Acer knows Chromebooks, and they, along with Asus rose to market majority when Netbooks were the rage. Acer's Chromebook C710 was a solid, affordable effort and the new Chromebook C720, available soon, is the faster version with Haswell inside. For $249, the C720 seems too good to be true. Honestly, you get a solidly built, though decidedly unsexy machine for the price. It has a matte 1366 x 768 display, Bluetooth, dual band WiFi, a decent keyboard and trackpad and good battery life. So what's the catch? It's a Chromebook.
What's a Chromebook?
Chromebooks are persistent little laptops that keep trudging up the evolutionary ladder even though many choose to ignore them. They're the new netbooks, and while that might sound disparaging, it's not: they're highly portable and relatively speaking, wildly affordable alternative computing devices. What makes them "alternative"? Google's Chrome OS is as ever an unusual beast where everything you do, you do in a Chrome web browser tab. There are no apps, no programs and no exes. There's a desktop but it's mainly there for familiarity's sake, it doesn't do much beyond letting you look at the pretty desktop image of your choice. Chromebooks depend on a wireless connection, be it WiFi or 3G/4G, to achieve maximum usefulness. Why? Because you're using web browser-based services like YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs and the like to get things done. Offline mode brings some semblance of productivity, but it still pales in comparison to what you can do with a viable Internet connection. Chromebooks are hard to mess up, unlike Windows but much like Android and iOS. That makes them good for deployments in public schools (where they have gained some traction) and for computing newbies who aren't up to maintaining a Windows or Mac PC.
Chromebooks have been on the market a few years now, so let's move beyond talking about what they are and how they're different to discussing the Acer Chromebook C720 itself. The machine is an 11.6" notebook/netbook form factor device and it stands out because it's one of the first Intel Haswell generation Chromebooks and it has 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM vs. the more common 2 gigs of RAM. Many Chromebook models (if we can say many when there are less than 10 models currently on the market) run on mobile OS CPUs like the Samsung Exynos dual core (also used in Samsung Android tablets and smartphones). We've seen a few Intel Celeron Chromebooks and battery life and noise have generally suffered. That's not the case with the Chromebook C720: battery life is better than average and though it does have a fan and copious vents, it doesn't get loud or hot.
We can thank the Intel Haswell generation CPU and integrated HD graphics for that. But before you get too excited, this is the Celeron member of the Intel Haswell lineup and not a Core i5. The Intel Celeron 2955U runs at 1.4GHz and it's a dual core 64 bit CPU without Turbo Boost. It makes for a perceivable performance improvement over the 1GHz last gen Celeron in the Acer C710, and noticeably better battery life. The 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM is also welcome because all those Chrome tabs do eat up memory, especially if you've got YouTube streaming, a Google video chat going, Gmail running and a tab open to edit a document or spreadsheet. The Chromebook C720 feels peppier than its predecessor and it's faster than the sexier looking HP Chromebook 11 that runs on the Exynos with 2 gigs of RAM. The Acer Chromebook C720 is basically the power user's Chromebook, with only the madly expensive ($1,300 and up) Chromebook Pixel challenging it.
The Chromebook C720 has a 16 gig flash drive, which is fairly standard for Chromebooks. By Google's grand design, Chrome OS products are cloud devices, and they use Google Drive storage as well as Google Play Music, Google Play Videos and Google Play Books to stream content to you. When using Music, Videos and Books, the experience is much the same as on Android: your cloud content appears along with anything you've stored locally. For music, you can upload your music collection to Play Music, so you're not limited to tracks you purchase from Google. The C720 can also access files of all kinds that are stored on SD cards, flash drives and external hard drives (music, Office docs, text files and MP4 videos).
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Acer Chromebook C720 Video Review
Build Quality and Design
This little laptop costs $249, so don't expect backlit keyboards, metal casings and other high end appointments. For a machine at this price, it's really pretty impressive: it's build strongly enough that I'd let a responsible child use it. The keyboard is very usable, though as ever those with large hands may feel cramped on an 11.6" keyboard. The trackpad works well, though we find the HP Chromebook 11 trackpad to be more fluid. The Acer C720 has 1 USB 2.0 port, 1 USB 3.0 port, an SD card slot, full size HDMI (with enough horsepower to drive 480p to 720p video playback over HDMI and 480p to Chromecast) and a 3.5mm combo audio jack. Chromebooks generally work with USB mice and keyboards as well as flash drives and hard drives. Beyond that, you're dependent on Chrome OS to supply drivers and those are minimal--USB printing is generally a no-go and you'll have to resort to Google cloud printing services.
Most Chromebooks have mediocre displays, and the Acer Chromebook C720 is no exception. Again, for the price you can't expect a stunning IPS display--but wait, HP somehow managed an IPS panel in their Chromebook 11! The HP does cost a bit more at $279, but it has a more affordable and slower CPU, so it's still a tradeoff game. That said, you're going to stare at the screen all day long, and I'd love to see manufacturers go with better displays. The C720 has a matte TN panel with just OK colors and the usual TN limited viewing angles. To my eye, it looks better than the C710 by a small margin and markedly better than first generation Chromebook displays that were abysmal. That said, it's not too hard to find an angle that provides decent contrast and colors and the display is decently bright. It looks no worse than most $500 Windows laptop displays. We also appreciate the matte finish so glare isn't an issue. Heck, you could even use it outdoors, though direct sunlight will overwhelm the internal panel's brightness.
Chromebooks greatly vary in battery life depending on their size, weight and CPU. Though the Acer Chromebook C720 isn't as svelte as the HP Chromebook 11, the added thickness allows for a larger battery. The 3 cell, 3950 mAh Lithium Ion battery averaged 7.5 to 8 hours of actual use time, in a mixed use scenario comprised of email, YouTube streaming, social networking and writing a review using Google Docs (all with WiFi on and brightness set to 50%). That places it among the top Chromebooks for battery life, and that's important for a highly mobile 11.6" laptop surrogate.
If you've decided you want a Chromebook, the Acer Chromebook C720 is worth a look. Sure it's not as good looking as the also new HP Chromebook 11, but it's faster and has longer battery life than most competing models, including HP's. That makes the Acer appealing to first time Chromebook buyers who are accustomed to faster hardware on PC platforms and to more experienced Chromebook users who tend to hit hard with lots of open tabs and multitasking. Is a Chromebook for you? If you live on the web, make use of cloud storage (particularly Google's cloud services) and want a laptop form factor machine that requires zero maintenance, then this could be your platform. Just make sure you have an Internet connection available with some frequency to get the most from Google's Chrome OS and Acer's hardware.