This week's news from About Chromebooks, July 24, 2022

Oh my, what a week! From temperatures that feel over 100 degrees to finding time to write posts every single day, this was a tough one for me. I hope that wherever you live, the temperatures (and workloads!) are more bearable.

I’ll get right into it: I’m sharing the four posts that I think are the most interesting in the newsletter. I think you’ll appreciate my choices. If not, know that I also wrote why LTE Chromebooks becoming mobile hotspots makes sense and why I want to see the iOS Focus Modes from my iPad implemented in ChromeOS.

Yup, I use an iPad Pro (surprise!), not to mention a Windows 11 laptop that as of yesterday dual boots into Linux. I think using different platforms provides a broad perspective of the good and bad in different operating systems. Don’t worry: ChromeOS is still my favorite. ;)

Cheers,

kct


This week’s most-read post on About Chromebooks

HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook review: The MacBook of ChromeOS laptops

As the first 12th gen Intel Chromebook available, the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook sets a high bar. With the excellent build quality and unique features, this ChromeOS laptop is very appealing. I liken it to Apple’s MacBook line of laptops: Very nice machines that command a premium price compared to similar competing options. Read on to find out why in my HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook review.

For reference, I’m testing a model of the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook provided on loan from HP. This particular configuration isn’t available but would cost around $1,400 to $1,500 if HP offered it. I have a full listing of the available configurations and their suggested retail prices here.

Currently, HP is only offering the base model with a $1,149 MSRP, which has a few downgraded components from my review unit. Notably, it uses a Core i3 instead of the Core i5 in my test model. Local storage is half of what the test unit has as well: You’ll get 128 GB of SSD. And you don’t get the 2256 x 1504 resolution screen with 400 nits of brightness as the model I’m reviewing. You’ll have a 1920 x 1280 display with the same brightness. Gone too is the Intel Iris Xe GPU; the base model uses Intel’s UHD graphics.

The base model is currently on sale direct from HP for $979.99 if you’re interested in it.

HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook and pen

Although I don’t have that base model for testing, I’m comfortable saying that you won’t give up that much if you choose it. I wouldn’t expect there to be a noticeable performance difference for traditional Chromebook usage, for example. And other than the items mentioned above, you’re still getting everything else: The same amount of memory, the haptic trackpad, ports, and even the fingerprint sensor are all there.

Having said that, here are the specs of my HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook review unit:

Enough about the internals. Let’s turn to the outside of the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook.

Fantastic design, materials, and quality

When I first unboxed the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook review unit, my mind immediately thought of an Apple laptop. And that’s not a bad thing unless you don’t like Apple’s MacBooks.

Visually, the HP has many design similarities and the same premium feel as what Apple offers. The 13.5-inch display has minimal bezels on the side and reasonably small ones on the screen’s top and bottom. There’s a generously-sized trackpad, which (like Apple) uses haptics. This thin Chromebook weighs a low 2.8 pounds thanks to the premium materials used: HP says it’s a magnesium alloy.

My first impressions still hold true. Build quality is impeccable on my HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook review unit as well. Everything is where you’d expect or want it to be as well. There’s a fingerprint sensor to the right of the haptic trackpad. Top-firing speakers are above the keyboard at the top of the chassis and there are two front-firing ones closest to you. If you get the option HP stylus, it magnetically attaches to the right side of the chassis. It’s secure, out of the way, and wirelessly charges there as well.

Right side ports of this HP Chromebook

Unlike Apple’s laptops, you’ve got a wide range of ports on both sides of the chassis. A USB Type-C 4 / Thunderbolt 4 on each side, for example. HDMI output on the left and USB Type-A on the right. Plus a microSD card slot and, on my review unit, an optional SIM card slot for LTE support.

Left side ports of this HP Chromebook

There are air intake grilles under the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook. Given that every configuration uses a 12th gen Intel U-series processor, they all need a fan to move heat from the CPU. And yes, you will hear that fan running. In my usage, however, I hear it less often than I do on my 8th gen Intel Core i5 Chromebook from 2018. When it does run, it’s also quieter than on my daily driver.

HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook performance is excellent

Clearly, anytime you move up a processor generation, you’d expect a performance boost. And of course, there is one.

