The HP Chromebook 11 is an affordable laptop that’s easy to tuck in your bag. It has an 11.6 inch display, weighs just 2.3 pounds, boots in seconds and resumes from sleep nearly instantly, making it both easy to use at a moment’s notice and easy to use on the go.
But this little $280 laptop isn’t for everyone. First, it runs Google’s Chrome OS, which is an operating system designed around a web browser. You kind of have to buy into Google’s vision that the browser can be the most important app on your computer, and that there are benefits in running web apps rather than native desktop apps for most activities.
Second, the HP Chromebook isn’t as powerful as some other Chrome OS laptops, doesn’t have as many ports or expansion options, and feels like something that could have been released a year ago. In fact, the spec sheet is remarkably similar to last year’s Samsung Series 3 Chromebook — both laptops have the same Samsung Exynos 5 dual-core processor and both have 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage.
The good news is that the HP Chromebook 11 has a much better looking display and better speakers. The bad news is it lacks an SD card slot, video out port, gets less battery life, and costs more than Samsung’s year-old $249 Chromebook.
Google loaned me an HP Chromebook 11 for the purposes of this review.
So is the HP Chromebook 11 worth your $280? That depends what you plan to do with it. For more details, check out or video review or read on.
Chrome OS is a Linux-based operating system that puts the web browser front and center. There’s a file manager, image viewer, and media player built into the operating system, which allow you to perform a few actions when your Chromebook is offline. B
ut Chrome OS is based on the idea that the internet is the killer app, and rather than simply use a browser on a Windows, Mac, or Linux computer, Google built an operating system that puts as little as possible between you and the web.
Over the past few years web apps have become more and more like desktop apps, letting you make video calls, edit documents, and perform many other tasks from a browser window.
Google has also been adding features to Chrome and Chrome OS that let developers build apps that function a lot more like native apps, taking advantage of your device’s hardware including the camera or sensors, for instance.
But just because Chrome OS is based on Chrome doesn’t mean that using it is exactly the same as using Google’s web browser on a PC.
A funny thing happens when you start using web apps for pretty much everything. You never have to update those apps — they stay up to date automatically, and as soon as there’s a new version on the server, you can use the new software. And you never even have to manually backup your files or settings. They’re saved online, which means they’re accessible on any machine with a web browser.
If your chromebook is lost or stolen, you can just login with your account details on another machine and pick up exactly where you left off.
When Chrome OS first hit the streets a few years ago, it really was little more than a full-screen browser. Now you can resize and move windows, view and dismiss notifications, set a desktop wallpaper, and much more.
It feels like a real operating system — just one that’s more web-centric than Windows or OS X. But if you spend more time using Facebook and Gmail everyday than you do Photoshop, Final Cut, or Excel, you might already be living in a web-centric world.
Chrome OS is also relatively secure, since web apps are sandboxed from the core operating system. It’s virtually impossible to download and install malware on a machine running Chrome OS.
Some folks will take issue with the idea that a machine running Google software is “secure” since your data is constantly being shared with Google’s servers when you use Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Play Music, and other services. But if you fall into that camp, I suspect you’re not going to buy a Chromebook anyway… unless you plan to replace the operating system with Ubuntu or another operating system.
It’s actually relatively easy to do that. Like all Chromebooks, you can enter developer mode on the HP Chromebook 11. There’s no physical developer switch, but you can enable developer mode by holding the Esc and Refresh keys while pressing the power button to turn on the device to enter recovery mode and then hitting Ctrl + D to start developer mode. From there you can open a terminal window and make changes to the system.
The easiest way to install Ubuntu is probably to use Crouton, a script which loads it and lets you run it side-by-side with Chrome OS, switching between the environments on the fly without even rebooting.
But if you stick with Chrome, you might be surprised just how many things you can do with a laptop that runs web apps. Want to watch videos? There’s Netflix, YouTube, and a thousand other online video sites.
For music, try Google Play Music which not only lets you purchase songs or pay for a music-on-demand susbcription, but also upload as many as 20,000 of your own tracks to stream anywhere for free. Or you could stream internet radio stations from TuneIn or create your own with Pandora.
