It was an hour out of Auckland that the limits of the cloud-based HP Chromebook became apparent; all the documents supposedly synchronised for offline use by Google Drive turned out to be unavailable.
That the inaccessible documents were notes from a cloud accounting software conference was somewhat ironic.
It was a shame the Google Drive offline feature failed, as the HP Chromebook is a good basic laptop computer that fills a market gap left by the demise of the netbook PC category – lightweight, fast and retailing for under $500.
Priced in Australia at $399, the HP Chromebook 11 weighs in just on a kilo with a clear 1366 x 768 11-inch screen and comfortable keyboard.
With heavy use the battery lasts five hours which is consistent with the “up to six hours” claimed in the product specs. Recharging the system takes three hours from empty to 100 per cent so it’s best to keep the cable and battery pack handy.
The charging cable uses a standard micro USB connector familiar to most Android phones so compatibility isn’t a problem, although the charger – the review device was supplied with a US power pack – ran very hot on Australian and New Zealand 240v mains electricity.
Lightning fast boot-up
A big advantage the device has over its Mac and Windows competitors is the boot-up time, with the system getting to the login screen from a cold start in 10 seconds and ready to use in 30 seconds.
Using browser-based applications simplifies the system and while there’s a bit of a learning curve for Mac and Windows users in getting used to the Chrome OS interface, navigating through functions is clean and intuitive.
One great advantage of Chrome OS for the time-poor or impatient is that Google’s seamless and almost invisible update system avoids the frustration of clunky Windows Updates, where a user can be standing around for 30 minutes waiting for patches to be installed as the computers shuts down or starts up.
Rounding out the hardware side of the machine are two USB ports that add a degree of flexibility to the device and allow the user to expand the limited hard drive space. Compatibility with basic devices like USB sticks is fine although there may be driver problems with more exotic equipment while printing relies upon the Google Cloud printing service.
The 16GB eMMC solid-state drive is limited in size but also means the Chromebook zips through all of its applications, making the computer a delight to use.
While the computer is fast, the 16GB drive means the device depends upon cloud services for most of its operations and Google currently offers a free 100GB of online storage for HP Chromebook users.
If you or your business are already in the Google ecosystem then the Chromebook takes only a few minutes to set up and everything that’s accessible to your desktop and smartphone is immediately available. The consistency across Google’s services and between devices is one of the major benefits of using the company’s cloud services.
Should your organisation use Microsoft SharePoint or another enterprise service then life is going to be somewhat more complex and could well be a deal-breaker for enterprise users. For home use or small business use the move to Google services isn’t a great challenge, although Google’s office apps lack many of the advanced features of Microsoft Office and similar tools.
Augmenting the somewhat basic built-in apps is the Google Play store, with no shortage of paid and free apps. The standard range of cloud services ranging from standards like Evernote and Salesforce are available, through to more quirky productivity tools, add-ons and games.
It should be noted though that some popular apps such as Skype aren’t supported in Chrome OS, so it’s important to check that the services you rely on can be used on Chromebook before making the purchase.
At the mercy of the internet gods
The dependence on the cloud is a drawback for the Chromebook as Wi-Fi and cellular data access can be flaky, even in the centre of big cities – not to mention isolation once on a plane.
One of the truisms in the life of modern business travellers is never to leave yourself at the mercy of airport, hotel or conference centre Wi-Fi. When you’re using a cloud-based Chromebook you will find yourself breaking this fundamental rule.
Which is a shame, because the HP Chromebook 11 is an excellent device for the mobile worker: it’s fast, with decent battery life, and very light. One great attraction is that its compact form-factor is well suited for working on a crowded train, bus or cramped economy class airline seat.
Unfortunately the reliance on Wi-Fi connectivity leaves a modern road warrior at the mercy of the internet gods.
For use in the office or home where Wi-Fi internet access is available, the Chromebook is a good workhorse for users needing a basic computer. However when you step into the wider world where internet accessibility can’t be taken for granted, the device suffers.
Tethering to an iPhone or Android smartphone through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi was seamless and worked well, but for someone looking at being productive while travelling in planes, taxis or public transport, the uncertainties of mobile internet make it difficult to recommend the device for the true road warrior.
On the flight from Auckland, I gave up and broke out my old HP Windows laptop which, while slower and not as nice to use as the Chromebook, was at least able to work at 30,000 feet. Such is the life of the modern, travelling worker.