HP Chromebook 11 review

Finally - a Chromebook that's excellent as well as cheap

HP Chromebook 11
It's legs 11 for this one

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You first have to work out if you want or could conceivably come to tolerate Chrome OS, and then you have to work out whether the HP Chromebook 11 is the right Chrome OS machine for you.

We can't answer the first question for you – we've come actually really to love it, as our habits change and as web services become even more capable – but we can say with confidence that for most people who chose Chrome OS, the HP Chromebook 11 is the perfect machine.

Powerful enough to make the experience slick and usable, cheap enough to be a computer for anyone on a budget (or an almost impulse-buy treat for the comfortably-off looking for a new toy), but crucially something that still feels well-made, it is a delight to own and use.

We liked

We're still, weeks into testing, smiling every time we pick it up, start writing, or watching streaming video. Although it doesn't, of course, match a high-end machine from the likes of Lenovo, Sony or Apple for build-quality, it really is astonishingly well built at this price.

The keyboard is great and the screen – which has a warm cast we quite liked, but you might disagree – is a joy. (You might not like the fact that it's glossy, though.) We remain bemused though delighted that HP has managed to make something that punches so colossally above its weight in terms of fit, finish and pleasure in using.

This would all be pretty pointless if it felt sluggish or limited, but it's smooth and usable, and while Chrome OS is limited by definition, the combination of us becoming more comfortable in web apps, those web apps becoming increasingly powerful, and Chrome OS itself and its ecosystem maturing means that we're bumping into those limitations less and less often.

Also praise-worthy: the very subtle branding. There's not even a Chrome logo on the lid, just a smart, Pixel-like bar of light in Google colours. There are HP and Google logos on the bottom, but even these are restrained.

HP is making the Chromebook 11 in black and white, the latter having a choice of red, green, yellow or, as with our sample, blue accents, but it's still not clear which colour options you'll actually be able to buy in each territory.

We disliked

Really, our only major complaint is about power. It's not unreasonable to be demanding a full eight hours' use from a laptop today, and even if long battery life was never explicitly part of the promise of the Chromebook concept, it nevertheless feels wrong that you're using a lightweight alternative OS on a chip architecture famed for power-efficiency, and yet not getting stellar battery life.

The Micro USB charging is a nice touch (even though, grumble grumble, Micro-USB is a fiddle to connect) but however technically understandable it is, it's frustrating that when connected through essentially anything except the supplied charger, the Chromebook 11's battery actually runs down unless it's asleep or off.

What's more, the fact that you can't do anything other than slow the battery drain when daisy-chaining power through the SlimPort adapter if you've got it hooked up to an external display essentially precludes it from being a machine you regularly use as a main 'desktop' PC.

The trackpad is occasionally a little jittery, and we've seen trackpads with its finish before now get shiny, worn patches through heavy use that makes them less responsive. We don't know if this would be the case here, but it's a concern.

The plastic case picks up fingerprints very easily, and those colour accents on the bottom, which look like they're going to be grippy, aren't; a missed opportunity to gently stop the laptop moving around on a table.

Finally, as always seems to be the case, details about the model that has 4G LTE built in are proving difficult to confirm, something that, despite the abilities of Chrome OS and some web apps to work offline, is a particular pain in a machine ostensibly designed with 'accessing the internet' as its sole task.

Final verdict

Chrome OS still has some growing up to do, or perhaps the ecosystem around it has some bedding in to do; a task as simple as printing (directly to a Google Cloud Print-enabled printer, or via a PC on the same network running a little helper app) can be complex, for example, but for most of the computing most of us spend most of our time doing, it's actually not just on a par with a traditional PC or tablet, but is in some ways even better at it.

Why not buy a tablet, by the way? It's a fair question, and it just comes down to what you want. Tablets are undeniably great things, and when paired with a Bluetooth keyboard, can do, again, pretty much everything this Chromebook can and then some. But the laptop is a useful and enduring thing. Especially if you plan to do a lot of writing, a screen that holds itself up, a big, comfortable keyboard, and a machine that sits comfortably on your lap as well as a table are all desirable attributes.

Recalling Apple CEO Steve Jobs' comment in 2008 "We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk" and suggesting that here, HP has managed to make a computer that could even by its worst detractor be fairly called 'not a piece of junk' for basically half that price is, frankly, a bit of a glib, snide thing to do; it was a different time, in a different context.

It's nevertheless true that Apple and all the other premium manufacturers should at least look at this little gem of a computer and applaud what has been achieved. No-one – well, no-one serious – is arguing that Apple must make £229 laptops if it's to survive, but the Chromebook 11 shows that it's possible to create a product that has a little bit of the magic and joy you get from an Apple laptop without charging four figures for it.

It's a quarter of the price of even the cheapest 11-inch MacBook Air and it's far more than a quarter as lovely. If Chrome OS could work for you, buy this laptop.