Need to edit documents? Google Drive, Zoho Docs, or Microsoft Office Web Apps will probably do the trick for most folks (although some more advanced functions may not be available).
Want to play games? You can run Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Bejeweled, or thousands of other web games, including some that can use hardware graphics acceleration or save data to your device so you can play even when you don’t have an internet connection.
The Chrome Web Store is full of games, productivity apps, educational apps, news apps, and many other categories of apps. And if you’re worried about your chromebook turning into a useless lump of plastic when you don’t have an internet connection handy, there’s also a collection of apps that work offline.
HP’s Chromebook 11 is the second Chrome OS laptop to feature an ARM-based processor. It has a 1.7 GHz Samsung Exynos 5250 dual-core ARM Cortex-A15 with ARM Mali-T604 quad-core graphics.
That’s a low-power chip more often found in tablets than in laptops — but Chrome OS is designed to run on x86 or ARM-based chips. We’ve seen chromebooks with Intel Atom, Celeron, and Core i5 chips as well as ARM-based processors. While those Intel-powered models tend to be a bit faster, there are a few advantages to using a Chromebook with an ARM-based chip.
Samsung’s processor, for instance, is far more energy efficient than most Intel chips — and that means it generates less heat, allowing HP to deliver a notebook that’s just 0.7 inches thick and which doesn’t have any fans. That means it’s quieter than a typical notebook and it runs pretty cool — while the bottom does get a bit warm after extended use, you won’t ever feel a blast of hot air coming from the HP Chromebook 11.
The notebook features an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel IPS display with 300 nits. It’s relatively bright for a laptop screen, and while it’s a glossy display you probably won’t notice a lot of glare if you crank up the brightness all the way (unless you’re using the notebook outside or near a window on sunny day).
Thanks to the IPS display, the viewing angles are pretty good. You can tilt the screen back or view the chromebook from the side without worrying about pictures or videos starting to look like photo negatives — a problem that plagued last year’s Samsung Series 3 Chromebook (and many other laptops).
It’s a good thing the laptop has a decent display, because it’s the only display you’re going to use. There’s no VGA or HDMI port on the HP Chromebook 11, but you can use a SlimPort adapter with the microUSB port to connect an external display.
There’s no Ethernet jack either, but you can connect a USB to Ethernet adapter if you really need to connect to a wired network.
There’s also no SD card slot, which means you’d best be happy with the 16GB of storage that’s included.
If you’re sold on Google’s idea of living your life in the cloud, you probably don’t need a lot of extra storage on the device — but SD cards aren’t just good for expanding your storage capacity. Without one, it’s tough to treat this laptop as a larger display for photos you snap on your digital camera, for instance. And if you want to load up a few videos to watch on your next airplane trip you’ll have to do download them from the internet or load them on a USB flash drive.
The HP Chromebook 11 features 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless connectivity.
There are 2 USB ports and a headset jack along the left side of the laptop. That’s where you’ll also find one of the most unusual characteristics of the HP Chromebook 11 — the charging port. While most laptops use a power brick and a proprietary charging port, HP’s little Chromebook has a microUSB port.
HP ships the laptop with a small power adapter that looks like something you’d use to charge a smartphone or tablet rather than a laptop. In fact, you should be able to use just about any smartphone adapter to charge the chromebook, assuming it’s a 5.25V microUSB charger. If you’re using a lower-power adapter, it may not provide enough juice to charge your chromebook while you’re using it, but it should be able to (slowly) charge the laptop while it’s powered off.
Note that you probably won’t get enough power if you try connecting the chromebook to a PC with a USB cable though.
Google’s Chrome chief Sundar Pichai says HP worked closely with the team at Google who designed the Chromebook Pixel. That’s Google’s $1299 Chrome OS laptop with a high-resolution touchscreen display, a backlit keyboard, and other premium features including an Intel Core i5 processor.
Does that mean that HP’s $280 laptop is just as good as Google’s showcase device which costs more than four times as much? Not by a long shot. But I can see where HP took a few design cues from Google.
