Review HP Chromebook 11
Affordability and style. No one will accuse HP’s latest Chromebook of neglecting its appearance; as far as plastic devices go, it’s an attractive contender. But at just $279, is it even possible to supply the parts necessary for adequate performance?
With all the hoopla currently surrounding ultraportable internet-enabled devices, Google isn’t resting on its laurels as its Android tablets swarm the market. Instead, the past couple of years have seen a gradual rollout of an array of cheaper, simpler notebooks termed Chromebooks. These machines are meant to fill the void between keyboardless tablet and full-blown notebook, as manufacturers hope they will satisfy the most relevant basic needs of the masses when it comes to home computing. In short, most of them qualify as the most basic type of notebook you can currently get—think netbook.
But basic doesn’t equal better, as we’ve seen in the past across our reviews of Chromebooks. The elephant in the room is the undeniable crudeness of Chrome OS; this is an operating system in its infancy, and it couldn’t be more obvious. Windows and Mac OS it is not, and while it strives to provide the foundational necessities of those tried-and-true mainstays, today, it’s nowhere in the same ballpark.
While HP’s Pavilion 14 Chromebook that we reviewed a few months ago was an attempt at a standard-sized budget notebook alternative, we found it lacking in terms of construction and ergonomics. The Chromebook 11 rebalances its priorities to favor style and ergonomics over specs and size, and the result is something we rarely see with a keyboard attached: a sleek, attractive plastic casing with a magnesium frame, an IPS screen, and much better input devices, all for just $279. So what’s the catch? The specs, of course: with still just 2 GB of RAM and a step backward into ARM-based processor territory (with a phone-grade Samsung Exynos 5250 GAIA installed), we can’t expect much from the Chromebook 11 in the way of general performance. The question is, for the price, is it fast enough?
The Chromebook 11’s slender, clean design resembles something directly out of the Macbook or iPhone 5C catalog. It’s predominantly glossy white, with the occasional sparse strip of vivid color bordering the keyboard or lighting up on the display lid. The rather large bezel surrounding the 11 inch screen is matte, which also feels like a good choice. It doesn’t really carry the look of an inexpensive computer, and in fact, it’s about as stylish as you’ll find for a plastic-clad ultraportable. In case it wasn’t already clear, this is one highly portable device. Not only is it just 16 mm thick, but it tips the scales at just 1.044 kg (2.3 lbs), making it as light as some tablets.
The Chromebook 11 also seems rather sturdy under the circumstances; almost no flex is detectable across the base unit in any location. It’s nice knowing that underneath all of the plastic casing there is a magnesium frame, something which certainly enhances the device’s durability. When closed, the machine feels like it could take a fair amount of pressure without sustaining damage. The display lid, meanwhile, succumbs to its thinness by easily yielding to twisting or pressure on its back. The single hinge which holds the display in place does its job well, preventing the wobbly screen phenomenon that is common with many cheaper machines while typing or otherwise.
The entire machine is crafted such that no screws are visible on the exterior. Of course, this also means that disassembly is a bit of a nightmare. The bottom of the unit is held into place by a series of plastic clips that are very difficult to disengage; in fact, we stopped short of taking ours apart for fear of damaging the unit. The screen is equally stubborn, as the bezel doesn’t seem to be removable.
As communicated by its choice of chipset, the Chromebook 11 regresses from the mindset of competing with standard-sized, fully-functional notebooks and instead simply looks to offer the most basic functionality. That means dialing back the total number of ports to a total of just three: two USB 2.0 ports and a 3.5 mm combo audio jack. Those ports plus the charging port are all located on the left side of the notebook, and they’re spaced intelligently to allow for connection of larger USB devices (though the USB ports are a bit low to the ground, meaning that some taller-bodied devices may lift the Chromebook a bit). Video out is actually still possible, by the way (in spite of the lack of a dedicated port), through the use of a SlimPort adapter, which can be found for around $20-30 at many retailers.
A quick word about the charging port: it’s actually just a Micro USB port, which is great for compatibility across a range of existing devices. However, reports that you can “use the same charger as your mobile phone” with the Chromebook aren’t exactly accurate: with anything less than a 3.0 amp power supply, you’ll get a message warning you that your device will not charge as a result of the low-power AC adapter that’s connected. Since most mobile phones use adapters that are 2.1 amp or below, it’s unlikely that you’ll be moving to a single-charger system anytime soon unless you opt to carry the slightly larger Chromebook charger in lieu of your mobile phone’s adapter.
