Can you make a great laptop, one that, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, is not a piece of junk for $499?
Historically, owning a Chromebook or a netbook has been about compromises. Manufacturers make performance, build quality and design tradeoffs in order to offer Google’s internet-connected laptops at an affordable price. At the other end of the spectrum, Google sacrifices affordability in order to deliver best-in-class performance wrapped in a premium package.
Modern technological advances—like Intel’s faster but more affordable Core m series processors—allow HP to rewrite the Chromebook and netbook narrative, delivering a powerful system with elevated aesthetics at a competitive price. It’s a similar story in the Apple camp, but unlike the $1,299 MacBook, HP’s slim, light and powerful Chromebook 13 costs just $499. HP is essentially attempting to do what Apple never thought it could: build an affordable laptop that looks and feels more expensive than it actually is.
HP made just the right compromises to deliver a good balance between form and function, and the Chromebook 13 delivers a powerful computing experience in an attractive package at an affordable price for millennials who live inside Google’s ecosystem.
You’d be forgiven if you mistook HP’s Chromebook 13 for Apple’s $1,299 MacBook or even Google’s Chromebook Pixel. If Google and Apple got together and mashed up their technologies, the HP Chromebook 13 would be the love child of what that imaginary partnership could deliver. All three devices share the same thin, light and powerful DNA of Windows-based Ultrabooks, and the Chromebook 13 shares a similar aesthetic with its piano hinge to Google’s hardware.
Cloaked in an all-metal shell with brushed aluminum detailing, the Chromebook 13 shares a lot in common with its premium rivals. The angular design with a long, cylindrical hinge on the back looks like Google’s Pixel and even bears a certain resemblance to Apple’s discontinued PowerBook G4 Titanium. The Chromebook 13 also invites direct comparisons with Apple’s MacBook—both devices share a similar premium build quality, fanless architecture thanks to Intel’s Core m processor and slim profile—but what separates HP’s entry is its extremely affordable starting price coupled with a premium build quality.
Despite sharing similarities to the MacBook, the Chromebook 13 manages to out-Apple at the slim game. Measuring just a hair under 13mm, HP’s offering is slimmer than the already impossibly 13.1mm thin MacBook. But don’t let the Chromebook 13’s slim profile fool you—the laptop makes far fewer compromises than Apple’s design-forward offering. The Chromebook 13 comes with a larger, higher resolution screen, more ports for connectivity and a keyboard that’s far more usable.
However, to accommodate the larger 13.3-inch display, the Chromebook 13 occupies a slightly larger 12.59 × 8.64 × 0.50 inch footprint than the MacBook, and at 2.86 pounds, the Chrome notebook weighs 0.83 pounds more than its Apple rival.
Compared to the MacBook’s uni-port design, the Chromebook 13 comes with two USB-C ports, one of which can power the laptop, a traditional USB 3.0 Type A slot, audio jack and a microSD card reader for additional storage.
Even though the Chromebook 13 is elegantly appointed, design purists may scoff at the mixed use of textures on the machine. The silver aluminum lid comes with a textured brushed metal appearance, complete with long, vertical metal grains, that is matched on the keyboard deck. The lid comes with a circular, glossy HP logo along with a monochrome Chrome logo in the top corner.
There’s even a small horizontal plastic strip on the Chromebook 13, but it serves a different function than Google’s whimsical LED lightbar on the Pixel. On HP’s laptop, the plastic strip houses the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antennas, a functional design element borrowed from modern metal-clad smartphones.
The sides of the laptop add yet another texture to the Chromebook 13, with a brushed metal metal finish, but without the metal grain texture found on the lid and keyboard deck, making it visually similar to the rear of a silver iPhone 6s or the Microsoft Surface Pro 4.
The front edge of the Chromebook 13 is slightly angled, creating sort of a lip to make it easier to lift open the laptop. The glossy cylindrical hinge on the back is smooth, making it easy to lift the lid with one hand, up until the 90-degree mark. Once the screen is at a 90-degree angle to the keyboard deck, there is more resistance, and pushing the screen back further will result in the front base of the laptop lifting away from the table. Magnets help keep the lid shut once you close the laptop.
