Monday, July 15, 2024

HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook review: beset by bad battery life

I’m always excited to review Chromebooks like the new $999 HP Dragonfly Pro. These are devices catered to an audience of ChromeOS enthusiast professionals — people who are using Parallels and developing with Linux and maybe even gaming, people who are willing to pay top dollar for the best performance and the most premium hardware.

Samsung’s Galaxy Chromebook, Lenovo’s ThinkPad C13 Yoga Chromebook, and HP’s Elite Dragonfly Chromebook were all incredibly exciting devices to review. They had beautiful chassis, great screens, and powerful performance that aren’t abundant in the Chromebook space, and they had prestigious, well-respected branding behind them. But their battery life didn’t live up to their high price.

The Dragonfly Pro is no exception. And as I use it, I just find myself wondering: when? When will we get more Chromebooks like the Flip CX5 — beautiful, fancy, well-designed ChromeOS devices that also last me a full day unplugged? Please, somebody. I am so tired.

The good is on the outside

Were I only evaluating the chassis, the Dragonfly Pro Chromebook would be a slam-dunk recommendation. It has a ton of great perks.

For example, there are four Thunderbolt 4 ports. That’s a good selection. I could plug in pretty much whatever monitors and accessories I needed to. There is no headphone jack, though. I think there should still be a headphone jack. People do still use wired headphones.

The device also comes with an 8MP camera — stated to be the first front-facing 8MP camera, in fact, ever to appear on a Chromebook. It looks fine. I asked a co-worker for his opinion on a Zoom call, and he replied, “It looks like a webcam.” Still, you know, neat. Speaking of video calls, the speakers sound quite good, with a surround quality that was comparable to that of a decent external speaker. I would love to use this as a multimedia device.

Cute little fingerprint sensor next to the power button.

Oh, and there’s an RGB keyboard, which can auto-sync to your background wallpaper (or you can set it to a color you prefer). I actually couldn’t get this to work on the unit I received, and I’m still waiting to hear back from HP about potential fixes, so I’ll have to update this review once that’s sorted out. If you’re someone who wants flashy colors but doesn’t want a gaming laptop, your day has arrived.

The highlight for me, though, is probably the screen. It’s the brightest screen I’ve ever seen on a Chromebook. HP claims that it reaches 1,200 nits, and cranking it all the way up certainly caused significant pain to my eyes. The 2560 x 1600 (16:10) resolution also makes for a nice viewing experience. And the panel supports adaptive lighting based on your environment. (I didn’t really notice this happening, but perhaps that’s the point.) Again, this is a dream for movie watching and would certainly be my Chromebook of choice for outdoor work.

HP calls it an “ultrabright light-adapting touchscreen.”

It charges over USB-C (because that’s the only option).

Humorously, this Chromebook (which is $999 for the Core i5-1235U, 16GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage in my test unit) actually has a brighter and higher-resolution screen, higher-tech webcam, jazzier keyboard, and better port selection than the Windows version of the Dragonfly Pro, which starts at several hundred dollars more. It looks like a much better deal on paper — until the battery runs out.

HP’s Dragonfly PCs often have a vertical row of hotkeys on the side of their keyboard, but this Chromebook doesn’t.

The issues are within

I have no complaints about the 1235U’s performance. It handled everything I needed it to. I was generally working with three to four apps open and around a dozen Chrome tabs. I continue to run into glitches here and there with ChromeOS — for example, the Spotify and Messenger Android apps were freezing all over the place, very slow to update, wouldn’t close, and wouldn’t resize — but I assume that if you’re considering buying a Chromebook, you’ve decided that you’re fine with those limitations.

The only time I heard fan noise was when I was trying to stream a Spotify playlist overtop the aforementioned load while running an external display. The keyboard was often warm, and the keys in the center occasionally toed the “uncomfortable” line, but nothing caught fire.

This Chromebook has a brighter and higher-resolution screen, higher-tech webcam, and better port selection than the Windows version of the Dragonfly Pro

But the biggest problem I had was with battery life. Two and a half hours. That’s how long this device lasted me to a charge on average, running the workload I described above at medium brightness. I certainly got longer than this in some trials, especially those that were lighter on the Android apps, but I am fairly confident that, if this were my personal device, I would need to charge it two, maybe three times per day.

Different people’s workloads can lead to differing battery life results, but I will say two things:

  1. I consistently get longer lifespans than most reviewers I know.
  2. This was all done with the keyboard backlighting off.

Good speakers. They’re good!

Now, I know that battery life isn’t everyone’s priority. I know some people don’t care about it. But if you’ve read my reviews before, you’ll know that I have a strong, principled stance on this issue. I said this in 2020 when I reviewed the OLED Samsung Galaxy Chromebook, and I’ll say it again here: outside of gaming and workstations, a battery life of less than five hours is not acceptable on a $1,000 device. I don’t care how fancy the webcam and speakers are or how many colors the keys can produce. Battery life is a quality-of-life issue for many people in a way few other features are.

I won’t say not to sell a device that won’t last half a day. But it cannot cost this much. $999 is MacBook territory.

I wanted so much to love this device, and I do think it’s something special. It offers an eclectic combination of features that you won’t find in any other Chromebook on the market. The Elite Dragonfly Chromebook was good; this is equally funky but more affordable. Unfortunately, HP didn’t put a big enough tank in this chassis to juice the Core i5 in combination with a bright, high-resolution screen.

I love using Chromebooks like this. But their battery life, compared to what you can get from much cheaper devices, is often a disappointment. I hope that HP, Samsung, Lenovo, and other manufacturers who are vying to fill the premium slot the Pixelbook left behind can make improvements here. Because these are thin, light, and gorgeous machines. They aren’t meant to live on a desk.


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