The HP Chromebook 11 features a dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n WLAN adapter capable of up to 300 Mbps. This adapter also includes Bluetooth 4.0. The wireless reception seems to be middling at best; we were saddled with 3 out of 4 bars in most locations where our ThinkPads and Dells consistently turned in full-strength reception. This shouldn’t matter for everyday internet browsing, however, until you get to the fringes of your network.
Unlike the larger Pavilion 14 Chromebook we reviewed earlier, the Chromebook 11 doesn’t include an Ethernet port, but again, it’s of limited concern when you consider that the Pavilion 14’s was only 10/100 to begin with.
The Chromebook 11’s webcam is smaller than that of the 14, and as such, it’s merely VGA resolution (640x480). The quality is pretty poor, too, with a choppy frame rate and weak low light performance—and merely monaural audio.
Accessories and Warranty
The Chromebook 11 is packed with the 3.0 amp micro USB charger we mentioned earlier and not much else. In terms of warranty, you get standard 1-year limited coverage.
Though it’s had some time to season, Chrome OS is still a pretty bare experience—and that’s the most important thing to recognize going into a Chromebook purchase. On the flip side, it’s also really easy to dive in and get started on surfing the ‘net. Right from the beginning, you’re prompted to login to your Google account (think of it as a roaming Windows profile) to personalize the system for your use. Immediately, any Chrome bookmarks or extensions that you’ve installed in the Chrome browser on another system—provided you’ve logged in with your Google account on that system’s browser as well—are imported seamlessly to the Chromebook for seamless resumption of your work or play. You’ll also find your Google Drive files immediately accessible within the super-simplistic Files browser window.
All of the other Google apps are, of course, equally close to your fingertips. Gmail and YouTube both feature shortcuts at the bottom the screen along with all the other mainstays on what could be best described as Chrome OS’ taskbar. On the far right side of those icons is the “Apps” menu which displays a full listing of all programs currently installed. And just as in the past, in the lower-right corner, you’ll find quick access to the time, wireless, battery and power management, and account and machine settings. The Settings menu really is basic: it’s a mere page in the Chrome browser, and it lacks even the complexity of most modern smartphone settings menus. No matter how you feel about that, it’s always nice to have the option to tweak a setting if it’s driving you nuts—and that option doesn’t always exist on the Chromebook. Having said that, there is access to a much larger repository of information and some other settings by visiting chrome://about in the browser.
The biggest benefit of the Chromebook’s approach is that very little of your data is actually stored on the machine itself. In fact, the cloud storage philosophy is so deeply ingrained in Chrome OS that you are granted 100 GB of Google Drive space for two years upon registering your device and claiming the benefit within the first 60 days of ownership. After that point, you’ll have to pay to maintain that storage—but you’ll probably need it, as the Chromebook 11 itself only comes equipped with 16 GB of local storage. That’s enough for some documents and a small assortment of photos, but not much else. The biggest problem with this is that you must be online to accomplish almost anything on the Chromebook 11—a fact which is likely to turn off many business users and others who find themselves outside the scope of wireless networks on occasion.
That’s really all there is to the operating system. Keep in mind that while you can install apps from the Google Play store, there’s no way to run standard x86 Windows or Mac OS applications on a Chromebook. That’s also one way that Chromebooks are so much safer than other notebooks: everything is screened by Google before it hits your device. Overall, you’re trading complexity and versatility (lots of it) for simplicity and security, but it’s a more striking shift than you might expect. In short, this device very well may suffice for the most basic needs, but don’t expect it to replace a full-blown notebook in every possible way: it just won’t.
One area in which the HP Chromebook 11 has made serious strides over its Pavilion 14 Chromebook predecessor is that of the keyboard. Whereas the 14’s keyboard was cheap-feeling and inaccurate, with spongy feedback, shallow key travel, and awkward spacing, the 11 is quite the opposite. It’s still making use of a limited vertical space, so the travel remains shallow—but the feedback is crisp and the stroke is comfortable. The keys have a much more premium feel to them than that of the Pavilion 14 Chromebook, with a smooth, matte finish, and they lack the clattery sensation that’s characteristic of budget keyboards.
