I've spent the last three weeks taking six business-oriented Chromebooks through their paces. I started out as a skeptical Windows-rules-them-all kind of guy: I've been using Windows since the early days, and I've rarely strayed from the ghosts of my Windows masters. By the end of my Chromebook experiment, however, my old biases were shaken.
There's a definite siren call to a light, fast, portable computer with a solid keyboard that isn't subject to the patching and malware malaise that has become part and parcel of Windows-dom. Every Chromebook runs precisely the same version of Chrome OS. It's updated constantly -- no Patch Tuesday (or Second, Third, or Fourth Tuesday, with occasional out-of-band fixes). There are no independent drivers to juggle. I, for one, find the absence of device drivers to be a godsend.
Malware, viruses, and the like are a concern with Chromebooks, but they aren't in the same cesspool as the multi-billion-dollar malware industry that slimes Windows. To be sure, crapware Chrome extensions exist, and as Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica described early this year, they can cause problems. But as far as I know, nothing resembling a Windows virus has ever hit a Chromebook -- yet. As far as I've heard, there haven't been any Chromebooks bricked by bad patches, no blue-screen blues.
Of course there are trade-offs. Many people prefer Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides over Microsoft Office, but many feel as strongly the other way. Many users are comfortable working with browser-based apps, and others prefer working closer to the metal. I can't presume your personal preferences, but I can say that Docs, Sheets, and Slides are very capable apps.
A Chromebook offers no support for connecting to network shares. The road to sharing leads to Google Drive. If you want to print from a Chromebook, you have to go through Google Cloud Print (still officially in beta), which means you can only print to a properly set-up Google Cloud Print-compatible printer. The Chrome PDF viewer, at this point, doesn't let you annotate PDF files or view annotations.
In exchange for storing your documents in Google's cloud, and doing all -- or at least most -- of your work online, the Chromebook makes caring for a computer dead simple. If that idea reverberates with you, then a Chromebook may be a good alternative to a traditional laptop.
To see what the leading Chromebook hardware manufacturers have to offer, I rounded up business-grade Chromebooks from Acer, Dell, Google, HP, Samsung, and Toshiba and took them for a three-week test-drive. Here's what I found.
Common Chromebook traits
As I noted above, Chromebooks run Chrome OS, which is, to a first approximation, the Chrome browser you've used before. To a second approximation, Chrome OS can support overlapping resizable windows (each resembling a Chrome window on Windows or OS X), as well as apps built to Google's Chrome Packaged Apps specifications. That's what gives specific apps (such as Gmail, Docs, Sheets, and so on) the ability to run even when the OS is offline. Chrome OS also includes a built-in media player and a file manager.
To the user -- at least, to me -- there's absolutely no difference among the interfaces of the machines I tested. There is no bloatware, no "unique" software differentiators. Chrome OS is Chrome OS is Chrome OS, and that's good. You can toss aside one Chromebook, get working on another in seconds, and pick up right where you left off.
That said, you'll find plenty of hardware differences. Every Chromebook you're likely to find these days has an 11.6-inch or larger screen, running at 1,366-by-768 or better resolution. But as you will see, the quality of the screens varies widely. A few Chromebooks have touchscreens.
Most use Intel Celeron processors -- low-power N2830, faster N2930, and the older (arguably faster) 2955U -- although there are Chromebooks based on Nvidia Tegra K1 chips and considerably faster Intel i3 4005U CPUs. You can even find older Samsung Chromebooks with Exynos chips. In my experience, the Celeron N2830, Celeron N2930, Tegra K-1, and Exynos machines can all hold up to a light business-caliber workload. The Intel Core i3 and Celeron 2955U machines run noticeably faster. Then there's the Core i5 3427U CPU in Google's Chromebook Pixel, which is in a class -- and price range -- unto itself.
Every Chromebook has exactly the same keyboard layout: previous/next page in browser, full screen, brightness, volume, and the like across the top, search key where Caps Lock usually goes, and directional arrow keys sitting in the lower-right corner. Unlike a Windows keyboard, there's only a Backspace key, no Delete (use Alt-Backspace). There are no Home or End keys, although you can use Ctrl-Alt-Up arrow (or Down arrow). There's no Fn key, no Windows or Command key, only Alt and Ctrl -- very simple.
