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HP Chromebook x2 review: semi-pro

The first detachable Chrome OS device

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

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It used to be that if you wanted a really nice Chromebook with a great screen and good specs, your options were few, far between, and probably made by Google. But in the past year or so, some manufacturers have cottoned on to the idea and started releasing devices that can keep up with more than a dozen tabs. You’ll end up spending $500 or more for the privilege, but that’s still much less than Google charges for the Pixelbook.

The HP Chromebook x2 is such a device. But instead of just presenting itself as a very good Chromebook, it’s designed to sell you on the fact that you can detach the keyboard and use it as a tablet. A detachable keyboard has a different set of trade-offs than the more traditional 360-degree hinge you’ll find on other “convertible” Chromebooks. If you think you’ll use it in tablet mode a lot, it means you can save some weight by leaving the keyboard behind. And if you keep the keyboard attached, you don’t have to feel the keyboard behind the screen when it’s folded up.

At $599.99, the HP Chromebook x2 is pricier than most Chromebooks, but in line with the “semi-pro” tier we’re starting to see more and more. In theory, it is designed for a world where Chrome OS is flexible enough and powerful enough to contend with pretty much every big-screened operating system you can think of: Windows, macOS, and iOS on the iPad. That world still has more potential than reality, but in the meantime, the x2 comports itself decently enough.

In the weird world of convertible laptops, we spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the various ways companies try to square having a full keyboard with a tablet. That usually means talking a lot about hinges, where the guts of the machine are located, and awkward words like “lapability.”

When it comes to solving those problems, the x2 is a little more ambitious than usual. It puts the entire computer behind the screen so that the keyboard is little more than a (thankfully included) accessory for typing. But unlike other full tablets with keyboard attachments, this keyboard has a much nicer and more laptop-like hinge.

It opens like a regular laptop, and the hinge is strong enough to hold the tablet up at a workable angle without too much wobble. The keyboard doesn’t have much beyond a trackpad, stylus loop, and keys, so it doesn’t weigh all that much. Figuring out the right balance so the screen doesn’t tip the whole thing over when it’s open is a challenge — one many other manufacturers have mucked up in the past.

The x2 mostly lives up to that challenge. On a desk, it is completely stable in laptop mode, even with the screen tilted as far as it can go. It’s also stable on my lap, but only barely so. You can tell it’s top-heavy, but it shouldn’t tip over on you. There’s a slight wobble when you tap the screen.

I’m also happy with how the display comes off the keyboard: you just remove it. There’s no button to push to separate it, and you can attach it just as easily. It’s held on by magnets that are just strong enough to keep the whole thing together but not so strong that it’s a struggle to separate.

The keyboard deck is a faux leather that I don’t love, but it isn’t offensive. The trackpad is large and accurate, and the keys are nice to type on. Unfortunately, the keyboard isn’t backlit. The tablet itself is, of course, a little thicker than you might want — especially compared to an iPad — and the bezels are noticeably large in this day and age.

Against the odds, HP pulled off this convertible form factor

HP put most of its engineering trickery into the hinge, but the rest of it holds up, too. The two speakers are front-facing, the rear of the device feels like ceramic, and the stylus is well-balanced and accurate.

Best Chromebooks 2020: HP Chromebook X2

So long as you stay in the “Chromebook zone” of using a reasonable number of web apps and browser tabs, you’ll have no problems with the performance of the x2. That zone is somewhere south of a dozen tabs or web app windows and an Android app or two — none of which are heavy-load software like photo editors or video editors. (Honestly, good luck finding something acceptable for that last one on Chrome OS.)

To say a device does well in the “Chromebook zone” might seem like damning with faint praise, but I don’t mean it to. The x2 performs very well in that zone, without too many slowdowns or bugs. But unlike the Pixelbook, it’s more difficult to push the x2 out beyond what you’re used to with Chromebooks. Its m-series processor is capable but struggles under heavy load.

The biggest issue is that at $599, the x2’s 4GB of RAM means you’re going to have to keep an eye on how much you’ve got open. I’ve found that using this with my everyday loadout of ten-ish tabs and apps is fine, but pushing beyond my usual workload is... pushing it.

More than anything, though, the anemic 32GB of storage really grates. It means you will be depending on cloud storage quite a bit. That’s par for the course for a lot of Chromebooks, but as Android (and Linux) apps become more viable on these machines, 32GB of storage doesn’t feel like nearly enough.

I’ve been pleased but not wowed by the battery life. HP says it should last north of 10 hours, but I haven’t hit that duration. If you use it for basic stuff, you will probably be able to get a full day. But to me, this still feels like most laptops: close to a full day but not quite.

Chromebook users have a good sense of what I mean by the “Chromebook zone.” The basic bet with the x2 and other premium Chromebooks is that there is a growing number of people who have used low-end Chromebooks all through school and want something a little nicer when they head off to more school or whatever else is next. The x2 is a lot nicer than the sub-$300 devices that have largely defined Chromebooks for years.

If you’re just looking for a really solid Chrome OS laptop, you would probably be better served by a Samsung Chromebook Pro, which has nearly identical specs but weighs a little less than the x2. But the x2 is meant to be more than just a solid Chrome OS laptop. It’s also a tablet — and that’s where things get tricky.

I am on record as believing that Chrome OS is not great in tablet mode right now. If you expect that you’ll be happy with full-screen apps, watching movies, and very occasional split screen, the x2 can do all those just fine. But tablet mode still lacks polish on Chrome OS.

I’ve used the x2 with both the stable and beta builds of the operating system, and I can see the company is slowly but surely addressing some of the bigger problems. Responsiveness in putting apps in split screen and generally moving stuff around is already better than it was six weeks ago.

The HP Chromebook x2 is good, but it’s surrounded on all sides by better options for most people

There’s more coming, too. For those brave enough to delve into the Developer channel, an almost entirely new tablet-optimized interface awaits. Chrome Unboxed did a deep dive on the state of the tablet interface right now, and it’s likely that all of it is coming for devices like the x2. A good bet for when we’ll see it is this October when Google is rumored to be releasing another Chromebook of its own, possibly with a detachable screen. In fact, if you’re at all interested in a Chrome OS tablet, you should absolutely wait to see what Google announces before making your purchase.

That puts the x2 in a tricky spot. The software update that would make it easier to recommend isn’t out yet, and it’s possible that the update will come with competition directly from Google itself. And $599.99 is also a tricky price point since Chromebooks that cost significantly less offer nearly as much — to say nothing of the $329 iPad. Spending just $100 or $200 more can get you a more powerful Pixelbook, Windows device, or iPad Pro.

It’s certainly possible that the HP Chromebook x2 has found a sweet spot in the middle of all of those devices, but as of this writing, I don’t think it has. It’s a well-made, decently performing machine hampered by too little onboard storage and software that isn’t quite living up to its potential. I hope the latter problem will be addressed soon, but it’s never a good idea to buy a product based on the hope of future updates.

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