Chromebooks, revisited

I put up thoughts on the HP Chromebook 11, after hav­ing one for a couple of weeks on Google+. At the time I said I liked it, and I still do, but it’s not per­fect. I’m happy with it, but if it dis­ap­peared I don’t know if I’d get a new one or some­thing else.

What I’ve found is that it’s mainly a tab­let replace­ment for me. The HP Chromebook 11 is light enough to do that. What I really like about the machine is the dis­play, which is Mac-like. It’s 1366 x 768 pixels, which is the stand­ard res­ol­u­tion for all Chromebooks (and the same at the MacBook air I think). The smal­ler dis­play you have on your Chromebook the bet­ter it will look.

I also like the key­board. I bought an iPad, think­ing I’d type into it. I really don’t like doing that. The HP key­board on the other hand is per­fectly usable. I’m sur­prised, because I thought an 11″ machine would be a bit too small for ser­i­ous work, but I have hap­pily sat down and typed for a few hours. For me, the dis­play and key­board are crit­ical. The HP 11 is the best of the Chromebooks for that.

Where the HP 11 lags is with the chip. The HP 11 and Samsung machines use an ARM chip. This means they’re fan­less, but also they aren’t as fast as the Intel based machines (like the HP 14 and every­one else). This caused prob­lems with YouTube videos, which seems to have improved since I got the machine, but there are still lags on the laptop. Some of this is my poor inter­net con­nec­tion, but I also won­der if some of it is the machine being a bit under­powered. It really isn’t by a lot, but it’s not quite seam­less.

A big­ger prob­lem with the ARM chips is geeky, but sur­pris­ingly import­ant. You can set up a Chromebook to flip between Chrome OS and Linux. But many Linux apps don’t work on ARM chips, only Intel chips. If the HP 11 had an Intel chip then I’d have Linux and the Linux ver­sion of Scrivener on it. For writ­ing that would make a dif­fer­ence for me. Google Docs works fine though.

Looking at the machines on the mar­ket or com­ing to mar­ket in the next few months, the biggest chal­lenger, for me, to the HP 11 is the Asus C200. This will be an 11″ glossy screen Chromebook with an Intel Bay Trail chip.

Despite the fea­tures of the Chromebooks all seem­ing samey there is some vari­ety. The best Chromebook depends on what you want to do with it. The things to look for are:

The chip. Intel Haswell/Celeron machines run faster. They also need a fan, which is what attrac­ted me to the fan­less HP 11. I’ve used my father’s HP 14, with the Intel chip, and it’s not noisy, so ideally the Intel machines are better.

RAM: 2GB is enough, but 4GB helps, espe­cially if you plan to hook it into another display.

SSD: 16GB is enough. You can get 32GB machines, but unless you plan to store movies on the device, there’s not much you need it for. If extra stor­age is essen­tial then an SD card can add it — except for the HP 11, which lacks an SD slot.

Display: Unless you get a Chromebook Pixel, you’ll have 1366 x 768 pixels on your screen. The big­ger your screen the more pixel­lated that will look. It’s good enough for an 11″ screen. It’s ok on 13″. It’s slightly pixel­lated on 14″. You might want to see if you can live with it.

Keyboard/trackpad: A key com­pon­ent for get­ting inform­a­tion in. The HP machines work well. Try oth­ers to see how they work. No Chromebooks, other than the Pixel, have back­lit key­boards so typ­ing in the dark is more of a challenge.

The best machine is the Chromebook Pixel, but it’s insanely priced, so this is what I’d be look­ing at now.

Toshiba: The 13″ screen is not too large, and the chip is power­ful enough to run everything you might want to with it. It looks like a good com­prom­ise, rather than out­stand­ing in any par­tic­u­lar way. Look for it at £229. Amazon has dropped it to £199 briefly I think.
HP 11: The best screen/keyboard. Good for word pro­cessing, rub­bish for any­thing intens­ive. Try before you buy. Not so good if you want to use Linux too. Spend no more than £199.
HP 14: The 14″ screen is ok, but vis­ibly worse than the cheaper 11″ HP Chromebook, which could be annoy­ing. The chip and the 4GB of ram make it power­ful as Chromebooks go. £269 from HP last time I looked and they were help­ful when I bought my Da’s machine.
Asus C200/C300: Probably good if the Nexus 7 is an example of what qual­ity to expect, but they’re not out yet. If my cur­rent Chromebook evap­or­ated, this is what I would wait for — to see if it was good.

I’m still not sold on the Acer machines because I didn’t like the dis­play, but plenty of other people don’t mind. Currys/PC World have them in the UK, and their prices for most machines (except the Toshiba) seem com­pet­it­ive. Avoid the cur­rent (May 2014) Samsung machines, they’re end of line. The new machines they have in the sum­mer might be good, but again they won’t be using Intel chips. If they’re fast enough, that might not matter.

I still think a HP 11 with a slightly faster chip, SD card slot and longer bat­tery life would beat the oppos­i­tion. That slight lack of power is what makes me hes­it­ate from recom­mend­ing a machine I like a lot to every­one else.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks, Alun. Really helpful

  2. anon says:

    I really wish HP would offer a cel­erin haswell chip and 4gb ram option, I’d buy in an instant and pay say £275 for it. Come in HP give us what we want!