Is your life spent on Facebook, YouTube and writing a few documents? It might be time to adjust your computing requirements – and you may be pleasantly surprised to find a Chromebook provides everything you need. The HP Chromebook 11 is the latest offering, a partnership between HP and Google with an 11-inch screen and 6-hour battery.
We’re giving this HP Chromebook 11 away, so read through our review, then join the competition. You know the drill.
Chrome OS and Chromebooks
Chrome OS is a fundamental move away from traditional desktop apps – though it includes some desktop-like functionality for offline use, the basic concept is that it’s just a browser. “Just a browser” is misleading though – many full featured apps are built entirely on HTML5 code. There’s also a good selection of Chrome “games” in the store that aren’t supported at all because they rely on some other plugin like Unity which are not yet available for Chrome OS.
They’ve come up with quite a compelling ad spot too, which you really ought to see before we get started with the review.
Out of the Box
Packaged in a beautifully rounded box with simple blue ribbon that hints at the Google partnership, it certainly doesn’t feel cheap. The box alone begs to be fondled.
The contents are sparse: the Chromebook 11 and a micro-USB power adapter is all you’ll find alongside a tiny setup card and an only slightly more wordy usage guide. Most of this box is air.
Design and Specs
Design-wise, the HP Chromebook 11 actually bears a striking resemblance to the last generation of white polycarbonate MacBooks. There’s a choice of four colours in total (blue, red, yellow and green), though since the only place this choice is reflected is on a thin blue strip around the edge of the keyboard, it hardly seems worth the effort of implementing a drop-down selection box.
Don’t blink, or you’ll miss where your colour choice went.
The four Google colours – blue, red, yellow and green – are also replicated on the reverse side of the screen, a thin translucent strip that lights up when the screen is active.
The chassis is supposedly made of “thermal-bonded magnesium” to give extra resistance to everyday knocks and bumps. With the glossy white coating, it feels every bit like it’s made of plastic.
At £229/$279, the HP Chromebook 11 is one of the cheapest “full size” computing devices you can buy.
For specs, you’re looking at:
- Samsung Exynos 5 Dual Core processor
- 2 GB DDR3 ram
- 16 GB SSD for local storage
- 6 hour battery life
- Bluetooth 4.0 and A/B/G/N wireless (3G optional)
- 2 x USB 2.0 ports
- 11.6-inch 16:9 widescreen display, 1366 x 768 pixel resolution
- Super-bright IPS panel
Acer produces a higher internally specced Chromebook – the C720 – for $249; The Samsung Chromebook is slightly less powerful, also for $249. The premium on the HP Chromebook 11 is for a superior display, which is brighter and has a greater viewing angle.
Power Me Up
Uniquely, the HP Chromebook 11 is able to use a micro-USB cable for charging, the same as any Android phone. That’s a fantastic step that I really applaud from an environmental standpoint, but sadly not one that could be replicated in standard laptops due to higher power requirements. It’s also considerably more annoying than a magnetic Apple power clip. And for some reason, the micro-USB socket on the laptop isn’t actually the same shape as the plug that goes into it.
One is rectangular, the other is not. Do you see the problem?
The short setup card included in the box summarises the process pretty well: turn on, choose a WiFi network, then log in to your Google account. In reality, you also need to wait 15 minutes to download an initial set of updates. From there, you’ll jump straight to the pseudo-desktop and browser, which most users will be immediately familiar with – there is no learning curve to using Chrome. There’s a selection of icons on the desktop, but they’re merely links to open a new browser tab to the respective Google service, be that Google Docs or Music.
The keyboard is full size, but low profile – similar to that of a MacBook Air and quite functional. I’m not a huge fan of low profile keyboards on any device – I’d much rather use a huge clunky mechanical effort where every key press feels like a monumental achievement. But these low profile keys certainly work, and are comfortable enough for prolonged use. They’re certainly a huge step up from the mini keys of the last generation of netbooks that were only usable by the most diminutive variety of garden gnomes.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank HP and Google for removing the Caps Lock key. Not only has it been replaced with a helpful universal search key, but we should see the amount of shouty emails from grandma reduced.
The IPS display is super bright and clear, again comparable to a MacBook Air if perhaps even slightly brighter, but just as susceptible to sunlight reflections. The only complaint I have is the incredibly flimsy hinge – with the HP Chromebook 11 on my lap and my usual typing, the screen would wobble back and forth like a bobble-head car doll. That alone worries me about the durability of this device in the long term.
