|Introduction and Specifications|
|Let’s just be honest right off the bat: You’re probably not reading our review of this product so much to check out benchmarks and other performance indicators as you are to see if we’ll clarify whether or not Google's strange, new browser-based Chrome OS operating system is really worth investing in.
Chrome OS is indeed essentially a browser-as-operating-system solution, so the vast majority of the computer’s functionality is tied directly to being connected at all times, and that may be a big hang-up for a lot of people when it comes to Chromebooks. (Except that there are still several things you can do offline, which we'll get into in a bit.)
Most people are connected to the Internet the vast majority of the time, though. That means you can use Google Drive for writing documents, creating spreadsheets and presentations, and basic file management, as well as Google Music, Gmail, the Chrome web browser, YouTube, Google+ Hangouts, and so on.
a mere $249, which is about on par price-wise for many Chromebooks these days. Acer recently also announced a slightly less powerful C720 to the lineup for just $199.
The question then becomes, can such a device possibly replace a laptop?
Here’s the good news: We have an answer for you, but it’s a complex answer, so you’ll have to read on to fully understand the big picture. Along the way, you’ll get a closer look at Chrome OS as well as the Acer C720 Chromebook itself.
Speaking of the Acer C720, here are some specifications to digest...
The Acer C720 Chromebook doesn’t have dazzling specs, but they are solid, especially for a device that runs such a lightweight operating system as Chrome OS. It has a dual-core Intel Celeron 2955U (Haswell) processor clocked at 1.4GHz with the associated integrated Intel HD graphics as well as 4GB of DDR3 RAM and 16GB of onboard SSD storage.
The 11.6-inch matte display features a 1366x768 resolution, and there are USB 2.0 and UBS 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, SD card slot, 3.5mm headphone/mic jack, and dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 for connectivity.
The system's battery purports to last 8.5 hours, and the whole unit is just 0.75 inches thick and weighs 2.76 lbs. The Acer C720 also includes 100GB of Google Drive storage and a 30-day free trial of Google Play Music All Access.
Let’s dig in and see what else the Acer C720 offers...
|Design and Build Quality|
|The first thing you notice about the Acer C720 Chromebook is how surprisingly light it is. The spec sheet says that it’s 2.76 pounds, but you’d swear that it’s even lighter than that. The whole package is compact without feeling small. The 11.6-inch form factor just might be a sweet spot for super-portable lappies, because once you open the lid you completely forget that the display isn’t dramatically larger than a 10.1-inch tablet.
The whole keyboard area is a strength of the Acer C720. The chiclet-style keys are sufficiently large, and they're in what appears to be a fairly standard Chromebook layout. You get all the typical keys except for the numpad, the Delete key (although there’s a Backspace key), and the “F” keys.
The touchpad is large enough and comfortable to navigate with, and the smooth plastic surface feels comfortable even after prolonged use. You can move the cursor or click with one finger, right-click with a two-finger press, and scroll up/down or left/right with two fingers, too. You can also click an item with one finger and use the second finger to drag and drop it somewhere.
There’s an ambient light sensor above the function keys, and next to that is the internal microphone. The right side of the machine has a Kensington lock port, a USB 2.0 port, and an SD card reader. On the left side you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone/mic jack, a USB 3.0 port, HDMI port, and the power jack.
The camera was less notable. Acer clearly wasn’t shooting for the moon with the built-in webcam, so accordingly it offers the sort of quality you’d expect from a webcam in that it’s sufficient for video chatting.
|Software and User Experience|
|Here’s where we get down to the details of Chrome OS and how it all works. First of all, setup (“installation” would be a misnomer) could not be simpler. It goes like this: You turn on the machine. You select your language and keyboard, choose a WiFi network (and enter the password), agree to the Google Chrome OS terms, and sign in to your Google account. It's similar to an Android tablet or handset setup, actually.
As soon as you log in to your account, you’re ready to go. You can fiddle with the account settings and your picture if you like, but you don’t need to--Google just pulls in everything from your Google account. And by “everything”, we mean your Chrome tabs, Chrome Web Store apps, extensions, settings, autofill, history, themes, bookmarks, and passwords.
Then, thankfully, you can encrypt all your data with a passphrase.
We didn’t time it, but you could probably grab a new machine and be up and running within a minute or so.
