HP and Google combined to create two new Chromebooks which were launched early last month: The $299  Intel Haswell-powered Chromebook 14 and the smaller Samsung Exynos ARM-powered Chromebook 11. Both machines mark new territory for Google and HP. The Silicon Valley neighbors have been getting closer and closer since Meg Whitman took over as CEO, including an expanding array of Android tablets as well. The initial HP Chromebooks were clearly re-purposed Windows laptops. These clearly are something entirely different…

Build Quality: The Chromebook 11 is a very playful, shiny, hard-plastic take on the earlier Samsung Chromebook (review). When I say plastic, I mean a strong magnesium-coated plastic that yields a solid shell that is largely immune to scuffing and scratching.  After a month of moderate use, my review unit looks like it did when I opened it.

As you can see from the gallery above, the two machines are similar sized on the outside and are even more similar on the inside including the same Samsung Exynos processor, 2GB DDR3 RAM and 16GB SSD. HP’s design, however, is a fresh, playful look rather than a plastic ripoff of a MacBook Air, which Samsung executed.

Taketh away: Compared to Samsung’s $249 model, HP stripped away some ports, including USB 3 and DisplayPort video out, though you can buy a $20 micro-USB SlimPort video output display adapter (similar to Nexus 4, 5 and 7) out to hook up to a 1080P display. You’ll also want to get a USB SD card reader if you plan on using SD cards.

Don’t fret though, HP more than made up for the port losses with design improvements.

Giveth: The 11.6-inch 1366 x 768 pixel resolution IPS display on the 11 is gorgeous. Great 176-degree viewing angles, 300 nits of brightness, and vibrant color put it at or near-high-end ultrabooks or Apple’s (4x as expensive) MacBook Air, and far better than Samsung’s effort.

The keyboard is also much improved, again in line with high end ultrabooks or a MacBook Air. Keys are certainly more ‘clickable,’ yet quieter. The trackpad isn’t better or worse, just different.

The speakers are much improved and paired with the two months of free Google Play All Access is a great way to be introduced to a device (with most of the music I’d ever want).  I hate to be repetitive but these speakers might be better than the ones on a similar-sized MacBook Air. Bluetooth 4.0 allows many other wireless peripherals without taxing the batteries.

Gamechanger: The biggest change on this device is the power input, which is now Micro-USB—the same standard connector used on most phone or tablets. Gone are the proprietary chargers that all other Chromebooks (and laptops in general) use for that matter. This means you can charge it just about anywhere a USB port exists, including the car, airplanes, and probably half the outlets in your house (if you are anything like me). Cheap external USB batteries work well here so you can easily double or triple the 6 hour battery life for a few bucks. You can even charge the HP Chromebook 11 from another computer.

While micro-USB phone chargers will keep your Chromebook going and even give a little back to the battery, if you want a quick charge, you’ll need something burlier like HP’s included 15.75W charging USB adapter.

The OS and experience: Every iteration of Chrome OS and Chromebook feels considerably more polished than the last and the HP 11 is no exception. Google now has Chrome Apps that look like native apps and the whole OS feels fluid, even on ARM. I often forget that I am on a Chromebook until I open too many tabs for the 2GB memory or a particularly heavy Javascript or Flash site bogs it down.

Remaining quibbles for me are multi-account Twitter and AIM clients (*Skype*), higher-end image editing (though G+ and others are quickly improving) and support for printers and huge monitors. But we’re 95% there and my needs are out of the ordinary.  Folks who need to watch videos, browse the web, do email and chat and do some document editing are going to be able to jump right in a on a Chromebook and never look back.

Wrap-up: The biggest limiting factor to the success of the Chromebook isn’t Windows or Mac-powered PCs, but iPads and Google’s own Android tablets.  HP addresses one big advantage of this competition by allowing you to charge this computer with a USB port.  There is no question in my mind that I can get more work done on a Chromebook like this than an iPad or Android tablet.  However, tablets are more fun.

Therefore, I can wholeheartedly recommend the HP Chromebook 11 for folks who want to do more work than you’d do on a tablet, especially with Google Apps. For parents, kids, friends who use their computers moderately or power users who need a second/emergency computer, the HP is a no-brainer.  You only have $279 to lose. 

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