Chromebooks are rapidly gaining in popularity. A quick look at the top 10 laptops bought on Amazon.com reveals that Chromebooks populate numerous spots in the top 10. Why is that? If you've listened to the Microsoft commercials, Chromebooks are not "real" laptops. Yet they are selling at a very fast pace. Experts would have you believe that Chromebooks are a fad. I'm not so sure. If you have a firm grasp on what your computing needs are, you just might find a Chromebook is all you need.
Let me explain:
Do you live on the internet? Do you blog, check email, play on Social Media, and consume content? Then a Chromebook is an excellent option. Do you provide tech support for older family members? Then a Chromebook (for them) is an excellent option. If my mom was still alive, I definitely would have bought her a Chromebook. Are you looking for a travel computer? Let's be honest, travel can be rough on laptops. Would you rather lose or damage a $1200 MacBook or a $250 Chromebook? Are you tired of getting hit by Malware? Then a Chromebook might be just what you need. Sure, Mac fans will say that Macs are free of such concerns, but that's just marketing talk. Macs can and do get hit by Malware.
Yes, there are things that a Chromebook can't do, like play a lot of games (you can't install Steam or install downloaded games or install games off of a CD/DVD), use Photoshop (that is changing with Adobe's cloud based version of Photoshop) or do major video editing. But ask yourself this: When's the last time your mother or grandmother edited video or played World of Warcraft? In fact, for many people those same questions are valid.
Let's get this out of the way now: If you use programs for work (or at work) like AutoCad, Adobe Dreamweaver, or QuickBooks, then a Chromebook won't be a valid replacement for your current Mac or PC. Until recently, you would have had to have added Microsoft Office to the list, but with Microsoft releasing Microsoft Office Online, that argument is mostly over. This review was done on a HP 14" Chromebook, model # HP cr3114 (shown below).
Chrome OS -
The beautiful thing about Chrome OS is that every time you boot up a Chromebook, it checks to make sure your operating system is current and that it's not corrupt. If there is a problem with the operating system, it will download the latest stable version. Chrome OS also has a feature called "Powerwash". Powerwash will basically do a full factory reset of your Chromebook. Any local files and user profiles will be deleted. Anything synced to your Google Account is safe. Also, just like the Chrome browser, Chrome OS is updated every month. Currently, there have been no reports of Malware or Viruses hitting Chrome OS. If something does go wrong, it's most likely going to be a browser add-on that can quickly be deleted. I stumbled upon a malicious website that tried to hijack the Chromebook with the FBI Moneypak Virus. Simply closing the browser tab fixed the issue. That definitely would not have worked with a Windows PC! As it stands now, Google is saying that Chrome OS doesn't need Anti-virus protection. So far, that appears to be true. Due to the nature of Chrome OS you can't install or run programs outside of the browser. That's what keeps it so safe. No executable files = no malware or viruses. That might change as time goes by, but it holds true now.
I've tested 3 different USB mice and 2 different USB keyboards with this Chromebook and they just worked. No having to install drivers, no waiting for Chrome OS to discover the devices. They just worked. The onboard card reader works great - just plug in a SD card and the files window opens up. I've even tried my Samsung portable DVD drive that I bought about 3 years ago and that was instantly recognized. So far, regardless of what I've plugged in the Chromebook, it's been instantly recognized and ready for use.
I was able to quickly and easily add my Lexmark X4530 printer from 2008 (which is connected to my desktop PC via USB cable) and wouldn't you know it? It worked great. Now you don't actually plug the printer into the Chromebook. You add your printer to your Google Account via Google Cloud Print. It really couldn't have been any easier. There are cloud ready printers out there, but you don't have to have one to print from your Chromebook. That was a nice surprise. I wasn't expecting the Chromebook to print so easily. If you have an Android phone or tablet, you can also print via Google Cloud Print. For more information about Google Cloud Print, check it out here.
Chrome OS has basic Photo editing capabilities built in. If you click on a photo in your storage, it opens up automatically. You can edit photos in Google+ which offers basic editing options. Another viable option is the Picasa App from the Chrome Web Store. This is handy for PC users that already use Picasa. I did a quick search for "Photo Editor" in the Chrome Web Store and I found 60+ options for photo editing apps. Pixlr seems to be one of the go to choices for many Chromebook owners.
