Hands on: What a $149 Chromebook is actually like to use

How good of a Chrome OS experience can $149 really get you? Time to find out.

Hisense Chromebook

How much would you pay for a Chromebook?

If you're more of a power user (and let's face it, if you're reading this, there's a decent chance that you are), you might be willing to pay a little extra in order to get a nicer and/or more powerful system. If cost is a concern, though -- or if you're looking at buying Chromebooks for kids or even in bulk for schools -- the prospect of an entry-level laptop at $149 might be just the ticket.

Even if you're not in the market for such a system, it's interesting to see what kind of Chrome OS experience $149 can buy.

That's why I decided to take a little time to check out one of the two new $149 Chromebooks Google just started promoting. Well, that's part of the reason, at least. The other part is that these low-cost systems have identical internals to a neat-looking convertible touchscreen Chromebook coming out later this year -- the $249 Asus Chromebook Flip -- and I wanted to get an early idea of what kind of performance we could expect from that device.

The $149 Chromebooks are made by Haier and Hisense, two companies you've probably never heard of until now (it's okay -- I hadn't, either). They're being sold exclusively at Walmart and Amazon, respectively, and they're pretty similar -- the same basic specs, though the Haier model is a bit smaller and lighter and promises 10 hours of battery life compared to the Hisense's 8.5. The Hisense, meanwhile, has some extra design flourishes like an actual metal wrist-rest alongside its keyboard.

I've been using the Hisense -- and in the simplest possible terms, it's okay. It's serviceable but not spectacular. But let's remember that it's also a $149 computer. When you consider it within those parameters, things take on a very different color.

Hisense Chromebook Exterior

In terms of materials and build quality, the Hisense Chromebook isn't terribly far removed from entry-level systems by the likes of Samsung, Acer, and Asus. It's plastic, though actually less flimsy-feeling than what I've seen on many of the more expensive lower-end models. The metal wrist-rest also provides a welcome touch of class and makes the laptop seem extra sturdy.

The 11.6-in. TN display is pretty standard fare for this class of Chromebook, meanwhile -- grainy and washed out, not great viewing angles, but good enough for basic browsing and document work. And the keyboard's similarly okay -- the typical Chrome OS layout and chiclet-style keys, though on the cheaper end of the spectrum in terms of quality (and also a bit cramped, due to the device's size).

Hisense Chromebook Keyboard

My only real complaint is that when I'm typing, the system periodically loses letters -- so if I type "hello," it might come out as "hllo," for instance. That's obviously a serious problem. Or a srius problm, as the Hisense Chromebook might put it. I'm not sure if it's a quality issue with the keyboard itself or something related to performance and the computer not being able to keep up (if I slow my typing down to a peck-like pace, things work consistently fine) -- but either way, it's not good.

Speaking of performance, the Hisense Chromebook runs on a Rockchip 3288 ARM processor (yes, that's an actual thing) along with 2GB of RAM. As I mentioned, that's the same setup that'll be in Asus's upcoming Chromebook Flip, though that device will also come in an optional 4GB RAM configuration.

And you know what? Aside from the weird occasional dropped-letters thing, it's actually not half-bad. The system is by no means a speed demon, and it's not as snappy or as capable as most of the higher-end Intel-based Chromebooks we've seen come out over the past several months, but it's also not awful. If you're doing pretty basic stuff -- browsing the Web, sending emails, and so forth -- and keeping only one or two tabs open at a time, it's good enough to get the job done.

If you start having more than a few tabs open at a time, you'll definitely feel the Rockwell's limitations. The system remains usable even with several tabs running, but it does get a little sluggish. Still, it's not nearly as bad as what we used to see with the older ARM Chromebooks, like the original HP Chromebook 11. An extra 2GB of RAM could probably go a long way in making this setup sufficient even for more demanding users.

As it stands, it's an impressive offering for $149 (again, aside from the dropped letters issue -- no matter how inexpensive it is, that's hard to get past). "Good enough" is the key phrase here, as you may have noticed throughout this story, and that's about what you should expect at this price point. You can certainly get a much better experience in terms of performance and hardware quality if you're willing to drop an extra hundred or two, but this system isn't intended for people who are looking to spend extra money.

If the keyboard issue can be resolved, this $149 Chromebook could be a perfect solution for folks who need a simple, inexpensive, and easily replaceable vessel for getting online and getting stuff done. And its performance makes me optimistic to see what kind of experience Asus's convertible touchscreen Chromebook will be able to deliver.

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