Review : HP Chromebook 11

HP Chromebook 11 is one of the best budget notebooks you can buy

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Product Manufacturer: HP

Price: $279

The Good

  • - Great design, solid construction
    - High-quality 11.6-inch IPS display
    - Chrome OS much improved
    - Class-leading value for money

The Bad

  • - Processor only adequate at best
    - Battery life just average
    - No microSD card slot
    - Chrome OS still has its limitations
Google has developed an uncanny ability to develop a wide range of disruptive technologies across a number of consumer technology-related spaces. In doing so, it has succeeded in creating much more choice for consumers, who have been the big winners with Google's approach. Its Chromebooks and the Chrome OS that runs on them, while initially slow to take off, is great example of how it has created a new computing paradigm at the low end of the notebook market. The fact that its Chromebooks are starting to gain some traction is highlighted by Microsoft's recent decision to slash the price of Windows for low-cost machines to combat the Chrome OS. Until now, the quality and appeal of Chromebooks has been limited, however, the new HP Chromebook 11 is set to help further improve the perception of Chromebooks and the Chrome OS.

Design and construction
The HP Chromebook 11 has been built and designed by HP in conjunction with Google. As a result, it is much better styled and put together than one might rightly expect for a notebook in its category. In fact, it's a lot nicer compared to a lot of typical low-end to mid-range Windows notebooks. For example, all screws have been hidden from view, leaving a very seamless looking design. In this way, it is quite Apple-like. It doesn't have any potentially unsightly ventilation ports either, as it is running a low-power ARM chip typically found in smartphones and doesn't require them.

Its polished white polycarbonate finish is attractive, while the backlit Google logo on the lid of the HP Chromebook 11 is also a class touch. The chassis has been reinforced internally with magnesium that helps to make it much more rigid than you might expect. However, while it is quite stiff when picked up, it betrays its budget price by making a few minor creaking noises here and there. Given its price point, this is a relatively minor grip and certainly nothing that should put anyone off considering it. Compared to the Samsung Chromebook that came before this, it is light years ahead for overall quality, fit and finish. The same goes for the keyboard of the HP Chromebook 11, which feels very comfortable and easy to type on.

Rounding out the package are some additional attractive trimmings including a refined looking 'chrome' logo located just beneath the display, as well as a choice of different Google colored trim choices that surround the keyboard and continue on to the underside of the device to the padded mounts. Not only do mounts serve to hide screws in the chassis, they also help to keep the device from sliding around on a table or your lap when typing. The oversize trackpad is nicely integrated into the chassis, while the gentle curve sloping down and away from the trackpad is both a thoughtful and functional touch that makes using the device much more comfortable.Overall, the HP Chromebook 11 is easily the best looking low-cost notebook on the market. Both Google and HP have combined to create the seemingly impossible - a low-cost notebook that is actually desirable. At just 2.3 pounds it makes an ideal travel companion or perfect for a school backpack.

If there is one area where the area where the HP Chromebook 11 really stands out is with its display. We can't think of a single competitor at this price point that offers a better 11.6-inch notebook display. Although its resolution is a standard 1366x768 pixels, the HP Chromebook 11 utilizes an IPS display which goes a long way to raising the quality of the overall user experience. Most notebooks in this class, as well as some including the much more expensive 11-inch Apple MacBook Air, use TN panels, which are nowhere near as nice to look at as the display on the Chromebook 11. In addition to reproducing better colors, it also has a wide 176-degree viewing angle meaning that you do not need to constantly adjust the angle of the display to get the best picture. Added to this is excellent brightness that Google claims is good for 300 nits.

Google and HP could easily have chosen to skimp on the IPS panel, and many users wouldn't have really noticed the difference. However, IPS and similar technology is becoming increasingly common on mobile devices with the rise of tablets and smartphones introducing a wider audience to its benefits. Whether you are using the HP Chromebook 11 for working on a word processing document, watching a video, editing photos, or surfing the web, everything looks that much better. The display, coupled with the better than average design, fit and finish of the Chromebook 11 helps to make using the Chrome OS a much more enjoyable experience. Although it does not include support for capacitive multitouch input, It is good enough to make you want to reach for the Chromebook when the opportunity arises.

Keyboard, touchpad and speakers
The HP Chromebook 11 features a full-size chiclet-style keyboard. It is very comfortable to type on, with reasonable travel and a reassuring feel. It is not the most luxurious typing experience we've enjoyed on a notebook, but it is more than adequate even if the surface of each key is slightly on the slippery side. Typing is also quiet, so you will be able to type in a library on a train without disturbing anyone near you. The keyboard also includes some keys specific to the device, including a dedicated 'search' key (instead of a caps lock key), there is also a 'full-screen' key as well as a 'multitasking' key similar to Apple's Expose.

The trackpad is slightly larger than average and makes for comfortable experience. Like a MacBook trackpad, it is clickable, and also supports a right-click function with a two-finger touch. Even though the touchpad is made from plastic, it is quite smooth and is also very responsive and quite accurate. Although Google says that is specially 'fine-tuned,' it works well in general use in Google Docs, for example, but seems less well optimized for games like Cut the Rope, that work, but are no where as accurate and easy to play as with a good touchscreen. Overall, though, it is a good effort and is certainly better than some Windows notebooks that we have used.