While you can't install Steam or install games you've downloaded from the internet, you can run browser based games. That's because Chrome OS supports Adobe Flash and most if not all browser based games are Flash based. HTML 5 content should play just fine as well. The Chrome Web Store has a games section and there is a surprisingly large amount of games listed. I was browsing through the available titles and I actually stumbled upon the classic, Quake. It's a web version called Web Quake. I wasn't expecting much, but sure enough, it was Quake. It played just like I remembered. That brought back many memories!
Netflix, Amazon Prime, Crackle, Hulu, Google Play Movies, Google Play Music, Spotify...all present and accounted for! If you are looking for entertainment, the Chromebook has you covered. Some of them run in the browser, some have Chrome Web Store apps.
The screen is a 14" diagonal HD BrightView LED-backlit (1366 x 768) display and regardless of what I've read in other reviews, I think it looks pretty good. Would a 1920 x 1080 screen look better? It absolutely would. Does the 1366 x 768 screen look bad? Not at all. One thing for certain - a 14" screen is much easier for me to use than an 11" screen. The brightness control works well. I have a feeling that the lower screen resolution also helps with battery life. After all, the higher the display the resolution, the harder the video chip has to work. That in turn would mean higher battery usage. This Chromebook uses an Intel HD graphics chip. I normally use my computers in darker environments, so I made it a point to take the Chromebook out with me. The glossy screen, while not optimal, does OK. Just like with any laptop with a glossy screen, sitting with your back to a window can cause issues with glare. Bumping up the screen brightness helped with viewing in bright locations.
Battery life has been great so far. I've been getting about 8 hours per charge. Closing the lid puts the Chromebook to sleep and when it's asleep it barely uses any battery. I've been able to close the lid at night without the Chromebook being plugged into the charger and upon opening the lid in the morning, the battery has dropped about 5%. Haswell based processors really make a difference with battery usage. The only bad thing about the battery is that it's non-removable.
There are two big speaker grills on the bottom of the Chromebook. it's a great idea, because the sound bounces off whatever flat surface you have the Chromebook on. Music sounds decent. Nothing with too much bass, mind you, but decent. You won't want to use it by itself for entertaining guests, but in a quite room, the speakers get the job done. Video streamed on YouTube sounds OK too. During a recent road trip, I used the Chromebook to listen to about 10 hours worth of Podcasts. The audio sounded very good for speech.
This Chromebook comes with 4 GB of RAM. For very light usage, a Chromebook with 2 GB of RAM would be passable. Light usage meaning 1-5 Chrome tabs open. I normally have 10-20 tabs open at any time and the 4 GB of RAM really makes a difference. Some early Chromebooks were upgradeable and you could add more RAM, but that has changed with the latest models. The Acer C720 and this HP have RAM that is soldiered onto the motherboard. I'm not a fan of this trend. Chromebooks like the Acer C710 would take up to 16 GB of RAM.
There are 2 USB 3.0 ports. One USB 2.0 port. One HDMI port. One headphone-out / microphone-in combo port.
This Chromebook comes with a HP TrueVision Webcam with an integrated digital microphone. There is a camera app that works OK. The quality of the still photos is not great. The quality of the webcam is pretty good though, and for usage with Google Hangouts, it's definitely useable. The microphone sounds good too. On a good Wi-Fi network, I had an excellent experience with Google Hangouts.
The keyboard is satisfying. The keys feel good when you type. The keyboard is a little different from standard Windows keyboards. In place of the normal Function Keys (F1, F2, F3, etc) there are configuration keys for changing things like screen brightness, volume, going full screen, etc. The biggest change for people new to Chromebooks is the lack of a Caps Lock key. I have not missed it at all, but you might.
The touchpad feels very good. It reminds me of a MacBook touchpad. It and the rest of the surrounding surface are plastic, but it does look like metal. The touchpad does operate a bit differently from normal touchpads. You tap the touchpad with 2 fingers and that simulates a right mouse click. It's very easy to get the hang of it. You also use 2 fingers to scroll up and down and 2 fingers to scroll from right to left. That's useful when you have numerous tabs open. For people that hate using touchpads, just plug in a USB mouse.
