For a while now I’ve been after something lighter to drag to work that my Macbook to use during my lunchtimes. I usually don’t stray from the internet and, indeed, the same is true for my computer usage in the evening – I only really need my Macbook for development, not casual living-room surfing. Not surprisingly, then, a Chromebook has been on my agenda. This has been helped by the fact that I’ve used a friend’s, who just happens for work for Google, Chromebook and really liked the experience.
Many reviews, and commenter’s of the same reviews, struggle with deciding whether a Chromebook review should equally be a review of the OS. In this case, I think it should. You’d have to be a bit of a “power user” to get Linux working on it (in the case of this model, you can do but the trackpad, for instance, won’t work) and I’m told Windows is a no-go area. This is not designed as a general-purpose laptop but specifically to run Chrome – hence the OS needs to be an integral part of the product review.
I mentioned before that I’d been looking for a while – the reason for the delay was simply down to the Chromebook models available. Most had a feature of some kind that I didn’t want – a mechanical drive, for instance. I needed a Chromebook with an SSD, £200 price of below, around 11″ (but not below), a good keyboard, excellent battery life and a processor good enough to run a full HD video without a problem. The HP 11 Chromebook was close but I didn’t like the glossy white plastic case. The Acer C720, though, hit all the marks and for £198.99 at PC World was just the right price too.
So, for your money you get an Intel Celeron 2955U processor, 2GB of memory and a 16GB SSD. It sports a matte 11.6″ screen, running at a pretty standard resolution of 1366×768. Battery life is quoted at 8.5 hours and it has a weight of just 1.3kg. I bought the “slate grey” version which has a lovely matt grey back, sporting the Acer and Chrome logos.
Around the outside you get a power connector (thankfully not using a micro USB phone-compatible charger, which means it can be charged a lot quicker!), SD card slot, USB 2 and USB 3 sockets, Kensington lock, HDMI and a headset socket (i.e. combined headphone and microphone). A VGA webcam is above the display. Connectivity, it supports dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Taking just 7 seconds to boot from cold, this is no slouch. Full HD video runs smoothly and I’ve never saw a stutter from the device at all. Equally, those battery life figures hold out – it really does last that long (in fact, I got over 9 hours from it the first time I used it). Unlike some of the earlier Chromebooks which I found very plasticky and “cheap” feeling, this is a lot better. It’s still plastic and cheap but is screwed together a lot better and has a lot more of substantial feel to it. Some good sized rubber feet on the bottom prevent slipping too.
The keyboard is nice in use – thanks to Chrome not needing a lot of the buttons on a traditional keyboard, there’s plenty of room for full sized keys (and in some cases, bigger than “full size”). The touchpad too is nice in use – it’s no Macbook touchpad, but it’s still one of the nicer non-Apple versions that I’ve used. There are no physical buttons – you click the touchpad for a left click and do the same, but with 2 fingers, for a right click.
The screen, often the only cause of criticism in other reviews of this product, has that rare of things – a matte screen. The result of this, though, is slightly muted colours. Brightness is also criticised but putting the brightness up to full I could see no issues – it was very bright! As an aside point, the manual details the fact that there is a light sensor just above the keyboard – however, I could see no way of using this as there is no automatic screen brightness setting.
Most people ask about battery replacement and the ability to upgrade the memory. Officially, none of this is supported but removal of the bottom cover can be easily achieved with just a Philips screwdriver. Although I’ve not tried it, it doesn’t look as if replacement of the battery should be an issue and they can be had for less than £40. The RAM, however, is soldered onto the motherboard and I cannot see a connector for any more so don’t expect to be able to upgrade this. On the other hand, the SSD is accessible so you can, at least, swap this out.
Anyway, let’s get to the OS. Chrome OS is, in a nutshell, the Chrome Browser. Everything is done via this. You CANNOT download programs or apps, as you would in Windows, and that includes Microsoft Office. However, you can install any apps available from the Chrome store – these are often simply shortcuts to websites but some can add extra functionality to the browser. Google provides an online equivalent to Office via their Google Drive storage service – and by buying the Chromebook you get a free 100 GB of Google Drive cloud storage for 2 years too.
Chrome OS looks like Windows though, with the equivalent of a start button in the bottom left corner and system information in the bottom right. Websites and apps can be pinned to the bottom bar. Chrome and apps can be windows separately and moved around the desktop. There’s also a crude file manager as well so you can download files and then access them, although compatibility is patchy and often limited (for example, you can view MS Office files but not edit them – best to load them into Google Drive where you view and edit them). Music, image and video formats are supported, as are USB drives so you can easily plug in a USB memory stick and watch a film from it if you want. Otherwise, hardware support is limited. One thing that doesn’t, and won’t, work – Java. If you’re dependant on a website that requires Java then you’ll be out of luck. Flash, however, does work as this is built into the Chrome browser.
The OS also has reasonable offline support as well – if you have no WiFi you can still access a modicum of features, including document editing. These are getting better all the time.
To put it’s use into perspective, this review has been written entirely on the Acer. I used Evernote online to write a draft before transferring to WordPress. The images were downloaded to local storage and I used the built in image editor to crop them appropriately before loading them onto the site for inclusion in the final article.
Packaging wise, Acer have been very good. A lot of cardboard and recycled or recyclable content is always appreciated. Plastic has been kept to a minimum. Cables are held together by secured Velcro ties which can be re-used. Other than the laptop and power supply you get a few small leaflets and that’s it.
It’s cheap, light and easy to use. If you’re happy to remain within a browser environment then this is ideal. If you absolutely need Office, try out Google Drive first and decide if that’s sufficient. As a living room device for catching up on Facebook and emails it really is perfect.