A Chrome OS laptop with a bundle of great features, marred by a case of performance anxiety
Update: A statement from Google and HP confirms that the Chromebook 11 is currently no longer on sale, due to a small number of reports that the charger is overheating during use. We will keep up with this story as the situation develops.
There's no shortage of Chrome OS devices out there to choose from, and save for the Chromebook Pixel they all pepper the lower end of the market. The Chromebook 11, a smaller (as in 11 inches) ARM-powered follow up to the larger Chromebook 14 from earlier this year, is yet another inexpensive Chromebook from HP and Google that builds on the same strategy as the devices before it.
Put together a small and portable form factor, fill it with inexpensive components and sell it on the cheap — it's a recipe for topping the sales charts for a laptop on Amazon, but is it really a product to get excited about? No matter where you stand on the merits of using a Chrome OS device, there are more than a few things the $279 Chromebook 11 has going for it. Read along after the break and see what HP's latest inexpensive Chromebook is all about.
Inside: Hardware | Display | Keyboard | Daily life | Bottom line
When you spend $279 for an 11-inch laptop, it's hard to expect too much in the way of materials and build quality. Given the pricing, the HP Chromebook 11 is actually built quite solidly. It seems as though the real shortcuts were taken in the materials themselves — this is a build primarily of very flimsy and creaky plastic. No matter the color choice (we have the black one here, of course) you'll get a very thin glossy plastic around every inch of the Chromebook 11, and while the seams are tight where materials meet, it just doesn't have the rigidity of a more expensive laptop.
Going ARM means you won't find a single fan or vent, making the laptop extra sleek
The other part of the equation keeping the cost down on the Chromebook 11 are the internals and ports on offer. We're looking at a Samsung Exynos 5250 dual-core processor, paired up with 2 gigabytes of DDR3 RAM and 16 gigabytes of storage. For ports you have two USB 2.0 for peripherals, a headphone/microphone jack and a Micro USB port that works for charging as well as video out via SlimPort. You'll also find a microphone and VGA webcam up above the screen, and inside you have 802.11a/b/g/n Wifi and Bluetooth 4.0. (Google claims a Verizon LTE-capable version is coming soon, but we haven't heard anything about that just yet.)
Because this is an ARM-powered machine, you'll notice that there are no vents or fans on the entire build, which likely helps a bit with rigidity. Between the lack of fans and inclusion of SSD storage there are no moving parts, meaning it should hold up to bumps a bit more than your average cheap laptop with a spinning HDD.
It doesn't feel cheap, but simply made of inexpensive materials
The Chromebook 11 does seem to hold up against external wear pretty well, at least. In a few weeks of using it, we only picked up a single scratch on the lid and no other dents or blemishes. For a laptop that's likely to get tossed around a lot, it's good to know it'll take a bump or two. The hinge and lid seem to hold up as well, and although the screen may not tilt back as far as you'd always want, it doesn't creak and holds in place even when you move about. The size and weight are great as well — at just 2.3 pounds (feels lighter in our hands) with an 11.6-inch display, it's amazingly portable, as it should be.
In the end it doesn't feel as though the Chromebook 11 is ready to fall apart or is poorly made, but rather is constrained so tightly by its price that you don't really have much room for advanced engineering. You're getting a $279 laptop, no doubt about it, but as a second machine meant to be used casually you're not going to be upset with the build quality.
A really nice display with good brightness and colors
HP has loaded up the Chromebook 11 with an 11.6-inch 1366x768 (that's 16:9) IPS display that has a purported 300 nits of brightness, and given the price you're actually getting a really nice screen here. If you're not bothered by the physical size and "short" aspect ratio as a combination (most laptop screens are 16:10 nowadays), you're in for a solid viewing experience on the Chromebook 11. Brightness, viewing angles (HP claims 176 degrees) and colors all seem solid, and considering you won't be doing any kind of serious picture or video editing on it nor will you ask anything more than "how does this web page look?," you're going to get along just fine with this screen.
Like many modern laptops, the HP Chromebook 11 doesn't have dedicated speaker grilles but rather blasts sound up through the slots in the keyboard. Google says the speakers are "digitally tuned," but they're actually just cheap and tinny speakers with no low end — again, just as you'd expect in this price range. They do get quite loud (louder than our MacBook Air) without distorting, and while you won't be blown away they do their job.
Few things are more important on a laptop than the keyboard and touchpad. A bad experience in these two areas can kill the entire feeling of a laptop, and we unfortunately have to say that the results on the HP Chromebook 11 are mixed. Let's kick things off first with the keyboard, which is actually quite good for the size.
The keys are a bit soft but right on par with other recent laptops
The keys themselves are full sized and properly spaced, which can be a concern on some smaller laptops. It takes some getting used to the "Chrome" keyboard layout, which uses the function row for dedicated actions for browsing the web as well as brightness and volume and replaces the caps lock key with a search key. Once you get used to where everything is, you'll have no issue typing on the Chromebook 11 if you've ever spent time on recent laptops with chiclet-style flat keyboard. Key travel is good, the keys are a bit mushy but springy enough and we had no issue jamming out emails, social network posts or full-on articles on Android Central.
