As a Chrome OS user for the past two and a half years, I have rarely felt love for the hardware that runs my operating system of choice. I’ve come to view every Chromebook as a utilitarian thin client that has a good enough keyboard, processor, and screen.
In using the HP Chromebook 13 for the past week, however, my computing experience has been thoroughly improved and that speaks to an unaddressed higher-end segment of the market that’s waiting to grow in the realm of Chrome OS laptops.
Looking at just the marketing shots, you’d think that HP made a unibody metal laptop with the Chromebook 13. I believed that until I got the device and turned it upside down. Rather, the bottom case is made of a soft touch plastic material that attracts dust and finger oils. While it undoubtedly helps with grip and heat dissipation, it is somewhat disappointing when you realize that the most expensive configuration costs over $1000. The materials choice is somewhat more palatable at $500 for the entry model. [Update: According to HP, the bottom is made of magnesium with a matte paint finish that should be scratch-resistant. While it can feel like plastic, I’m much more assured durability-wise by this material.]
Along with the edges of the screen and keyboard, the bottom has a nice inward slant that makes the laptop feel even thinner than half an inch. The curvature greatly helps with grip, especially when carrying the laptop with an open screen. Two horizontal strips raise the laptop off the table with port labels and regulatory markings being the only other things found on the underside.
The top case surrounding the keyboard and trackpad is made of brushed metal with horizontal machined lines. There are also many small details that make the Chromebook 13 look quite classy, including a diamond cut border around the trackpad. Above the keyboard, holes for the B&O speaker grill are arranged in a neat uneven pattern. Right on top is the cylindrical and shiny piano hinge that provides much needed curves to an otherwise clean lined laptop.
While Type-C is clearly the future, I highly appreciate the inclusion of a regular USB Type-A port. It’s important for the many wearables that comes with adapters that use the previous connector. Next to the two USB-C ports is an indicator light, with a 3.5mm headphone jack and microSD card slot rounding out the ports.
When it comes down to the more important specs and feeds, industrial design doesn’t matter all too much. However, in finally using a Chrome OS device with a solid metal body, excellent materials, and small, delightful flourishes, it really feels like I’m using something more than traditional Chromebook hardware.
A reflective logo graces the dark metal metal lid, though I wish HP went with the new minimalist icon used on its Spectre line of laptops. On the top left corner, you find an elegant monochromatic Chrome logo and next to it is a plastic slot antenna that break the seamless metal cover. It’s in the exact same spot as the Chromebook Pixel’s light bar and its inclusion would have brought some much needed color.
Opening the laptop, you’ll notice that the black bezel of the screen is actually made of plastic. But before you begin to complain, the gorgeously high-res 3200 x 1800 screen will distract you from the lack of a fully premium build. The screen is an absolutely overkill with beautiful IPS viewing angles for video, and it’s a gorgeous dream for the pixel density enthusiast.
Battery-wise, a full HD panel — available only on the cheapest Chromebook 13 — is rated at 11.5 hours, while the QHD+ resolution offers 8.75 hours. With an intensive daily work load of browsing, video watching, and writing, I consistently ended an 8 hour stretch of near continuous usage with around 20% battery life remaining. At screen brightness set to half, it was plenty bright and I was quite impressed with this feat.
Keyboard + Touchpad
The keyboard takes up most of the Chromebook’s width and is only one of a few that are backlit. While I memorize the alphabet, symbols and the function row of every computer continue to elude me. As my first Chromebook with a backlit keyboard, I do finally realize why people find it so convenient. Unfortunately, there is no system UI to adjust the brightness, but rather a hardware key combination (ALT + brightness keys) is used to adjust and turn it off. By default, watching a video in full screen will turn off the keyboard backlight.
While the keyboard is full size, the trackpad and palm rest feel proportionally small — especially the length — to the rest of laptop. I found the trackpad so small that my index finger’s natural resting place would end up being on the very border of the trackpad’s left side. It took me a few days to adjust, but eventually I got used to the smaller size.