A few notable features of the keyboard set it apart from that of the usual notebook design. The CTRL and ALT keys on the left side are vastly oversized, stretching to fill the space where you’d normally see the Fn and Windows keys. Along the top row, the usual Function keys have been replaced with dedicated device control keys. You’ll find left/right/refresh browser keys, window management keys (maximize and task switching), brightness and audio control, and finally, in the far upper-right corner, the power button. This row of keys is about half the vertical height of the normal keys, which makes room for a comfortably sized keyboard and touchpad below it. It’s a very clean look and a smart use of space.
The Chromebook 11 features a clickpad from Atmel maxTouch, which seemed accurate and comfortable throughout our time with the unit. It’s also sufficiently large, easily spanning the width of the screen under typical pointer speed settings. The surface is matte and smooth and accommodating for finger gliding. The integrated buttons also seem to work well, though we still have trouble transitioning to the limited tap-to-click functionality in Chrome OS (you can’t tap and drag; that sort of functionality must be initiated by the buttons instead). This was the same complaint we logged with the Pavilion 14 Chromebook’s touchpad settings, and it’s due to the aforementioned lack of options available in Chrome OS. Meanwhile, two-finger scrolling worked great during our tests, though pinch-to-zoom is conspicuously missing. Overall, the touchpad works well enough not to be frustrating, and is better than many competing touchpads on budget notebooks.
While the Pavilion 14 Chromebook was pushing a larger display in an effort to compete with standard-sized notebooks, the Chromebook 11 ditches that effort once again in favor of a smaller 11-inch screen, which is more along the lines of a netbook. It’s a 1366x768 resolution panel, which normally would be nothing special, but thanks to the smaller size, it factors out to a decent 142 PPI. Plus, it’s an IPS panel, which should provide excellent viewing angles and solid color accuracy.
The panel’s average brightness is right on the money at 300 cd/m² (exactly what HP quotes). A brightness distribution of 86% means that no detectable illuminative variations are present. Meanwhile, the black value of 0.556 leads to a good contrast ratio of 578:1.
Color accuracy likely isn’t a major concern for buyers of the Chromebook 11, but it’s always nice to be able to view photo and video without it being too far off the mark. HP claims a 60% color gamut, which is fairly standard for a budget notebook. Fortunately, with a dE2000 ColorChecker average of 6.15 in CalMAN 5, things aren’t too dreary out of the box. The most inaccurate of all are blue and indigo, with orange just behind. The rest of the spectrum is fairly good, with most dE2000 measurements below 5. It’s difficult to detect any variation below a value of 5.
Outdoors, the glossy panel finish quickly becomes obstructive. In the shade, things are just fine, but with bright light sources around, the reflections quickly become a nuisance. Thankfully, the good brightness and contrast compensate somewhat for this deficiency and grant the machine some limited usability even in brighter situations. Finally, viewing angles are excellent, which is to be expected of an IPS display: no matter which angle from you approach the notebook, content is still visible on the screen, all the way up to the farthest extremes.
While the Chromebook 11 certainly looks and feels a lot better than its 14-inch counterpart, sacrifices had to be made to reach the $279 price point. Those sacrifices are evident as soon as you spend a little time with the system, as performance is notably hampered by the low-power, ARM-based chipset. Specifically, the Samsung Exynos 5250 SoC is the same CPU that was found in the Google Nexus 10 tablet last year, featuring two Cortex-A15 cores clocked at 1.7 GHz. In spite of the higher power consumption (and, consequently, higher performance) of the 5250 versus other ARM solutions, this setup pales in comparison to even the lowest end of Intel’s offerings (as found in many Ultraportables and Chromebooks, including the Pavilion 14 Chromebook). With a 32 nm manufacturing architecture and a max power consumption of between 4 and 8 W, though, efficiency is reasonable but not phenomenal.
Two DDR3-1600 MHz SODIMMs from Nanya Technology add up to a total of 2 GB of memory, which sounds constrained by today’s computing standards, but it’s actually not all that bad within Chrome OS due to the extremely low overhead of the operating system. We were able to launch several browser windows and a few other sparse applications simultaneously without any notable slowdown occurring that seemed attributable to physical memory constraints. Still, the Chromebook 11’s setup is nowhere near the Acer C720’s 4 GB of RAM and Intel (Haswell) Celeron 2955U CPU.
