HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook £249
5th Jun 2013 | 15:20
Taking Chrome OS up a screen size
Try to sell most of us a laptop that can't run normal programs, never mind traditional operating systems such as Windows 8 or OS X, and instead only runs a web browser - forcing you to do everything online - and we'd hesitate.
ut that's precisely what a Chromebook like the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook is; a laptop that boots into the lightweight operating system Chrome OS, where all you can do is launch Google's Chrome web browser.
It might sound like a product that nobody in their right mind would buy, but there are two reasons why it's not as clear cut as that. The first is that we've actually come to quite like Chromebooks here at TechRadar, and not just because they're cheap - we'll come to why shortly.
The other reason, though, is that what started as a tiny dribble of models and manufacturers has turned if not into a torrent then into a steady trickle. Of course just because we're seeing an increasing number of Chromebooks hit the market it doesn't mean they must be successful, but PC manufacturers wouldn't bother making and marketing Chromebooks if they didn't think there was at least a potential market.
Now HP's Pavilion 14 Chromebook joins the slightly cheaper, slim, light and ARM-powered Samsung Chromebook, the cheaper still Acer C7 Chromebook with its 320GB hard disk, and the hugely more expensive, beautifully designed Google Chromebook Pixel with its high-res 3:2 screen.
Four Chromebooks compared to the many hundreds of Windows laptops or even the nearly dozen basic Apple MacBooks doesn't sound like much, but it still feels like a sector that's getting to be cautiously optimistic.
If you decide you want to buy a Chromebook or you just want a reliable, genuinely usable laptop with a price tag of just £249 / AU$399 / US$329.99, the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook distinguishes itself from the other models with a bigger, 14-inch screen.
Chrome OS won't suit everyone. It may not even suit most people yet, but it's true that it's constantly evolving, and so are our computing habits and needs. So while you can't currently do video editing, professional photography editing or coding on a Chromebook - although online services are springing up that at least begin to address these demands - many of us would cope fine with just a web browser.
Think about what you do on a traditional PC, for example, and there's a good chance either that you do essentially everything through a browser anyway - Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, webmail - or that those things that you currently do with regular apps such as Word and Excel could be replaced with web services such as Google Docs.
You might think, that's all very well, but if these are all web apps, I have to be online to use them, and since the Pavilion 14 doesn't have a SIM card slot for 3G mobile browsing, it's just a useless door-stop when I can't get Wi-Fi access. But as we'll see, that's not quite the case.
Let's start, though, with the specs. Now, specs with a Chromebook mean a little less than they do with normal laptops, so we can't just put a Chromebook next to a laptop from Lenovo, Asus, Dell or even HP and say that because it has a weaker processor, less storage, a lower-res screen and fewer, lower-specced ports that it's worse.
That's because, since Chrome OS is a lightweight operating system whose only job is to run a browser - albeit a fast, capable browser with support for complex HTML 5 and Flash - the hardware needs comparatively little oomph to do its job well.
The HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook has an Intel Celeron 847 processor running at 1.1GHz at its heart, and the 14-c002sa model we tested had 4GB of RAM.
Storage is courtesy of a 16GB SSD, which we think is the right choice; the 320GB hard disk in the Acer C7 is a bit redundant in a computer that's designed to be a thin client to web services, and because hard disks are slower than solid-state drives, all it did was slow the overall responsiveness of the machine down.
Put together, nothing about these core specs suggest anything other than pedestrian performance, but in fact they're more than sufficient for a Chromebook. The HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook feels slick and fast and responsive, and it coped well with everything we threw at it.
There are three USB 2.0 ports - no, no USB 3.0, but that's totally fine, since a Chromebook would have no real use for a faster connection, at least in its current incarnation - and an HDMI port, which is extra useful now that Chrome OS supports extended desktop view as well as mirroring on an external monitor.
New Chrome OS review
There's also a combined mic/headphone jack, a full-depth SD card slot and, as well as 802.11a/b/g/n, a very welcome Ethernet port.
The built-in webcam is, as you'd expect, HD resolution. But as you'd expect, 'HD' does not necessarily equate to 'high quality'.
Although the 14-inch screen is low-res by today's standards at 1366 x 786, and is a little washed out with poor viewing angles, we have seen worse, and we have to remember that this is in a £250 / AU$400 / US$330 laptop.
Weighing 1.8kg (4lbs), it's not ultrabook-light, but it's not going to break your back when slung in a laptop bag.
One thing that's flat-out bad on the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook, though, is the battery. The battery takes up just a sliver of this 14-inch laptop's spacious body.
When battery life is so poor as it is here - giving somewhere between three and four hours of solid use, or perhaps a little more if you're lucky - and space in the chassis isn't at a premium as it would be with an ultrabook or a netbook, we can't help but feel cheated when HP has stuck a meagre 4-cell Li-Ion battery in.
The HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook's lacklustre battery life is in part because of the large 14-inch screen that needs to be backlit, and in part because of the Intel processor. It might seem silly to harp on about battery life, but if you're constantly worried about running out of juice, never mind not able to do a full work day on a single charge, owning a laptop won't be a particular pleasure.
But on the other hand, the Intel processor does mean that the Pavilion 14 is fast and capable, and although its fan is very noisy, it only kicks in if you're really hammering it. Unlike with the ARM-powered Samsung Series 3 (which we still like a great deal), it happily plays iPlayer HD streams, even if the mediocre display doesn't showcase them particularly well. The trade-off, though, is that the Samsung Chromebook lasts for about twice as long on a charge.
