Considering a Chromebook

Chromebooks are becoming an increasingly popular choice for school kids. They’re designed to work largely in the cloud, using a trimmed-down operating system and minimal local storage. The expectation is that you’ll use (Google’s) cloud services for storage, productivity and communication.

If you’re not familiar with Chrome OS, then you should know that it’s an extremely simplified OS built around the Chrome browser. By and large, the browser is the interface – even system settings are managed through the browser interface.

You can install other apps on it including Spotify and music apps, Netflix, Plex and other media apps, games, weather and outdoor apps, health and fitness and so on.

There are thousands of options available in the Chrome Web Store. But these are much more like mobile apps than desktop ones, and a lot of them are really just launchers for web sites.

Even more so than a mobile OS like Android or iOS, it’s made to be very easy to use and largely idiot-proof. You can’t easily mess with settings or fudge things up.

Because the OS is so streamlined (it’s built on a trimmed-down Linux kernel), it doesn’t require a lot of horsepower to run.

A processor that would chug on Windows will often be perfectly snappy in Chrome OS, and 2GB of memory is actually plenty unless you really want to load a lot of apps into memory.

Because it keys into Google cloud services and local apps tend to be quite small, you’re not required to have much local storage. 16GB is common and that typically leaves you with about 10GB for app installs.

Dell Chromebook 11 3120

Dell Chromebook 11 2In contrast to the consumer-friendly styling of many Chromebooks and under-$500 laptops, the Dell Chromebook 11 is all business. It’s elegantly styled in black and grey, with a dense design, spill-protection and rubber trimming that makes it look and feel quite a bit tougher than most of the competition.

Indeed, the Chromebook is sold in Dell’s business section, rather than the consumer store, and has gone through mil spec ruggedness testing. The only issue we really had with the design was the slightly raised touchpad, which felt a little unresponsive and made dragging and dropping a little painful (not that you need to do much of that in Chrome OS).

It also features a few specs that one-up most of the competition. Where most Chromebooks have webcams limited to VGA resolution, Dell offers 720p. 802.11n Wi-Fi is the order of the day on most of the rest; the Dell supports 802.11ac.

It also uses a processor with a higher clock speed than most, but only two cores. At least for the Google Octane benchmark, that pays off — it rated notably higher than the quad-core processors used by Lenovo and HP.

Although people looking for something with a little more zazz may be tempted to go with one of the more colourful or fancy Chromebook designs, the better specs and rugged build of the Dell make it our top pick right now.

It won’t die when your kids mistreat it, it performs just a little bit better than the rest, and it comes with 100GB of Google Drive storage for two years.

Verdict: It’s built tough without being heavy, and has solid specs that we’d like to see in more Chromebooks. Highly recommended.

Price: $462
From: Dell

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

HP Chromebook 11 (Y07G C1)

HP Chromebook 11The soft colours and Fisher-Price styling of the current model HP Chromebook 11 may make it look like a kids’ tool, but the HP Chromebook 11 is absolutely solid, with well designed parts and a perfectly snappy interface.

It’s light without feeling flimsy; the keyboard feels great for rapid-fire typing; the screen has a limited resolution but excellent viewing angles; and the touchpad has just the right amount of sensitivity. It is, quite simply, a nice design all around.

Unfortunately for prospective buyers, HP sells the Chromebook 11 in an absurd array of different specifications, some of which even use ARM processors in lieu of Intel ones.

For the record, the model we tested had one of the higher-end processors in use for the Chromebook (the Celeron N2940), but a number of models with lesser processors and cheaper prices are available.

The model we tested performed very well indeed, in both the benchmarks and in general operation. Web pages loaded and rendered smoothly, and we were able to have more than a dozen tabs open without experiencing any major slowdowns or hiccups.

That’s as much a testament to the efficiency of Chrome OS as it is the hardware of the Chromebook, but either way, as a browsing device, the Chromebook 11 gets top marks.

Ultimately, as Chromebooks go, the HP doesn’t have a huge amount that sets it apart from the competition, but it does have a robust and light design that should appeal to many users. A good choice overall.

Verdict: A great option for Chrome OS fans.

Price: $399
From: HP

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 11e (20DB0008AN)

Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 11eThe ThinkPad Yoga 11e uses the Lenovo Yoga design — the laptop screen rotates a full 360 degrees around the hinge, turning the device into a slate.

It’s even stiff enough to be configured in a upside-down V, so that the keyboard base functions as a stand. It’s also built tough, with a rugged bumper around the screen and base that’s perfect for the rough treatment schoolkids are likely to deliver.

Unfortunately, it’s also larger and chunkier than it should warrant — there’s a very large bezel around the screen, and it’s quite a bit heavier than competition with a similar screen size.

It can also be a little weird to use on your lap in slate form — the keyboard is on the bottom, and you have the disconcerting feeling of constantly pressing keys on your knees.

The touch screen and keyboard are both well-designed, with excellent feel and responsiveness — although the touchpad did feel a little off when we used it (not that that matters as much when you have a touch screen to work with).

The quad-core Celeron processor was perfectly snappy for Chrome OS, and while 16GB of storage doesn’t sound like much (and you only have about 10GB for your apps available), you can expand the storage capacity with an SD Card or USB device. The four-cell battery is rated for about 6.5 hours of life.

It should be noted that we tested the 20DB0008AN model (sometimes listed as 20DB000BAN), but there are a variety of different models available, some with more memory or 802.11ac and Ethernet support.

Verdict: A solidly built convertible. But it’s rather chunkier than we would like.

Price: $483
From: Lenovo

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

  • RMP

    The author laments of Chrome Web Store options that, “a lot of them are really just launchers for web sites.” Hello??? What makes Chrome OS uniquely fast, reliable, and resource-stingy is that it’s designed from the ground up to run primarily Web apps. Did no one tell you? You were perhaps expecting MS Windows? People who love the endless cycle of downloading, updating, and loading shouldn’t use Chrome OS because it can’t make you do that. People who love that they can’t ever seem to get a processor that’s fast enough or a hard drive that stores enough shouldn’t use Chrome OS because it doesn’t rely on that. That’s the genius of Chrome OS. Boot in 7 seconds. Virus proof. No risk of data loss. Always updated. Always ready. Always usable. Just simple. Just works.