HP Chromebook 11: Google gives the low end some much-needed luster

The HP Chromebook 11 could have been just another low-cost container for Google's browser-based OS. But Google stepped in to make it special--and maybe even spare it the mockery of PC snobs who can't wrap their heads around the  Chromebook concept.

Realistically, you can't expect much from any sub-$300 machine, and most Chromebooks reside in this underwhelming hardware space. Nonetheless, Google's 2012 partnership with Samsung on the Chromebook 3 proved that a manufacturer could do a good job with low-level components, and then Google itself pulled out all the stops a few months later with the launch of the gorgeous Chromebook Pixel. If nothing else, the Pixel, replete with a beautiful touchscreen and elegant industrial design, sparked a heated (and slightly bizarre) debate about whether the Chrome ecosystem deserved a machine so high-end.

And now we have HP's Chromebook 11, a laptop that attempts to add some industrial design finesse to the low end of the Chromebook space.

Not new, but better designed

The Chromebook 11 offers none of the premium specs and design of the Pixel, and in terms of raw performance it's not even better than Samsung's Chromebook 3. Nevertheless, it shows that Google is committed to setting standards for Chrome hardware, and that it can deliver a high-quality experience at both premium and everyday prices.

Purely as a machine, the Chromebook 11 breaks no new ground. It uses an Exynos 5250 ARM processor, and has 2GB of RAM and 16GB of onboard SSD storage. In our lab tests, its browser-based benchmark performance was competitive with the Samsung Chromebook 3, running neck-and-neck in Sunspider (with a score of 662.4ms), and just a wee bit behind in Peacekeeper (with a score of 1121).

Google also throws in 100GB of Google Drive cloud storage for two years (make sure you have a plan for when the deadline hits). Even better, you get 12 free sessions of GoGo Inflight Internet for those cross-country airplane trips.

The notebook's spare profile lacks speaker and ventilation grilles. All you'll find are two USB 2.0 ports (which left me wistful for USB 3.0), a headphone jack, and a micro USB port for the AC adapter. The system also comes with 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Somewhat tinny audio emanates from the keyboard area, which commendably lacks any shrunken or squished keys to interfere with your typing like the Acer C710 Chromebook might. The travel on the keys is a little short for my taste, and I dislike the hard-plastic buttons. Still, no other low-end Chromebook I've tried has been any better in this regard (and oftentimes Chromebook keyboards are noticeably worse).

I like the lightly textured clickpad better than the nubby touchpad on the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook, which launched earlier this year. Its responsiveness varied from perfect (during one-finger cursor navigation) to frustratingly inconsistent (during two-finger scrolling).

The 11.6-inch IPS display has a resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels and a wide, 176-degree viewing angle. At a little more than 10 inches wide and about 5.75 inches tall, the screen is more letterbox-shaped than rectangular, which keeps the Chromebook 11 compact but restricts what you can see in long documents and Web pages. As for video, I streamed the HD version of  Pacific Rim on the display, and noticed occasional hiccups and blurry video compression, but nothing unexpected from a low-end machine.

Google says the laptop's 30Wh battery will last six hours. Other reviews have indicated something closer to four or five hours. We're still running our tests and will update the story with our results.

A more colorful experience

Relative to other entry-level Chromebooks, the $280 Chromebook 11 has a much more distinctive design. It's extremely compact and light, weighing just 2.3 pounds and measuring a mere half-inch thick. It comes in shiny white with blue, red, yellow, or green color accents. The colors are bright, but are used sparingly around the periphery of the keyboard and on the bottom of chassis. Given this attention to detail, I was surprised that the bezel around the display wasn't colored, but rather a generic charcoal on all models.

Of course, caring about laptop colors is completely superficial, and has nothing to do with performance and usability. And yet it matters. Think of the cheap-chic product lines that bring high-end designer names to stores like Target and H&M. These are products that even struggling students can buy with excitement rather than resignation.

The Chromebook 11 also comes in a shiny "piano black." This version looks boring and safe next to its flamboyant cousin, but it doesn't run the risk of looking schmutzy all the time. Granted, I haven't spent enough time with the white Chromebook 11 for it to get truly dirty, but within just a few days of use, it was visibly collecting lint.

Even though the HP Chromebook 11 is completely different from the high-end Pixel, it gets the same rating because it achieves the same mission. It advances Google's Chrome OS platform not with what it does, but how it does it. It exudes style and even a bit of unapologetic Chromebook pride. HP says the Chromebook 11 will ship on October 16. I expect that the white ones will sell better, and a canny retailer will bundle a microfiber cleaning cloth with each one.


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