Open up the Chromebook 13 and you’ll be greeted with a solid keyboard deck that doesn’t flex when typing, a decently sized trackpad and a Bang & Olufsen sound bar just above the keyboard. Sound output was surprisingly loud, and there is extremely minimal distortion even at the highest audio volumes. For such small speakers on a thin laptop, the soundstage sounded quite wide. You’ll be able to comfortably enjoy a movie and enjoy the audio coming from the Chromebook 13.
The non-glass, multitouch trackpad is comfortable, but it’s not the largest trackpad on a notebook of this size. Chrome OS still needs to support more trackpad gestures. The biggest downside with the trackpad is that there is no right-click support. In order to perform a right-click, you’ll need to hold down the Alt key while clicking down on the trackpad. It would have been easier to just click towards the right side of the trackpad to perform the right-click action.
And unlike the MacBook, the Chromebook 13 comes with a keyboard with more key travel, allowing for a more comfortable typing experience. This is an impressive accomplishment given the slimness of the notebook, and HP says that the key cap curvature allows the keys to feel more like a more ergonomic business laptop, though it’s not water sealed like enterprise laptops.
Key pitch on the keyboard is 1.3mm, and offers an experience that isn’t too shallow, but key travel isn’t as deep as on enterprise notebooks. I found the keyboard to be far more comfortable to type than on Apple’s shallow MacBook keys, though it feels just slightly mushy. Still, typing on the keyboard is a pleasure, and the responsive keys help reduce typing mistakes.
Another area where the Chromebook 13 outclasses the MacBook is the display. While Apple boasts a stellar 226ppi across its 12-inch 2304 × 1440 resolution screen, the Chromebook 13 packs in more pixels into a 13.3-inch panel. The 3200 × 1800 resolution on HP’s notebook results in a higher 276ppi, leading to even sharper images, text and video rendering.
As the first Chromebook to launch with the Intel’s Core m architecture processor, the Chromebook 13 holds its own ground in benchmarks and offers a few pleasant surprises. In daily use, the Chromebook 13 feels zippy, and I didn’t notice any lags or slowdowns when working in multiple Chrome browser tabs, streaming 4K video content on YouTube or playing casual games.
At $499, the Chromebook 13 ships with a Skylake-based Pentium processor. There are a few configurations for the notebook, and the highest model tops out with a Core m7 CPU and a 4GB RAM for $1,029. The model that I tested is priced at $819 and comes equipped with a Core m5 processor, 32GB eMMC storage and 8GB of memory. All configurations—even the entry model—comes with a gorgeous, vibrant QHD+ resolution display.
Even though the performance of Intel’s Core m is supposed to slot between that of a low end Atom CPU and that of the company’s mainstream Core i processor, the Chromebook 13 does well and even, surprisingly, outperforms the previous generation Core i chipset on Google’s premium Chromebook Pixel.
Using the Octane 2.0 benchmark test, the 6th Generation Core m5 processor on the Chromebook 13 scored just over 27,000 points, whereas the Intel 5th Generation Broadwell Core i5 of the Chromebook Pixel netted just under 25,500 points.
Both laptops scored significantly better than those using ARM or Atom processors. For example, the ARM-based Tegra K1 processor on Acer’s Chromebook 13 scored just 8,000 points using the same benchmark, or a third of the performance of the Core m5 with 8GB of RAM.
The Octane 2.0 benchmark reveals that the Chromebook 13 also outperforms Apple’s 2016 MacBook, which scored just 18,000. Despite its lower Octane score, you’ll be able to be more productive using the MacBook, which comes with a full desktop-class OS and support for Mac OS’s rich ecosystem of apps and programs.
Given the strong performance of Intel’s Skylake-based Core m processor, you shouldn’t find any slowness with the Chromebook 13, if you’re okay living in the browser for now, at least until Android app support starts arriving later this year for the HP notebook.
If you need access to Microsoft’s ecosystem, there are several ways to access Windows from a Chromebook. If you have a PC at home or at work, you can log into a remote desktop session to access Windows that way. An alternative, if work has a Citrix contract, is to access Windows in the cloud with the Citrix Receiver client for Chrome. A third option is to run an emulator, like CodeWeavers’ Crossover, so you have access to some of the most popular app titles for Windows.
With the versatility of Chrome OS and Google’s push into the enterprise, an IDC forecast predicts that roughly 25% of Fortune 500 companies will deploy Chromebooks over the next few years.
