HP Chromebook 14, Google Chromecast: Solid Devices for Jobs They Do

REVIEW: The HP Chromebook 14 excels as a Web-based device, while the Chromecast is trendy but less useful if you don't pay for subscription services.

As a Windows computer user and an iPhone 4S owner, I had no real expectations as I arranged to borrow a new HP Chromebook 14 from Google for a hands-on review for eWEEK.

I also wasn't overly excited to simultaneously test one of Google's new $35 Chromecast television dongles since I don't watch a lot of television or online videos.

For me, living with a Chromebook and a Chromecast for two weeks was something I viewed mostly as a necessary experiment for someone who has covered Google for eWEEK over the last 18 months. However, once the loaner gear arrived, my impressions quickly changed.

Let's start with the Chromebook 14. First of all, after some 19 years of owning Windows PCs and another nine years before that spent writing on ancient green-screen DEC Rainbow terminals, the almost instant-on boot up of the Chromebook is the most pleasurable and amazing computer behavior that I've ever experienced. To simply touch a button and have the screen come to life and be ready for use within about eight seconds just made me giddy every time I watched the bright, clear desktop appear.

That phenomenon was the start of a string of surprises surrounding the Chromebook 14, which starts at $299. Also highlighting the list of pluses is that it did just about everything I needed to do with a computer.

Before receiving it, I wondered how I could possibly use a machine all the time that doesn't have a DVD drive and also lacks Microsoft Office for my work. Again, though, the Chromebook 14 answered my concerns with its beautiful simplicity.

First, its performance was fast, with easy connectivity to WiFi networks and swift loading of Websites and my work using Google Docs or Google Apps. Everything I needed could essentially be found and it was well-organized and searchable, which never left me wanting more. Granted, critics of office suites that aren't named Microsoft Office often argue that Google Docs and other offerings won't provide power users with all the complex scripts or macro abilities they may require. But in my case, that's just fine, since I don't use any custom macros or scripts for what I do.

The Chromebook was also convenient because when I wanted to use it, it was ready just by opening its lid. Amazing.

Even my girlfriend, a self-proclaimed technology Luddite, loved using the Chromebook 14 when I offered it to her on several occasions. She enjoyed its incredibly intuitive interface and its graceful simplicity. It is a machine that does what it does very well, with no aspirations for anything more. She watched hours of streaming videos from network television Websites while sitting comfortably on the sofa under a blanket and became even more convinced it was the perfect tool for that job when she plugged in her own ear buds to improve the sound quality while watching in the living room.

As I continued to use it, I was struck by its convenience. Instead of running upstairs to my office to check email or search the Internet, I just picked up the Chromebook and sat down at the dining room table or on the sofa or wherever else I was at that moment. Sure, I could have done this on my iPhone, but here I had a real screen and a larger keyboard that were easier to use and see. All I kept thinking was "Wow, I should get one of these for myself."

I didn't expect to feel that way, believe me.

There were some things about the Chromebook that I'm still not used to. I'm not thrilled with its keyboard, which—like tablets—features keys that are large and spread apart a bit, making it less comfortable to do a lot of typing, such as when I have to write news stories for work. And why, oh why, is there no easy way to find and use the Delete key? A Backspace key can only do so much, thank you. Cutting and pasting also takes some getting used to for longtime Windows users who are accustomed to right clicking to accomplish such tasks. None of this was impossible, of course. It just took some getting used to the ways of the Chromebook.

With specifications including a bright, crisp 14-inch screen, a lightweight and easy-to-carry weight of about four pounds, and a long battery life of about eight to nine hours on a single charge, I became one of the converted and grew to appreciate—and even like—having a Chromebook in my life. Still, I had hesitated before it arrived. Before living with a Chromebook for a while, I had asked myself how I could ever use a machine that didn't have a 1TB hard drive or a DVD drive or Office.

Yet there I was, using it constantly and finding more reasons to use it again and again, from the convenience and comfort of the dinner table, the sofa or even the kitchen island. It grew on me like a cat you know you shouldn't take in but that ultimately wins over your heart. Sometimes my girlfriend was using the Chromebook just when I wanted to check something online and I was disappointed that I had to head upstairs to use another computer in the house.

At just under $300, I'd even actually buy a Chromebook 14 with my own money, which to me is the ultimate compliment for any device.

The Chromecast was less compelling for me. Yes, it's incredibly affordable at only $35, but it still doesn't seem to offer much if you are not willing to pay to subscribe to some of the many streaming video services that it supports, including Hulu, Netflix and more.

It's so simple it doesn't come with much in the way of printed instructions, but the installation process is generally intuitive. Where I did run into problems was when I first installed it by plugging its HDMI connector into the back of a 24-inch Samsung HD television. I couldn't get the Chromebook (yes, I used it to install and configure the Chromecast because the portability of the Chromebook lent itself to such an endeavor, of course) to recognize the Chromecast dongle until I finally installed the included extension adaptor that moves the Chromecast about four inches away from the TV. With that change, I finally got the Chromecast to be seen and installed. It was frustrating for 10 minutes, however, and it made me wonder how many people would have given up at that point.

Once installed, I configured the WiFi settings and was able to move content over from the Chromebook over to the TV just as designed. That was fine, seeing YouTube videos and network TV video on the TV via the Chromecast, but it just wasn't something I could watch all day or night.

I'm a cable TV fellow who subscribes to Netflix, but my kids watch Netflix way more than me. It's just not something I identify with, and with the Chromecast, you sort of have to be committed to streaming video to make it a worthwhile gadget for you.

For me, Chromecast worked fine, but the ultimate value wasn't there, even at $35. I'm not up for paying more fees for more video content that I don't need in the first place.

In the end, my review experiences with both devices were very good. Both exhibited the promise and capabilities of their designs and niches in user-friendly ways.

Either device is a worthwhile purchase if they fit your individual needs, and you can't argue about their very reasonable prices.