Prior to purchasing a Chromebook this year, I didn’t have any hands on experience with them. I had read a fair amount about them and I had played with them in local stores, but I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect.
I’ve been using my HP Chromebook 14 G4 for the past few months as a replacement for my Dell Inpiron 1501 laptop. I am posting this review in the hopes that will be helpful to anyone who may be considering getting their first Chromebook. As such, I will keep it simple and related to how it actually is to use.
Google’s simplified Linux distribution is essentially normal GNU/Linux with very little installed other than the Google Chrome web browser and a custom file manager. As a result, the built in driver support for USB devices is pretty good, apart from printers and scanners, and the system very stable – there just isn’t a whole lot to go wrong. It also boots extremely quickly despite being installed on modest hardware. That said, there is a lot one can do with ChromeOS that can’t be done with the just the Google Chrome browser itself.
“Chrome Apps” are stand alone programs that use the browser as an “engine”, providing access to the hardware and various programmer type things. They are no longer supported on other platforms (and I question how long Google will keep them around), but on Chromebooks they provide a massive amount of functionality that would not otherwise be available. The webstore has many free and inexpensive apps for all manner of tasks, such as writing, programming, drawing, photo editing, document manipulation, and so on. Some are better than others, but for the most part there are enough apps to accomplish all the mundane computer activities.
As for the browser itself, it’s not too shabby. Essentially the same experience as you’d have on the desktop, with only a few extra options in the settings menu. It’s responsive and well supported by every website I have ever visited, so over all, using it is a fine web experience.
The user interface of ChromeOS is about as basic as it gets. The log in screen is an idiot proof “type your name and password the first time, then just click your picture and type your password every time after that” ordeal that will be second nature to anyone after doing a couple of times. There is a taskbar at the bottom of the screen, which Google calls the Shelf. Anyone who has used a Windows 95 or greater computer (or even a Mac really) will know how to use it – Left click the circle on the far left to open apps, right click anywhere to change its settings, click stuff in the tray on the right for their options. Other than that, there are some hardware keys, trackpad gestures, and a boat load of keyboard shortcuts (complete with an onscreen map in Settings > Keyboard > View keyboard shortcuts) that are very useful.
I can’t say, as they still aren’t supported on this Chromebook even when running the latest beta version of ChromeOS. This device is on the list that will supposedly get them this year, but it’s already November and Google is known for abandoning projects…
There isn’t any! There is, however, an app on the webstore from HP that aids in using their networked printers.
Moving onto the hardware itself…
- The metal keyboard area is smooth and very comfortable to rest one’s hands upon.
- The keyboard has a standard layout and is nice to type upon. I have not experienced any fatigue or pain while using it on my lap or at the table.
- The webcam and speaker are good enough for basic communication. In fact, the speaker isn’t too bad considering what it is.
- It’s light, but well built, making it a pleasure to move around the house with. Combined with how quickly it resumes from sleep and how long its battery lasts, closing the lid and tucking it under my arm has become standard operating procedure.
- The Micro SD card slot allows for increasing the storage considerably and it’s very close to being flush-mounted when inserted. USB hard drives and sticks are also plug and play, allowing for unlimited local storage of pictures, videos, etc.
- The screen quality is terrible. Inexcusable, really. 1366×768 resolution at 14″ isn’t bad. The problem is the pixel array itself is decidedly low-end, with a very narrow viewing angle, poor colour reproduction, and a dimness that simply gets washed out at both lower and higher back-light settings.
It’s not good at all and its only saving grace is that it works.
- The battery in this Chromebook is smaller than other models of the same price range, which knocks down usage time to 6-8 hours, down from 10-14 hours.
- It gets hot when charging. A while back I remarked that it doesn’t get hot, but it turns out that’s not the case when it is charging.
- The speakers are poor quality. They are capable of belting out loud, distorted sounds, if that’s your thing. Loud mid range frequencies (especially male voices) will cause vibrations even at 40% volume. They work and they’re stereo speakers, so they are better than nothing.
- The RAM (2GB DDR3) and hard drive (16GB eMMC) are not able to be upgraded.
- There aren’t any mouse buttons, rather one is expected to click the trackpad down to click. Unfortunately, the physical click is so stiff and hard to press that it’s not worth using.
And onto some points of general interest about the user experience…
- “Tap To Click” on touchpads sucks! It would be fine if the damned thing wasn’t so sensitive. Little is more annoying than accidentally selecting all the text in a window and deleting it, because your thumb strayed over the giant mousepad. And various other issues related to the technology itself…
- The back-light defaults to 100% when turning the device on and it’s blindingly bright (painfully so when fired up in a dark room).
- The firmware is crippled, such that if you want to run ChromeOS, you basically don’t own your device.
The hardware CAN run other operating systems, but Google goes out of its way to make it an underwhelming and annoying experience.
- The SD card is mounted each time the lid is opened and closed, which adds a notification to the tray that does not automatically go away.
Some Good Stuff
- One can install a real, full GNU/Linux desktop along side ChromeOS using Crouton, granting access to useful programs that round out the functionality of the device. GIMP, Blender, Audacity, and VLC all work well (though don’t expect to be rendering massive projects with Blender).
- All of the Google suit of software works great. The ChromeOS file browser even has built in Google Drive functionality for upload/download/auto-mirroring. There is even an extension that allows for opening zip files and iso images.
- Websites, especially browser based games, run far more fluidly than they did on my old laptop. Even full Linux software does as well!
I like my HP Chromebook 14 G4, because it is capable of doing everything that I want to do with it. For me, the Chromebook was not intended to be a replacement for my desktop PC, because there are some tasks that I do on the desktop that would strain even the most expensive Windows/Mac/Linux laptops. Would it be ideal to have a single device that I could use for all of my computing needs?
Somewhere in my mind, there dwells the nagging desire to pair down to a single device, but the reality is that there exists, as my father insisted, “the right tool for the job”. When it comes to computing, form factor is the largest factor in determining what one should use for a given job. Just as holding a MacBook up to one’s head to make a phone call would be ridiculous, trying to complete detailed graphics design on a Chromebook would be silly. When I temper my expectations and I look at my Chromebook as I would a kitchen utensil, I have to admit that it is a pretty darn good tool for general and casual computing, especially given how inexpensive it was!
If you’re looking to get an inexpensive computer for yourself or your kids and you’d like it to be portable, you can’t go wrong with this or any other $350 or cheaper Chromebook. The laptop form factor is perfect for casual use and the ability to plug it into a desktop keyboard, monitor, and speakers, means it can be used like a traditional desktop as well.