Review: 6 business-class Chromebooks test their mettle

Is a Chromebook for you? Which one? We put top models from Acer, Dell, Google, HP, Samsung, and Toshiba to the test

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The Pixel uses the most powerful chip of any Chromebook, the Intel Core i5 3427U. If you have a fast connection, the Pixel will drive it hard. Google's Octane 2.0 JavaScript benchmark pegs the Chromebook Pixel at a best-in-class 20,200.

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.

Google's Octane 2.0 test rates the HP Chromebook 14's JavaScript processing ability at 7,300 -- typical for the machines in this review and for K1 processors. With multiple tabs open, I found a distinct lag in typing at full speed. That seems to be par for the course with K1 chips. Also, as noted in the Acer Chromebook 13 review, there are still minor compatibility problems with "The page uses a Native Client app that doesn't work on your computer" errors on some (admittedly obscure) websites. On the plus side, the K1 is known for its video processing chops, doesn't need a fan, and sips from the battery.

HP Chromebook 14 G3 HP

HP Chromebook 14 G3

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.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35 Toshiba

Toshiba Chromebook 2

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 Toshiba Chromebook 2 and its Celeron N2840 clocked 8,100 on the Google Octane 2.0 JavaScript speed test, right behind the Dell Chromebook 11, with its higher-performance (and less battery-friendly) Celeron chip. In my multitab speed typing tests, the Toshiba Chromebook 2 never skipped a beat.

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.

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