All of the touchpads I saw worked exactly the same way: Tap to click, or press the bottom of the trackpad. Two-finger click (or Alt-click) is a right-click, three-finger click is a middle (or scroll-wheel) click. Drag two fingers to scroll, swipe with two to move among tabs, and click-with-one-finger and hold to drag items.
Every Chromebook also has a webcam, stereo speakers, and an earphone/mic plug. They all have TPM (Trusted Platform Module), and it's actively used for preventing firmware and software version rollback, protecting user data encryption keys, and much more.
Effective since Nov. 21, every new Chromebook sold through the end of January includes 1TB of free Google Drive storage, for two years. At current rates, that's a $240 value -- more than the price of a Chromebook in many cases.
If you're coming from a Windows world, the uniformity across the Chromebook manufacturers may put you off. Or you may find it exhilarating, knowing that whatever you learn or do on one machine transfers to another without skipping a beat.
Now let's step through the six machines and see where they differ.
Acer Chromebook 13 CB5-311-T9B0
Excellent battery life and a superb keyboard compensate for a so-so screen and occasional Chrome app compatibility issues.
Acer has been making Chromebooks since the beginning of Chrometime, but the latest rounds of Chromebook 11 and 13 offerings, released in August, break with the past. Acer has moved to the Nvidia Tegra K1 chip in a big way. In theory, the K1 offers CPU performance that rivals Intel's latest-generation Celeron processors, while delivering superior video performance and requiring less power. In practice, however, the Chromebook 13 CB5-311-T9B0 proved only marginally better than the Celerons in my testing.
I mention typing speed for a very specific reason: Of all the Chromebooks in this review (with the exception of the Chromebook Pixel), the Acer Chromebook 13 is the only machine I would consider using for long typing sessions. The keyboard has very good resistance, long throw, and noticeable feedback. While the Dell Chromebook 11 also has a good keyboard, its 11-inch screen cramps my working style.
Of course, you can always pack a keyboard. I inevitably throw my Das Keyboard 4 in the suitcase when I expect to pound away incessantly. But if you plan to touch-type on the go, the Acer Chromebook 13 makes a big difference.
The unit measures 12.87 by 8.96 by 0.71 inches deep and weighs 3.31 pounds -- about what you'd expect from a 13-inch machine.
K1 chips are not without their problems. I've seen reports of Chrome game extensions that work fine with Intel chips, but refuse to run on Nvidia chips, throwing up "The page uses a Native Client app that doesn't work on your computer." Google's Native Client technology is supposed to run on ARM devices such as the K1, but there are holdouts.
The biggest letdown with this machine: Its lackluster 1,920-by-1,080, LED-backlit TN (Twisted Nematic) screen, which is both grainy and constrained by a very narrow viewing angle. I found it difficult to use the machine on my lap because the screen would fade in and out, in spite of the advertised Comfy View technology.
Other than that, the specs are solid: two USB 3 ports, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, an SD card slot, and a full-fledged HDMI port. The webcam runs 1,280 by 720. In my YouTube battery test, I got eight hours before the battery quit, the best in this bunch of Chromebooks.
The machine I tested, the Chromebook 13 CB5-311-T9B0 with 1,920-by-1,080 display, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB flash drive, lists at $299, but I've found it discounted recently as low as $250. The upscale CB5-311-T1UU with 4GB RAM and 32GB flash lists for $380. And the squinty stepsister CB5-311-T7NN, with a lower-resolution 1,366-by-768 screen, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB flash, lists for $330. The lower-resolution screen should add up to two hours to the battery life.
Dell Chromebook 11 CB1C13
Dell is about to release a newer version of its Chromebook 11, but the new Intel Core i3 4005U model wasn't available in time for this review. Still, the Celeron 2955U model is no slouch. Its Google Octane benchmark score of 10,400 puts it near the top of the pack, second only to the Chromebook Pixel.
