It’s Laptop Upgrade Time! HP Chromebook 14 G4 (2016) vs. Dell Inspiron 1501 (2006)

Back in 2007 my wife and I purchased a pair of Dell Inspiron 1501 laptops for $450 CAD each. They came with 1.8GHz single core AMD Sempron processors and 1GB of RAM, running Windows Vista Home Basic. Through the years I upgraded them to 1.8GHz dual core AMD Turion processors (for $13 total via ebay!) and 3GB RAM. At one point I had a 32GB solid state drive in mine, running Linux and it was really quite excellent for everything other than playing 3D games. However, as time passed by it became increasingly uncomfortable to deal with the two major downsides of this laptop:

  1. It had to be plugged into the power adapter all the time, because it could only get about 8 minutes of battery life.
  2. It ran hot as hell!

Honestly, other than that it still is an excellent machine for everyday computing (my daughter uses it with Linux Mint 17.3 at her desk), as it’s able to browse the web, play videos (Netflix, Youtube, etc), play basic games, and do some photo editing and document creation without any noticeable slow downs. The hardware requirements for basic computing haven’t really changed much in the last decade.

And that’s where Chromebooks and their low power Intel processors come in – they have all the computing power of a 2006 era dual core processor (and more) at a fraction of the power consumption. The end result is that today we can buy a small, light laptop that can plug away at basic computing tasks for 5+ hours on battery, while producing so little heat that it doesn’t even need a fan. In fact, if you exclude electrons, photons, and the hinge on the screen, my Chromebook doesn’t have any moving parts at all… And the Chromebooks are even inexpensive too, much like the Dell Inspiron series of laptops.

If you’ve read my article about the Canadian bilingual keyboard, you will understand why I wanted to buy a $399 Acer Chromebook 14, but I ended up buying this $349 HP Chromebook 14 G4 instead. Quite simply, I was able to walk into our local Bestbuy and purchase the HP with the standard US keyboard (the only non-Apple laptop they had with a US keyboard by the way), where as the Acer wasn’t available locally and I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer from online retailers as to which keyboard it had. So for $50 less, no shipping charges, and the peace of mind that I won’t have to return it and start all over (due to having the wrong keyboard), I figured I could live with the lower end HP Chromebook 14. And, I can.

The Acer Chromebook 14 has a quad core processor, 4GB of RAM, 32GB storage, and a 1080p IPS screen in an all metal chassis where as the HP Chromebook 14 G4 has a dual core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB storage, and a 720p TN screen in a plastic chassis which has a metal keyboard area. Clearly, the Acer is a way better machine for only $50 more, but I just didn’t want the head ache of having to deal with returns due to the keyboard. If you’re in the USA or you’re in Canada and you don’t care about what keyboard you get, I recommend the Acer over the HP.

Comparing the HP Chromebook 14 running Google ChromeOS to the Dell Inspiron running Linux Mint 17.3 is interesting, because there are a number of things that Linux can do which ChromeOS cannot. If I had to choose between one of them to be my only computer, I would choose that old Dell in a heart beat, because point blank: It can do more and it can do it better. However, I am not stuck in that situation, because I have a full desktop Linux machine that I can rely on to accomplish things which ChromeOS can not. When you exclude an array of niche activities and focus on the day to day computing that most of us actually do, then it becomes a lot easier to compare a Chromebook to a Linux laptop.

Browsing the web, watching videos, writing, using Skype video or text chat, listening to music, sharing pictures and video, doing simple picture editing (crop, color, etc), email, making documents and spreadsheets, and playing simple games such as solitaire or web based games like Bejeweled, are what I consider “day to day computing”.

Both the old Dell and the new HP can do all those things, with the difference being that the HP can do them for roughly 8 hours on a single charge, while weighing less and producing an unnoticeable amount of heat.

That’s the big take away here. Sure there are many other things one could consider and absolutely, there are many things a normal Linux laptop can do that a Chromebook can’t, but most of those things aren’t really part of the use-case for a Chromebook anyway; You don’t buy a Chromebook to do 3D CAD work just as sure as you don’t buy a toaster to make coffee. The use-case for a Chromebook then is essentially same as any other low-end laptop, with the only real difference being some of the software you use.

When it comes to the differences in software, let’s have a look at word processing. In Windows, documents and spreadsheets are most often made using Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, but many people and organizations also use Open Office or Libre Office. In Linux, most people create documents using Libre Office or other open source software, such as Abiword and Gnumeric. In ChromeOS, one can use Google Docs for online and offline document and spreadsheet creation. Chromebooks can also use Microsoft’s online document tools as well as several offline document editors that can be found in the ChromeOS store (often for free and without ads). All of this software is more powerful and easier to use than the WordPerfect 5.1 that I grew up with and it’s all more than capable of meeting the average human being’s personal computing needs. You just have to take the time to learn and get used to the software for your platform. After that, it’s all productivity baby! Well, if you’ve managed not to wander off to Netflix that is…

Taking a look at the physical differences between the Dell 1501 and the HP 14 G4, it’s easy to see which is the more comfortable machine to use on one’s lap.

