Editor's note, January, 29, 2014: Updated with details on the LTE version and the recalled AC charger for the original Chromebook 11.
The HP Chromebook 11 sits in the middle of a bunch of budget-range $200 to $400 Chromebooks that have slowly filled the market where Netbooks used to be. These little Netbook-like devices look like computers, and nearly act the same as computers, but really run a very different operating system: Chrome OS, which feels like a super-powered semi-offline version of the Google Chrome browser.
Since our review last fall, there have been a few new additions: one is a replacement to the AC adapter/charger, which was recalled for safety reasons last year. This caused the Chromebook 11 to be pulled from the Google Play store, but it’s back again -- owners of this Chromebook from before December 1, 2013, need to swap out their chargers, however. The new charger looks pretty much the same. The bottom of the HP Chromebook 11 does get very warm, especially when charging, but otherwise things should (hopefully) be fine. There's also a new Verizon LTE version of the Chromebook 11, which costs around $100 more. All it does is add 4G LTE connectivity, which still requires a monthly data fee.
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 touch screen. 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.
Since our original review, the Chromebook landscape's heating up even more, with most major PC manufacturers getting in the game in some way. The HP Chromebook 11 still feels like a colorful, pretty comfortable and affordable choice, but it's hardly the go-to slam-dunk pick.
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.
The Chromebook 11 now comes in a Verizon LTE model, too, for about $100 more (or less). Best Buy currently sells the LTE Chromebook 11 for $350.
Is LTE worth it? Connection speed seems fast enough, and having an always-on Chromebook can be useful, but keep in mind that you’ll need to pay for that data.
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.
Chromecast, Google's TV-streaming HDMI plug-in gadget, is supported on this Chromebook: you can mirror Web page tabs, or transfer streamed Netflix and YouTube videos over to the Chromecast stick and onto your TV. It's a nice added feature if you're ready to spend an extra $35 or already own a Chromecast, but fuller-featured streaming boxes like the Roku don't cost that much more, even if they can't mirror.
Mirrored Web pages show up cleanly on a big TV, but you'll be using this strictly for reading and photo browsing: video streams from Web sites get unwatchably choppy. Google Cast mirroring is marked as "beta," and rightfully so.
Ports: Why no SD card slot?
Remember that $249 Samsung Chromebook? Well, it actually had more ports than this HP one: an HDMI port, USB 3.0, and an SD card slot to boot.
The HP Chromebook 11 has two USB 2.0 ports, and a Micro-USB charge port that doubles as a Slimport video-out, which requires a separate cable from Micro-USB to HDMI. Between that video port and Chromecast, you could get away without needing HDMI, but why eliminate the SD card slot? SD cards are a cheap way to add extra storage space; dropping it from a Chromebook with only 16GB of onboard storage is unfortunate.
It has dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, so it's pretty well-connected wirelessly.
Performance: Fast enough, but Netbook-esque
We were disappointed by the sometimes-sluggish Samsung Series 3 Chromebook, which had the same Exynos processor as this HP Chromebook. And that was a year ago. Don't set your expectations here much farther than "higher-end Netbook," and you'll be fine. Multiple browser windows handled decently, and I didn't experience a lot of slowdown in most cases. The Chromebook 11 could handle Chromecast mirroring fine, too. Based on SunSpider benchmarks, you're looking at basically the same performance as last year's $250 Samsung Chromebook. So, that's a little disappointing.
I played a few games, including the HTML5-based Spelunky, and found mixed results. Spelunky, hardly a taxing game, got a little choppy-funky. A tile-based game, Entangled, played just fine.
Battery life is a little less enchanting: the Google claim is six hours, and we were able to play a streamed Hulu video for 4 hours and 35 minutes. Playing offline video files would let the Chromebook last longer, but who uses a Chromebook offline, really? Expect roughly five or so hours of connected activity. Like many other Chromebooks, this one retained its charge well when I closed the lid for standby mode, and booting up is very fast.
Is this the Chromebook's coming-out party?
Here's the problem: if you're spending around $250 on a device that checks e-mail and goes on the Web and plays videos, you're probably going for a tablet. If you want something that does more, stores files and acts as true home "hub" for your software and personal data, then you'd want a PC or laptop. And keep in mind, there are other Chromebooks that cost less -- as little as $199 -- or, for a few dollars more, promise better performance: the larger HP Chromebook 14 coming out soon costs $299 and has a Haswell-based Intel processor.
A Chromebook isn't really a laptop, exactly; it's more like a laptop-shaped device that works with a set of cloud-storage solutions and a Chrome operating system that can be, for a lot of people, just enough to get work done. Chromebooks are the budget cars of the computer world, or maybe they're the smart cars. But, in a world of pretty darn capable tablets that are getting cheaper and cheaper, a laptop-like Chromebook is still a tough sell -- especially when it can't do as much as a cheap Windows laptop.
This Chromebook comes close to fulfilling Chrome's identity: a simple, clean, always-on way to get work done on the Web, without messy software or downloads. Kids or relatives who want to borrow your laptop can use this as the "loaner car"; if you just want to write and use an uncompromised Web-browsing experience, this might be the answer over a tablet.
But, until Chrome and Android merge into something that does both online and offline, and tablet and laptop, equally well, Chrome OS still feels like an experiment ... albeit one that's getting more intriguing every day.
If you're in the market for a cheap laptop and want something to type on versus something to casually Web browse with, consider the HP Chromebook 11. But keep in mind this is the station car of computers; it'll get you to where you need to go, but it's not equipped to live your full life on it, unless your life is cloud- and Google-based.
Find out more about how we test laptops.
HP Chromebook 11
Chrome OS; 1.7GHz Exynos 5250 GAIA (ARMV7); 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 16GB SSD
Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550
Chrome OS; 1.3GHz Intel Celeron 867; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM; Intel HD Graphics; 16GB SSD
Dell Latitude 10
Windows 8 (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 747MB (Total) Intel GMA; 64GB MMC SSD
HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook
Chrome OS; 1.1GHz Intel Celeron 847; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM Intel HD Graphics 16GB SSD