James Cridland

Review: first impressions of an HP Chromebook 11

Back in October, Google were marketing their new, super-cheap, HP Chromebook 11 with an online competition. It was a relatively confusing competition, and they were giving away 1,000 of them — while also publishing the amount of entries in each category. So, I entered a few of the less-popular categories, and managed to get an email a week later telling me that I’d won one. After a significant delay over Christmas caused by a recalled power-supply, it arrived today (with a small voucher for Google Play to thank me for my patience). You can get one for £229 — a low price for a laptop.

It’s a low price because it runs the Chrome OS — which critics will tell you is simply a web browser.

My own circumstances are that I use Google products extensively for my business. I pay for Google Apps for Business; I have an Android phone and a few Android tablets; I subscribe to Google Play Music and even use Google Hangouts to make telephone calls. So, I’d be the perfect candidate for a Chromebook, you’d think. I also use a MacBook Air and a MacBook Pro as my main computers.

While this is a £229 machine, it feels more expensive. It’s apparently designed by Google and built by HP; and it feels solid and relatively expensive-feeling. The round-edged plastic case is shiny and seems to be attracting fingerprints already; but it’s lovely not having a sharp metal edge next to your wrists (and lovely not to have the coldness of metal, too). It feels very light; the screen is very clear (if shiny). Attempting to open the laptop, however, reveals the first design snafu — you appear to need nails to get the lid open: there’s no easy way to prise it apart from the base.

After a relatively event-free first-run, I was in. Chrome OS second-guessed a lot of things, and got pretty well everything right: only now have I realised that it didn’t bother asking me the time or date, as one example. (Why would it have needed to — it has the internet.) It did get confused by my habit of deliberately using English-US as an interface language within Google, rather than English-GB which gets features later than US English. It tried to set the language of this unit as English-US, therefore, which I didn’t want. But it was a pretty good guess.

Yes, you can tell this device is under-powered for what it does; but it copes with Google+ relatively well, and appears to scroll relatively smoothly. It’s no MacBook Air; but it isn’t noticeably less powerful, to be honest. The apparent lack of memory — it’s only got 2GB inside it — does mean that having lots of tabs open is a relatively bad idea; but I use The Great Suspender anyway, which hibernates tabs I’ve not used for a while, and which I’d recommend.

It appears to be a decent machine, it displays websites just as I would expect, the screen seems nice and large, it runs nice and fast, and as a little laptop to carry about it’s pretty good.

Things I don’t like much: the keyboard’s shortcuts are CTRL-based rather than ALT-based, which needs a little adjustment after using a Mac for so long. And the trackpad is a little odd — perhaps OSX has some kind of acceleration/deceleration thing which I’ve under-appreciated, or perhaps I’ve simply got it set too fast.

Things I like so far: the keyboard is lovely, and CTRL+ALT+/ gives you a really nicely-presented list of keyboard shortcuts. Having a micro-USB charger (a special, 3A one) is a genius idea for the traveller. The speakers, lurking under the keyboard apparently, are loud and clear. There’s a button for full-screen; and this mode retains little indicators to show you how many tabs you have open and other things. The synching with Chrome just works, and…well, there’s probably little else to say. It just works, and works well.

And perhaps that’s why some of the tech press have issues with Chromebooks. Once you’ve signed-in for the first time, there’s nothing different about the experience than running Chrome on your other laptop. I’m reduced to discussing the tiny changes between this and an OSX machine; and the design decisions that have been made.

The only time I’ve come across an issue is when trying to upload some MP3s to Google Play Music, only to discover that I can’t. Chromebooks are unsupported (the service uses a downloadable program on Windows/Mac/Linux which does some re-sampling and fingerprinting). That’s an oversight, and given that a Google Play Music app exists for Linux anyway, I can’t feel it’ll be too long before it appears. You can, however, play MP3s that you download.

Would I recommend one of these? Yes, if you use Google for everything — unreservedly. And yes, if this is for a user like a child or a grandmother who only needs the web. (No if they need Skype; but Google’s own Hangouts appears to work just as well). The jury’s out as to whether it’ll be a bit too restrictive for me, since on a laptop I’d want to (for example) edit code and have an SSH connection into a remote machine; we’ll see whether I try to use it as I would a ‘proper’ computer.