Toshiba Chromebook 2 review: An attractive Chrome OS experience

Toshiba's new Chromebook 2 offers admirable build quality and outstanding speakers and display.

Toshiba's Chromebook 2

Toshiba's Chromebook 2

At first, if you wanted a Chrome OS laptop, your choices were to either pay $1,300 for a top-of-the-line experience or to suffer with a poky and poorly built product in the $200 to $400 range.

The introduction of Intel's Haswell-based processors in 2013 fixed part of the problem, giving us affordable Chromebooks with plenty of power -- devices like Acer's C720 Chromebook and Dell's Chromebook 11. Then this year's Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook brought in the first midrange option, with a never-before-seen level of build quality, display quality and versatility -- and a price just under $500.

Now Toshiba wants to offer a touch of class for even less cash with its new Chromebook 2, on sale from a variety of retailers for $330. The Toshiba Chromebook 2 provides the best display ever seen on a low-cost Chromebook along with exceptional speakers and commendable design. So could it be the first entry-level Chrome OS system that actually delivers a great all-around experience?

I've been living with the Chromebook 2 for the past several days to find out.

(Note: This review is specifically about the $330 Chromebook 2. Toshiba is also selling a lower-end, $250 version of the device; the remarks made here apply to the $330 model only.)

Body, display and speakers

When you pick up Toshiba's Chromebook 2, it doesn't feel like you're picking up an entry-level laptop. The device is made of plastic and is by no means a premium product, but it doesn't seem at all cheap or flimsy, as low-cost Chromebooks frequently do. Instead, it's solid and sturdy while still managing to appear classy and sleek.

The Chromebook 2 has a distinctive textured design on its silver lid that's easy to grip and makes the laptop look more expensive than it is. At 12.6 x 8.4 x 0.76 in. and just under 3 lb., the computer is reasonably sized and quite light for its class; it's easy to carry around and rests comfortably on your lap.

It is a bit bigger than many Chrome OS devices and there's a reason for that: The system packs a 13.3-in. display, which gives you significantly more screen space than the more common 11.6-in. size. Dimensions aside, though, it's the quality of Toshiba's screen that truly makes the system stand out.

This is the first Chrome OS device to offer a 1080p display that's built of high-quality IPS material -- not the cheap and grainy TN-based technology we see on the vast majority of Chromebooks. As a result, the screen is bright, crisp and clear, with vivid colors and excellent viewing angles. It really is a night-and-day difference from the typical Chromebook viewing experience; once you use a device with a display of this caliber, you'll never want to go back to the vastly inferior alternative.

Actually, the fact that the Chromebook 2's screen is IPS instead of TN is the most significant factor in its eye-pleasing appearance. As devices like Samsung's Chromebook 2 have demonstrated, putting 1080p on a low-quality display panel is akin to putting lipstick on a pig -- you can dress it up all you want, but it's still going to look awful. And on the flip side, the aforementioned Yoga 11e Chromebook has shown us that lower resolution on a high-quality IPS screen can look pretty darn good.

That being said, the Chromebook 2's 1080p resolution does make a noticeable impact: Compared to the Yoga 11e, text on the Chromebook 2 is extra sharp and images are especially detailed. The higher resolution also means elements on the screen are smaller, which makes the display feel even more spacious than it already is (though it also makes text on webpages uncomfortably small to read -- something I've had to get around by increasing the system's default zoom level to 125%). All in all, an IPS panel is the most important part of creating a good viewing experience, but the addition of 1080p resolution is certainly nice icing on the cake.

The Chromebook 2 also excels in the realm of audio: The laptop's speakers are simply spectacular and a significant notch above what any other system in this class provides. The front-facing dual stereo speakers are hidden beneath the Chromebook's keyboard; music played through them is loud and clear and not in the least bit hollow or tinny. The bass is so present, in fact, that you can actually feel the vibrations if you turn up the sound while the device is on your lap.