Subjected to a routine of heavy writing on a daily basis the keyboard is just okay. Compared to Acer Chromebook keyboards this one is on the mushy side. Specifically, there is only a soft click when pressed down and the keys themselves feel thin. These complains don’t hamper my productivity, but are noticeable at first.
The HP Chromebook 13 is a hot computer, figuratively and literally. Light browsing with a few videos can cause this Chromebook to noticeably heat up. Specifically, the heat spot is from the ‘Q’ to ‘R’ keys and the corresponding location underneath. While sixth-generation Intel Core M chips allow for fan-less thin and lights, the top end processors just get too hot.
The heat on the underside restricts this Chromebook to desk usage or at least requiring something between the computer and your lap. If you’re need a Chromebook with an m5 or m7 processor, you’re most likely using it for lengthy and extensive multitasking and web browsing, or possibly data manipulation, web development, or running Linux. In that case, your device will likely be anchored to a desk anyways.
I have not tested the other models, but I do not expect this to be an issue on the Pentium model (still based on Skylake) and greatly reduced on the m3.
Octane 2.0 benchmarks shows the Pentium model performing 1.6x better than a Chromebook running a comparable chip from the previous generation. The m3 sees a 2.4x increase, with the m5 at 3.0x and m7 at 3.4x.
For regular people who want to use a Chromebook as it is intended, I’d recommend the two lower end variants. The 4GB of RAM is a slight shame, but I did not see a real performance improvement between 4GB and 8GB when only a dozen tabs are open. If anything, doubling the RAM from my previous Chromebook just made me lazier about closing tabs I was finish with.
Those who have yet to set up another Chromebook cannot truly appreciate how easy it is to get up and running again. Everything from app organization, extensions, wallpaper, and preferences are immediately restored after signing in with your Google Account. It removes any hesitation you might have to powerwash if something bugs out. Chrome OS establishes the bar for what setting up a new computer should be.
Otherwise, Chrome OS is quite unremarkable on the Chromebook 13. HP preloaded a web app to register the product, but that’s about it. With a 3200 x 1800 resolution screen, there is an option in display settings to use it a native resolution where everything is comically small. The default 1600 x 900 resolution allows me to see noticeable more stuff on screen when compared to my previous 11.6-inch.
Chrome OS continues to get new features every six weeks. Notable highlights recently include a Material redesign of the browser, files app, and music player. Coming up by year’s end is support for the Play Store. I’ve previously opined how Android apps make Chrome OS a worthy Mac/Windows competitor and cannot wait for its addition to something as capable as the Chromebook 13.
With decent specs and low prices, most Chromebooks have more in common with the smartphone upgrade cycle than the laptop one. First and foremost, Chrome OS devices are meant to be affordable and as such manufacturers choose specs that are just good enough to provide a decent experience for the next 18-24 months.
The higher starting price of the HP Chromebook 13 family definitely changes the ownership calculus. In buying even the lower end $500 Pentium model, you are making the conscious decision to splurge on hardware. Despite the unfortunate lack of a unibody design and only decent keyboard, this would make for the nicest Chromebook that regular people have actually bought and owned. The brushed aluminum and slanted edges contribute to a very sleek, thin look that is usually not afforded to Chrome OS devices.
The HP Chromebook 13 adds style and quality to a product category synonymous with utilitarianism and affordability. While the specific Core m5 model I’m reviewing forfeits the latter characteristic, its physical design and quality is stellar enough to consider purchasing a cheaper spec’ed, but still capable model.
Where to Buy
The best place to buy the Chromebook 13 right now is from HP’s online store. The Pentium, m3, and m5 variants are all currently in stock for $499, $599, and $819, respectively. Best Buy should soon have units available in store, with its online site listing all models, including the m7 with 16GB of RAM for $1019.