If Apple can sell the idea of a plastic iPhone as a good thing, then HP must be on-trend with its new 11in Chromebook.
There are acres of glossy white plastic, including when you open the lid. The lid is featureless save for the thin strip of lit-up Google colours: even the underside is pretty.
There are blue accents (the ‘feet’ underneath and a ring around the keyboard) and a matte-black bezel around the display to help with screen contrast. It would have looked better in glossy white, though.
Look around the curved edges and you’ll find more unbroken plastic. The only ports are on the left-hand side: two USB 2, a headphone output and – a first for a laptop – a micro-USB charging port. This means you can charge the Chromebook 11 from other chargers you might have, or even other laptops.
That’s the theory, anyway. We tried various chargers around the office: some worked and some didn’t. As with an iPad (as opposed to an iPhone), you’ll need a powerful charger if you don’t want to wait all day for your Chromebook to recharge. Even with the supplied PSU, it took four hours to juice up the HP (longer if we were using it while charging).
The lack of HDMI isn’t a big problem: you can buy a SlimPort adaptor for between £10 and £20. It connects to the micro-USB port and has a full size HDMI output as well as a pass-through so you can still charge the Chromebook at the same time.
The absence of an SD slot is more of an annoyance, although USB card readers are inexpensive.
HP Chromebook 11 review: keyboard, touchpad and screen
We’ve always liked the simple Chromebook keyboard layout, and HP’s is as good as we’d hoped for. Keys have enough travel and are big and responsive enough for quick typing. The dedicated search key (in place of Caps Lock) is genius, and the top row of shortcut keys lets you adjust brightness, volume and more without faffing about with key combinations involving an ‘Fn’ or ‘Ctrl’ key.
The touchpad isn’t so successful. Its rough, sticky surface is almost the opposite of the smooth plastic elsewhere. Instead of gliding, your fingers stutter over it and it doesn’t feel as sensitive or responsive as it should. It supports gestures including scrolling and pinch-to-zoom, but the buttons are built-in – we always prefer separate buttons.
There’s good news for the screen, however. Our main complaint with previous Chromebooks (except the extraordinarily expensive Pixel) is that the displays have been sub-standard. Despite the £229 price, the HP Chromebook 11’s screen is actually pretty good. Yes, it has a glossy, reflective finish, but since it’s an IPS panel, it’s bright, colourful and has good contrast and viewing angles. The 1366x768 resolution is standard fare, but text doesn’t look blocky.
HP Chromebook 11 review: Build quality
Underneath the plastic shell is a magnesium alloy frame. This makes the base quite rigid (there’s no keyboard flex at all). The screen is another matter. It flexes, bends and twists beyond levels most people will be comfortable with, although if you’re careful you should have no problems.
The screen hinge is relatively loose so you can open it with one hand, and the 1kg weight feels amazingly light. The light-weight charger barely adds much mass either.
HP Chromebook 11 review: Performance and battery life
Underneath the sleek exterior are essentially the internals from the Google Nexus 10 tablet. A quad-core Samsung Exynos 5250 processor is paired with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of solid-state storage.
Chrome OS needs more grunt than Android, though, and the Chromebook 11 doesn’t feel as zippy as the Nexus 10. Web pages take longer to load and don’t scroll as smoothly. It’s not unacceptably slow, but every time you use the HP, you’re reminded it’s a budget device.
Battery life isn’t amazing, either. We achieved around five hours of general use – that’s around half what the next-generation of Chromebooks promise, including HP’s own Intel Haswell-based Chromebook 14.
HP Chromebook 11 review: Chrome OS
If you’ve never used Chrome OS, it can take some getting used to. It’s easiest to think of it like a Windows laptop with only the Chrome browser. Chromebooks are designed to be used online and still have very few offline capabilities.
Google has made offline Gmail and Drive (formerly Docs) a lot better, but these still have to be consciously set up to work offline. You can’t get a Chromebook out of the box and create a document with no internet connection, for example.
You won’t be using Outlook to check your email, either. Everything has to be web-based which will suit undemanding users, but not those who need to use Photoshop or Premiere for editing photos and videos. You can, however, watch videos and browse photos stored locally without a network connection.
Printing is possible, as long as you have a newish and compatible printer, and you can download email attachments and save them to the local storage or a USB drive. You get 100GB of free Google Drive (cloud) storage for two years, which is standard for all Chromebooks.
Any USB devices which require drivers are unlikely to work (unless there’s a Chrome extension available), so don’t expect to be able to use a Chromebook to sync your Fitbit or Nike FuelBand.
HP Chromebook 11 review: bottom line
The Chromebook 11 looks great, is small and light and has the best screen we’ve seen on a Chrome OS device. However, build quality isn’t quite up to scratch and – more importantly – neither is performance.
Acer’s soon-to-be-launched Chromebook C720 is £30 cheaper, yet uses a Haswell-based Celeron processor, so is sure to be considerably quicker. The bad news is that we’ve already had it in our hands briefly and already know that the screen isn’t as good as the HP’s. (It isn’t nearly as attractive, either.)
We’re yet to be convinced by Chromebooks as a concept, but with more Haswell-powered models on the way in the next few months, it’s definitely worth waiting to see if one can combine good performance with a good screen at the right price. HP’s aims well with its latest effort, but misses the mark by a good margin.