The HP Chromebook Pixel’s bright IPS display for instance, may not be as large or have the clarity of the Chromebook Pixel screen. But the brightness, viewing angles, and color clarity are better than you might expect from a laptop in this price range. It would have been nice if HP had provided an optional touch panel for a higher price though — after using the Chromebook Pixel for a few weeks earlier this year, I repeatedly found myself wanting to reach out and touch the screen on HP’s cheaper notebook.
HP also followed Google’s cues in speaker placement: the Chromebook 11 has speakers hidden below the keyboard and facing upward. They produce audio that’s both loud and clear, and which isn’t muffled when the notebook is sitting on your lap or on a desk. This really shouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s something many laptop makers get wrong.
Audio is still rather tinny, as you’d expect from cheap laptop speakers. But music and videos sound good enough that you might not feel the need to plug in speakers or headphones for casual use. When I was streaming talk radio from the internet, the audio quality was pretty great. Music didn’t sound nearly as good since the speakers don’t offer much bass.
There’s one more element that’s sort of taken from the Chromebook Pixel, but it’s really just kind of a sad echo. The Pixel has a four-color LED on the lid that lights up when you turn on the laptop. You can also make the lights act independently to perform little light shows by pressing a special key combo (the Konami Code).
The HP Chromebook 11 has a 4-color piece of plastic on the lid.
If you cup your hand over it or turn on the laptop in a dark room you may notice that there’s a bit of light shining through the plastic to light it up a bit. But the lights aren’t nearly as pretty or bright as those on the Pixel.
Aside from those Pixel-like elements, the Chromebook 11 is clearly its own device. It has a flat, island-style keyboard that looks a lot like the ones HP has been using for small notebooks for the past 4 or 5 years. And the case if made of shiny plastic rather than matte metal. If there’s one clear nod to the laptop’s Google pedigree though, it’s the logo placement.
There’s a Chrome logo just below the lid, but you have to look at the bottom of the laptop to find an HP logo. There’s no logo at all on the lid, just the dull blue, red, yellow, and green piece of plastic mentioned above.
HP offers the Chromebook 11 with a solid black case or with a white case, and if you opt for white you can get color accents in red, blue, green, or yellow. The demo model Google sent me features blue trim around the keyboard and blue feet on the bottom of the laptop to elevate the base a bit.
Most of the plastic is shiny and reflective — and for some reason has a tendency to attract dust and cat hair which sticks to the lid like magic. But the bezel around the glossy display is made of matte black plastic, which means that while you might get a bit of glare off the notebook case or the screen, you won’t be blinded by the light coming off the bezel.
All the ports are on the right side of the laptop, leaving the front, back, and right edges free. The bottom is a solid piece of plastic with feet at the front and back. There are no visible screws, which is a pretty clear indication HP doesn’t expect you to open up the case.
The RAM and storage are not easily upgradeable, and you can’t even swap out the battery. I guess it’s a good thing the power adapter is so portable.
The folks at AnandTech did remove the feet on the bottom of the Chromebook to reveal some screws and they pried open the case to look inside. Not surprisingly the RAM storage, and battery are not designed be swapped out.
Overall, the HP Chromebook 11 is a nice looking laptop. If you hate plastic notebooks, this model probably won’t change your mind. But it feels solid, there’s not much flex in the keyboard, and the notebook is thin, light, and cheap, partially thanks to that plastic case.
Keyboard and Touchpad
It can take a little while to get used to a Chromebook keyboard. The number, letter, and symbol keys are pretty much all where you’d expect to find them. But there’s a Search key where you’d normally find Caps Lock.
There are no dedicated Home, End, or Delete buttons, and the F keys are replaced by actual function keys which let you control audio, screen brightness, and perform specific actions such as returning to the previous web page, moving to the next page, refreshing a browser tab, maximizing your browser window, or switching between windows.
You can use key combinations to perform most of the missing actions. For instance, Alt + Backspace is the same as Del. And Ctrl+ Alt + left arrow is the same as Home (or right arrow for End). But there are no markings on the keyboard to indicate how to use these combo keys, so you’ll have to memorize them or print out a list of keyboard shortcuts and tape it to your screen.
Once you know your way around the unusual layout, the HP Chromebook 11 keyboard is comfortable to use for extended periods. I wrote almost all of this review using a the notebook, and I was able to type at around 100 words per minute thanks to decent travel on the keys and spacing between them.
