HP Chromebook 11 review: Affordable style for life in the cloud

Google's latest Chromebook brings a fresh look to the Chrome OS universe -- and for $279, the laptop has some interesting things to offer.

Google's Chrome OS -- and, by extension, its Chromebooks -- sure have come a long way.

When Chrome OS first came into the world three short years ago, it was a bare-bones platform that could hardly qualify as a real operating system. The first Chrome OS computer, the beta-tester Cr-48 notebook, was a clunky utilitarian machine. The first commercial Chromebook -- the Samsung Series 5 -- was better, but still a far cry from anything you'd describe as a refined piece of technology.

Fast-forward to today: Chrome OS itself has grown into a polished and mature cloud-centric OS that offers a unique set of benefits compared to a more traditional computing setup. And last Tuesday, Google announced the HP Chromebook 11, a sleek-looking $279 laptop that appears to be the company's new flagship entry-level system.

So is the HP Chromebook 11 the right computer for you? I've been spending some time getting to know the new laptop this week. Here are some thoughts on what it's like to use.

Body and design

While it's clearly not a high-end computer, the HP Chromebook 11 works hard to bring design and style into the Chrome OS universe. The laptop has a clean and modern look, with a glossy white plastic finish complemented by your choice of blue, green, yellow or red accents, which appear around the keyboard and in two pads on the bottom of the device.

The HP Chromebook 11 has a clean and modern look, with a glossy white plastic finish complemented by your choice of blue, green, yellow or red accents

The glossy white look isn't going to appeal to everyone's tastes -- it doesn't exactly give off a premium vibe. But then again, the Chromebook 11 isn't meant to be a premium product. The look does bring to mind the appearance of Apple's classic white MacBook, however, and the accents, clean lines and lack of in-your-face branding -- or any visible screws or vents -- creates an attractive all-around computer most folks would be proud to pull out of a bag.

(The Chromebook 11 is also available in an accent-free black design, if that's your cup of tea.)

Taking a cue from the high-end Chromebook Pixel -- the $1,300 luxury Chrome OS laptop that Google released earlier this year -- the Chromebook 11 has a four-color Googley-looking light bar on its top that glows with different colors based on the laptop's status and activity. That's the only marking on the computer's upper cover -- no logos, no HP name, nothing else. Google's influence on the design is apparent in that regard; as with the Nexus Android devices, the computer feels more like a Google device built by HP than a regular HP product.

The minimalist approach continues around the Chromebook's sides: The right and front are smooth and barren, while the left houses a 3.5mm headphone jack, two USB 2.0 (not 3.0) ports and a micro-USB charging port. The last item there is particularly significant, as that's the same type of port used on nearly all Android phones and tablets; as you can imagine, having that standard in place on a laptop could save you a lot of hassle when it comes to keeping your gadgets juiced up at home or on the road.

I tested the included Chromebook micro-USB charger with a few different phones and tablets, and it worked A-OK for charging those. The reverse works, too, with a caveat: If you plug a regular phone charger into the Chromebook 11 while the computer's off, it'll charge it slowly. If you plug it in while the Chromebook's running, though, you'll get a warning that a low-power charger may not be able to keep up with the computer's consumption. Given the low output capacity of a typical phone charger, that's not surprising.

Like some recent Android devices, the Chromebook 11's micro-USB charger doubles as an HDMI out-port; you'll need a SlimPort adapter, available at Amazon and most electronics retailers for around $15, in order to make that type of connection.

The HP Chromebook 11's micro-USB charging port is the same type of port used on nearly all Android phones and tablets.

Conspicuously missing from the setup is any sort of memory card slot; if you want to use an SD card with this computer, you'll need to get a USB-based card reader -- many of which are available for under 10 bucks -- to get the job done.

The HP Chromebook 11 is quite light -- just 2.3 lb. -- making it easy to carry around and comfortable to have sitting on your lap. It's svelte, too, measuring 11.7 x 7.6 in. and 0.69 in. thick. Even with its slim form and plastic casing, the Chromebook 11 feels solid and sturdy, thanks presumably to the metal reinforcements built into its body.

Display and keyboard

The display on the Chromebook 11 is a massive leap forward from the screens on past entry-level Chrome OS devices. The resolution itself is a modest-sounding 1366 x 768 -- the same as on last year's $249 Samsung Chromebook -- but the Chromebook 11 packs a new IPS LCD panel instead of the lower-quality TN panels used in the past.

As a result, the 11.6-in. glossy screen is bright and crisp, with rich colors and deep blacks. Factor in its 176-degree viewing angle, and you're really looking at an immeasurable improvement over previous entry-level models.

The screen pales in comparison to the best-in-class 2560 x 1700 touch-enabled display of the Chromebook Pixel, of course -- but we're talking about a $279 laptop compared to a $1,300 laptop. A luxury like the Pixel's 239-pixel-per-inch centerpiece comes at a price, but in and of itself, the Chromebook 11's display looks quite good.

HP's Chromebook uses the standard full-sized chiclet-style Chrome OS keyboard, which replaces the top row of function keys with Chrome OS-specific keys and the Caps Lock key with a universal search button. (If you really miss having Caps Lock, you can remap the button back to that function in the system settings.)

I've found the keyboard to be very pleasant to type on; keys are well-spaced and responsive, and have just the right amount of give. The keyboard feels noticeably improved from the Samsung Chromebook, with higher quality keys and better resistance. It's not at the same level of the Pixel -- nor is it backlit like the Pixel's keyboard -- but again, it's all relative.