The screen ratio is also really wide – 16:9 is perfect for movies, but seemed just a tad too short vertically for web browsing.
I’m sorry to report that from the get-go, performance was seriously lacking. Even opening the basic system background changer was an exercise in frustration; it took two clicks to register my selection. Perhaps it was busy loading resources from the network and I was simply impatient. Mouse movement was jerky, and scrolling down the YouTube homepage was erratic. I think I’ve been spoiled rotten with computers over the years, because this frustrates me silly.
It’s the little things like holding down the arrow button to move the cursor, only to find it jumping much further than you wanted to go. It’s that millisecond difference in scroll responsiveness. Clicking and dragging for games or to highlight text made me want to scream. Increasing the track speed alleviated this a little.
The stated battery life is six hours, though when in the full swing of a Google Hangout, it dropped to about 2.5 hours total. Six hours is an optimistic estimate assuming basic Internet browsing. It’s not terrible by any mark, but heavy users will find four hours more realistic.
The speakers – hidden underneath the keyboard – are really, really loud, but not particularly good. Unlike some reviewers, I experienced no serious issues with stuttering audio, but on occasion did find a distinctive buzz when some YouTube clips finished – ever so slight, but noticeable nonetheless. Video was also a little choppy as videos began to play, before the buffer was filled and they automatically switched up to HD quality. Once in the swing of things, they played fine. Generally speaking, audio and video performance was great for watching HD movies and YouTube in full screen mode. I was able to listen to Internet radio in the background while continuing with research in other browser tabs without slowdown.
You’d hope that the apps in the Chrome Store would be compatible with a Chromebook – or else, why would they be displayed at all? I tried a number of the top-rated and trending 3D games, and only 1 of them actually worked. The rest required Unity Web Player, which isn’t available for Chromebook, or some other obscure plugin. It would be nice if Chrome would automatically filter the choice to native HTML5 apps that will work on Chromebook – surely each app has a set of requirements? But that doesn’t appear to be the case. You’ll be pleased to know Angry Birds worked fine, though I did find it a little jerky.
For those who are worried about what happens when your Internet connection goes offline, you can still use certain “apps” like Gmail, Docs, Music, Calendar, and even some Chrome games like Angry Birds. Your data will be seamlessly synced back the next time you go online. Obviously, you’re going to be somewhat limited with what you can do offline, but it’s certainly not as bad as you might have imagined. The Chromebook certainly isn’t designed to be used permanently without a connection – but if your connection is lost for a short period, you needn’t worry about losing too much productivity.
WiFi performance was lacklustre – the fastest you’ll get is standard 802.11n, which wasn’t even able to fully utilise my home broadband. For a device designed with online connectivity in mind, HP should have included the super-fast 802.11ac in the Chromebook 11.
I was pleasantly surprised to find plugging in a USB thumb drive immediately brought up a file manager dialog, and there’s even a built-in media player that was able to play the MP4 files. The simple file manager gives you direct access to local downloads without exposing the underlying filesystem, and your Google Drive. I was able to drag and drop files directly between devices with no issues. Although I don’t have an extensive set of formatted drives to test with, it does apparently support read-only of HFS+ drives (Mac formatted), as well as the standard NTFS, FAT, and all versions of linux EXT partitions.
A LogiCool USB mic headset I tried was also recognised and immediately routed audio through the headphones, though it did present a rather curious selection of different outputs in Google Hangouts.
For a real world performance test, I broadcast this week’s Technophilia episode live (NSFW) from the Chromebook 11 for a full hour – watch that if you want an idea of the webcam and mic quality. Suffice to say the camera is quite atrocious, but the mic sounds pretty good.
Is It Right For You?
It was an interesting experience to have my choice of browser restricted and forced to use the web version of many desktop apps I love. Unfortunately, the terrible performance and design over substance just don’t do it for me – but I’m quite picky. For a few browser windows and those who conduct their life through webmail clients, the HP Chromebook 11 is a capable little device – you can even get your regular entertainment fix through (some) Chrome games and Netflix. The almost zero chance of getting a virus is also an attractive prospect to some less net-savvy members of family.
Should You Buy The HP Chromebook 11?
I wrote most of this review on this HP Chromebook 11 through an Evernote web client just fine; with radio streaming in the background; distracted by YouTube and Facebook; I transferred some screenshots to my desktop over USB. One thing is for sure: I’d recommend one of these over a Microsoft Surface tablet any day.
At sub-$300, it’s more than sufficient for most people’s daily computing tasks, if you can forgive the sluggish performance.
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