Wednesday, 16 October 2013

HP Chromebook 11 review

Chromebook prices are getting cheaper and cheaper, but the majority says, they're nice laptops in theory, but they don't cut it in the real world. Google's marketing the new HP Chromebook 11 as the laptop "for everyone." $279 for a well-designed, 11.6-inch notebook with a bright IPS display is a not a shabby deal. 

The Chromebook 11 may only cost $279, but its design is still impressive. The glossy plastic lid and back are uninterrupted by screws, vents or any other components, lending the machine a modern, classy air. As soon as your greasy fingers hit the plastic, things look a little less pristine. There are no moving parts here, and the smooth design reflects that compare this with Samsung's Chromebook, and you'll get the picture. The rounded edges and reflective finish aren't exactly revolutionary design choices. Google leaves its own mark on this device, both the rim around the island-style keyboard and two rubber strips on the backside are done up in one of four accent colors including blue, green, red or yellow.

The Chromebook 11 is super light (2.3 pounds, or 1.04kg), but still it feels insubstantial in the hands. As someone who squeezes a 13-inch Ultrabook into a work bag, definitely laptop's portable size is appreciatable. Thinness isn't the selling point with this machine, but at 11.69 x 7.56 x 0.69 inches (297 x 192 x 12.6mm), it's definitely not bulky. There's a magnesium frame on board, which goes a long way in helping the machine feel sturdy despite the featherweight profile. That's not to say you're getting the same build quality as a $1,000 Ultrabook; the plastic lid occasionally creaks under pressure.

With the lid closed, the only distinguishing mark on this Chromebook is a strip sporting Chrome's four signature colors that lights up when the machine is in use. On the reverse side, you'll find two colorful rubber strips along with Google and HP branding. The notebook is remarkably bare, with the left edge housing all the ports and connections. These include a combination headphone / mic jack, two USB 2.0 ports and a micro-USB connection with support for SlimPort video out. You'll be charging this device via micro-USB, which is extremely convenient if you're already carrying around a cable for your Android tablet or phone. The charging up takes a long time; about four hours. There's no SD card slot, but with just 16GB of on-board storage, you'll be relying more on Google Drive than local storage.

Raise the lid, and you'll be face to face with the machine's 11.6-inch display, which is framed by a wide bezel sporting Chrome branding. The keyboard takes up almost two-thirds of the palm rest, with a clickpad sitting just below it. The design is simple, but in a satisfying, less-is-more way. Google is releasing its first accessory designed in-house to go with the Chromebook 11. Don't expect anything elaborate, though: it's just a simple, if well-made, case available in black, blue / grey or red / grey. 

Not having a dedicated caps lock button, but that useless whining aside, this keyboard is quite decent. The keys are well-spaced enough that accidentally hitting an adjacent letter shouldn't be an issue. The trackpad, meanwhile, isn't so solid. It feels a bit sticky, which in practice meant to tap and right-click more than once for the system to register my input. 

The HP Chromebook 11 at least sports an IPS panel that offers 300 nits of brightness. The 11.6-inch, 1,366 x 768 screen delivers accurate colors, but the glossy finish can prove distracting if you're sitting under lighting conditions. HP would have gone for a more anti-reflective panel, but the viewing angles here are still very generous. The Chromebook 11 gives decent sound, though don't expect party-worthy volume. The speakers are only loud enough to fill a small room. With the digitally tuned speakers sitting directly under the keyboard, sound won't be obstructed or distorted. 

In the absence of many benchmarks to run, the real measure of such a device's performance is how it handles the web and web-related apps. If you open two dozen or so browser tabs, edit documents in Google Drive, try out the very unflattering VGA webcam and watch some HD clips on YouTube, the Chromebook did trip up and require a restart once, but overall it handled apps, browsing and video streaming well. With an ARM-based Exynos 5250 SoC and 2GB of RAM, this machine makes no pretense of being a powerhouse. Google emphasized that this machine is fanless, so don't even think about whipping this laptop into an overclocked frenzy. For more modest use, this is fine. 

Google and HP rate the Chromebook 11's 30Wh battery for up to six hours of use on a charge. With a dozen-plus tabs open in the browser, occasional video playing and answering emails, the laptop endured for about four hours. That time reflects using the device with the display brightness maxed out, so you may see a longer runtime if your environs allow for a dimmer setting. On battery rundown test, which involves playing a locally stored video on loop with brightness set to 65 percent and WiFi on, the Chromebook will last for five hours almost. This is an hour and a half short of the Samsung Chromebook's runtime and it's certainly less longevity than you'd get with a tablet.

WiFi-equipped model is indeed the only currently available configuration, though a version with 4G is reportedly on the way. Chromebook 11 is the second one from HP; just a month ago, the Chromebook 14 was unveiled, though that won't go on sale soon. Comparing this Chromebook 11 to the Haswell-powered 14-incher and some older devices in Google's lineup, it's clear that the new 11-incher's advantages are portability and a refined design. The Chromebook 14 and the Samsung Chromebook are both rated for longer battery life, but they are heavier and more expensive. Physically, this device is superior to older models.

Chrome OS, is based on Google's eponymous browser. All the company's apps are present including Drive, YouTube, Gmail, Docs, Calendar and so on. When you first boot up, you're greeted with a "getting started" box. Here, you can learn more about apps, working offline, editing photos, managing files and more. There haven't been very many substantial additions to the software. In addition, you will have a free 100GB of storage on Google Drive for two years, a 60-day trial of Google Play Music All Access and 12 free sessions of Gogo in-flight internet. 

Finding the pros and cons for a Chromebook review is a tricky task. Aside from the flaky touchpad, the biggest disadvantages are, only 16GB of SSD storage, an operating system largely limited to Google's own ecosystem. While Google will tell you that this machine is "for everyone," may be it's clearly not. Such a device is great for some casual users who need a smooth-running machine for surfing the web, responding to email and watching Netflix. A well-built laptop with a bright IPS display and a decent keyboard for $279 is certainly worthy of a place on your comparison-shopping list. It's up to you to determine what your needs are, but if you know what you're getting, you'll enjoy the HP Chromebook 11.

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