The performance jump from my 2018 Chromebook with Core i5 and 16 GB of RAM can easily be seen. That ol’ Acer Chromebook Spin 13 has served me very well but its age is becoming apparent. By comparison, I can see the clear performance gains in the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook. And having tested several 11th gen Intel Chromebooks recently, I can see it there too. Just not as much.

I’ll share some synthetic benchmarks to illustrate and then discuss how the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook performs for my tasks.

As you can guess by the benchmark results, I’ve never seen a more capable ChromeOS laptop than the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook when it comes to raw performance.

The results bear out in my typical usage, which is comprised mainly of general web work with up to two dozen open browser tabs, Linux apps for programming, the occasional Android app, plus some online video watching and video conferencing.

Even with 8 GB of memory instead of my preferred 16 GB, this Chrome OS laptop is more than capable of my daily workload. In fact, it performs so well, that I’m thinking that I can make do with an 8 GB RAM configuration for my own next purchase. I’ve shied away from that in the past because I typically have at least one Linux app running all day. It’s VS Code if you’re curious.

HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook external monitor

Simply put, every activity happens instantly. Whether it’s opening or running a web app, it just happens. Firing up a Linux app when the Linux container is running? It might take two seconds if that. Switching between Virtual Desks or jumping into Overview mode to split two active windows across the screen? Nary a lag.

It’s definitely a big step up from my everyday Chromebook that’s now four years old. Maybe two steps. It’s more like a half-step up from a comparable 11th gen Core processor, however. So unless you have money to burn, I don’t think I’d upgrade from a recent 11th gen Chromebook.

Other experiences with this ChromeOS laptop

I wanted to mention a few other specific aspects about the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook, so here are they are in no particular order.

  • I’ve seen more vibrant displays on other Chromebooks, such as the Acer Chromebook Duet 5, which has an OLED screen. Even so, the color saturation, viewing angles, and brightness is better than average on the HP.

  • Speaking of displays, I tested my 1440p, 144Mhz external monitor with the HP. Over HDMI, it had no issues displaying the full 2560 x 1440 screen resolution at 75 frames per second.

  • It’s nice to have a Chromebook with a 1080p webcam. I wouldn’t say the visual output is stellar, but you can see the higher quality image it captures compared to most Chromebook webcams.

  • Participants on video calls said the microphone input was good but not great. It’s surely good enough for this activity.

  • The B&O tuned speakers get fairly loud for a laptop of this size. The bass is a little light. However, I enjoyed watching movies and appreciate the two front-firing speakers that help with stereo separation and front-to-back sounds.

  • The fingerprint sensor has worked without fail.

  • Battery life is decent. There were days when I was really pushing this Chromebook with many activities and a high brightness level on the display. On those days, the battery was good for around 6 hours. Most of my normal days with everyday tasks saw the battery last closer to 8 hours. You might be able to eke out 9 hours. However, the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook does recharge relatively quickly. I’d probably carry the USB charger with me when leaving home.

  • I like the typing experience of the keyboard. There’s plenty of travel and feedback. And I’m a huge fan of haptic trackpads, having used them on other Apple laptops. The trackpad doesn’t move; instead, it provides small vibrations for your clicks and when you move windows offscreen or navigate to a virtual desk. I didn’t think HP could meet the Apple experience on this. I was wrong.

  • A stylus was included with my HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook review unit and it works well in general. It’s not going to fix notetaking software that’s not up to snuff, but with the right app, it’s great.

Should you buy the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook?

Let’s be frank. I thought this device could potentially be the best Chromebook of 2022. And as of now, it is. HP has delivered on its implicit promise of a superb, high-end, no-compromise ChromeOS laptop. That comes, however, with a cost.

As I recently noted in my 12th gen Intel Chromebook comparison, there are similar offerings from other brands that have lower suggested retail prices. Like, a lot lower, given the starting price begins at $649. And I haven’t had a chance to test those models from Acer, Asus, and Lenovo. So I can’t say with certainty that you’re getting more, at least from a performance standpoint, with the HP.

However, if you have to have all of the features that are found only in the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook and both your use case and your wallet fit it, you’ll be happy with the purchase.