It's a portly portable, to be sure. Measuring 11.6 by 7.9 by 0.97 inches thick and weighing 2.9 pounds, it's oddly plump for an 11-inch Chromebook.
You should expect Dell's usual build quality: It's a solid machine with a nice-looking cover. There's a full array of ports -- two USB 3.0 slots, an HDMI port, and an SD card reader -- and 802.1a/b/g/n (but not ac) comes standard. Dell's spec sheet says the CB1C13 has "integrated Ethernet," but there's no Ethernet port -- you need to use a dongle.
My battery test came in at 7.5 hours, which is quite good, especially considering the CPU performance. The speakers work reasonably well, but the 720p webcam has trouble coping with variable contrast. The power cords on most Chromebooks come with a right-angle bend next to the machine; on the Dell it sticks way out.
Then there's the screen. Dell hasn't given this device the screen it deserves. At 11.6 inches, 1,366-by-768 resolution, the old-fashioned TN panel looks washed-out, with poor color rendition and very narrow viewing angles. It'll suffice for most corporate jobs, but you wouldn't want to watch "Life of Pi" on it. As a bit of compensation, the HDMI port can drive a full 1,920-by-1,080 HD monitor.
That said, the keyboard's quite nice. Dell's keyboard has respectable throw and reasonably good tactile feedback. I found I could speed type on it quite easily, unlike with several other keyboards in this roundup. The responsive, standard-sized touchpad (4 by 2.25 inches) has a pleasant feel and operates smoothly, with no false starts.
Dell's site lists the base model with 2GB of memory and 16GB flash at $279. I've found small discounts from that price on various vendors' sites. Bump up the memory to 4GB for an additional $20. As of this writing, the Core i3 version (4GB memory, 16GB flash) lists at $379, but doesn't ship until late December.
Dell has been advertising this thoroughly capable (if optically challenged) beast as if it were intended exclusively for the education market. That seems odd to me, because the machine clearly has a lot to offer in the corporate world. Perhaps the marketing folks decided to emphasize school kids because Dell was late to the market -- Dell shipped this, only its first Chromebook, earlier this year. Perhaps Dell is concerned about eating into its Windows-drenched base. Maybe it doesn't want to strain that $2 billion investment from Microsoft ("Sure, Steve, we have a Chromebook, but it's only for kids"). Whatever the reason, take the advertising with a grain of salt.
The Celeron-based Dell Chromebook 11 works quite well in a business setting, at least in my tests, and I have no doubt the Core i3 version will work even better. If only Dell would improve the screen.
Google Chromebook Pixel
Google released the ultimate Chromebook, called the Chromebook Pixel, back in February 2013, with a second, LTE-enabled model arriving in April. No Chromebook before or since has come close to the Pixel's elegance, gorgeous screen, outstanding keyboard -- or exorbitant price.
Comparisons with the 13-inch MacBook Pro are inevitable. The Pixel measures 11.72 by 8.84 by 0.64 inches thick and weighs 3.4 pounds; the current 13-inch MacBook Pro runs 12.35 by 8.62 by 0.71 inches thick and weighs 3.46 pounds. They're kissin' cousins if only in the cloud.
Certainly one of the most breathtaking screens on any mobile machine anywhere, the Pixel's 12.8-inch IPS multitouch screen runs at a stunning 2,560-by-1,700 resolution. By comparison, a nontouch 13.3-inch MacBook Pro Retina screen runs 2,560 by 1,600 pixels. You can crank the resolution up all the way and enjoy the finest portable resolution around, while squinting at teensy-tiny text (to adjust, type chrome://settings/display in the browser). Or you can stick with the installation default, 1280 by 850, for supercrisp text and saturated working glory. Stunning colors can be viewed from neck-craning angles, and the multitouch responds quite precisely. The screen is glossy, but not too glossy. This is, quite possibly, the best portable touchscreen ever made.