Video Playback Performance
As always, we tested 720p playback performance of Big Buck Bunny on YouTube. We were unable to test 1080p output with an external monitor due to the lack of an available SlimPort adapter. Big Buck Bunny is encoded using H.264/MPEG-4 AVC (Blu-ray) format, which is a very popular and common format. In spite of its low-powered processor, we found that playback on the Chromebook 11 was mostly smooth with only very occasional and minor hiccups. Other videos we tested using similar encoding methods and resolutions reaffirmed our findings.
The next benchmark is Futuremark Peacekeeper, which helps evaluate browser rendering and video playback performance. Here, the resulting score of 1069 is disappointing at best. Again, the Pavilion 14 Chromebook (1474) and Samsung 550C22-H01US (1601) are much better off, not to mention the Chromebook Pixel (3613), which smokes everybody else on the block.
The Chromebook 11 not only includes no cooling fans, but in fact, no moving parts at all. This, of course, means that it operates completely silently, with no annoying processor whine or other electrical noises present either. We did not complete noise level measurements for the system as there is nothing to measure in this category.
In spite of its passive cooling, the Chromebook 11 maintains reasonable temperatures under most circumstances. While idle, the highest temperatures we recorded on both the top and bottom of the base unit was around 38 degrees C. Add in some load (which includes any degree of hi-res video playback), however, and things become perceptibly warmer in those same regions (upper center and upper right of the unit on the top and bottom respectively) at 45 degrees C and 48.8 degrees C. During routine browsing, this rarely becomes an issue, but the heat can become annoying during extended video sessions if the notebook is resting on the lap.
The Chromebook 11 features two speakers located under the left and right sides of the keyboard firing upward. You wouldn’t expect it from appearances, but these speakers are actually quite loud and fairly well-balanced. The sound can easily fill a medium to large room, and even lower frequencies come through with unexpected significance. As the upper boundaries of the volume settings are pushed, so are the capabilities of the drivers to maintain a balanced output—but it’s nevertheless more than adequate for everyday multimedia ventures.
The Chromebook 11 includes a mere 30 Wh battery, but when paired with the ARM-based SoC, it should hopefully provide ample runtime under typical circumstances.
Although we can’t perform the usual battery tests thanks to the inability to run Battery Eater Pro on Chrome OS, we can still simulate the conditions of those tests using our own mechanisms. For the full load test (minimum runtime), we looped two 1080p videos side-by-side in independent windows and recorded the time it took for the Chromebook to shut down. We also disabled all screen dimming, timeouts, and sleep. Under these circumstances, the Chromebook 11 lasted for 3 hours and 26 minutes, which is good, though not all that surprising for an ARM-based device. Meanwhile, at approximately 150 cd/m² (brightness setting 11/16) with regular internet browsing, we recorded a total runtime of 5 hours and 8 minutes—around average for its class.
At $279 MSRP, only so much criticism can be levelled at the HP Chromebook 11. On one hand, it’s a well-built, attractive, seemingly durable device for the price point—but on the other hand, thanks to its simplified operating system and limited functionality (not to mention its low-powered chipset), it’s competing more in the tablet and (now defunct) netbook space than it is in the standard notebook market.
It’s that realization which limits the machine’s appeal. Although it features a good keyboard and touchpad, a bright IPS screen, and better-than-average build quality for its class, these conveniences are overshadowed by its inability to run standard x86 applications (thus leading to a limited selection of apps from the Google Play store), its unwillingness to function without an internet connection, and its comparatively slow performance (when pitted against other notebooks and Ultrabooks). Factor that in with the middling battery life and you have a machine which isn’t bad for the price, but which only partially bridges the gap between tablet and notebook and fails somewhat to incorporate the best of both worlds.
Stated another way, while the build quality, screen, and input devices are superior to that of most other Chromebooks, there are probably better choices out there than the Chromebook 11 for most intended uses. If you’re just browsing the internet, it’s hard to go wrong with a small tablet like the Google Nexus 7 or Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7, even though the Chromebook 11 does handle this task well enough. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for budget (and highly portable) productivity, subnotebooks running full-blown Windows (which is a lot more capable) exist for that purpose, such as the Acer Aspire V5-131—though most quality machines of this size are higher-priced (that’s the one true advantage the Chromebook 11 can claim). The truth is, if you’re seeking productivity, you’re probably better off sacrificing elsewhere, however, as Chrome OS is so limited currently. For the right user, the Chromebook 11 serves its purpose, but for everyone else, choose wisely.