HP Chromebook 11 £229
1st Nov 2013 | 13:00
Finally - a Chromebook that's excellent as well as cheap
The Chromebook concept – the idea of a stripped-down laptop that runs nothing but a web browser in the form of Google's Chrome OS – has up till now usually been about cheap, commodity computing.
It's been about manufacturers clustering around a low price point, and the compromises they have had to make to get a device out at that price point.
With the Chromebook 11 though, for the first time, a Chromebook can be both about affordability but also about delight.
It feels solid – light yet sturdy. The keyboard is genuinely very good. The IPS screen's colours are rich and vibrant. The styling feels fresh and simple and clean and friendly.
It feels, in short, like a beautifully made, simple to use computer.
Plus the fact you've only paid GBP £229/USD $279/AUD $364 for it not only makes that all the sweeter, but also makes you feel like you've got a special, secret, insiders' deal when everyone else is paying two, three, eight times as much to do pretty much the same things you'll be doing on your Chromebook.
This is not, of course, the first time you've been able to buy a well-made Chromebook; Google's own Chromebook Pixel genuinely is Apple-class hardware, with its high-resolution touch display and anodised aluminium enclosure. But it's £1,049, and as we said in our review it's more a learning and PR exercise made flesh than it is a computer that any sane person would actually buy.
And with that exception, other Chromebooks have been – and, crucially, felt – cheap. Before the launch of this new model, our previous favourite was the Samsung Series 3, but while it shares many of the basic specs with HP's Chromebook 11 – 16GB SSD, a Samsung Exynos 5250 ARM processor, an 11-inch 1366x768 screen, even the price tag – it feels like a completely different class of device. The Samsung's keyboard lacks bite, the screen is dreadfully washed out, and the whole chassis creaks if you pick it up by one edge.
The Acer C7 has an even worse keyboard, feels chunky, and has a netbook-derived spec that just makes no sense on a Chromebook. (A 320GB hard disk? For a cloud computer? All it does it slow everything down!) Even HP's Chromebook, the Pavilion 14, is a bit rubbish. Sure, you get a bigger screen, if that's important to you, but again the fit and finish are distinctly average; it just feels like a computer nobody really cared much about.
This one, though, feels special. It feels right. It's something HP should be proud of. We don't know whose project it was at the company, but it reeks of someone, frankly, giving a damn.
The raw specs here are, naturally, unspectacular by the usual standards we apply to computers. 16GB storage courtesy of a built-in SSD (with no SD slot to expand it). A couple of USB 2.0 ports (and that's essentially it for ports). 2GB RAM. An ARM processor, which many would immediately dismiss as being not capable of any serious computing when compared to something from Intel or AMD. 1366x768 screen. 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi (a 4G model is promised). Bluetooth 4.0. VGA webcam.
See? Nothing amazing. Nothing impressive. Nothing out of the ordinary. And yet of course the raw specs don't tell the full story, as you'll discover in the next section on the Chromebook 11's performance.
What's more, there are some specs here that are genuinely remarkable. Sure, 1,366x768 is not an unusual resolution for an 11-inch laptop – it's what the 11-inch MacBook Air has, for example – but here it's an IPS rather than a TN panel.
Gamers tend to prefer TN because it can be made to run at very high refresh rates, but often it's synonymous with cheap, low-contrast displays in entry-level hardware. IPS, on the other hand, is usually favoured by creative pros; although the refresh rate is usually lower – not that you'll really notice it unless you're pushing a computer for games – colours are deeper, and viewing angles much more generous.
HP claims 176° viewing angles, and while that's a little naive – there's a subtle light black overlay at much past 90°) it's nevertheless a screen that is, depending on your perspective, either good even when compared to stand-alone screens costing more than the Chromebook 11 itself, or downright astonishing at this price point. It's bright, too. Not bright enough, of course, that almost all contrast doesn't disappear in bright sunlight, but certainly bright enough that in most conditions it's comfortable to use with the backlight set somewhere between 40 and 70%.
The whole thing is light, too. At 1.04kg – and we bet some engineer is berating themselves that they couldn't shave 41 grams off it to bring it in under a kilo – everyone who picked it up remarked in surprise that it was lighter than they expected. (It's even lighter than an 11-inch MacBook Air, though there's only forty grams in it.) Chucked in a bag, you can barely notice it's there.
One other thing we really like is that its power connection is actually just a Micro-USB port, which means that pretty much wherever you go, it's likely that you'll be able to juice it up without worrying about proprietary connectors. It comes with a 15.75W mains charger, but you can just plug it into any old USB port; be warned, though, that most USB ports – even most USB chargers – won't supply enough power to charge it quickly.
Indeed, when plugged into most things, you'll get a low power warning in Chrome OS, and the power level will actually drop (albeit slowly) if it's on, even if the screen is at its lowest brightness. So long as it's off or sleeping, the Chromebook will at least slowly charge when plugged into a PC or Mac USB port.
This Micro-USB port also acts, oddly enough, as the video-out port. It's the first Chromebook – indeed, the first laptop that we're aware of; we've seen it before in a handful of devices including the Google Nexus 4 and Nexus 7 – to feature this competitor to the Mobile High Definition Link (MHL) standard.
