Acer C720 Chromebook review £199
9th Dec 2013 | 22:52
Acer's Chromebook balances power and price, but Chrome is still an underpowered OS
Google Chromebooks have always been a bit of an outlier, appearing on the scene as tablets surged and netbooks faded away. Fitting somewhere in between these two niches, they offer quick and easy internet access for those who prefer a PC-style interface to touchscreen tablets. Google's Chrome OS, however, doesn't offer the full range of possibilities provided by a laptop running Windows, MacOS, or Linux.
Compared to the HP Chromebook 11, the Acer C720 ups the ante in terms of horsepower while maintaining the Chromebook's attractive features. Its simplicity of use, small-and-light form factor, and $249 price tag make it an ideal client for web browsing. There's a lot to love about this system, but a few things that feel inadequate.
With its low price and mammoth Haswell battery life, the Acer C720 is one of the best Chromebooks you can get for the money. While it might be robbed of flagship status by the cute styling of HP's effort, and it lacks the dense display of the MacBook Pro-style Chromebook Pixel, the C720 nicely exhibits everything you can, and cannot, do on a Chromebook.
Finally, a fully powered, dirt cheap Chromebook
The C720 features an Intel Celeron 2955U CPU running at 1.40 GHz. Using the Haswell micro-architecture and built on a 22 nm process, this 64-bit CPU features two cores and 2 MB of cache. Acer has coupled it with 2 GB of DDR3L SDRAM. It also features Intel HD Graphics running at a 200 MHz base frequency and 1 GHz max dynamic frequency. That is more than enough processing power for anything the Chromebook is designed to do. It might even be a bit of overkill for the very light-on-its-feet Chrome OS.
Your standard benchmarks don't have much relevancy to the Chromebook user since these machines aren't designed to run traditional applications. Look elsewhere if you want to use Photoshop filters, do video editing, or play 3D games. Chrome OS is designed for simple office tasks and Web-based applications.
For these low-intensity uses, the system is more than powerful enough. It's extremely responsive, and since the operating system is so streamlined, it often will do these tasks even faster than a souped-up Windows PC loaded down with the extra baggage typical of many installs. Ever done a fresh install of Windows on an old PC and seen how much faster your PC ran? Think of Chrome OS as a PC that's always running a fresh install.
The joys of running Chrome OS
Using Chrome OS takes some getting used to both conceptually and practically. Pretty much, a Chromebook is a laptop that runs only one thing: the Chrome web browser. There's a beautiful simplicity there, especially since the web browser monopolizes so much of what most people do day-to-day on their PC.
That simplicity has some great benefits. Boot up is extremely fast. It takes as much time to type in your password as it does for the system to boot up. It feels more like sleep/awake than a true shutdown and bootup process. This is impressive compared to other notebooks, but of course, Chromebooks aren't the only Internet appliance which can offer this feature. Tablets offer similar speed-of-access.
Chrome OS is also tightly connected with a Google account. There is a guest mode, but to make full use of the system, you need a Google account. This personalizes the experience and lets you have a similar experience across platforms. For instance, your bookmarks travel with you, as do the files available on your Google Drive.
Another cool feature is the "powerwash" reset which returns the notebook to the original factory state. This complete wipe takes just a few minutes and gives you a fresh PC. Any user can perform it, though, so it's best not to leave valuable files stored locally only on a Chromebook.
Enough storage (for a Chromebook)
While the CPU provides more-than-enough horsepower for its intended use, this system's 16GB of solid state memory provides only adequate storage. That's enough room to store a limited number of files locally as well as the apps you may download from the Google Chrome Store. Some apps can be used off-line; for instance, you can play music files, edit photos, or work on office apps without being connected to the Internet. So adequate storage space is essential.
If you want to expand the system's storage, there are a few options. USB flash drives are supported and there's a slot for an SD Card. That slot can be used both to easily transfer your photos and videos to Google's servers as well as to provide alternate storage.
Chrome OS itself doesn't make big space demands. There aren't any large applications to install and its web-based applications are designed to function best in the cloud. It's designed so that you store your music, videos, photos, and documents in the cloud. The purchase of the system also entitles you to 100GB of Google Drive storage free for two years.
In our experience, Chrome OS is best used as intended: as a cloud-based operating system. If you keep everything in the cloud, then you can access it from any PC anywhere. That's the main purpose of a Chromebook, after all. It works best as an appliance offering quick and easy access to the cloud. Trying to use a Chromebook as a traditional PC doesn't make sense unless, as we discuss below, you load a traditional operating system. Otherwise, it is best to run it as intended and store your data in the cloud.
Limited peripheral support
The system does include two USB ports, one supporting USB 2.0 and one supporting USB 3.0. Several types of USB peripherals will work with the system. For instance, we plugged in a wireless keyboard/mouse and an external webcam and they worked seamlessly and almost instantaneously. External hard drives also worked without a hitch. However, you won't be able to use the bundled software that comes with these peripherals; Chrome OS only offers basic support.