I just wish I could manage to actually commit the shortcuts for Home and End to memory. It probably wouldn’t be difficult if this were my only computer, but I’m constantly switching between my Windows laptop and desktop PCs and the Chromebook 11 which makes it easy to forget where to find hidden functions that aren’t clearly marked.
I also wouldn’t mind a few dedicated media playback keys designed to work with Google Play Music — but that would be tough for HP or Google to really pull off, since not every cloud media player uses the same shortcuts for play, pause, and skip.
Below the keyboard is a reasonably wide touchpad that supports multitouch gestures. You can use two fingers to scroll or open up a context menu, or tap or press on the touchpad to click on links, menus, or icons.
The touchpad has a matte finish and sits a tiny bit lower than the shiny plastic of the palm rest, which makes it easy to detect the edges of the touch area with your fingers without looking down at your hands.
If you prefer a physical mouse, you can always hook one up to one of the notebook’s USB ports. One of the interesting quirks of Chrome OS is that I find I can plug in the dongle for my Logitech wireless travel mouse and start scrolling and clicking right away without waiting for the the chromebook to load drivers. When I do the same thing for the first time on a Windows laptop I usually have to wait around 20 or 30 seconds for the drivers to install before I can use the mouse.
The HP Chromebook 11 isn’t the fastest laptop around, but thanks to its light-weight operating system, it feels awfully zippy at times, taking just a few seconds to boot and resuming from sleep almost as quickly as you can open the lid.
Those features aren’t as rare as they once were — most recent notebooks with Windows 8 software, UEFI firmware, and a decent processor can boot in around 20 seconds or less. But if you’re used to older laptops, it’s nice to have a clamshell notebook that feels like it’s ready to use at a moment’s notice, much the way a smartphone or tablet would be.
Lift the lid and start typing to surf the web, respond to email messages, or just look up the name of that actor who was in that thing. When there’s almost zero wait time, I find myself reaching for a notebook much more often than I would if I had to wait 60 seconds or longer for it to be useful.
That said, it can take a few seconds for the HP Chromebook 11 to connect to a WiFi network, so while the laptop wakes up almost instantly, it can take more like 3 to 5 seconds before it’s actually useful. That’s not bad, but it’s also not quite as fast as my phone which is usually within arm’s reach.
Once the device is up, running, and connected to the internet, performance is pretty good. I was able to stream HD videos from YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu. Interestingly, the YouTube videos were the ones most likely to get jumpy, while Netflix and Hulu content looked pretty smooth. The computer was able to handle 720p YouTube videos reasonably well as long as I didn’t have too many other browser tabs open, but 1080p videos look like a slideshow.
That said, the HP Chromebook 11 has a 1366 x 768 pixel display, and not a lot of built-in storage, so there’s really not much reason you’d ever want to watch videos at resolutions higher than 720p.
It was also a bit sluggish when I tried some CPU-intensive web apps such as Full Screen Mario, a re-created version of Super Mario Brothers written entirely in HTML5. But for day-to-day tasks, the HP Chromebook was able to keep up.
I regularly used it to surf the web with 6 or more browser tabs open, and wrote the bulk of this review on the Chromebook while streaming audio from Google Play Music, leaving open my Gmail and Feedly tabs to keep up on incoming news and messages, and using a few more browser tabs to fact-check specs and other details.
I wouldn’t call the experience of using the Chromebook 11 for this kind of work flawless, but it can definitely hold its own as a workhorse machine — if you work on the web like I do.
Web pages might load more quickly, there might be less slow down when you have a dozen open, and games might work better on a model with a faster processor, but even the aging Exynos 5250 processor provides enough oomph to get work done on this laptop.
The bigger challenge can be finding the tools you need to get your work done… if you’re planning to use this device for work. I suspect most users will pick one up for leisure rather than work (unless they plan to install a GNU/Linux distro on it).
For instance, there’s a simple image editor built into Chrome OS, but while I can use it to crop images, I can’t resize them. So all the screenshots you see in this article were taken on the Chromebook, cropped using the built-in file browser and image editor, then uploaded to WordPress where I used a WordPress tool to resize them to fit the page.
