Chromebooks started out as inexpensive laptops running Google’s free, browser-based operating system software. But over the past year or so, Google has added more software features while laptop makers have produced more upscale devices.
Last year’s $1,000 Pixelbook from Google itself set a high bar, and now other tech companies are following suit. I’ve spent the last week testing Hewlett Packard’s new Chromebook x2, which starts at $600 and comes with a new stand-out feature that other higher-end Chromebooks lack.
But let’s start with the basics: The HP Chromebook has a bright, 12-inch high-resolution screen, a decent keyboard (though without any backlighting under the keys), and a true Intel processor that provides plenty of power. It also has two USB-C ports for recharging or connecting an external monitor or other peripherals.
However, the entry-level version I tried had only 4GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage, relatively meager amounts (though comparable to rivals at this price range like Samsung’s $600 Chromebook Pro). You can add storage via a Micro-SD memory card slot on the x2, but many apps can’t access such removable space.
The device is also a looker, with an aluminum body that’s covered on the back of the screen side with a shiny, white ceramic coating similar to the Pixelbook’s color scheme. There’s also a big silver HP logo, which matches the overall look but may offend users who don’t like such blatant advertising.
The feature that really makes the x2 stand out from rivals is a screen that can completely separate from the keyboard and be used as a standalone tablet. All of the important components, including the battery and processor, are behind the screen, so removing the keyboard doesn’t slow the x2. The device weighs 3.1 pounds with the keyboard attached and 1.6 pounds without it, making it comparable to an iPad Pro with a 12-inch screen. In tablet mode, the x2 works great for all kinds of tablet-y activities, like watching movies on Netflix or surfing websites.
Unlike a lot of other (mostly) Windows laptops that have removable keyboards and can be used as tablets, the x2 doesn’t require changing any settings, or even pushing a button. To disconnect the screen from the keyboard, all you have to do is to give the screen a firm tug (the screen and keyboard are held together only by magnets). The screen is touch sensitive, so it’s easy to navigate most apps and, of course, there’s an on-screen keyboard that appears when needed for typing. Reconnecting the screen is just as simple.
Like the Pixelbook, the x2 can also be used with a stylus to navigate, take notes, or even draw. Unlike the Pixelbook and most other stylus-compatible computers, HP includes its stylus, which runs on a single AAAA battery, at no extra charge. In contrast, Google’s Pen stylus costs $100 extra.
Buying one device to fulfill two functions, laptop and tablet, could be a money saving trick. A comparable laptop-only Chromebook plus an iPad would cost over $1,000. On the other hand, the Chrome and Android software isn’t as polished running on the x2’s tablet mode as Apple’s iOS for the iPad after eight years in the wild. And battery life, rated at 12.5 hours for the x2, could become an issue if you’re running it from dusk til dawn as both your main work and play devices.
Apps and Such
The software situation overall is about the same as when I reviewed the Pixelbook last year. The HP Chromebook can run all Chrome apps plus most Android apps, although some Android programs remain partly or fully incompatible with tablets and laptops. My favorite simple text editor, iA Write, for example, works fine on the x2 when taking up the entire screen. But try to run it in a window and you get only one weird, rectangular (phone-shaped) window that can’t be resized.
However, as I noted in that Pixelbook review, there are plenty of fabulous Android apps that work great on Chromebooks, including some from major software vendors. I’m a particular fan of the Android versions of Microsoft Word for writing using the x2 and other Chromebooks and Adobe Lightroom for photo editing.
There are also front and rear cameras. The front-facing camera is more than adequate for video conferencing—even with just a 5-megapixel resolution. The 13-megapixel rear camera is better, but the color and clarity of photos I took didn’t match the quality of any I’ve recently taken on my smartphone.
Overall, HP’s (HPQ) Chromebook x2 is an excellent option. Its neat tablet trick may not be a unique feature for long, though. Google (GOOGL) is rumored to be unveiling several new devices next week, including one code-named Nocturne that will mimic the x2’s detachable tablet. It could have superior specs but a higher price tag, as well, according to the leaks.
Until then, the x2 has the market to itself.