Lest you think attention was only lavished on the screen, the backlit keyboard is a beauty, too. The keys, recessed into the base, respond quickly, with a surprising amount of throw and a solid tactile feedback. Touch-typists never had it so good on a portable keyboard. The big, silky, etched-glass trackpad follows every nuance. Even the sound is extraordinary, emanating from two speakers underneath the keypad -- although bass is limited, as you probably expected.
In the nearly two years since it was first released, technology has progressed, but alas, the Pixel has not. The machine has two USB 2, not USB 3, ports, and 802.11a/b/g/n 2x2 MIMO Wi-Fi, but no 802.11ac. The battery leaves much to be desired: While Google claims five hours, my YouTube test crapped out at 3.5 hours. Google tosses in 1TB of free Google Drive storage for three years -- valuable when the system launched, but chicken scratch these days. While the fan isn't unbearably noisy, many of today's Chromebooks have figured out a way to eliminate the fan entirely.
Then there's the price. The 4GB model with 32GB flash memory will set you back a bracing $1,299 on Google Play -- somewhere between four and five times what one would expect to pay for a Chromebook. The LTE version bumps up the flash storage to 64GB and adds 100MB per month of free Verizon Wireless (yawn), while the price climbs to a stunning $1,449.
Few retailers carry the Chromebook Pixel -- between the aging components and the obscene price, it must be a tough sell. If you are intent on busting a bottomless budget and don't mind paying a pretty penny for the hands-down best Chromebook on the market, despite its geriatric tendencies and hopeless battery, try shopping Google Play and Amazon.com.
HP Chromebook 14 G3
The original HP Chromebook 14 drew high marks for its processing prowess. The latest version, dubbed "G3" (or more officially the 14-x010nr), has switched to the Nvidia Tegra K1 processor. That's a mixed bag.
The unit measures 13.54 by 9.44 by 0.7 inches tall, so it's a bit smaller than the Acer Chromebook 13. At 3.78 pounds, it's a bit hefty. Blame the larger screen.
The 14-inch, 1,366-by-768 screen is a sizable chunk of real estate, but unfortunately marred by the old-fashioned resolution and TN technology. Color reproduction seems muddy at best, and like so many other Chromebooks, it offers a very limited viewing angle. HP has a 1,920-by-1,080 touchscreen version due to arrive soon (model K4K23UA), for $100 more.
There are reports that future version of the HP Chromebook 14 G3 will support mobile broadband, but I haven't seen an official announcement about when, where, what kind of broadband, or how much it will cost.
The battery gave up after 6.5 hours in my YouTube torture test -- reasonable for a 14-inch display. On the port side, my machine came with two USB 2 and one USB 3 ports. There's a MicroSD slot and a full-size HDMI port. Wi-Fi support comes in the full 802.11a/b/g/n/ac spectrum, 2x2 MIMO.
I didn't like the keyboard. The keys have a typical Chiclet feel -- mushy, short throw -- and the tray underneath the keyboard flexes too much for my taste. With my typically ham-fisted, fast touch-typing, the keys bounced up and down like a Willy's in four-wheel drive. Your mileage may vary, of course, particularly if you're a two-finger typist. The touchpad works well.
My test machine, with 1,366-by-768 display, 2GB of RAM, and a 16GB flash drive, retails for $299, but it's widely available for about $270. Move up to 4GB of RAM and expect to pay $30 extra. The 4GB RAM version with 32GB flash lists at $349. The model with the better screen -- 1,920 by 1,080, touch -- is listed at $429, but as best I can tell none have shipped to date. HP says the end of December.
Samsung Chromebook 2 (Intel XE500C12)
Samsung's first-generation Chromebooks blazed new trails and proved surprisingly successful, but they shipped with an unusual chip, the ARM-based Exynos 5420 (Exynos 5480 for the 13-inch model), manufactured by Samsung itself.
With the latest generation, which started rolling out in October, that's changed. The Samsung Chromebook 2 reviewed here runs on a Celeron N2840. While Acer and HP have jumped from Celerons to ARM chips in their latest generations, Samsung has jumped in precisely the opposite direction.