The speakers are said by Google to be 'digitally tuned,' although what this means is not entirely clear. Like a MacBook Air, the speakers are hidden beneath the keyboard, helping to preserve the seamless aesthetics of the Chromebook 11. Sonically, they are somewhat thin sounding as the bass is, as you would expect, almost not existent. In place, the mids are quite present as is the treble, but where the speakers surprise is in their volume. Google and HP know their audience: there will be plenty college students who will want to crank the Chromebook in their dorm room. Happily, sound quality through the headphone port is very good, particularly through a set of high-quality headphones, which won't be wasted on listening to music through this unit.

In opting to put effort into effort into the quality of the design and build quality of the HP Chromebook 11, as well as its excellent display, it is inevitable that Google and HP had to make some compromises somewhere for a notebook at this price point. In this instance, the processor that powers HP Chromebook 11 is on the very limit of its capabilities in keeping things running smoothly. It is powered by a 32-bit Samsung Exynos 5 Dual (5250) clocked at 1.7GHz, which is based on ARM's Cortex-A15 architecture that first arrived on the market in late 2012. Heading on into 2014, the chip is now somewhat underpowered although, in its favor, it is only required to power Google's thin client Chrome OS. At best, it can be described as adequate, even in this context, while the 2GB of RAM is also sufficient for keeping multiple tabs and web apps functioning simultaneously.

In terms of general usability, the HP Chromebook 11 performs well enough. At its price, coupled with the extra money that has been spent on its build and display, it's hard to quibble with how the Chromebook 11 functions on the whole. Our concerns center on how it performs when multitasking. Streaming music and trying to simultaneously view webpages, which causes a strange stuttering effect with the sound on occasions. However, listening to music while working on a document causes no such issues in our experience. As with the Chrome browser on a desktop, you can pull out a tab streaming a video and simultaneously type a document while also watching a Youtube clip. Webchats with the built-in VGA webcam function smoothly, while playing standard web-based and offline Chrome OS apps also works reasonably well; just don't expect stunning framerates. This is about the extent of its capabilities, but for a second notebook, or a notebook for a student, it is just powerful enough to get things done without too performance many issues.

Chrome OS
For those not familiar with it, Chrome OS is a Linux-based operating system. It is known as a 'thin client' operating system as it is designed to have an absolutely minimal system footprint with most of its functionality delivered and powered remotely. However, unlike traditional thin client-based systems that are driven on a local network by a server, the Chrome OS is built around Google's Chrome web browser and connects to the Internet for much of its functionality. The original releases relied very heavily on having an always-on Internet connection; however, Google has slowly evolved the operating system to add certain core functions. These include a media player and file system that allow Chrome OS-based devices to function offline as well.

To this, Google has since also enabled certain apps to function offline, where the app package has been downloaded and installed locally on a Chromebook or Chromebox. Google apps like Gmail and Google Docs can all work offline, allowing you to continue to work offline and store files locally on your notebook. If you go to the Chrome Web Store, you will also find numerous other apps that can also work offline that may help to change your perception of what you can and can't do with a Chromebook. If you thought that Chromebooks were only any use if you have a solid connection, it is no longer the case. Sure, they are much more useful when connected to the web, but you can still get plenty done without a connection. With the built-in media player functionality, you can also watch movies and listen to music offline as well. A Chromebook may not offer the full functionality of a traditional Windows PC or Mac, but in terms of core functionality, there is plenty on offer.

Storage, connectivity and battery life
The HP Chromebook 11 comes with 16GB of SSD storage, which helps it boot quickly and access files fast. Most of this space is available to end users as the Chrome OS is about a seventh of the install size of a typical Windows install. However, a shortcoming is the inability to expand this with your own microSD cards via a built-in slot. Your only alternative is to add storage through an external card reader that can be attached to one of the two USB 2.0 ports, which also support external hard drives. On the other hand Google provides plenty of free online storage via Google Drive, which is supplemented further by 100GB for free for two years.

As mentioned, the HP Chromebook 11 is fitted with two USB 2.0 ports. These can also be utilized to charge a smartphone, helping the Chromebook do double duty as a battery extender. It is also, thankfully, fitted with a microUSB port for 15.75W charging, which is a thoughtful touch. It is often the case that even when fitted with mobile chips that are charged perfectly fine over a microUSB port when fitted to a smartphone, some OEMs like to squeeze extra dollars out of end users by forcing them to use a proprietary charger with specialized charging port (think the Microsoft Surface, for example). The microUSB port also supports SlimPort video output as well. Fast dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11n is also fitted, as is support for Bluetooth 4.0.

Another area that Google and HP have had to keep compromise somewhat to keep the cost down is with the size of the fitted battery. It is a 30 Watt-hour type that is good for up to six hours of use. Although this will suffice for most people, it is somewhat disappointing given that it is only a low power dual-core ARM chip that powering the device. With full power Intel Haswell-based notebooks getting up to 12 hours of battery life, not to mention tablets like the iPad Air getting similar battery life, we would like to see the Chromebook getting at least eight hours on the go.

Wrapping up
The HP Chromebook 11 is a very good notebook for the money and one of the best budget notebooks that you can buy. It is not perfect in every regard, but for what it is, is a lot better than one could rightly expect at this price point. The design is classier than a lot of notebooks costing twice as much or more, while it is put together very well too. The only obvious shortcoming is the Samsung chip at its heart, but it is good enough to keep things ticking along reasonably smoothly for the most part. Battery life could also do with some improving, while buyers also need to understand the relative limitations of the Chrome OS. That said, the Chrome OS is more flexible now than in the past, while the quality of the display puts some more expensive notebooks to shame. As a notebook for a student, or as a second notebook for anyone, the HP Chromebook 11 is definitely worth a look.