We mentioned that the combination of keyboard and touchpad give mixed results. The bad side of the pair is the touchpad, which comes up dramatically short of what we want to see on a laptop in 2013. We come back to the shortcomings of building a computer that retails for $279, but even taking this into account the Chromebook 11's touchpad just doesn't offer a very good experience.
Your fingers just don't glide across the touchpad as you expect
This is a modern-style "clickpad" where you press down on the bottom half of the pad for mouse clicks (and hold two fingers down to right click), and while it's decently large for an 11-inch laptop the feel and tracking speed leaves a lot to be desired. Your finger doesn't glide across the surface very well, and even after turning down the touch sensitivity it never felt natural to move the pointer around.
In the end the touchpad is usable, and like with any laptop you get used to it over time, but don't rip open the Chromebook 11's box thinking that you're going to get a great touch experience — you'll need to spend a bit more money for that.
Now to the elephant in the room — the Chromebook 11 of course runs Chrome OS as its operating system. If you've only used Chrome the browser and not Chrome OS, you're not far off from the experience here. Using Chrome OS is basically like using the Chrome browser, but with a few differences. First you'll have to get used to Chrome-specific keyboard layout, which in the end makes using a browser-based operating system much simpler to use. Next is navigation — it takes some time to get the rhythm down of managing windows, tabs and apps but there really isn't a steep learning curve here considering how few things the system can do outside of browser windows.
You're basically going to live with Chrome and a handful of extensions
As far as native storage handling and applications go, there really aren't many. You have access to a simple media player, photo editor (basically just crop/rotate/rename) and file system, but you can't do a whole lot with it. You can pull files to/from external storage, but the best way to manage files is through the deep Google Drive integration into the file system. You have a few different apps installed off the bat such as a calculator, offline Google Docs and offline Gmail, but most of the enhanced functionality on Chrome OS will come by way of Chrome extensions.
The best way to know if you can "live" with a Chromebook is to look at what you can do with your Chrome browser and various extensions — if you can get things done with just those tools, you'll be right at home with any Chromebook.
But is Chrome OS running on an ARM processor and 2GB of RAM actually a good experience in the end? Unfortunately we have to say that it isn't. Even with a very lightweight OS, the Chromebook 11 struggles to handle anything but the most basic of Internet tasks.
The real hamstring is in the number of tabs you can realistically have open — each tab in chrome is its own process, meaning that anything over two tabs on a dual-core ARM processor is going to tax the system heavily while the tabs "wait in line" to load or respond to your input. Our daily usage of Chrome on other laptops consists of about eight pinned tabs and two to 10 more at any given time throughout the day, and after waiting several minutes for the Chromebook 11 to try and load our default tab setup we quickly realized we would have to scale back our usage.
With five or more tabs open, the Chromebook 11 is sluggish, unresponsive and stuttery in scrolling, typing and interacting with pages. Even Android Central, which isn't the heaviest site out there, chugged along. When you drop things down to just two tabs, with maybe a third open playing Google Play Music, the situation improved dramatically. This laptop is one you throw in your bag when you just need to casually browse a webpage here and there, edit a Google Doc or catch up on Gmail while listening to music or a podcast — ask anything more of it and you can hear the Exynos begging for mercy under the hood.
With sluggish performance coming from an ARM processor you'd expect great battery life as a tradeoff, right? Again we were disappointed in this aspect as well. HP and Google quote the 30Wh battery at six hours of "active usage" on the Chromebook 11, but we found ourselves getting about four hours of mixed usage, five if we took things very lightly. That's just not enough to make the bad performance worth it in our book — we expect at least double that nowadays.
Carrying a single small charger for both your phone and laptop is amazing
The upside of this equation is that the Chromebook 11 charges off of Micro USB — just like your phone or tablet — rather than a traditional laptop power brick and proprietary connector. The included charger is a 5.25V 3A unit that is about twice the size of your average phone charger, but has a healthy-sized cord (about six feet long) and charges the laptop in about two hours. You can charge the Chromebook 11 off of a 2A charger as well, like you may get with some tablets, but you'll probably have to sleep or turn off the laptop to get it to charge at any meaningful rate.
The nicest part of a USB charger is being able to use it for any phone or tablet that supports the port. We could leave the house for a day or weekend with just the Chromebook, a phone and a single charger, and not have to worry about a big tangle of cords or the extra heft of a regular laptop power brick.
The Chromebook 11 isn't meant to replace your daily computer, nor is it meant to be a picture editing or multimedia powerhouse. This is a $279 laptop that gives you complete access to everything you normally do on the web and every one of Google's services, wrapped up in a durable and light case with a nice screen and keyboard that charges off of a standard Micro USB charger.
As a second (or third) computer for a power user, one to use on a weekend away when you don't want or need to lug around a bigger and more expensive laptop, the HP Chromebook 11 can suit your needs. But whether or not you're going to be happy with the experience is all about keeping your expectations in check — it can be slow, doesn't have fantastic battery life and won't manage as many Chrome tabs as you want. But did we mention it's $279?
HP and Google haven't made a flagship Chromebook here, not even close. But they've made a laptop that will be a very capable choice for a certain type of user that doesn't want to spend a whole lot of money and wants more than just a small tablet in the same price range. It isn't offering enough for us to keep on using it, but we think it may just work for some of you out there.