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Review: 6 business-class Chromebooks test their mettle

Woody Leonhard | Dec. 11, 2014
I've spent the last three weeks taking six business-oriented Chromebooks through their paces. I started out as a skeptical Windows-rules-them-all kind of guy: I've been using Windows since the early days, and I've rarely strayed from the ghosts of my Windows masters. By the end of my Chromebook experiment, however, my old biases were shaken.

To the user — at least, to me — there's absolutely no difference among the interfaces of the machines I tested. There is no bloatware, no "unique" software differentiators. Chrome OS is Chrome OS is Chrome OS, and that's good. You can toss aside one Chromebook, get working on another in seconds, and pick up right where you left off.

That said, you'll find plenty of hardware differences. Every Chromebook you're likely to find these days has an 11.6-inch or larger screen, running at 1,366-by-768 or better resolution. But as you will see, the quality of the screens varies widely. A few Chromebooks have touchscreens.

Most use Intel Celeron processors — low-power N2830, faster N2930, and the older (arguably faster) 2955U — although there are Chromebooks based on Nvidia Tegra K1 chips and considerably faster Intel i3 4005U CPUs. You can even find older Samsung Chromebooks with Exynos chips. In my experience, the Celeron N2830, Celeron N2930, Tegra K-1, and Exynos machines can all hold up to a light business-caliber workload. The Intel Core i3 and Celeron 2955U machines run noticeably faster. Then there's the Core i5 3427U CPU in Google's Chromebook Pixel, which is in a class — and price range — unto itself.

Every Chromebook has exactly the same keyboard layout: previous/next page in browser, full screen, brightness, volume, and the like across the top, search key where Caps Lock usually goes, and directional arrow keys sitting in the lower-right corner. Unlike a Windows keyboard, there's only a Backspace key, no Delete (use Alt-Backspace). There are no Home or End keys, although you can use Ctrl-Alt-Up arrow (or Down arrow). There's no Fn key, no Windows or Command key, only Alt and Ctrl — very simple.

All of the touchpads I saw worked exactly the same way: Tap to click, or press the bottom of the trackpad. Two-finger click (or Alt-click) is a right-click, three-finger click is a middle (or scroll-wheel) click. Drag two fingers to scroll, swipe with two to move among tabs, and click-with-one-finger and hold to drag items.

Every Chromebook also has a webcam, stereo speakers, and an earphone/mic plug. They all have TPM (Trusted Platform Module), and it's actively used for preventing firmware and software version rollback, protecting user data encryption keys, and much more.

Effective since Nov. 21, every new Chromebook sold through the end of January includes 1TB of free Google Drive storage, for two years. At current rates, that's a $240 value — more than the price of a Chromebook in many cases.

If you're coming from a Windows world, the uniformity across the Chromebook manufacturers may put you off. Or you may find it exhilarating, knowing that whatever you learn or do on one machine transfers to another without skipping a beat.

 

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