The Chromebook has emerged from the ashes of Windows Netbooks as a cheap alternative to high end ultrabooks and the MacBook line. However, Chromebooks come with a stigma that is now well known but also has gained a loyal fanbase amongst students and the general user that does not want an i5 processor, crazy thin design and a £500+ price-tag. I was intrigued by this position that the Chromebook has found itself in but most importantly, I wanted to see whether I can use a Chromebook as a genuine alternative to my Surface Pro 2 when writing podcast rundowns, blog entries and general browsing on the web. I hopped on eBay, bought a HP Chromebook 11 for £120 and started my one month experiment.
As a starting point, the hardware definitely belies its cheap price. The keyboard and trackpad on the Chromebook 11 was a delight to type on and the screen, despite its below FHD resolution, allows content displayed on it to pop. This, wrapped in a beautifully designed and constructed package meant that whatever the result of this experiment was, at least I could walk away knowing that Chromebooks aren’t horribly cheap feeling tat for the most part.
Powering on the machine during the testing period always brought a smile, such was the speed of the boot up period. After that, the software experience was overall very good, if a little limiting. I got used to working ‘in a browser’ over time, using Microsoft’s Office Online as my productivity suite of choice and fully embracing cloud computing. The end result was that I walk away from Chrome OS fully accepting that in terms of productivity, Cloud computing is the way everyone will be working in the near future. With hardware this cheap and well built plus a productivity suite which is free and feature rich (Docs, Office Online or the OpenOffice suites), the average consumer has a genuine third option to consider. With all this positivity, you’d be expecting a catch, right? Spot on.
The offline app availability is scarce to say the least. With the Google Docs suite and other Google applications, you won’t find much of a problem accessing them offline. I wrote a podcast rundown on Google Docs, went to a café that had a dodgy internet connection (great coffee, but crap internet… such is the 21st century coffee drinkers needs) and had no trouble continuing to write up the last sections of the podcast rundown. The problem comes when you look for third party apps to support the offline feature. For example, as an Office Online users, not being able to access my documents or even save them to the 16gb SSD for offline access was just stupid. I do not think I am alone in expecting a consistent experience across the board from massive companies and their services. In my opinion, what Google have done is the equivalent of having a child run a egg ‘n’ spoon race but give the child half a spoon to balance the egg with. That is the least of their worries though, as I found out towards the end of my testing period. Recently, HP announced the Stream laptop series; an 11 and 13 inch laptop respectively which is priced to compete with Chromebooks. These essentially run the same innards of a Chromebook but come with full Windows 8.1 on-board. For someone wanting a cheap laptop to just use for productivity, this is massive news. Full Windows means millions of apps, a proper file explorer, offline document editing support for all types of productivity software and most importantly, better looking hardware. That final point might be trivial but aside from this HP Chromebook 11 and the Samsung Chromebook 2, I don’t see many Chromebooks that are truly beautiful pieces of hardware. Even the two examples mentioned are hampered by incredibly low powered Samsung processors which for tab fiends is just bad. Seriously after 9-10 tabs, the Chromebook 11 struggled to do anything at all except freeze. For software as light as this, that is unforgivable. So… to my conclusion.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time with the Chromebook. For the price of an entry level Android tablet, I purchased and managed to use a fully featured laptop as a daily work machine. The software available on the Chrome store is plenty for people who want to use it for productivity and a little bit more (Plex, Spotify and Soundcloud worked brilliantly on the machine) and with Android support due to arrive soon, it could get better. The hardware still amazes me; the HP Chromebook is incredible value for money for what it is. A little known joy is the fact that you can charge the Chromebook 11 from any microUSB charger… something that should be standard on entry level laptops in my opinion. That said, for anyone wanting a little more from their laptop should probably look away. The Windows powered alternatives that are due to arrive soon are much much better than a Chromebook, especially since they all come powered with Intel chips. I didn’t get to load this up with Linux as some recommended doing because I wanted to keep the Chrome OS experience pure and fully test its capabilities. Would I recommend using a Chromebook? I definitely would but if the usage goes slightly above ‘basic’, move onto a entry level Windows machine.