As someone who grew up using Windows PCs and then switched to Macs about twelve years ago there’s one thing I knew I always needed in a laptop: a solid operating system that was capable of running the apps and accomplishing the tasks I needed for work.
However, a lot has changed in computing over the last five years. Now much of what we do, like editing and sharing photos, creating documents, sending emails, and (of course) browsing the web can all be done through a humble web browser with no extra apps needed. So it comes as little surprise that an OS would eventually arise that was, for all intents and purposes, just a web browser and nothing else. And that’s exactly what Google’s Chrome OS is, which runs on Chromebooks.
I wanted to see how both the device and the OS fared against PC and Mac laptops, so I decided to take one model–the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook–for a spin. Here’s what I found.
First let’s look at the raw specs of the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook.
Display: 14’’ BrightView LED-backlit display (1366 x 768)
Weight: 3.96 lbs / 1.8 kg
Dimensions: 34.7 x 23.8 x 2.1 cm
Processor: 1.1 GHz Dual-core Intel Celeron 847 Processor
RAM: 4 GB DDR3
OS: Chrome OS
Storage: 16 GB
Battery: 4-cell Li-Ion, up to 4.25 hours of battery life
Cameras: HP TrueVision HD Webcam with integrated digital microphone
Connectivity: 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, Integrated 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet LAN
Ports: 3x USB 2.0, HDMI, 2-in-1 memory card slot (SD, MMC)
Storage, Processor and RAM
Normally I start reviews out by looking at a product’s display since that is the window through which we communicate with a device. However, I want to start this review out by talking about the Chromebook’s internal specs because by just glancing at the specs above–a 1.1 GHz Dual-core Intel Celeron 847 Processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 16GB SSD drive–you may naturally think the Chromebook is massively under-spec’d. And for a normal laptop you’d be right.
But a Chromebook has one function and one function only: to serve as a thin client to access services on the web. Its Chrome OS (which I’ll go over in more detail later) is essentially just Google’s Chrome browser and everything you do on the Chromebook you do via the web. That’s why a 1.1 GHz Dual-core Intel Celeron 847 Processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 16GB SSD is more than enough for Chromebooks. And indeed, the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook flies with those specs when it comes to surfing the web, sending emails, using social media, and composing documents.
Display and Design
Okay, now that I’ve explained the relatively “low” specs, let’s take a look at the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook’s display. It’s a larger than normal display for most Chromebooks, which usually have displays of 11-12 inches. I happen to prefer 15-inch laptops, so I appreciate that HP decided to make a 14-inch Chromebook for others who like bigger displays too. The 14-inch display is a BrightView with LED-backlighting and runs at an optimal resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. By far that resolution is in no way the best on the market, but for general web use it’s more than enough.
The body of the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook is made of a glossy (and slightly glittery) black plastic and features comfortable rounded corners. It’s not the thinnest laptop ever at 34.7 (L) x 23.8 (H) x 2.1 cm (D) but it feels exceptionally light for some reason even though it weighs 1.8kg.
The thing I really love about its design is the textured trackpad which makes running your finger over it a pleasant experience and seems to help with cursor control. Another thing about the trackpad is you can configure a tap to act as a click–something which is good because the trackpad’s physical buttons feel a bit flimsy. And speaking of buttons…the keyboard is perfectly competent, yet its keys feel hollow. However, I’m spoilt for quality as I’m used to typing on a MacBook Pro’s unibody keyboard.
One thing that makes a laptop sink or swim is how its hinge holds the position of the screen once you adjust it. I’m happy to report that the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook’s hinge is one of the sturdiest hinges I’ve ever seen. The display held at any angle even when I moved the laptop around the room.
Connectivity, Ports, Cameras, and Battery
Before I get to the meat of what makes the Chromebook so different–its OS–lets first examine the rest of the physical and component features of the laptop.
As far as connectivity goes this Chromebook comes with 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi built in, Bluetooth 3.0, and a 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet port. The inclusion of the ethernet port is quite baffling as it’s something most people don’t use anymore, but I suspect network administrators who want a Chromebook will appreciate the throwback. It’s also a bit disappointing that this Chromebook offers only Bluetooth 3.0 instead of Bluetooth 4.0. But since most wireless mice and keyboards only require Bluetooth 2.1 or above it’s not that big of a loss.
For a budget laptop, the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook is packed with ports. On the left side you’ll find a Kensington laptop lock slot, one USB 2.0 port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. On the right side you’ll find two more USB 2.0 ports, the ethernet port, a 2-in-1 memory card slot that supports both SD and MMC cards, and an HDMI port.
The HDMI port is a nice touch as I can see many Chromebook owners connecting their laptop to their TV at home to use it as an external monitor to watch streaming YouTube or Netflix movies on. I’m a bit disappointed that, while 3 USB ports are generous on a laptop, they are all only USB 2.0. Then again USB 3.0 is primarily used for external hard drives and given that this laptop only has a 16GB SSD and is designed for web use and storage, there’s not going to be a lot of large files on it that need backing up.
On the top bezel of the display is an HP TrueVision HD webcam and mic. It’s decent enough for Google video Hangouts, but nothing to write home about.
The biggest letdown of the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook is one of the most important features of any laptop: its battery life. HP decided to only put a 4-cell Li-Ion battery in here, which barely takes up any room. But given the battery needs to power a 14-inch display it’s nowhere near enough juice for a laptop. In my tests of basic web browsing and document creation the laptop only averaged between 3 hours and 3 hours and 45 minutes before it was dead. HP says it can last “up to 4.25 hours” on a single charge, but even that is pathetic. Without the clunky power adapter the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook won’t even get you through half a day’s work.
Software, Services and OS
The sole reason anyone would buy a Chromebook is for the Chrome OS. It’s either going to be enough for what you need to do or won’t be enough at all. As I said earlier, the Chrome OS is just an operating system that is Google’s Chrome browser. Everything you can do in this OS must be done through the web browser. There are no native apps–not even an email client. Checking your mail must be done through the web browser, like everything else. Even the “apps” that look like individual apps are just HTML5 web apps, like the calculator.
The good news is if you know how to use the Chrome web browser, you’re automatically an expert at using Chrome OS. The OS does have a launcher that runs along the bottom of the screen, but clicking on any of the buttons in it–like the documents or YouTube buttons–will simply take you to the Google Docs or YouTube website in the Chrome browser. There are plenty of web apps you can install on the Chromebook, but again, they are all HTML5 browser-based apps.
The good news for the Chromebook is that, for some people, this is the only laptop they need. Google has a plethora of online services from Google Documents to Hangouts to Maps that work exceptionally well via a browser. And of course any other online apps made by Apple or Microsoft or anyone else also run fine. Another great thing about the Chrome OS is that it stays up to date automatically, includes built-in virus protection you never need to fiddle with, and is about as simple to use as an OS can be.
From a hardware perspective, the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook is a strong entry into the growing field of Chromebooks. It offers a nice number of ports, including HDMI, and has more than enough processing power and storage to meet a Chromebook user’s needs. The only thing that really kills this Chromebook is its battery life. A battery life of under four hours is something I expect from a laptop made in 2004, not 2014.
But the real deciding factor if this laptop is for you depends on how heavily you are married to Google’s services. If you’re a heavy Gmail user and use your Google ID more than any other ID on the Internet, then a Chromebook is probably for you–if you are also a very limited computer user, which means if everything you do on your current computer is via a web browser only.
Who a Chromebook is not for, however, is probably 80% of the computer-using world. If you like the ability to install native apps and keep a large amount of your files–such as various types of documents and photos and videos–locally on your hard drive the Chromebook would not in any way be for you.