If your needs with Windows aren’t that extensive, once Android app support arrives, you’ll be able to find popular Microsoft titles, like Word and Excel. For basic productivity tasks, like word processing, presentations and spreadsheets, you can just use Google Docs and convert them to Office documents later, said Saswat Panigrahi, product manager of Chrome and Android at Google.
The display on the Chromebook 13 is easily one of the best I’ve seen. With a resolution of 3200 × 1800 pixels across the 13.3-inch screen, the display is bright and vivid, rendering images and videos crisply. At the brightest settings, you won’t find any problems with glare with the Chromebook 13’s glossy screen, but I found that reflection became an issue when brightness is set at 50 percent or less.
Even though the display is one of the highlights of the Chromebook, it still feels like HP may have cut a few corners with this laptop. For one, the glossy screen isn’t covered with edge-to-edge glass. There is a raised matte black border, which is the same color tone as the keys on the keyboard, that surrounds the screen. This isn’t a problem with using the display, but it’s just another area where dust and dirt could get trapped.
A second problem is the lack of a touchscreen option. While this isn’t a problem today with Chrome OS relying on a more traditional keyboard and mouse for input, it limits the future usefulness of the Chromebook 13 once Android app support becomes native on the device. Google plans on bringing support for touch-enabled Android apps to the Chromebook 13 later this year, and the omission of a touchscreen on the laptop seems like an oversight.
HP reps informed me that the development of the Chromebook 13 began well in advance of Google’s plans to bring Android apps to the laptop, and that a model of the Chromebook 13 with a touchscreen will become available later this year. Additionally, we can expect new form factors, like a 360-degree hinge, to come to future HP Chromebooks once touch becomes more prevalent.
Given the strong performance of the Chromebook 13 with benchmarks and under real world usage, a gorgeous display and a solid build, the lack of a touchscreen to future-proof the notebook investment is disappointing.
If you need to power multiple displays simultaneously, HP offers an Elite Dock that connects to one of the two USB-C ports on the Chromebook 13. With the dock, you can connect two additional external displays in addition to the QHD+ screen on the laptop for a three-screen setup.
Thanks to the light footprint of Chrome OS and the reliance on the cloud to do most of the heavy lifting, the Chromebook 13 delivers great battery life despite its small size. In my testing, battery life is comparable to what you’d get with an Apple MacBook, so the Chromebook 13 delivers Ultrabook-like stamina.
HP rates the laptop for just under nine hours on a full charge, and my real-world usage mirrored those numbers for the most part. With brightness tuned to just under 50 percent, and connected to Wi-Fi with multiple browser tabs opened, I clocked just north of seven hours of continuous use. My usage consisted of internet research, reading the news, working in Google Docs and watching a few short YouTube videos with volume turned to the highest settings.
The Chromebook 13 charges quickly with the supplied power adapter, but when I tried to recharge the laptop using the charger from my Microsoft Lumia 950 XL, I encountered some issues. If the laptop is powered off, my Lumia’s USB-C charger is able to recharge the laptop, albeit at slower speeds, but if the screen is on, the Chromebook notified me of slow charging times.
That’s to be expected, but what was unexpected is that if you use a low powered charger, the Chromebook 13 would emit an audible high pitch hissing noise. With a non-compliant USB-C charger, I found that sometimes the battery would drain quicker than it can charge, but at other times the Chromebook was able to hold its charge but not replenish the battery. The situation was similar when I attempted to recharge the Chromebook 13 using an external battery pack, like an off-brand Mophie-like device.
In making the Chromebook 13, HP proves that it can achieve what Apple never could. Not only does the Chromebook 13 look stunning, its performance shows that at $499, the laptop can go toe-to-toe with $1,000 Ultrabooks and still hold its own.
HP defied expectations by delivering a premium notebook with solid performance at a price point that no one else is able to match—and it’s far from a piece of junk.
With a build quality that rivals the $1,299 MacBook, the Chromebook 13 manages to beat Apple’s laptop in many ways while coming in at a $499 starting price. Compared to the MacBook, you’ll find more ports, a higher resolution display and a more usable keyboard on the Chromebook 13 in a package with a similar all-metal build quality. For Chromebooks on the higher end of the price scale, the HP Chromebook 13 just might be the new standard.