Although both standards seem the same – both pass video out over a Micro-USB connection – SlimPort is based on the DisplayPort standard which should mean greater flexibility in the future, though current implementations are comparatively limited. What's more, unlike MHL, SlimPort doesn't need external power.
You will need to buy an adapter, though, converting the SlimPort connector to HDMI or VGA. They're not cheap – the Analogix SP1003 HDMI model we bought to test it with was £27 – but while we're not delighted to have to buy and carry around yet another unusual video adapter, it doesn't seem worth getting too worked up about SlimPort here given that we imagine a very small percentage of Chromebook users would regularly connect to an external display.
The last spec worth noting is the price. We'll talk about this more shortly, but let's acknowledge here that £229 is a small amount of money for a laptop, especially one that is as well-built and which, as we're about to see, performs as smoothly as this one.
Those specs, though, underwhelming as they are by the standards of advanced laptops from Apple, Sony, Asus, Alienware and the like, are just about perfect for a machine powered by Chrome OS. Now, Chrome OS won't be for everybody, and even for those for whom it is appropriate, only a small subset would be content with a Chrome OS computer as their only or even primary computer.
A recap, then, on Chrome OS: unlike traditional desktop operating systems such as OS X 10.9 Mavericks, Windows 8.1 or even Linux distros such as Ubuntu, you don't run apps in the traditional sense. Instead you just get the Chrome web browser, so everything you do has to be done through web apps.
That might sound restrictive – indeed, it by definition is restrictive compared to a normal PC – but it's for you to decide if you could or would want to use a computer that only runs a browser. Before you decide, consider two things.
First think about how much of what you do on a computer these days is actually already done through a web browser; there's a good chance both that it's more than you realise and maybe even a greater chance that those jobs you currently use traditional apps for could be transferred to equivalent web apps without too much disruption.
The other thing to consider is that web apps these days are actually becoming astonishingly capable, and while they're not matching, never mind exceeding, the full richness of the kind of flagship productivity and creative suites we're used to on PC and Mac, web apps such as Apple's iWork suite, the simple video editor on YouTube, Office 365 and Google's Docs platform are more flexible and productive than many people might give them credit for.
What's more, while you might think a web app is useless without a web connection (a problem exacerbated by the fact that the promised 4G model of this Chromebook isn't here yet, so you have to be in range of Wi-Fi to get online), that's not actually always true. Some apps do work offline – Docs is a great example, and when working in its word processor, say, it can switch fluidly between online and offline. We've often tested it under extremely tough conditions – tethered over Wi-Fi to an iPhone on a cross-country train with patchy reception – and we've never lost a word.
Basically, we can't tell you if living a browser-only life is right for you, but all we'd say is don't dismiss it out of hand, especially if you're thinking about buying a Chromebook as an adjunct to some other system.
Still, you are making a sacrifice in functionality when you opt for a Chromebook rather than a PC or Mac, so why would you? Well, you might because of price; this is a cheap way to get a laptop, and means you're not chucking your expensive MacBook Pro in a bag every day.
But you might also do it because Chrome OS is simple and comparatively secure, and keeps itself constantly updated in the background. You spend much less time ministering to the OS than you might even with modern operating systems; it's more akin to the experience of using iOS. (And by the way, while Chrome OS is simple, it's quickly adding features; since its launch, for example, we've gained the ability to extend desktops across multiple displays rather than merely mirroring, and there's a notifications framework now too.)
That iOS feel is reinforced by the fact that the design is fanless, and even under heavy load, it gets little more than warm.
Under heavy load, though, battery life is bafflingly poor. With brightness on full, streaming live video on iPlayer, we got a hair over three hours. Under more normal conditions, with the screen brightness dropped (as it does automatically when you unplug from the mains) to around 60%, you'll get five hours or so. Neither figure is atrocious, but, especially from a laptop with an ARM processor, we expected better; we shall have to see if the upcoming Haswell-powered Acer C720 will get the balance right.
Note too that while the SlimPort video-out adapter we tested with has a pass-through Micro-USB port for power, the Chromebook 11 gave a low power warning when this was all plugged in; even when first topped up to 100%, it drained, albeit very slowly. This is probably fixable with a different (still to come?) SlimPort adapter, since it looks like it's its circuitry that's bottlenecking the power, but at least for the moment, this isn't a Chromebook you could use tethered to a big display all the time since it would just run out of power.
Still, while that ARM processor isn't giving us as much battery life as we want, it is giving us the performance we want. In general, the experience of using the Chromebook 11 is a very pleasant one. It's perfectly happy with HD video (usually delivered through Chrome's built-in Flash player), and it's usually smooth and responsive when scrolling or dragging around windows.
The usual Chrome OS caveats apply: web apps are comparatively simple, and the more rich and advanced is the web app you're trying to use, usually the less smooth the experience is, but if you're using this for web, email, writing, watching iPlayer, Facebook and the like, we promise you that, whatever other reviews of the Chromebook 11 might say, the hardware is more than up to the task. What's more, it boots from cold in 10 seconds, and wakes instantly from sleep.
