These days, it's essential for students to find a good laptop for school that won't break the budget. Starting at just $189, the 11.6-inch CTL J4 Plus Chromebook for Education sells at a welcome price for cash-strapped pupils. Loaded with Google's easy-to-use Chrome OS, it's a simple, no-nonsense system that'll help you get through a lesson or paper, and with its surprisingly colorful display, this laptop also offers a treat for your eyes. Unfortunately, the superlatives end there, because with its anemic Rockchip CPU and lackluster battery life, the CTL J4 Plus Chromebook just doesn't offer the same value as some similarly priced competition.
When it comes to sub-$200 laptops, I'm not looking for wows, just solid build-quality. And aside from a little flex in its lid, the J4 Plus delivers. Besides, you can't ever really go wrong with basic black. On the laptop's lid, there's a subtle crisscross pattern that gives the system a little texture, and on the inside, there's a black, brushed-aluminum deck that provides a cool place to rest your wrists.
At 11.46 x 8 x 0.76-inches, the J4 Plus is around the same size as other 11-inch notebooks, including the Lenovo 100S Chromebook (11.81 x 8.23 x 0.78-inches and 2.52 pounds), HP Chromebook 11 (11.7 x 7.6 x 0.7 inches and 2.2 pounds) and Acer Aspire Cloudbook 11 (11.5 x 7.95 x 0.70-inches and 2.41 pounds). However, weighing 2.46 pounds, the J4 Plus is a quarter of a pound heavier than HP's 2.2-pound Chromebook 11.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Even though there's not a ton of room to work with, the J4 Plus features a pretty spacious keyboard. The problem is that with this laptop's short 1.2mm of key travel, I often bottomed out when typing. So while I was still able to hit my typical typing pace of 75 words per minute, my fingers felt a little abused after long typing sessions.
The 3.8 x 2.1-inch one-piece touchpad features a matte plastic surface, and with a thin strip of polished chrome running around its perimeter, the touchpad is the flashiest component on the notebook. Both left and right clicks registered quickly and accurately, as did multitouch gestures, such as two-finger scrolling.
The best thing about the J4 Plus is its screen. While this display is nowhere near as good as that of a typical ultraportable, it is a bit brighter and more colorful than the panels on comparable systems. When I watched the trailer for Rogue One, the 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display did justice to the brilliant crimson bolts shot from the lumbering AT-ATs, as well as the dirty, orange jumpsuits of the Rebel pilots.
The J4 Plus' display put out 256 nits of brightness, which is better than Lenovo's 100S Chromebook (244 nits) and Acer's Cloudbook 11 (250 nits), but slightly behind HP's Chromebook 11 (267 nits).
The J4's display also showed off a wider range of colors, as it covered 74 percent of the sRGB spectrum. The HP Chromebook 11, Lenovo 100S Chromebook and Acer Cloudbook 11 were all more limited, at 61 percent or lower.
Lastly, the J4 Plus claimed an advantage in color accuracy, too. It earned a Delta-E rating of 0.4, which is very close to a perfect 0. The closest competitor was the Acer Cloudbook 11 (3.9).
I generally try to refrain from describing laptop speakers as being tinny unless that quality really hits home. And in the case of the J4 Plus, it does. It's actually kind of sad, because the J4 Plus' speakers pump out a ton of volume, but when everything sounds shallow and metallic, it's pretty hard to like what you're hearing. When I listened to Ronald Jenkees' "Stay Crunchy," his whirlwind of synth guitar riffs sounded like they were being played through a bullhorn.
The J4 Plus, like most Chromebooks, doesn't push out much heat, and it easily stayed below our 95-degree-Fahrenheit comfort threshold on our heat test (15 minutes of streaming HD video). The hottest spot was the on bottom, at 92 degrees, while the top remained even cooler, at 87 degrees between the G and H keys, and 79.5 degrees on the touchpad.
Ports and Webcam
Ports on the J4 Plus are pretty spartan: It's limited to two USB 2.0 ports, HDMI, a headphone/mic jack and a microSD card reader. The laptop's webcam takes some pretty sparse images. Even in our well-lit office, a selfie I took was so dark it turned my navy-blue shirt black.
While most laptops rely on processors made by Intel or AMD, the J4 Plus features a 1.8-GHz quad-core Rockchip CPU instead. The laptop was perfectly usable, but I noticed some lag when surfing the web or using Chrome apps.
When compared to other Chromebooks, the J4 Plus lagged a bit on Basemark's Browsermark test, with a score of 2,379 versus the 100S's 2,393. HP Chromebook 11 was even further behind, at 2,362.
As for the graphics, the J4 Plus reversed its cycle of middling performance by pushing out 58 frames per second on the WebGL Aquarium test while rendering 50 fish. Lenovo's 100S Chromebook mustered 45 fps at the same settings.
To say that the J4 Plus' battery life is disappointing would be an understatement, especially since one of the few advantages Chromebooks tend to hold over their Windows counterparts is endurance. On the Laptop Mag Battery Test (continuous surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of brightness), the J4 Plus lasted just 6 hours and 39 minutes. That's an hour and a half less than the ultraportable average of 8:10, half an hour less than the mediocre HP Chromebook 11 (7:10), and almost 4.5 hours less than the Lenovo 100S Chromebook (11:19).
Software and Warranty
Even though the J4 Plus is meant for schools, it doesn't come with any notable education apps besides the standard set of Google apps, such as Google Docs, Sheets and Slides. However, like with all Chromebooks, you do have access to the large number of apps in the Chrome Web Store, so you can download Microsoft Office apps or learning apps like Little Bio Digital and Planetarium. The J4 Plus' warranty is a standard one-year deal that includes replacement for broken or defective parts.
The only options for the J4 Plus are variations on the warranty, which can tack on extras such as one-year accidental-damage protection starting at $29, all the way to a four-year complete suite warranty for $225.
The J4 Plus has one of the best displays I've seen on a notebook in this price range, and the laptop's build quality should be able to survive whatever a student can dish out. However, this Chromebook's below-average battery life and less-powerful Rockchip CPU make it hard to recommend it over competing systems. Overall, we prefer Lenovo 100S Chromebook ($199), which offers longer endurance, a more comfortable typing experience and peppier processor choice, all for just $10 more.