Google has a new product category, and it's called Chromebook. No, it's not really new: it's existed for years, but a lot of people still don't really know about it. Maybe it's time for a makeover, huh?
The HP Chromebook 11 isn't much more than a redesigned variant on the hardware already in the $249 Samsung Series 3 Chromebook. It has the same ARM processor, similar battery life, and also lacks a touchscreen. But, the new HP version looks a lot better. Rather than seeming lack a cast-off Netbook with a Chrome OS brain-swap, the Chromebook 11 is cute, compact, simple, and attractive. It looks like the little simple mini-computer it really is. It's like the iPhone 5c of Chromebooks: you've seen this technology before, but now it looks cleaner, friendlier, and more colorful.
Are looks everything? Certainly not. Actually, this Chromebook has fewer ports than Samsung's version, and costs $30 more. But it has a better-quality screen, and a keyboard that's a breeze to type on. It's fun to use. And, it looks like something someone might actually want to buy.
Chrome OS keeps getting better, Google Drive more robust, and Google Chromecast now offers a way to stream content wirelessly to a TV. All of these make a Chromebook a more interesting bet than even a few months ago. It's not for everyone, but the Chromebook is finally making a case for being a fun, family-friendly product in its own right.
What you get
The 11.6-inch Chromebook has specs that match a tablet more than a laptop: a dual-core Exynos ARM processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of SSD storage. Inside the box is a Micro-USB charger that's pretty compact, and can also charge up Micro-USB tablets, phones or other devices.
Google also includes a two-year, 100GB Google Drive storage upgrade, a 60-day Google Music All Access trial, and 12 vouchers for GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi, which get redeemed via the Chromebook itself.
Design: Color me Google
Before the Chromebook 11, sub-$500 Chromebooks seemed like the sort of stuff that fell out the back of an abandoned CompUSA. They were Netbook-like, unattractive, and to make things worse, they ran a funky mostly online-only operating system. The Chromebook Pixel is a much more finely designed beast, but at over $1,000, it's well off any sensible person's radar.
The Chromebook 11 is a clean, colorful device, with looks that fall somewhere between any MacBook and kid-friendly PC. The Chromebook 11 doesn't have any visible speakers or vents, and only a few ports -- an intentional move, giving this product a seamless, smooth appearance. You can pick from glossy black or glossy white -- the white comes with yellow, red, blue, or green color highlights, which ring the keyboard and tint two rubberized bottom pads.
The laptop feels very plastic, but at 2.3 pounds it's also very light. Google says there's a magnesium frame underneath, but it's hard to tell. It feels sturdy enough, but still resembles a budget product. It seems kid-friendly and somewhat able to withstand a knock-around.
Basically, Google's and HP's smart bet with the HP Chromebook 11 was to make the whole product seem much more like a laptop-esque tablet than a cheap laptop. From its Micro-USB port to its clean color-accented plastic, it feels like the smaller cousin to the Pixel, part of a new Chromebook family. It even has the same four-color rainbow bar on the back lid, a small "Chrome" touch.
Keyboard and touch pad: One great, the other choppy
Despite being an 11-inch device, the wide, comfortable keyboard ranks among the best I've ever used on a smaller laptop. No, it's not backlit, but writing was a breeze, and key placement felt natural. The wide clickable plastic touch pad beneath has its heart in the right place, but scrolling isn't as smooth as I would have expected. Two-finger scrolling, in particular, gets a little choppy when Web surfing.
Screen and speakers: A cut above
There's nothing surprising about a 1,366x768-pixel, 16:9 11.6-inch display, but this is a better screen than on most budget computers; it's IPS, which means extreme viewing angles look as crisp as head-on ones, and everything looks bright and crisp. Netflix movies, YouTube videos, and pictures all looked good, but not as great as on a higher-res tablet.
Also, this display doesn't have touch. It is glossy, though, so don't smudge up your screen trying to accidentally tap an icon like I did. Only the Chromebook Pixel has touch. All future Chromebooks, according to one Google executive, will likely be getting touch in the long run. For now, to be affordable, they don't. It's not a huge loss.
Speakers are hidden under the keyboard; the goal is less muffled sound. Indeed, this Chromebook pumped out some impressive volume, and movies actually sounded decent. Combined with the VGA camera above the display, this might be a good ultraportable for Google Hangouts in loud places.
Chrome OS, redux
So, here's the thing about Chrome OS: it's fast-booting and excellent for Web-based work, and there are a growing number of apps, both for free and for purchase in the Chrome Web Store that enable additional functions. But, these apps all feel like browser extensions, and most of Chrome OS really feels like a specialized super-browser than any sort of Mac/Windows (or even iOS/Android) killer.
You're basically working in browser-land on a Chromebook, for better or worse. Google's cloud-based offerings keep getting better: Google Drive is a solid repository for files, and more apps are becoming offline-enabled. Beware, though: you can boot up a Chromebook offline, but I had mixed results. One time it wouldn't let me log in because I wasn't online: another time, it did. You can always close the lid and put the Chromebook to sleep and go offline later, but apps generally need to be offline-enabled before they work. Google Drive requires a setting to be checked off, and a file sync to kick in; some games need to be launched once in order to launch in offline mode. Most of the time, working offline feels like you're working in a cached browser window. I was able to create a document in Google Drive, close the window, then open Google Drive and resume that document, then sync it to my account once I was online, but it never felt as seamless as a basic iOS/Android writing app. Let's face it: Chrome OS is meant to be always-on. There's no other way about it on a Chromebook.
Chrome OS is great for casual multi-user home use: there are no files, really, to accidentally erase, and a guest-only mode sets up safe and separate browsing. For kids, it's a help. And in school settings where a connected "dumb terminal" type of computer might be preferred over a file-storing tablet or laptop, the Chromebook is refreshingly lean.