Toshiba says the speakers were "fine-tuned" for both "quality and attitude" (whatever that means) by the folks at Skullcandy -- a fact you won't soon forget, thanks to the prominent printing of the Skullcandy logo beneath the Chromebook's keyboard. How much of a difference that "tuning" makes is debatable, but one thing's for sure: Audio played through this computer sounds fantastic.

The rest of the Chromebook 2's body is fine but unremarkable: The keyboard is the standard Chrome OS chiclet setup. The keys are well-spaced and easy to type on; while they're not at the level of quality you'd get with a higher-end system like the Yoga 11e, they're very much in line with what we see on most decent entry-level Chromebooks.

The same can be said for the trackpad, which works well but has a hard plasticky feel and is nothing to write home about. Like the keyboard, it's on par for this class of device -- not extraordinary, but no real cause for complaint.

Performance, stamina and storage

If this all sounds too good to be true for $330, here comes the caveat: The Chromebook 2's performance isn't amazing. In fact, it's significantly slower than other similarly priced and even cheaper Chrome OS products.

Toshiba's Chromebook 2 uses one of Intel's Bay Trail processors -- specifically, the dual-core Celeron N2840. With 4GB of RAM, the computer is usable but no speed demon -- and with higher levels of multitasking in particular, it really shows its limits.

So what does that mean in real-world terms? If you tend to keep just one or two tabs open at a time, it'll probably be fine for your purposes, although a bit less snappy than what some other Chromebooks would provide. If you regularly keep more than a few active tabs running at once, however, you might grow frustrated with the choppiness and lag that start to show up in those more intensive-use scenarios.

Of course, it's all relative. The Chromebook 2 is a firm step below Haswell-based devices like the Acer C720 and Dell Chromebook 11 when it comes to overall speed and capability. It's a smaller but still noticeable notch behind the Yoga 11e Chromebook, which also uses a Bay Trail processor but one that's quad-core and contains double the cache. On the other hand, it's a touch faster than the Acer Chromebook 11, which uses Nvidia's Tegra K1 processor -- a chip that sounds impressive on paper but is surprisingly imperfect in the Chrome OS context.

The Chromebook 2 is adequate when it comes to stamina: Though the system is listed for "up to nine hours" of use per charge, I've been tapping out after about 6.5 to 7 hours on most days. To be fair, that's with pretty heavy-duty work -- numerous tabs running and lots of multitasking -- and with the display at its default brightness level, which is somewhere around 66%. With less resource-intensive use or with the display brightness dialed down, it's quite possible the battery will stretch further.

On the plus side, the Chromebook 2 is essentially silent while it runs. The system does get a bit warm from time to time, but not to any degree that's particularly shocking or bothersome.

Toshiba's laptop comes with 16GB of internal SSD space as well as 100GB of cloud storage from Google Drive for two years. The computer has an SD card reader as well, if you want to add more local storage; it also has one USB 2.0 port and one USB 3.0 port for external device connections.

Bottom line

Unless you're willing to shell out some serious cash, Chromebooks require a certain level of compromise -- and Toshiba's Chromebook 2 is no exception.

The laptop has the best display available on an affordable Chromebook -- and that goes a long way in making the device pleasant to use. The screen is your window into the system, after all, and the impact a display of this caliber has on the overall user experience can't be overstated. Factor in the killer speakers and above-average build quality, and you've got an exceptionally enjoyable setup.

With those niceties, though, comes a level of performance that's okay but not exemplary -- "good enough" perhaps, but not great. Depending on how you anticipate using the system, that could be a worthwhile tradeoff or an unacceptable hindrance.

The question is ultimately whether you'd rather have a Chromebook with okay performance and an awesome display or one with great performance but a terrible screen. For most casual users, I suspect the former will lead to a better overall experience -- and that's why for most consumers, I'd recommend Toshiba's Chromebook 2 as the best affordable Chromebook you can buy today.

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