ARM-based chips like the Samsung Exynos 5250 are more commonly found in phones or tablets than laptops. But while Intel has been working to make its processors energy efficient enough to compete in the mobile space, ARM designs have been getting more and more powerful, and it turns out that you can actually get respectable notebook performance from a device with an ARM-based processor.
The Exynos 5250 isn’t the most powerful ARM-based chip on the market anymore. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800, Samsung’s Exynos 5 Octa, and NIVIDA’s Tegra 4 should all be able to outperform this year-old processor. But while this notebook has the same CPU as the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook which came out a year ago, Google has done a lot of work to improve the performance of Chrome OS in that time.
That means that whether you’re using a chromebook from Samsung or HP, it’ll probably be able to do more today than it would have a year ago. And that’s borne out in some web-based benchmarks I ran last year on Samsung’s Chromebook and this week on Google’s. Performance in most tests hasn’t changed much at all, but the new HP Chromebook scored much higher in the Google Octane benchmark. I suspect if I ran the same test on a Samsung Chromebook running Google’s latest software, it’d score much better as well.
HP says you should be able to get up to 6 hours of battery life with the Chromebook 11. I suppose that might be true if you dimmed the screen until you could barely see it (you can make the display almost black if you want), and turned off the WiFi. But then the chromebook wouldn’t be very useful.
In my tests, I found the HP Chromebook actually got closer to 4.5 hours of battery life with the screen brightness just over 50 percent and a few browser tabs open while streaming music.
That’s another thing it has in common with the high-priced Google Chromebook Pixel, I guess. Neither laptop has a user replaceable battery, and neither gets all-day battery life… or even enough run time to last through a cross-country flight.
As I mentioned, the Chromebook 11 does have a very small AC adapter, and since it can use most microUSB chargers you might be able to borrow a cellphone charger if you need to plug in your device and you’ve left your charger at home. But it’d be nice to have an option for a model with a larger battery, or a user replaceable one.
Chrome OS is cool and all, but sometimes you want to run native desktop apps like GIMP for image editing, Audacity for audio editing, or Abiword or LibreOffice for editing documents. It’s remarkably easy to do that by running Ubuntu in a chroot environment.
That basically means you’re installing Ubuntu side-by-side with Chrome OS, with both operating systems relying on the same kernel. It sounds complicated, but the installation process is remarkably simple thanks to the Crouton script which does most of the work for you.
The upshot is that you can install (or remove) Ubuntu without really touching the Chrome OS software on your device. You can easily go back to a stock chromebook experience just by exiting developer mode. Theoretically you could also wipe Chrome OS off the face of the HP Chromebook 11 and install an alternate operating system, but I went for the path of leas resistance when trying an alternate operating system on this demo unit (which I have to return to Google soon).
So how well do Ubuntu apps run on this small, low-power laptop? It depends on the app. Some software isn’t compiled for ARM at all, so it won’t run. Other apps require more CPU or graphics power than the Samsung Exynos 5250 chip offers (or at least they aren’t optimized to utilize what it does offer).
But most basic apps run surprisingly well. I was able to install the Firefox web browser and a few plugins, and it works pretty well. Switching between the Chrome OS and Ubuntu environments is as simple as pressing Ctrl + Alt + Shift + forward or back, so there’s really no need for a separate web browser — you could just use Chrome and switch to Ubuntu only when you want to run a different app. But it’s nice to know that Firefox does work. So does Chromium, for that matter. That’s the open source version of Google Chrome.
The GIMP image editor loads up pretty quickly, which is funny because GIMP for Windows always seems to take an incredibly long time to load on my desktop PC with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor.
Audacity lets me record audio using the HP Chromebook 11 mic, and I can then edit and save audio files.
And I tested the AbiWord open source word processor and found it works quite nicely. You could also install LibreOffice if you want a more full-featured office suite, but it’ll take up more storage space — and on a device with just 16GB of built-in storage, every megabyte is precious.