I’m still leaning towards seeing how the Acer Chromebook Spin 714 pans out at $749. No, there’s no haptic trackpad but the stylus is included and the base model has a higher-powered Core i5 than the base HP model. The displays are similar although Acer is using a dimmer 320 nit panel, which I can live with. The materials, design and build quality may not quite be on par with HPs but for me, I’m not sure those are worth the premium price difference.

2022 Acer Chromebook Spin 714

And that gets me back to my original thought.

I look at the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook and see the Apple business model. Use great design and quality to command a premium price over similarly configured laptops that cost hundreds of dollars less. If you’re OK with or want that, the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook fits the bill. In the end, I may purchase this device. For now, I’m going to wait and see how the competition stacks up.


Google’s password strength indicator will boost ChromeOS online security

A new Chromebook feature is in the works to show a password strength indicator. It’s a work in progress so you won’t see it yet. The password strength indicator will debut as an experimental feature with the intent to boost ChromeOS online security.

I found ChromiumOS code on Wednesday that will add the password strength indicator to ChromeOS. The flag to enable it isn’t available on the ChromeOS 105 Dev Channel, which is what I’m running currently.

Once the code is pushed out, you can enable the flag at chrome://flags#password-strength-indicator.

ChromeOS online security to get a boost with a password strength indicator

Personally, I can’t believe that this feature doesn’t already exist to strengthen ChromeOS online security.

It’s fairly standard on most third-party password managers. I know because I looked at most of the major ones before moving my passwords away from Apple and Google on my devices.

If you’re not familiar with a password strength indicator, here’s an example from 1Password, which is the password manager I use. The indicator shows when creating a password and also when viewing your passwords.

First, there’s the big, red banner saying my password is weak. And there’s a password strength indicator under my credentials. Don’t worry, I’ve already updated it to a far stronger password. 😉

The simple indicator provides a visual clue as to how weak or strong a password is. A stronger password would show a longer bar colored green in 1Password, or a green circle, as shown below from the 1Password Chrome extension.

I don’t know how Google will represent it to boost ChromeOS online security, but you get the idea.

ChromeOS password strength indicator in 1Password.

Surely this effort to bolster ChromeOS online security is part of Google’s larger in-browser password overhaul.

ChromeOS 101 added the ability to save password notes, for example. All the way back in ChromeOS 79, Google added a password checkup feature that alerts you when stolen credentials appear elsewhere online. It compares your online account credentials against a database with more than 4 billion known cracked passwords. And I see work on other password-related features in the ChromiumOS codebase that I’ll be following up on in the future.

I still prefer not to store my credentials with a browser or device, but that’s just me. I know many Chromebook users stick with the simplicity of the password manager built-in to ChromeOS. So I see this as a positive, if not overdue, step for Google to help keep your online accounts a little more secure.


First look: ChromeOS 105 partial split window options

With the latest Dev Channel release, the experimental ChromeOS 105 partial split window options now appear on a Chromebook. Once fully rolled out, you’ll be able to choose from multiple window tiling options, similar to Microsoft Windows 11.

Here’s how this feature looked in the last Dev Channel version of ChromeOS 105:

Chrome OS 105 partial split multitasking button

Previously, there was a placeholder for the partial split window options. Now, the user interface has been fleshed out to show your actual choices. There’s half, partial, full and float on top.

What’s even nicer is that there’s a “nudge”: I saw a small notification near the multitasking button suggesting I hover over it for window management options. More of this please, Google! Chromebook users need to know what helpful functionality is available to them as features are added to ChromeOS.

partial split windows ChromeOS 105

Remember: This is experimental, which requires a flag to be enabled:

ChromeOS partial split flag

To be clear, the full functionality isn’t working 100% just yet.

Hovering over what’s typically the “Maximize” icon on an app or the Chrome browser does show the tiling options. Selecting the half view option does work with two windows but that’s to be expected. ChromeOS has supported 50% window snapping for some time now.

In the ChromeOS 105 partial split menu, however, the active window simply maximizes for now. Developers are still working on the code to enable the partial split window option.

I do wonder how Android apps will behave in ChromeOS once the partial split window options are fully baked. We know that Android 12L adds support for different screen sizes and app layouts. So I’m not sure if the final implementation will require Android 12L on a Chromebook or if these apps will support the feature natively without it.