Printers, though, are another matter. You can't plug a printer into the system directly. To use a printer, it either needs to offer networked support for Google Cloud Print or be connected to a non-Chrome OS computer configured to support this Google protocol. This is actually quite a severe limitation for home users with aging inkjets, since many older WiFi-capable printers don't offer this feature.
This limited compatibility with a printer is especially annoying for students who need to print out their work. There's not much point in purchasing an extremely inexpensive laptop if you need to purchase a brand new printer to go along with it. Anyone considering a Chromebook with a lot of printing in their future should evaluate their own printer, and those on their school or office's network.
Chrome OS is designed, primarily, for use on wireless networks. It supports 802.11a/b/g/n protocols and also offers Bluetooth 4.0 support. What it lacks is Ethernet port, but it is possible to add a USB Ethernet adapter for wired networking.
Chrome OS also isn't designed to connect into corporate networks or do Windows file sharing. There are some workarounds available, but mainly it's intended to be used with Google's web-based cloud. You'll need to change your uploading behavior to get things working.
With a Windows PC you might have just turned on file sharing and shared a folder. With a Chromebook you make a folder on your Google Drive available to other people. It's designed with this type of cloud-based collaboration in mind and works best using Google's own services.
It's easy to criticize a very inexpensive machine. Design choices have to be made to keep the price low, and those design choices sometimes have unfortunate trade-offs. In the case of the C720, the speakers were a definite casualty in the design process.
The speakers in this notebook provide barely adequate sound in the best of circumstances. They are surprisingly loud, but the audio is so tinny at the high end that it almost distorts the music. There's almost no bass at the low end either. Music is listenable, but not quite pleasant. That's in the best circumstances.
These low-end speakers are placed on the bottom of the laptop. That means positioning the notebook wrong or placing it on the wrong surface can make the audio sound even worse. It probably sounds best propped up on something or held up. Compare that to the HP Chromebook 11, which cleverly hid its speakers beneath the keyboard.
Of course, an inexpensive notebook isn't intended to be used as high-end stereo system. There is a headphone jack and paired with a decent pair of headphones the audio sounds fine.
Light and small
Weighing in at only 2.76 lb, the Acer C720 is perfect for slipping into a backpack . There are plenty of higher-end laptops that weigh less and offer a lot more power and features, but they also cost a lot more. This Chromebook's real competition, though, is from tablets. An iPad 2 or similar Android tablet weighs about half as much, and they offer similar power and features.
The Chromebook's advantage is in offering a traditional laptop interface and traditional-style applications. It's difficult to do serious word processing or spreadsheet work on most tablets, even if you have an external keyboard. The Chromebook fills that need admirably at a very low price. It's an ideal homework computer for children or a "floating" web browser which multiple people can use.
The company promises about 8.5 hours of battery life, and the C720 delivered on that promise in our tests. In any case, the power supply is so small and light, it's not much of a burden to lug around.
Another disappointing aspect of this Chromebook's hardware is the display. This 11.6" Active Matrix TFT Color LCD runs natively at 1366 x 768 resolution. It's not fair to be too harsh on a display at this low price point, but we found the colors to have a noticeably washed-out appearance to them whether displaying photos or watching video. In addition, it is very sensitive to viewing angle, especially vertically. You have to adjust the screen to just the right angle to see it clearly, and if you move too much, you'll need to readjust it. Things aren't as bad, though, if you shift your head left to right.
This system is definitely appropriate only for a single person to use. The screen isn't good enough for any kind of collaborative work or presentation display. However, it does offer an HDMI port that can run either a second display to increase desktop size or to mirror the laptop display. This makes it an inexpensive way to power a digital projector or TV.
The system includes a VGA internal webcam as well as support for external webcams via the USB port.
Subpar keyboard and touchpad
The weakest aspect of the Acer C720 system is the keyboard and touchpad. The keyboard is chiclet style, but the keys have a cheap, mushy feel to them. There's no sure sense of when they are depressed fully. It's usable, but might get annoying with sustained use.
The trackpad is even worse. It doesn't have separate right and left-click buttons. Instead, you click on the bottom of the pad to execute these functions. However, the pad has an unsure feel to it, and there's no real tactile separation between the right and left areas. So you have to feel around and hope for the best.
There are some other aspects of the keyboard that take some getting used to. Acer has replaced the Caps Lock key with a programmable button that functions, by default, similarly to the Windows Start button. That's arguably a wise choice, since Caps Lock is probably more often than not activated inadvertently. The on/off key looks like a function key on the top row of keys, right above the backspace key. It's easy to mistakenly press it, though this isn't likely to be a problem, since you have to hold it down for a bit to actually shut down the system.