It's not just the screen that lets it down as a movie machine, though; despite the Altec Lansing logo - a brand we've come to respect for mid-range speaker docks - the speakers are thin. In their favour, they're plenty loud, and don't really break up much unless you're right at 100%, but at no point along the volume slider would you think of listening to your music or watching movies by choice.
They're fine for the odd YouTube clip or if you don't have some decent headphones or speakers to hand, but they're no more than sufficient.
The HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook is based on the same shell as the HP Pavilion Sleekbook series, and while we can't say we love the slightly glittery shiny black plastic, it does at least feel well put together. The hinge is solid and the screen stays at the angle you put it in, and there's very little flex in the whole thing.
It's a shame then that the keyboard is disappointing. The keys feel dead, and writing this review on the Chromebook made us long for the crisp responsiveness of an Apple keyboard.
Best Ultrabook: top thin and lights
The layout isn't quite to our taste either. It's nice that the generous chassis gives us space for another vertical row of keys for page up, down, delete (as well as backspace) and more, but any keyboard that doesn't put your backspace key at the top-right is likely to play merry hell with your muscle memory.
What's more, we're not fond of the arrow keys, with full size left and right, but two half-height keys sandwiched between them for up and down.
Still, we like the dedicated Chrome OS keys for navigation and window management, and unlike on some Chromebooks, there's a caps lock key as well as two system-wide search buttons. Plus, although the trackpad keys were a bit clunky (you can enable tap-to-click as well), we were quite fond of the textured trackpad surface.
Despite its limitations, Chrome OS is actually perfectly usable, so long as what you want to do can be done through a browser and web apps - and the list of things you need desktop apps for is shrinking day by day.
Spotify can work through a browser now, and streaming services such as Netflix obviously make a lot of sense for entertainment here. Traditional desktop tasks such as word processing are served by a plethora of online services such as Office 365 and Google Docs, and although, yes, you do everything through a browser, you don't have to always be online.
Online services can choose to enable an offline mode, syncing changes depending on whether you have a live connection or not.
One of the best for this is Google Docs - try as we might, we can't get it to lose work, even in challenging network environments such as when tethered to a mobile phone on a cross-country train. You can search for these offline-capable apps on the Chrome Web Store.
A Chrome OS computer such as the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook makes particular sense if you're already a heavy user of Google's services, since things are kept in sync across multiple machines, tied to your Google identity.
But if you're not comfortable doing all your computing inside Google's systems, concerned perhaps about how much personal information you're giving the search giant, a Chromebook is definitely not for you.
We're cautiously positive about the whole Chromebook schtick, and it's nice that with the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook and others joining in we now have a choice of models. And even if you're skeptical, it's worth at least considering one, even perhaps as a second computer.
Chrome OS continuously keeps itself up to date, requires no maintenance - in this, it feels much closer to an iPad than a normal laptop that requires frequent tending to - and is guarded against viruses. It's a nice machine to reach for if you just want to do a bit of writing, check in with Facebook or play some Angry Birds.
And we do, on balance, like the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook. Yes, you can buy much nicer laptops and you could make an argument that you get the advantages of Chrome OS in an iPad if you add a Bluetooth keyboard, but there's something undeniably comfortable about the basic laptop design, and because Chrome OS doesn't need constant ministering to, it's something you can rely on to be always ready to go. No, it's not for everyone, but it's definitely appropriate for some.
Overall, the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook feels like a well-made, solid laptop - witness especially that nicely stiff screen hinge - and while the screen and speakers are of course out-classed by laptops costing twice as much or more, they're eminently reasonable.
Deciding whether you want something more compact with a smaller screen or if you'd prefer to trade a little bit of that portability for the bigger canvas of this model is up to you, but we can definitely say that the compromise isn't a terrible one. It's a bit necessarily bulky, but its weight and heft aren't onerous.
A bundled 100GB space on Google Drive free for two years may mean that the 16GB SSD feels less pokey, too.
With the dishonourable mention of that battery life, the specs are pretty much perfect for a Chromebook, at least as far as that definition goes today, and it copes well with even demanding HD video streams. Plus, even from cold, Chrome OS boots up in seconds.
Best Ultrabook: top thin and lights
The keyboard feels dead and its layout is a little peculiar in places - though at least it's nice and big, and it's good to have dedicated home/end, page up/down and delete keys.
If we exclude the Chromebook Pixel (which is fair; you wouldn't compare three family hatchbacks and an Aston Martin DB9), it's also the most expensive of the new crop of Chromebooks. And while the difference isn't much (at £199 / US$199.99 for the Acer C7 Chromebook and £229 / US$330 / AU$319 for the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook), and is probably accounted for by its bigger size, at £249 / AU$399 / US$329.99 it's beginning to creep out of the price range where it feels like a bargain, or the kind of thing where you'd splurge a little on a laptop even though you don't strictly need one.
We'll shut up about the battery life shortly, but it needs another mention here. You had the space for a bigger one, HP, to enable the Pavilion 14 Chromebook to last a working day away from the mains.
New Chrome OS review
So if you think a Chromebook is right for you, which should you buy? We still think the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook (which, perhaps tellingly, is the one Google itself promotes through TV advertising), is the best balance. Yes, it struggles with some more computationally complex tasks and the screen is very washed out, but the long battery life and lightness make it feel like a pure Chrome OS thing.
We're not fans of the Acer C7 Chromebook, since it's too much like a normal netbook that Acer has crowbarred Chrome OS onto, although that does make it a nice little Linux machine if that's what you're after.
This HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook is a good if unexceptional laptop, though. It's a generous size and that 14-inch screen is acceptably good, it performs very well, and though the keyboard isn't a delight, the whole thing feels like it would be a decent sidekick for a good few years. If it wasn't for that dreadful battery life, we'd be recommending it much more strongly.