HP Chromebook 11 Review: Cheap and Cheerful

Google's Chromebook line is often maligned as inexpensive but underpowered or, in the case of the Pixel, a really nice screen in front of limited functionality and an exorbitant price tag. But by pairing a solid build with a $280 price tag, HP seems to have finally found the right balance of affordability and performance in the new Chromebook 11.

What Is It?

A surprisingly capable, sub-$300 laptop running Google's browser-based Chrome OS.

Who's It For?

People looking for an affordable, portable access point to reach their cloud-stored content and have little need for standalone desktop applications. Anyone in the market for a cheap second computer.

Design

For a laptop that costs way less than an off-contract iPhone, the CB11 is surprisingly solid. The internal frame is constructed from magnesium to reduce flex, and the molded plastic panels are similarly reinforced. It's available in either black or white primary colors, and the white version also features your choice of five accent colors around the keyboard and on the foot pads. The whole unit weighs just over two pounds, or a little bit more than an iPad.

Interestingly there are no visible speakers on the device, having been squirreled away under the keyboard. It's quite nice actually, as the sound seems to emanate uniformly from the base section. The 11.6-inch screen offers 1366 x 768 resolution, not enough for a full-on 1080p viewing experience—it tops out at 720p—but handles streaming HD feeds with aplomb. The ISF display also offers a bright and colorful palate with an impressively wide viewing angle.

The keyboard of the CB11 employs the same short-throw chiclet-style keys found on the Pixel. The multi-touch trackpad is perfectly competent at scrolling and basic inputs, though clicking the pad and then dragging your fingers across it—in order to, say, highlight onscreen text—can be a bit of a challenge.

The CB11 is also the first Chromebook to feature a Micro USB charging port, which is handy if you already own an Android phone or tablet as they can all utilize the same charger. It also doubles as a SlimPort output. On the other hand, this machine is rather light on typically standard IO options. Its two USB ports only support the older 2.0 standard, and it also lacks an integrated card reader, HDMI, and Ethernet ports. Even for a Chromebook, that's pretty sparse.

HP Chromebook 11 Review: Cheap and Cheerful

Using It

Thanks the the CB11's 16GB solid state drive (remember, you're going to be working almost exclusively in the cloud), booting the computer from complete shutdown takes just 8 seconds, and reviving it from sleep mode is effectively instantaneous. The CB11 employs a dual-core 1.7 GHz Samsung Exynos 5250 processor in conjunction with an ARM Mali-T604 GPU and 2GB of RAM. You will not be setting any benchmark records with this device, that's for sure, but for basic web browsing, document and light photo editing—you know, the everyday stuff—the CB11 suffices.

I used the CB11 as my primary work machine for the duration of the testing and, outside of its inability to run Photoshop CS2 (I used Pixlr Editor instead), the Chromebook proved just as capable as my conventional laptop. Obviously though, if your job requires resource intensive tasks (like video editing) or a specific desktop program (say Photoshop or AutoCAD), the CB11 won't cut it. That goes for your personal computing needs too; the dual difficulties of internet near-necessity and limited RAM/storage make this a much stronger candidate for a secondary device.

Perhaps most surprising is that the CB11 quietly took over the role of my Nexus 7 as a source for streaming content. Though the CB11's display tops out at 720p, it had little trouble streaming HD shows from Crunchyroll, Netflix, and Hulu Plus, and a bigger screen is a bigger screen.

It wasn't all sunshine and lollipops, though. Crunchyroll streams had a tendency to stutter and freeze, especially on full-screen, and the system lagged rather badly when using the in-browser Chromecast. I also noticed a bit of slowdown on GIF-heavy sites, though once the pages fully loaded the issue typically evaporated. Gaming options for the CB11 are rather limited, mostly just resized versions of what you've already got on your phone: Angry Birds, Bejeweled, Cut the Rope, you get the idea. You won't use them much here.

The Best Part

Altogether, the CB11 really exceeded my performance expectations. The CB11 exhibited little lag under excessive tab loading (easily handling more than a dozen open tabs before slowing), and is generally faster and more responsive that you'd expect from a rig with its limited guts and tiny price tag.

HP Chromebook 11 Review: Cheap and Cheerful

Tragic Flaw

Though the battery is rated for a maximum of 6 hours, under normal work loads it lasts around 4 or 5, and when streaming video that figure drops to about 3.5. Considering one of the Chromebook 11's main draws is portability, that's not ideal.

This Is Weird...

The power button is situated just above the backspace key, which gives you a 50-50 chance of either deleting text or putting the machine into sleep mode.

Test Notes

  • This thing is a smudge magnet—exterior panels, keys, and screen all need regular wipe downs.
  • Google will throw in 100GB free Google Drive space for two years, 12 GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi sessions, and a trial of Google Play's unlimited music service with each CB11. That makes the price even more compelling.
  • The integrated VGA camera is decent enough, though you'll need to bring your own mic for Skype calls.

Should I Buy It?

If you've been contemplating getting a Chromebook but don't have $1200 for a Pixel, the HP CB11 is a solid low-end option. It's also a nice option for folks who like the idea of a tablet but can't bare the thought of a keyboardless second screen.

HP Chromebook 11 Specs

  • Dimensions: 297 x 192 x 17.6 mm
  • Weight: 2.3 lb
  • Display: 11.6-inch IPS 1366 x 768
  • Processor: Samsung Exynos 5250 (dual-core Cortex A15 1.7GHz + ARM Mali-T604 GPU)
  • Connectivity: dual-band 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0, 3G/4G LTE optional
  • Memory: 2GB DDR3
  • Storage: 16GB solid state
  • Battery: 30Wh
  • I/O: 2 x USB 2.0, VGA webcam, microUSB for charging/SlimPort video out, headphone/mic jack
  • Price: $280 at Amazon