The Google Chromebook is an interesting experience and proposition. For your money you get a browser-based operating system that is easy to use, but limited by the fact that you need to be online to really be able to use it to its full potential. Despite the problems that might present, that hasn't stopped laptop manufacturers releasing Chromebook laptops every 12 months for people to snap up.
The latest is HP, that, in partnership with Google, has created the HP Chromebook 11 - the smallest Chromebook yet. It's a "made with Google" device that promises an affordable experience for those that aren’t willing to stump up the £1000 plus price for the Chromebook Pixel, or who aren't interested in the existing affordable - yet larger screen - offerings from HP going it alone, Acer and Samsung.
But does this small scale offering bring anything new to the Chromebook party; a party that, insofar we've been unfussed about. Is the HP Chromebook the one to change all that?
MacBook white is back
The HP Chromebook 11 is white. Glossy gloss white. It's like an Apple MacBook from yesteryear kind of white, which is both appealing and somewhat retro at the same time. You can get it in a piano black if you are looking for something a little more sedate, but the white looks good to our eyes, even if it does attract dirt and dust like a magnet.
In the UK the plastic white finish is accentuated by blue trim around the chiclet keyboard and two blue bars underneath that act as feet to sturdy the laptop on the desk. In the US Google and HP are offering a further three colour options including red, but in the UK blue is all that is available.
The only other colour that distracts from the white casing is a coloured strip on the lid that lights up when the laptop is on. It's cute, subtle, and simple - but looks good.
Although covered in plastic the device is decidedly firm and strong. That's mainly because of the magnesium frame that holds it all together and stops it flexing as you would perhaps expect at first glance. There are no vents, screws, seams, or any distractions to the design and that certainly helps keep things clean and simple.
The ports on offer that run down the left hand side of the unit include a headphones jack, two USB 2.0 sockets, and a micro USB socket for charging. The micro USB port also supports HDMI, VGA, and DisplayPort video output via the SlimPort standard. However, there is no SD card slot.
In terms of physical size and weight, the HP Chromebook 11 measures 297 x 192 x 17.6mm and weighs the tiniest bit over a kilo. It's smaller than a sheet of A4 paper when viewed top-down.
You here for the screening?
Open the Chromebook 11 up and you are presented with an 11.6-inch IPS display that delivers a 1366 × 768 resolution.
Unlike previous budget Chromebook offerings the HP screen has been vastly improved and that means that you get a good range of colour reproduction. Blacks look black, colours are strong, and viewed straight on, everything is very vibrant. That's all helped by the 300-nit brightness and wide 176-degree viewing angle of the screen, although you do have to contend with a glossy display that might cause you problems in bright environments or if you've got lots of overhead lighting.
On the whole the performance of the screen is very good whether you are typing into Google Docs or surfing the web. The screen isn't going to be the bit that disappoints you, and it so often was with Chromebooks before it.
Typing and scrolling
One of the most important aspects of a laptop is the keyboard and trackpad and the good news here is that the Chromebook 11's is good enough in both respects. The chiclet keyboard, now seemingly a default option for most keyboard-touting smaller scale devices, is well built, comfortable to use, and everything is laid out as you would expect. There is no Caps Lock button which can take some getting used to; it's replaced by a dedicated search key, and there is a dedicated hash key for social media types that like their hashtags a little too much.
Along the top are shortcut keys that allow you to quickly go full screen, or jump to the next app that you've got open, as well adjust music volume, screen brightness and refresh the page when needed.
The trackpad is responsive too and fairly accurate, depending on the speed of your movement you can get around the screen without having to lift your finger off the trackpad. Chrome OS does support some two finger gestures like scrolling and contextual menu - nothing rude, now - but not gestures as Apple OS X or Microsoft Windows know.
Powerful or weak?
Because Chrome OS is essentially an operating system based in a browser world you don't need much power to do stuff. Or that's the theory at least. Here HP has opted for the Samsung-made 1.7Ghz Exynos 5250 processor rather than something from Intel and 2GB of RAM to help.
While some of the performance will also rely on your web connection, the Chromebook 11 feels sluggish at times - especially if you've got multiple tabs and browser windows open. We found running its below par VGA webcam had a huge impact on the Chromebook's ability to do anything else punctually. Everything grinds to a halt; you'll see your words slowly appear on the screen when you need to type something. It's embarrassing.
The processing power is almost half what is available with the £30 cheaper Acer C720 Chromebook, and while we've not had one in for review yet, we have to question why the price is so close for a machine that is inferior in terms of sheer power.
Other tech specs include a 16GB SSD for storage - which isn't expandable - and WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4 connectivity. The storage option is solved by the unit coming with a 100GB Google Drive cloud storage (for two years) and that should be enough for documents. And with streaming music services like Spotify and Amazon Cloud player you don't need to store things locally as much as you once did.
It would have been nice to see support for 802.11 ac wireless, but we suspect hitting that target price point was more important. Still, for a machine that's all about online it's a shame it's not here.
Audio is handled by speakers under the keyboard. They're loud, but rather tinny. Put simply, they are good enough so you don't sit in silence, but we wouldn't recommend them for actually listening to music throughout the day.
Battery power and charging
In an interesting move, Google has opted to have the Chromebook 11 charge via micro USB rather than a standard power pack. At first we thought that was a great idea, as if you think you are always going to forget the dedicated charger then, in theory, you can pinch any old USB charger you have, or a friend's.
It turns out that's not the case however, as the charger you use has to be beefy enough to power the laptop. In the office we found that some worked and some others didn't. Even then, when you do use the charger supplied in the box it's slow going. The Chromebook 11 took almost 5 hours to charge while we used it and still 4 hours when we left it to do its thing.
The Chromebook remains a strange kettle of fish. Whether you'll warm to it mostly relies on whether or not you think Chrome OS is a good or bad idea. Clearly to make the most of the operating system you have to be online, although you can now use Chrome OS offline in some cases too just to quieten those naysayers.
That said, we are still confused as to why you would opt for the Chromebook 11 over the Acer C720 Chromebook, or something like a Nexus 7 tablet with Bluetooth keyboard. The Nexus 7, also from Google, has a better screen, all the same Google features, a tablet form factor when you aren't working on the keys, a better battery life, a quicker charge, and a better array of apps.
The Chromebook 11 looks good, but poor performance and cheaper yet more advanced alternatives have us struggling to recommend this over other products on the market. The Chromebook is getting better, but it's still a long way from being a worthwhile investment as far as we're concerned.