The surface area around the keyboard is smooth and free from any sharp edges, so it's perfectly comfortable for wrists. A matte plastic trackpad sits immediately beneath the keys; it's highly accurate and supports a variety of one-, two- and three-finger gestures for moving the cursor, scrolling and so forth. Like on other Chromebooks, the trackpad itself is one giant button: You press it with one finger for a left-click and two fingers for a right-click.

The border around the laptop's screen holds an understated plain-text Chrome logo on the bottom and a VGA camera on the top. The camera's nothing special, but it's good enough for casual video chatting (or even the occasional selfie, if that's your thing).

So what's missing from this picture? Speakers -- and there's a reason: You can't see 'em. Following the lead of the Pixel, the Chromebook 11's speakers live beneath the keyboard, so sound actually seems to come from everywhere rather than from any single grille.

The Chromebook's audio quality is impressive: Music played from the device is loud and clear, so much that you could easily use the device to listen to tunes in your house or outdoors without the need for an external speaker. Things aren't quite as full-sounding as what you'd hear with a dedicated speaker (or what you'd get on the Pixel), but for casual rockin' out and chillaxin', it should more than satisfy your aural desires.

Performance, storage and networking

Under its hood, the Chromebook 11 is strikingly similar to last year's Samsung Chromebook: The computer runs on an ARM-based dual-core Samsung Exynos 5250 processor along with 2GB of RAM.

Not surprisingly, then, its performance is pretty much in line with its previous-generation counterpart -- which is to say the system does respectably well, up to a certain point. This isn't going to be the fastest computer you've ever used, and if you're a hardcore power user, it probably won't have enough horsepower to keep up with your needs.

For light to moderate usage, though, the Chromebook 11 performs admirably. It powers up in a mere 10 seconds and, once you've signed in, has you online and ready to roll a few seconds later. Even with several tabs and windows open, it hums along effortlessly and does what you need it to do.

Like I said, though, there is a limit. It's one most typical users won't ever encounter, but if you're a freak-geek like me and sometimes end up working with more than 20 tabs open -- especially ones with resource-intensive services like Google+ or online image editors -- the Chromebook 11 may start to struggle. For those sorts of usage scenarios, you really need a higher-powered system.

But those are uncommon extremes, and even with a fair amount of stuff running, the Chromebook 11 holds its own. As I'm writing this review, for instance, I have 20 tabs open across five different windows. Even with that above-average workload, the system is doing fine: Each window is performing well, and switching tabs is snappy and lag-free. If I refresh a page or open a new tab at this point, things start to take a little longer to load than they should -- the signs of my hitting that upper limit I've been discussing.

The Chromebook 11 never sounds like it's working hard, though: With its fan-free processor and solid state drive, the machine is completely silent the entire time you use it. The bottom of the laptop gets ever-so-slightly warm when it's running, but it's barely noticeable -- far less than the heat you feel from many laptops (Pixel included).

HP's Chromebook is listed for "up to six hours of active use," which has been more or less in line with what I've experienced. I've actually managed to squeeze a little more use-time out of the system -- even with nonstop multitasking-heavy use -- but it's remained well within the six- to seven-hour realm.

In terms of networking, the Chromebook 11 supports dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0. An LTE-connected model of the computer is expected to become available at some point soon; specific launch and pricing details for that system have yet to be released.

The Chromebook 11 has 16GB of onboard storage. It also includes 100GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage for two years -- an upgrade that'd set you back nearly $120 if you paid for it outright. After the two years elapse, any files you've stored utilizing that space will remain in your account and accessible; you'll just lose any unused space from the allotment unless you choose to renew the subscription.

In addition to the Drive space, the Chromebook 11 comes with 12 free sessions of GoGo Inflight Internet service and a 60-day subscription to Google Play Music All Access, Google's on-demand song streaming service.

The software

Chrome OS is a very different kind of computing experience than what you get with a Mac or Windows PC, as the platform is cloud-centric and revolves around Web-based services and applications instead of traditional local programs.

That means instead of using Microsoft Office, you use Office 365 or Google Docs (or the native document- and spreadsheet-editing now built into the OS). Instead of Photoshop, you use a cloud-based image editor like Pixlr. With the advent of a category of programs called packaged apps, there's a huge variety of applications that run in the browser but look and act like regular programs, too. It's an atypical model, and it comes with some interesting pros and cons.

Because of the platform's cloud-centric nature, all of your apps, settings and data are always synced and consistent across devices. You don't have to deal with bloated software, messy drivers or cumbersome software upgrades; everything just works, and all of your software -- including the OS itself -- is updated automatically and silently over time.

The setup also negates the need for virus protection, as the very architecture of Chrome OS makes such precautions unnecessary. The cloud-based model also allows Chromebooks to get faster over time instead of growing increasingly bogged down and poky as traditional computers tend to do.

At a Glance

HP Chromebook 11

HPPrice: $279Pros: Clean, modern design; great display; outstanding keyboard; excellent speakers; silent operation; uses micro-USB charging portCons: Not designed for power-user-level performance; lacks USB 3.0; lacks native microSD card support; limited local storage

And contrary to what you may have heard in the past, Chrome OS is quite capable without an active Internet connection; you can browse through the scores of offline-ready apps in Google's Chrome Web Store to see for yourself. There's really very little you can't do offline on a Chromebook these days.

All considered, Chrome OS certainly isn't for everyone -- if you rely on specific local programs for your work or don't care for the idea of cloud storage, a Chromebook probably won't be the right fit for you -- but if you already live mainly on the Web, the platform can be a refreshing change that provides the experience you want while eliminating many of the hassles traditional computing requires.

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