HP Chromebook 14 (with 4G) review: Solid performance in a plus-sized package

The HP Chromebook 14 combines great performance with a spacious display. So is it the right Chromebook for you?

The HP Chromebook 14 with 4G is now available for a highly reasonable $349. Combining great performance with a spacious 14-in. display, is it the right Chromebook for you?

Low-cost Chromebooks tend to require compromise. On one end of the spectrum, you've got the HP Chromebook 11, which boasts beautiful design and build quality but has significant performance limitations. On the other end, there's the Acer C720 Chromebook, which packs plenty of horsepower but has a lackluster display and exterior.

So where's the middle ground? Enter the HP Chromebook 14 (4G). The laptop, available now for $349 via Walmart, aims to provide a mix of performance and style while sticking within entry-level parameters.

HP Chromebook 14

I've been spending some time getting to know the HP Chromebook 14 (4G) this week. Here's a detailed look at what it's like to use and how it compares to the rest of the Chromebook family.

(Note that the system being reviewed here is the 4G model of the Chromebook 14. HP has also announced a Wi-Fi-only model of the Chromebook 14 that'll launch for $299 later this fall, but that model has half the RAM of this one; its performance will likely vary accordingly.)

Size and display

By now, you probably know all about Google's Chrome OS platform and its cloud-centric approach (if you don't, see my previous coverage for a quick primer). Since the software is identical from one Chromebook to the next, I'm going to skip over that discussion and focus this review on hardware.

First things first: The Chromebook 14 is one big boy. At 13.56 x 9.44 x 0.81 in. and 4.1 lb., the laptop looks and feels like a giant next to other Chromebooks. The HP Chromebook 11, in comparison, is 11.69 x 7.56 x 0.69 in. and 2.3 lb. The difference is extremely noticeable; whereas the Chromebook 11 is sleek and light, the Chromebook 14 is bulky and relatively heavy. I'm most aware of the heft when holding the computer in my lap or carrying it around, both of which are less pleasant to do with this device than with the more compact alternatives.

Bulk has its benefits, though: As with any laptop, what you lose in svelteness you gain in screen size. At 14 inches, the Chromebook 14's display feels like riding in a limo compared to the Chromebook 11's sedan: The extra three inches in diagonal amount to more than an inch and a half of added space lengthwise and about an inch in height. That expanded desktop can make a meaningful difference, especially if you like to view multiple apps or browser windows at the same time.

As for the quality of the display, it's a mixed bag: The Chromebook 14's glossy IPS LCD 1366 x 768 screen is a big leap forward from the matte TN panel on Acer's C720 Chromebook. Strangely enough, though, it's no match for the IPS LCD display on the Chromebook 11, even though they share the same technology. The Chromebook 14's contrast, color brilliance, color accuracy and sharpness are all a significant step down from what the Chromebook 11 delivers; the disparity is striking when you view the laptops side by side.

Body and design

The differences between the Chromebook 14 and Chromebook 11 don't end with the display; in fact, despite the fact that both laptops are made by HP, they have little in common when it comes to physical form. The reason is that the Chromebook 11 was designed with close involvement by Google -- the same team responsible for the high-end Chromebook Pixel -- while the Chromebook 14 is an HP product through and through.

Generally speaking, the comparison doesn't reflect favorably on the Chromebook 14. From the visible vents between the top and bottom halves to the prominent screws on its casing, the Chromebook 14 is considerably less elegant and thoughtfully designed than its Google-influenced cousin.

It's all relative, though. By itself, the Chromebook 14 is actually pretty nice for an entry-level system. The laptop comes in your choice of white, soft red or teal (also known as "Snow White," "Peach Choral" and "Turquoise"). The pastel colors won't be everyone's cup of tea, but they work well in this context; I suspect a lot of folks will find them to be an enticing and refreshing change from the drab blacks and grays we're used to seeing on computers.

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Low-cost Chromebooks compared

The lid of the laptop is a slightly rubberized plastic material. Standing out from the solid color of its surface is a large centered HP logo that's actually a mirror (for not-so-subtle hair checks) with a full Chrome logo in an upper corner.

The Chromebook 14's color extends onto the bezel surrounding the display. That area has an HD webcam on the top, an HP logo on the bottom and a series of thin rubber bumpers on all four sides.

Whatever color you pick is also present on the large hinge connecting the laptop's halves as well as on the bottom of the machine.

Ports, keyboard and speakers

For anyone who craves connections, the Chromebook 14 has you covered. The system has two USB 3.0 ports, a dedicated HDMI out-port, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a Kensington Security Slot on its left side. The right side of the laptop, meanwhile, houses a DC charging port, an SD card reader, a SIM card slot and a USB 2.0 port.

