You need a Google account to use it. And you must be connected to the internet to get real value from the machine.

You can have offline access to documents and emails, but you have to go online at least once to enable this. You can use it for reading ebooks – providing you download them before you go offline. There is only tiny storage on the machine (16GB compared to the 500GB or more found on even low-end laptops) but there's access to 100GB of Google Drive online storage for two years.

More than one document open can be open at a time, unlike earlier versions, but as there are no Microsoft applications such as Word, Google Docs is the tool in which to edit writing.

Chrome OS has much to recommend it, if you're sure of near-uninterrupted internet access, and this light, affordable machine is useful and appealing. Even so, it's hard to recommend it above the MacBook Air.