Games, Gadgets and Gifts: Hewlett-Packard Chromebook 14

Whether you stayed home for Black Friday, are saving up for Cyber Monday or just procrastinating, you may still have electronics on your holiday shopping list. I'm here to help with my own experiences. This week, I'm reviewing the newest Google Chromebook from HP.

Chromebooks are interesting devices. I don't really know to whom they are supposed to appeal, or what Google has envisioned as a target audience. I can, however, say that I fall in both categories.

To make a long story short, my old Windows 7 Dell Inspiron laptop finally bit the dust. I didn't want to replace it with a full-featured laptop, as I'm going to be building a game PC sometime in the next year or two. I don't like Apple products and I have disliked iPads and Macbooks when I have used them. I tried a couple Android tablets and didn't like them, either (I hate touch-screen interfaces because I have difficulty typing, and accessory keyboards don't work for me either). I liked the Windows Surface tablet, especially after a recent price drop, but users cannot install Firefox or Chrome — it's Internet Explorer only. Pass.

After weeks of research, I settled on the new niche that revives the nearly 20-year-old "netbook" concept, the Google Chromebook. I've had my HP Chromebook 14 for about three weeks now. Here are my impressions.

Games, Gadgets and Gifts: Hewlett-Packard Chromebook 14

OVERVIEW
Before considering a Chromebook, realize what you're not getting: no optical drive; no large hard drive (we're talking smaller than a Wii U built-in storage drive here!); no replaceable battery; no full-size keyboard; no installing programs like iTunes, PhotoShop, etc.; no touch-screen*; no using PC game services like Steam or GOG; no Microsoft Office; no expansion or hardware upgrade capability.

Can you get past all that? Good, because what you'll find is a decent value.

Drive space is no big deal. All Chromebooks have at least one USB port; the HP Chromebook 14 has three, along with an SD card drive. Yes, the built-in SSD is a pitiful 16GB, but you won't need it; it comes with 100GB free storage on the cloud-service Google Drive if you don't already have an account (free for the first two years), and for my purposes that's about 98GB more than I'll probably ever need with this device.

As for everything else — if you can do it in a Google Chrome browser on a PC or Mac, you can do it on a Chromebook, and often faster. The ChromeOS is literally just the Chrome browser and nothing else. This makes boot-up EXTREMELY fast — whether I open it from sleep mode or turn it on from full power-down, it's online in less than a second.

You don't need Microsoft Office, because it comes with a Google Docs app which offers basically everything most of us do in Office type programs, as well as apps that can read and even modify MS Office documents.

You don't need iTunes, whether you use Google Play for your music, or with the Apple iCloud service you can load iTunes in Chrome, in a roundabout way.

SIZE, DISPLAY AND OTHER SPECS
The HP Chromebook 14 is one of the largest Chromebook models, and I chose it for its nicely-sized 14" diagonal display. It's got a glossy screen, so you may have some glare issues, but I find it to be bright and clear and easy to read. There's also a built-in camera that purports to be HD, but I find it takes rather poor images and video. Not that you'll be using a Chromebook for that sort of thing; it does support the web version of Skype just fine, though.

The footprint is a little smaller than my old 15" display Dell, and it's much lighter to boot. The absence of optical drives and a hard-disk drive makes a HUGE difference in operating temperature — I find it never gets more than a little warm after long periods of use while reclining on a couch or in bed.

HP promises 9.5 hours of battery use. I usually keep it plugged in anyway but so far it's living up to that standard. I'll be traveling a lot this month, so I'll update if I encounter any issues. It's a good thing, too, considering the battery cannot be replaced; once it's no longer holding a charge, it's a paperweight.

WHAT I DON'T LIKE
The keyboard and mouse-pad take a bit of getting used to. The keys are sort of a dime-store version of a Mac wireless keyboard — those white, plasticky things that stick out like Chicklets. It's also missing some keys I use frequently — Home, End, PgUp, PgDwn, Del, etc.

The track-pad is essentially a one-button mouse like you'd find on a Macbook, though you can get right-clicks by holding down the alt key while clicking. I find this mildly annoying, but I'm used to it now.

DOES IT PLAY GAMES?
Yes! But this won't be replacing your game PC. You're limited to the Chrome browser games you can download in the Google Play store. There is of course a version of Angry Birds, and lots of decent freebies including some great Atari classics. I can't imagine most people using this for games considering almost any modern phone has far more (and better) options.

YOU MAY ALSO CONSIDER…
Right now, there isn't really much on the market that competes directly with the Chromebook line. These are fast, affordable, bare-bones internet machines for those who, like me, don't want a tablet or don't want to spend that much money on one.

If you want something that's closer to a tablet, check out the Microsoft Surface RT. I did like it — but again, no Chrome browser, so no sale for me.

Chromebook is a great option if you're on a budget. I got mine with a modest employee discount, but the 14" screen is worth the full $300 retail to me. The$250 11" HP Chromebook is a bit more compact but has excellent reviews. Other small versions are available for as little as $200; however, those are made by Acer, and I had a bad hardware experience with that manufacturer several years ago.

*The only model I absolutely cannot recommend is the obscenely-priced Google Chromebook Pixel, which for $1,300 - $1,500 will get you a 12" touch screen and optional built-in 4G wireless. Now THAT is a product of whose audience I cannot conceive.