The Chromebook comes with a 16 GB SSD drive. Besides being the home to Chrome OS, you can also use it for local storage. The SSD makes the Chromebook boot up almost instantly. Google gives you 100 GB of drive (cloud) storage for 2 years. After that 2 year period, most Google users will revert back to the standard 15 GB of drive storage. If you aren't over your limit, everything is fine. If you are over the limit, you aren't locked out of your existing files. You just can't add additional files until you fall under the limit. In addition to the Google Drive storage and local storage of the 16 GB SSD, you can use USB hard drives, USB flash drives, and SD cards. If you have other cloud accounts, like Dropbox, Box, or Microsoft's OneDrive, there are Chrome apps that you can add via the Chrome Web Store. If you don't like the Chrome Web Store apps, you can access your other cloud storage files from a Chrome tab. Just like on a PC or Mac.
When you download files, Chrome OS puts them all in the "Downloads" folder. You can create folders as you need them and organize until your heart's content. I have a 64 GB SD card plugged in my Chromebook, but I haven't had a need to put anything on it yet.
Before you say "Hey, I need more space for my music!!!!", don't forget that this is a Chromebook and that means it includes Google Play Music. The same interface you are used to in the Chrome browser on your PC is what you'll see in Chrome OS. Also of note, you can now store 50,000 songs in Google Play Music for free and that doesn't count against your Google Drive Space. You can even add music to Google Play Music directly from the Chromebook.
In a recent Chrome OS update, Google added the option to download Google Play Movies for off-line viewing. If you like to watch movies, you'll appreciate having a large SD card!
If you have a Chromecast, it will work with your Chromebook. That could come in handy when trying to do a presentation with Google Slides or just for entertainment purposes. I've tried it with embedded YouTube videos on AndroidCentral.com and it worked well. I've tried it with the YouTube site and that worked well too. For the best quality, you'll want a strong Wi-Fi network.
WiFi & Cellular connectivity -
This model Chromebook comes with 200 Mb of free monthly data for 2 years, compliments of T-Mobile. When you power on the Chromebook for the first time, Chrome attempts to open up the T-Mobile website so that you can sign up for the offer. The area I live in gets horrible T-Mobile reception and no matter what I tried, I could not connect with the cellular radio. I simply turned off the cellular radio and the Chromebook connected to my Wi-Fi network. What happens to the T-Mobile offer if you don't set it up right away? Nothing bad - the first time you are in a strong T-Mobile signal area, turn on the cellular radio and the T-Mobile offer page will open up. When I did it, sign-up was fast and painless. Notable was the lack of any trickery - no bait and switch - the offer details were easy to understand. Wi-Fi performance has been excellent. It comes with 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and I've even been able to connect to 5G networks. This is notable because I've had a few devices in the past that would see 5G networks, but never could connect to them or stay connected to them.
The biggest knock against Chromebooks has been that they are useless without an internet connection. That used to be true. Now, not so much. You can watch movies downloaded to the Chromebook through Google Play Movies, offline. You can download songs from Google Play Music to the Chromebook for offline listening. You can work in Google Docs offline as well. When you go back online, Google Docs will synch with your account. I expect even more offline functionality as well, as Chrome OS matures.
Google Now -
Android users that love Google Now will love it on the Chromebook - it's built into Chrome OS. That means any notifications you'd get on your mobile devices, you'll get on your Chromebook. There is a box on the action bar near the clock / Wi-Fi indicator / battery gauge. The number in the box represents the number of cards available to view. Click the box and the cards show up. Click the box again and the cards disappear. In the picture below, the box with the "1" in it is the box I'm referring to.
For some users, this Chromebook would be a bad choice...but for the average, casual user, this Chromebook could certainly be a viable option. Great keyboard, good screen, fast boot-up times, easily connectable to peripherals, Chrome extensions, Chrome apps, Google Now, and the increasing amount of off-line capabilities - you get all of that what this Chromebook. As I mentioned earlier in the review, this review was done exclusively on this Chromebook. Have a question? Leave a comment!