I can tell you that Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) appear to support this feature. Or at least they will be, based on a quick test I did with the Stadia PWA. Again though, I’m not surprised. PWAs are wrapped by Chrome, so if the Chrome browser and ChromeOS support this window tiling option, PWAs should be also supported by default.


How to install ChromeOS Flex the hard way

Now that Google ChromeOS Flex is generally available and supports more than 400 devices, I decided to give it a try. I grabbed my daughter’s old MacBook Air from 2013, which was collecting dust. And I went through the process, which is about as easy as it can be. Still, I learned how to install ChromeOS Flex the hard way during this process.

Before sharing the often frustrating experience in this particular case, I want to be clear. I love what Google is doing with ChromeOS Flex. The ability to repurpose old computers from running macOS or Windows so they can continue on with ChromeOS is brilliant. It will reduce e-waste while also saving both consumers and businesses money since they can reuse computers they already own.

Having said that, I’d like to see Google add a clarification or two to its ChromeOS Flex install documentation. Why? Because the process took me far longer than I expected, mainly due to limitations I found out only during the process. I could have (and should have) avoided these, but apparently, I like doing things the hard way.

What you need to install ChromeOS Flex

Essentially, to install ChromeOS Flex on a computer, you need one that already runs Chrome. It’s also probably wise to check in advance if your computer is supported by ChromeOS Flex. There’s a list of models here and thankfully, the 2013 MacBook Air appears as “fully certified”. There is one caveat in this case: Google says the Air’s webcam won’t work. I can live with that.

You also need a USB drive with at least 8 GB of storage so you can download the installation files. These files are downloaded through the Chromebook Recovery Utility, which is a Chrome Web Extension.

Right off the bat, the name is deceiving because you’re not recovering a Chromebook. You’re installing ChromeOS Flex. That’s a small nitpick though and didn’t impact the ChromeOS Flex install. So I went to install the Chromebook Recovery Utility on the old MacBook Air. No problem. Until it was.

It’s better to use another computer for the ChromeOS Flex files

I immediately ran into an issue that isn’t Google’s fault. When I tried to install the recovery utility on the MacBook Air, Chrome said it wasn’t compatible. It turns out, you need at least Chrome 88 running for this extension.

Chromebook Recovery Utility

And to be fair, the ChromeOS Flex install instructions do say you need the current version of Chrome on your device. So that’s on me.

Since the Air hadn’t been used in a very long time, it had Chrome 67 on it. Ok, that’s an easy fix, right? I just went into the Chrome browser settings and updated to the latest version. Or so I thought.

With my newly updated Chrome browser on an old Air, I tried to install the Chromebook Recovery Utility again. And again, it failed because it was “incompatible”. I checked the Chrome version to make sure the software update took effect and it did.

Right up to Chrome 87, or exactly one version lower than what the recovery utility supports. And when I saw the version number, I also saw a message saying any future versions of Chrome would require macOS 10.11, aka El Capitan.

I decided to check the macOS version on the Air and of course, it was 10.10, which is Yosemite. To proceed with the ChromeOS Flex install then, I would have to upgrade the Air to at least macOS 10.11. And that’s what I did.

OS X El Capitan

I downloaded the nearly 6 GB installation file directly from Apple and ran through the upgrade process. That’s 45 minutes I won’t get back. After the macOS upgrade, I was able to get Chrome up to version 103.

Again, it’s not Google’s fault that we haven’t upgraded the operating system software on a Mac we haven’t used in five or more years. However, there’s nothing in the ChromeOS Flex install documentation with requirements for macOS 10.11 or better to get a version of Chrome for the process. And I think there should be if you can’t get the current version of Chrome from your current operating system on a certified device.

After all, the entire premise of ChromeOS Flex is to use old devices. And old devices are less likely to have the most current software versions installed on them. So the expectation of a simple installation process will be a letdown in cases like this.

The best way to manage that expectation? Update the ChromeOS Flex install documentation with these specific requirements. This is also extremely good information to know (in advance) for IT admins undertaking a ChromeOS Flex fleet conversion.

There is a simple workaround for this if you see it in the instructions. Of course, doing things the hard way, I didn’t see it until it was too late.