Samsung chromebook 2 (Intel XE500C12)Samsung Samsung Chromebook 2
Be careful when ordering. Confusingly, Samsung has released Exynos devices with the "Samsung Chromebook 2" name. If you're looking for the newer, Celeron-based Samsung Chromebook 2 models, make sure of the specs.
I tested the 11.6-inch Celeron-based Samsung Chromebook 2 specifically because its 13-inch counterpart isn't out yet. Specs on the widely anticipated 13-inch model haven't been released, but presumably it too will run on a Celeron chip, sans fan, and pack the same, well-received 1,920-by-1,080 screen as its older cousins.
With a Google Octane 2.0 score of 7,900, the Celeron-fueled Samsung Chromebook 2 shows it can keep up with the pack. Unlike the two Nvidia Tegra K1 systems in this roundup, the Samsung was fully capable of coping with my fast touch-typing while many tabs were open. I've read about lag problems with some machines, but I didn't see any at all on this one.
The 11.6-inch TN screen won't win any awards, much less any converts, but color renders reasonably well, with not-at-all-gray blacks, and the viewing angle isn't as truncated as in competing small screens. Text at default sizes can be read without squinting. The screen isn't that bright -- it's listed at 200 nits, which is unexceptional -- but there's little glare.
The faux stitched-leather case, identical to Samsung's Galaxy and Note cases, goes a long way toward making the all-plastic exterior seem "professional," for lack of a better term. The unit is small and remarkably thin, measuring 11.4 by 8.06 by 0.66 inches. It's light, too, at 2.65 pounds.
My only gripe with the exterior design: You can't tell when the battery is charging without prying open the lid.
There's a full accoutrement of ports: one USB 2, one USB 3, a MicroSD slot, and a full-sized HDMI port. Wi-Fi support covers all the bases with 802.11b/g/n/ac and a 2x2 antenna.
The keyboard is usable, albeit not exceptional, with good throw and light feedback. At least the carriage under the keyboard doesn't bobble under heavy typing, as is the case with the HP Chromebook 14 3G.
The Samsung Chromebook 2 11-inch lasted 6.5 hours on my YouTube battery battering -- not great, but not bad.
Samsung lists the 11.6-inch machine with 2GB of RAM and 16GB flash (model XE500C12-K01US) at $230. I've seen it a little cheaper at online retailers. Be sure you get the newer Intel version.
Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35
Toshiba makes two Chromebook 2 models, one with a typical ho-hum TN screen running at 1,366 by 768, the other with a gorgeous 13-inch IPS screen running at 1,920 by 1,080. Both models run a Celeron N2840 chip. The ho-hum one (with 2GB of RAM and 16GB flash) costs $250; the glorious one (with 4GB of RAM and 16GB flash) costs $80 more.
In a strictly Chrome OS world, the one with the infinitely superior screen and double the amount of RAM -- the CB35 -- is the one you want. But in the real world, where that $330 price tag starts bumping up against decent Windows 8 machines, the choice isn't so easy.
I can say without fear of contradiction that the 13.3-inch Toshiba CB35 1,920-by-1,080 IPS screen is the finest Chromebook screen on the market (except for the Chromebook Pixel, at four times the price). Rich colors, real blacks, and a wide viewing angle will keep your eyeballs coming back for more.
Unfortunately, Toshiba is showing a backlog of orders at the moment -- the 1,920-by-1,080 version won't ship until late December.
(Pro tip: I'm forever surprised that people don't realize how easy it is to scale the display inside Chrome. If 1,920 by 1,080 gives you text that's too hard to read, click on the three-line "hamburger" Settings icon in the upper-right corner and, in the middle of the fly-out menu, click the + sign next to Zoom.)
The case, which measures 12.6 by 8.4 by 0.76 inches thick, is comfortable and relatively thin. At 2.95 pounds, it's a touch lighter than the Acer Chromebook 13.
Ports include all the usual suspects: one USB 3, one USB 2, a full HDMI, and a full-size SD card slot. Wireless is state of the art with 802.11b/g/n/ac and a 2x2 antenna. The sound system "tuned by Skullcandy" rocks -- really. From rock to blues, classical to country, the built-in speakers showed great range and at least a little bass.