Out of the box, not everything was set up automatically — you may need a bit of basic Ubuntu or GNU/Linux knowledge to watch Flash video or even to install additional apps. I had to add shortcuts to control the screen brightness manually. While I could open a terminal windows and type “sudo apt-get install <package_name>” to install software, if you don’t know the name of the software you want to install, that won’t get you very far.
Fortunately it’s pretty easy to install Synaptic Package Manager or the Ubuntu Software Center. Just type “sudo apt-get install synaptic” or “sudo apt-get install software-center” into a terminal window and enter your password when prompted, and you’ll install one or both of these utilities that are basically app stores for software that can run on Ubuntu.
From there, it’s easy to search for software you need, from Firefox for surfing the web to VLC for playing videos, to Filezilla for accessing FTP sites. Pro tip: You’ll probably want to install the GNU Gnash utility if you want to watch Flash videos or play Flash games using Firefox.
Some apps will work better than others. I had no luck at all getting SuperTux2 or SuperTuxKart to run at playable speeds. There were audio glitches, slow frame rates, and the games were pretty much too slow to play at all.
If you want to play games, you’re probably better off sticking with casual games like card games… or sticking with Chrome OS, where you can play web games, including some titles that you can download and play even when you’re offline. Angry Birds works particularly well offline.
Running Ubuntu in chroot gives you the ability to run native desktop-style apps on the HP Chromebook 11. But if you want a truly powerful desktop Linux experience, you’ll probably want a machine with a machine with an x86 processor and a fully supported graphics card. But the ability to run Ubuntu side-by-side with Chrome OS sort of turns the HP Chromebook 11 (or any other Chrome OS laptop) into a sort of chromebook plus. You get the full Google experience, but if there are a few desktop apps you just can’t live without, you can run them in Ubuntu.
There doesn’t seem to be any notable difference in battery life when using Ubuntu in chroot — unless you’re doing some really heavy-duty multitasking or running some really CPU-intensive apps (which would probably slow the system to a crawl, so odds are you wouldn’t want to do that anyway).
I suspect you might see a bigger difference in battery life if you were running Ubuntu or another Linux distro as a standalone operating system rather than using chroot — because in that case you wouldn’t be relying on Google’s Chrome OS to handle power management duties.
Chrome OS still isn’t for everyone, and neither are ARM-based laptops. The HP Chromebook 11 can’t run all the software that you might get with a Windows or Mac laptop. There’s no iTunes, Microsoft Office, or QuickBooks. But there’s always Rdio, Google Drive, and QuickBooks Online if you really need those features.
I’m already sold on the idea of using Chrome OS as an operating system for a portable, inexpensive sceondary laptop though. Having tested a few chromebooks in the past, I didn’t need to be convinced that the platform was viable. I wouldn’t recommend this sort of machine as your only computer unless you really don’t need desktop-style apps. But a chromebook makes a decent alternative to a tablet as a secondary device if you’d rather have a physical keyboard than a touchscreen.
But why pick up HP’s Chromebook 11 rather than a new Acer C720 Chromebook or even last year’s Samsung Series 3 Chromebook? The new Acer C720 has a faster processor, more RAM, and it’s about $30 cheaper than HP’s Chromebook 11. And the Samsung Series 3 has the same processor, same RAM, and is also about $30 cheaper than the HP model.
In the end, the Chromebook 11 has a decent design, interesting color options, a fanless, silent case, and acceptable performance. It’s arguably more attractive than the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook, unless you prefer Samsung’s faux-metal finish to HP’s embracing of the color options that come with plastic. And it has a much better display, but no SD card port.
The HP Chromebook 11 should also be more quiet than Acer’s latest Chromebook, thanks to the fanless design.
But really, if you’re sold on the idea of Chrome OS, there’s no really bad option on the market at the moment. While the earliest chromebooks were hobbled by the limitations of an operating system that was still rough around the edges and pokey Intel Atom processors, pretty much every Chrome OS laptop on the market today has enough power to offer a decent web browsing experience, and most offer it for around $300 or less.
The bigger question is whether chromebooks continue to make sense in a world when Windows 8.1 tablets like the Asus Transformer Book T100 with Intel Atom Bay Trail processors, 10 hours of battery life, and keyboard docks are on the way for as little as $349.