The Chromebook's color comes up form the bottom and along the computer's perimeter, surrounding all of the ports and continuing just far enough to create a thin border around the entire keyboard area. It's a distinctive and attractive touch.

The Chromebook 14 uses a standard full-sized Chrome OS keyboard that's generally quite good: The keys are large, well spaced and easy to type on. The quality and feel of the keys is lower than what you get on the Chromebook 11, but the tactile response is fine -- all in all, it's a pleasant typing experience.

Recessed in the large silver plastic area beneath the keyboard is a button-free trackpad. I've found it to be fairly accurate and responsive, but lower in quality than the pad on the Chromebook 11. The difference is most detectable when you're performing tasks that require fine control or ongoing pressure, like the selection of a large block of text.

The Chromebook 14 has two small speaker grilles on either side of the bottom surface. They're positioned in an area where the surface begins to slope upward, however, and consequently manage to deliver clear and unmuffled audio. The sound quality is decent, though not great; music played from the Chromebook 14 is discernibly tinnier and less full-sounding than what you get from the Chromebook 11's excellent keyboard-dwelling speakers.

Performance, storage and networking

The 4G model of HP's Chromebook 14 has the same under-the-hood setup as Acer's C720 Chromebook: a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Celeron 2955U processor along with 4GB of RAM.

Not surprisingly, then, the Chromebook 14's performance is more or less identical to what I experienced on the Acer device: Web pages load quickly and switching between tabs is satisfyingly swift. Things aren't quite as zippy as what you get with the $1,300 Chromebook Pixel, but even with upwards of 20 tabs open, the system never feels like it's struggling to keep up.

(It's worth emphasizing again that these observations are specific to the 4G model of the Chromebook 14. The upcoming $299 Wi-Fi model is slated to have 2GB of RAM instead of 4GB and will presumably have less impressive performance as a result.)

The Chromebook 14 does emit a noticeable hum while it runs -- a contrast to the dead-silent ARM-based setup of the Chromebook 11. It gets slightly warm during use, too, which you'll be aware of when you hold the computer on your lap. The heat is more than what the Chromebook 11 emits but less than what the Pixel tends to produce.

Thanks to its energy-efficient Haswell-based architecture, the Chromebook 14 is a real champ in the realm of battery life. The laptop promises "up to 9.5 hours of active use" -- I've been experiencing closer to 8 or 8.5 hours, especially when heavy multitasking is involved, but that's still an impressive amount of time for a laptop this size to stay alive.

Like most low-cost Chrome OS devices, the Chromebook 14 gives you a 16GB solid-state drive along with 100GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage for two years. It also includes 12 free sessions of GoGo Inflight Internet service and a 60-day subscription to Google Play Music All Access.

The Chromebook 14 supports Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity. It's capable of connecting to T-Mobile's LTE and HSPA+ 4G networks, too, provided those networks are available in your area.

The computer comes with 200MB of mobile data per month for the first two years you own it. That allotment won't get you far, but it's enough to send a few quick emails or check a couple of Web pages in a pinch. You can opt to purchase additional data in contract-free a la carte packages, which include 1GB of data usable over seven days for $15 and 2.5GB of data usable over 30 days for $30.

At a Glance

Chromebook 14 (with 4G)

HPPrice: $349Pros: Spacious IPS LCD display; attractive, colorful design; solid performance; excellent battery life; 4G connectivity; USB 3.0 support; native HDMI-out port; SD card supportCons: Bulky and heavy compared to other Chromebooks; display, design and build quality inferior to Chromebook 11; not silent during operation; 4G data service difficult to set up and refill

One unfortunate asterisk: T-Mobile's data activation and top-off processes are a real pain and not at all user-friendly. Worse yet, after navigating through the complex and cumbersome steps, I encountered error messages and ended up having to call T-Mobile first to start the service and then again to inquire about adding more data.

Google and Verizon Wireless got the process figured out on other cellular-data-enabled Chromebooks, as I can confirm from my own experiences with both the Pixel and the older Samsung Series 5 550. Hopefully, HP and T-Mobile will be able to follow that lead and make their version more palatable soon.

Bottom line

The Chromebook 11 may be the gold standard when it comes to display, design and build quality among low-cost Chromebooks, but the Chromebook 14 (4G) isn't terribly far behind. And from its stepped-up performance to the expanded connectivity options it presents, the computer packs some pretty compelling perks.

We may not have a true midrange Chromebook yet, but for users who need a little extra oomph in their laptops, the 4G model of the HP Chromebook 14 is a low-compromise low-cost system that gets a lot of things right.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Google-centric tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

This article, HP Chromebook 14 (with 4G) review: Solid performance in a plus-sized package, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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This story, "HP Chromebook 14 (with 4G) review: Solid performance in a plus-sized package" was originally published by Computerworld.

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