The speakers, which sit under the keyboard, are surprisingly good (if a little way off 'actually good') – which is a boon when there are web players for services such as Spotify – but the built-in webcam is the usual smeary, noisy mess.
You first have to work out if you want or could conceivably come to tolerate Chrome OS, and then you have to work out whether the HP Chromebook 11 is the right Chrome OS machine for you.
We can't answer the first question for you – we've come actually really to love it, as our habits change and as web services become even more capable – but we can say with confidence that for most people who chose Chrome OS, the HP Chromebook 11 is the perfect machine.
Powerful enough to make the experience slick and usable, cheap enough to be a computer for anyone on a budget (or an almost impulse-buy treat for the comfortably-off looking for a new toy), but crucially something that still feels well-made, it is a delight to own and use.
We're still, weeks into testing, smiling every time we pick it up, start writing, or watching streaming video. Although it doesn't, of course, match a high-end machine from the likes of Lenovo, Sony or Apple for build-quality, it really is astonishingly well built at this price.
The keyboard is great and the screen – which has a warm cast we quite liked, but you might disagree – is a joy. (You might not like the fact that it's glossy, though.) We remain bemused though delighted that HP has managed to make something that punches so colossally above its weight in terms of fit, finish and pleasure in using.
This would all be pretty pointless if it felt sluggish or limited, but it's smooth and usable, and while Chrome OS is limited by definition, the combination of us becoming more comfortable in web apps, those web apps becoming increasingly powerful, and Chrome OS itself and its ecosystem maturing means that we're bumping into those limitations less and less often.
Also praise-worthy: the very subtle branding. There's not even a Chrome logo on the lid, just a smart, Pixel-like bar of light in Google colours. There are HP and Google logos on the bottom, but even these are restrained.
HP is making the Chromebook 11 in black and white, the latter having a choice of red, green, yellow or, as with our sample, blue accents, but it's still not clear which colour options you'll actually be able to buy in each territory.
Really, our only major complaint is about power. It's not unreasonable to be demanding a full eight hours' use from a laptop today, and even if long battery life was never explicitly part of the promise of the Chromebook concept, it nevertheless feels wrong that you're using a lightweight alternative OS on a chip architecture famed for power-efficiency, and yet not getting stellar battery life.
The Micro USB charging is a nice touch (even though, grumble grumble, Micro-USB is a fiddle to connect) but however technically understandable it is, it's frustrating that when connected through essentially anything except the supplied charger, the Chromebook 11's battery actually runs down unless it's asleep or off.
What's more, the fact that you can't do anything other than slow the battery drain when daisy-chaining power through the SlimPort adapter if you've got it hooked up to an external display essentially precludes it from being a machine you regularly use as a main 'desktop' PC.
The trackpad is occasionally a little jittery, and we've seen trackpads with its finish before now get shiny, worn patches through heavy use that makes them less responsive. We don't know if this would be the case here, but it's a concern.
The plastic case picks up fingerprints very easily, and those colour accents on the bottom, which look like they're going to be grippy, aren't; a missed opportunity to gently stop the laptop moving around on a table.
Finally, as always seems to be the case, details about the model that has 4G LTE built in are proving difficult to confirm, something that, despite the abilities of Chrome OS and some web apps to work offline, is a particular pain in a machine ostensibly designed with 'accessing the internet' as its sole task.
Chrome OS still has some growing up to do, or perhaps the ecosystem around it has some bedding in to do; a task as simple as printing (directly to a Google Cloud Print-enabled printer, or via a PC on the same network running a little helper app) can be complex, for example, but for most of the computing most of us spend most of our time doing, it's actually not just on a par with a traditional PC or tablet, but is in some ways even better at it.
Why not buy a tablet, by the way? It's a fair question, and it just comes down to what you want. Tablets are undeniably great things, and when paired with a Bluetooth keyboard, can do, again, pretty much everything this Chromebook can and then some. But the laptop is a useful and enduring thing. Especially if you plan to do a lot of writing, a screen that holds itself up, a big, comfortable keyboard, and a machine that sits comfortably on your lap as well as a table are all desirable attributes.
Recalling Apple CEO Steve Jobs' comment in 2008 "We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk" and suggesting that here, HP has managed to make a computer that could even by its worst detractor be fairly called 'not a piece of junk' for basically half that price is, frankly, a bit of a glib, snide thing to do; it was a different time, in a different context.
It's nevertheless true that Apple and all the other premium manufacturers should at least look at this little gem of a computer and applaud what has been achieved. No-one – well, no-one serious – is arguing that Apple must make £229 laptops if it's to survive, but the Chromebook 11 shows that it's possible to create a product that has a little bit of the magic and joy you get from an Apple laptop without charging four figures for it.
It's a quarter of the price of even the cheapest 11-inch MacBook Air and it's far more than a quarter as lovely. If Chrome OS could work for you, buy this laptop.
- Here's why we think Chrome OS will (eventually) be a success