Google says “The device that you use to create your USB installer can be different to the device you plan to install Chrome OS Flex on.” If you have a more modern machine running Chrome, you can use it to create your ChromeOS Flex install media.

While that’s good, I wonder how many people will take the same path I did and try to use the old device for the installation. Yes, Google does state you need the current version of Chrome to create the ChromeOS Flex media. So I shouldn’t have gone down this path, and neither should you unless you want to do this the hard way. I’ll take the blame and full responsibility for this one.

Using the Chromebook Recovery Utility

With my updated MacBook Air, at least to meet minimum requirements, I installed the Chromebook Recovery Utility extension without incident. And when I searched for Google ChromeOS Flex in the menu, it appeared (as Google Chrome OS Flex). I clicked a few buttons to move through the process and in about 20 minutes, my ChromeOS Flex bootable media was ready. Although Google says you need a USB drive, I didn’t have one with enough storage. I was able to complete this process with a 16 GB microSD card in an SD card adapter.

I rebooted the MacBook Air via that media storage and crossed my fingers. Success!

install ChromeOS Flex MacBook Air

This allowed me to test ChromeOS Flex as it runs directly off the USB drive; it doesn’t wipe the original operating system at this stage. I signed in to the temporary operating system to kick the tires and after a few minutes decided to proceed with the full installation. In my case, this wipes macOS El Capitan (sorry you didn’t last long!) on the internal storage and replaces it with ChromeOS Flex. This took another 5 minutes or so.

Note that if you choose the option to test the software, it won’t run as fast as it would if you had it installed. That’s because the internal storage of your computer is very likely faster than external storage. So don’t be too disappointed if while testing ChromeOS Flex it runs slow. You can expect a performance boost if you do the full installation.

What’s ChromeOS Flex like on a 2013 MacBook Air?

After using my shiny new operating system on a banged-up old computer from 2013, I’m pretty satisfied.

You have to realize that even a few years ago macOS was a sluggard on this hardware. It has a dual-core Intel Core i5-4250U CPU running at 1.3 GHz, a scant 4 GB of RAM, and a more-than-enough 250 GB SSD. Given the 4th-gen CPU that’s now 9 years old and the minimal amount of memory, ChromeOS Flex performs better than I expected.

The MacBook Air is essentially now a Chromebook, so it’s simple, speedy (as speedy as it can be), and secure. I’m able to browse my everyday sites and use my typical web apps. And it doesn’t feel like I’m using a ChromeOS laptop from 2013; trust me, I remember what it was like. The experience is more akin to an entry-level Chromebook from around five or six years or so. That’s all I need it to be. It would be an unreasonable expectation to think that ChromeOS Flex will magically make 2013 hardware perform like 2022 hardware.

So the experience isn’t remotely comparable to “the MacBook of ChromeOS laptops”, which is what I dubbed the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook in my recent review.

How could it be when that device has a 12th gen Intel CPU and 8 GB of RAM, for example? I wouldn’t want to keep more than 10 browser tabs open on the refreshed Air when there is only 4 GB of RAM to work with. And I don’t expect to see blazing fast window management by comparison. But it’s not terrible by any means.

Short of the webcam, everything seems to be working fine. By the way, I was incorrect about ChromeOS Flex: Earlier this week I said it didn’t support Android or Linux apps. A few readers mentioned that was only partially true: Certified devices do have Linux support. Sure enough, the ChromeOS Linux container is running just fine on the MacBook Air.

Like I said, I just ChromeOS Flex to repurpose the Air into a usable, secure computer. It is and it will likely be for some time. Google says this model of the MacBook Air will get software updates through the end of 2026.

Well done, Google. But next time, I’m doing this the easy way. You should too: Read the instructions and fully understand them before taking your first step!


That’s all for this week!

Again, I wish for more temperate weather where you are, although I’d like to see it where I am too. ;)

You might have noticed that I’m making a change, or rather an addition, to how I review Chromebooks. Going forward, all will now have a high-level review summary and rating, along with pros and cons.

This information will be near the top of the review so you can immediately get a feel for my thoughts. I know everyone’s time is precious, so if yours is limited, you’ll still get useful information with a glance.

Until next time,

Keep on Chromebookin’!