Left: HP Chromebook 14 G4. Right: Dell Inspiron 1501

Both machines are almost the same width, 13.5″ vs. 14″, which is the perfect size for feeling balanced across my legs without having to clench my butt cheeks or otherwise sit uncomfortably. The same cannot be said for an 11″ wide laptop! The depth of the keyboard area is roughly the same and doesn’t feel any different from a practical standpoint.

As you can see from the picture, the mouse configuration is very different, with the Chromebook lacking the physical mouse buttons and opting for a larger touch surface instead. Personally, I prefer the physical buttons of the 1501 and the edge scrolling of the 1501’s touchpad to the totally new paradigm of the Chromebook’s touchpad, but the difference isn’t a deal breaker. Normally, I hate the “tap to click” feature of touchpads (I hate touch screens in general for their lack of accuracy and their annoying habit of activating everything but what I am trying to activate…), however the touchpad on this Chromebook has consistent sensitivity and accurate multi-touch gesture recognition which have made my transition from real buttons to fake ones fairly painless. Technically, the whole of the Chromebook’s touchpad is one giant button, but it’s so stiff that it’s uncomfortable to press it down.

The last major visual difference is the HP’s 16:9 ratio 14″ 1366×768 screen vs. the Dell’s 3:2 15.6″ 1280×800 screen. Given the similarity in resolution and screen quality, the practical difference really comes down to which one is easier to look at. I think for reading, the 3:2 ratio 15.6″ screen wins for being just a little taller and allowing one’s eyes to focus on the top half of the screen without having to look down, where on the 16:9 screen one would be looking squarely at the top bezel. On the other hand, the 16:9 ratio screen is better suited for video and many websites. So for the screen, it’s a toss up as to which is better, because it really depends on what you’re doing and how you happen to be sitting while doing it.

Weight and comfort wise, the HP Chromebook 14 is hands down way, way nicer to use than the Dell Inspiron 1501, but that’s what a decade of technological progress does for ya! The HP’s battery is smaller, lighter, and cooler, especially when charging. Same goes for the CPU/GPU. The heat difference is such that the Dell can get really uncomfortable after a short time using it, where as the HP remains comfortable for hours, because it only gets a little warm on the bottom. The Dell weighs 7 pounds where as the HP weighs roughly half as much, at just 3.74 pounds – I can’t say enough how silly and fun the HP feels to carry compared to the Dell… I literally giggle a little when I pull the Chromebook out my old laptop carrying bag!

Finally, the typing experience on the two laptops is similar, but definitely not the same. I believe they both have scissor switches, but Dell has bouncy raised key caps where as the HP has flat, solid feeling key caps. I’ve typed a lot on the Dell over the years and I have always found it to be a pleasant experience… it just had a natural feel to it when the keys were pressed down. The HP Chromebook on the other hand has a definitive “hard” feeling to it, such that when you press a key it clicks down and stops moving abruptly. I wouldn’t say that the difference in feeling is bad nor do I think that typing frequently on the HP will be a lesser experience, I’m just saying that typing on the HP is indeed a different tactile experience than typing on the Dell.

So with all that said, I’m really happy with my new laptop and I expect I will be for another several years. If you’re out there still hanging on to an ancient laptop for your day to day computing like I was and you’re feeling it might be time to look for an affordable replacement, I recommend taking a look at some Chromebooks.

One more thing… 

On a related note, there are low priced Windows laptops to on the market that are worth consideration for every day computing. They use similar low-powered Intel and AMD processors and they also deliver long battery life in truly portable chassis. However, if you go the Windows route (and you don’t plan on formatting Windows to install Linux), make sure not to purchase anything with less than 64GB of storage space. Some of the Windows laptops only have 32GB, which will only leave you with 5-6GB of storage for your files and extra programs after Windows updates. Chrome OS running my Chromebook with only 16GB of storage has more than 8GB of free space, but such is the power of Linux (upon which ChromeOS is built). Most offline ChromeOS programs are less than 50MB, which is crazy tiny compared to many Windows programs too, so that limited storage space goes a lot farther on a Chromebook. Even a full installation of Linux Mint 17.3 XFCE edition, with a whack of optional programs installed, only uses about 10GB, so you can easily get by with only 32GB of storage on a Linux machine (16GB would probably be annoyingly small though).