All powered up with no place to go
There's a deep irony to owning a full-powered Chromebook like the Acer C720. All that power, and all that potential, is limited by the Chrome OS. Chrome OS is a highly optimized operating system, so of course it runs extremely fast on this hardware. But there's no reason that hardware couldn't be running a full-featured operating system like Linux with all of the available features and applications. Chrome OS is, after all, based on Linux.
In a way, this means the hardware is hobbled by the operating system. But there are some options for the adventuresome. Several independent developers have put out tools that promise to let you run a full Linux installation on this machine in parallel with Chrome OS. That's really the ideal configuration, giving you the flexibility of the apps available on Linux while still letting you take advantage of the simplicity and speed of Chrome OS. We won't opine on whether it's worth the risk of bricking your system in the pursuit of such a dual-boot dream machine. You can visit ChrUbuntu http://chromeos-cr48.blogspot.fr/ or Crouton https://github.com/dnschneid/crouton for more information.
Very Limited Apps
The other irony is that, in many ways, Chrome OS is more limited than Google's other operating system -- Android. The apps available in the Google Chrome Store are nowhere near as numerous or varied as are available on Android. And you're limited to what is available in that online store. If the app doesn't run inside of Chrome, you can't run it.
As many applications and services become web-based, that may not be such a terrible limitation. But when you compare the possibilities of a Chrome OS system with one running Windows, MacOS, or Linux, the limitations are severe. You are simply shut out of a whole world of PC gaming, productivity applications, and other useful programs that run as standalone applications.
As the apps available for Chrome increase, and more and more of computing becomes Web-based, this limitation probably will decrease. And of course, Google makes a full office suite available on the Web along with other useful apps like a Calendar and Email. But for anyone used to going beyond their web browser to get things done, Chrome OS can feel very restricted.
In deciding whether the Acer C720 Chromebook would make a good purchase, you first need to determine whether Chrome OS is right for you. Though it's possible to run a full Linux installation on this system, we hesitate to recommend it for that purpose. You ought to make peace with Chrome OS before considering this type of machine.
Second, you need to determine how important it is to save a few dollars. Acer had to make some tough design decisions to reach that $249 price point, and you'll be giving up some creature comforts to get there.
By far and without question, the main attraction of this machine is its low price. $249 for a new laptop opens up all kinds of possibilities. It's easy to afford, and it wouldn't mean bankruptcy were it to be lost or stolen while traveling. Additionally, all your data would be backed up to Google Drive.
We also like Chrome OS, despite all its limitations. It's very fast in average use, and the C720's hardware is more than fast enough to run it at top speed. Web pages load so quickly we can easily imagine people preferring it to fancier computers running bloated operating systems. Its simplicity and minimal risk of viruses also makes it less of a burden overall. The eight hour battery life enhances what's already a travel and productivity-friendly machine.
It's a true web appliance, an ideal system for sharing among many people. The Google account log-in gives each person a personalized environment, and it takes just a few keystrokes to completely wipe the system. That improves privacy and limits the risk substantially in sharing the system with others.
It's easy to nitpick a very inexpensive machine, and the Acer C720 offers plenty of annoyances. The keyboard is mushy and cheap feeling; the trackpad is even worse. The display is washed out and has limited viewing angles. The internal speakers are disappointing for anything beyond a YouTube clip and the webcam is only VGA resolution.
On top of the hardware issues, there are all the downsides of Chrome OS: limited app availability, reliance on cloud storage, limited printer compatibility, etc. Chrome OS also requires an adjustment period. It's different than traditional operating systems, with its all-browser design and focus on Google services. It takes a while to learn how to use it best. There's also the risk, of course, that after the adjustment period you'll discover that you prefer a traditional operating system or need a machine that can run Photoshop.
One key criterion we like to use in evaluating a product is whether we'd actually want to use it day-to-day. The Acer C720 Chromebook has many faults and limitations, but even taking all of those into account, it's something we definitely would want to use, for the price.
At $249, we expected cut corners in the hardware department. While we can forgive the washed out display, especially after seeing the overpriced Chromebook Pixel, we'd have preferred a system with a better keyboard and trackpad. Those are hardware flaws that actually get in the way of productivity.
In terms of speed and battery life, you can't argue with Acer here. For those times when you just want to get on the web quickly to answer emails or look something up, the C720 is ideal. For those with children, it's also a perfect "homework machine," as long as you can get a printer hooked up.
The key downsides we noted, including the display, the keyboard, and the speakers, really don't matter for casual use. They would get annoying if this were your one and only PC, and we don't recommend the Acer C720, or any Chromebook, for that matter, as someone's main machine. It's as a computing sidekick that the C720 shines, a laptop that you can flip open at a moments notice, even if you haven't charged it in a while.