The keyboard failed to impress. It's of the minimal-throw persuasion, and feedback is minor. I wouldn't want to spend all day typing on it. The trackpad, on the other hand, works fine -- easily distinguished clicks, light actuation, no ambiguity with double-clicks.
My take-no-prisoners YouTube battery drain test saw the 1,920-by-1,080 Toshiba Chromebook 2 dead in about 7.5 hours. That puts it behind only the Acer in this roundup, even with the Dell.
Toshiba seems to put together sales from time to time, so it would be well worth the effort to check the Toshiba website for the latest prices.
All in all, if you need a good working-class Chromebook, with an outstanding screen and don't mind the $330 price, this is the one. For those of you who bang on the keyboard all day -- or at least back at the hotel -- toss in a USB keyboard and you'll be well provisioned.
Chromebook or Windows laptop?
For the longest time, Chromebooks were plain cheap compared to reasonably capable Windows laptops. With the advent of $200 and $300 Windows 8.1 + Bing laptops from every major manufacturer -- good ones, too, depending on your predilections -- that cost advantage has faded into oblivion. For $300 you can get a good Chromebook or a good Windows 8.1 laptop, and at $350 the choice between Chromebook and Windows laptop may become even more difficult.
That said, the same hardware specs behind a speedy Chromebook may make for a decidedly underpowered Windows machine. As always, it all depends on the workload. As I experienced in my testing, a Chromebook can seem underpowered too -- if you drive it hard enough.
None of the Chromebooks I reviewed struck the perfect balance in performance, usability, and price. While Google's Pixel is unmatched in almost every respect, the price tag makes it a nonstarter for all but the most well-heeled. Otherwise, its only shortcoming is its 3.5-hour battery life, which is more akin to a Windows laptop than other Chromebooks.
I found the Nvidia Tegra K1 machines -- the Acer Chromebook 13 and HP Chromebook 14 G3 -- to be a bit underpowered for demanding use. For serious productivity, I recommend you find a Chromebook with an Intel Celeron or Intel Core processor. The Celeron-powered units here -- the Dell Chromebook 11, the Samsung Chromebook 2, and the Toshiba Chromebook 2 -- delivered both better performance and battery life that matched their Nvidia-based competitors.
With the one obvious exception, none of the Chromebooks here paired a great screen with a great keyboard. Apart from the Pixel, only the screen of the Toshiba Chromebook 2 stands out. The Toshiba's combination of gorgeous screen, usable keyboard, good performance, and excellent build quality make it my top choice.
Chromebooks can't do everything Windows PCs can do, obviously. You wouldn't want to saddle an Excel expert or PowerPoint power user with a Chromebook, and if Andrea in Accounting wants to run QuickBooks, she won't find a Chrome version. But neither individual users nor companies are homogeneous. Some people will breathe a sigh of relief when they discover that they don't have to wrestle with Windows Update and can get all their work done in a no-hassle browser.
For the user who likes to keep it simple -- and the company that could see a specific job function, carve it out, set it in Chrome, then strip back all the extraneous junk -- the Chromebook offers a way to pursue a nearly hassle-free cyber existence. With a Chromebook, the computer's no longer part of the problem. It's a simple tool, like a phone or a desk chair, and it doesn't require any care or feeding.
Talk about productivity.
|InfoWorld Scorecard||Usability (30%)||Build quality (20%)||Performance (20%)||Battery life (15%)||Value (15%)||Overall Score (100%)|
|Acer Chromebook 13 CB5-311-T9B0||8||8||5||9||7||7.4|
|Dell Chromebook 11 CB1C13||5||9||8||8||8||7.3|
|Google Chromebook Pixel||10||10||10||5||5||8.5|
|HP Chromebook 14 G3||8||7||5||6||9||7.1|
|Samsung Chromebook 2 (Intel XE500C12)||7||9||6||6||8||7.2|
|Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35||8||9||7||8||6||7.7|