When you’re all logged in and ready to go, you’ll be greeted by a mostly blank desktop, albeit one with a lovely lake-and-mountains sort of wallpaper. The lower right corner is home to the time, WiFi status, battery indicator, and a tiny thumbnail of your profile picture. When you need more in the way of settings to mess with, click anywhere on those items and you’ll see some more settings including WiFi and Bluetooth options and volume controls. From there, click Settings to see more options, including further network controls, appearance, touchpad and keyboard settings, display settings, and which search engine you want to use by default. (No, you’re actually not stuck with Google search if you don’t want).
In this area you can also manage users, privacy, accessibility, and much more. It’s worth noting that if you want to dig deeper into the system, you can enter “chrome://system/” in the browser bar to pull up hardware specifications and BIOS information.
The lower left corner is where you’ll find all your apps and Chrome OS’s version of a Start button (which simply launches the web browser). The toolbar there includes shortcuts to Gmail, Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Google Play Music, although you can pin any apps there that you want. Just to the left of that is the Apps button that pulls up all of the apps you have on the machine.
It’s here that you’ll see just how many cloud-based applications Google has to offer, in case you forgot. On the first “page”, there’s also a handy Get Started app as well as Files, a local storage manager app (which we’ll discuss in more detail later). Google-made apps spill over onto the next page as well and include Google Play Books, Movies, and Games in addition to a calculator, camera app, photos app, Chrome Remote Desktop app, and something called Google Keep, which is a lightweight note-taking app.
It’s standard for Chromebooks to offer extra goodies, and accordingly the Acer C720 comes with a 60-day free trial of Google Play All Music Access, 100GB of Google Drive storage free for two years, and twelve free GoGo in-air Internet passes.
Most people know about Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, and so on, so we'll spare you further examination of them, but a couple of the other baked-in apps bear a closer look.
The camera app is straightforward and simple, which is good for a camera that’s just a webcam. You can snap self-portraits and apply fun filters, and you can save images that you capture to Files. Google Keep is a nifty little app that lets you jot down notes to yourself, create lists, insert images to notes, and set alarms and reminders. Other, more popular note-taking apps do all of those things and more, but it’s nice to have one on hand anyway.
You can get plenty of additional apps from the Chrome Web Store, which offers products that run the gamut from productivity to games to social apps and includes utilities, extensions, and themes, as well. The selection is merely fair at this point, but it's growing. In many cases, though, these “apps” are actually glorified bookmarks to websites, which evinces the whole concept of the Chromebook being web-based. The point is, you might not spend too much time fretting about whether or not the Chrome Web Store has an adequate population of apps; the world wide web is a Chromebook’s app store -- at least in terms of the current iteration of the OS and what Google offers. This may or may not be a concern for you, depending on your own personal use case.
Of course, there are also some offline apps that you can snag from the Chrome Web Store, and Chromebooks do offer some functionality when disconnected from the Internet. Let's explore...
|Because of the confusion about the need for always-on connectivity and the resulting hesitation surrounding Chromebooks, we felt it appropriate to spend a bit of time on the issue separately from everything else.
It is true that in order to harness the full power of a Chromebook, you need to be connected to the web and logged in to a Google account. However, there is quite a bit you can do offline, and more apps are coming that will let you do even more.
First, though, let’s differentiate between the three sorts of apps you can use on a chromebook. First, there are “apps” that, as we mentioned earlier, are basically just links to websites, and those obviously don’t work when you’re not online.
The second type of chromebook app works ideally when connected but offers some functionality when not. These include Google’s pre-loaded Docs, Sheets, Slides, and a few others, as well as quite a few apps found under the “Offline Apps” section of the Chrome Web Store.
The possibilities for what you can do may surprise you. For example, you can open up a file (or create a new one) from Google Docs, because those items are synced locally to your computer. Thus, you can get a lot of work done offline, and when you’re back online, the changes will sync.
Or if you want to waste a little time, you can install Angry Birds to play offline and game away with no connection, which is ideal for, say, a long car ride. You can also work on your calendar, read the news, edit and organize photos, play music and movies, jot down notes, and so on. The third type of app also works offline, with the difference being that they also run outside of the browser.
The linchpin of this offline functionality, at least as it pertains to the user experience, is Files. As the name suggests, this is a basic file management tool, and it has two main sections: Google Drive and Downloads. The Downloads folder is a repository of downloaded files, sure, but it’s also where Chrome OS stashes any local files such as screenshots and the like. Under the Google Drive area, you can see all your Google Drive files, and there’s an Offline area within that so you can see which files you have synced to your local storage. You also have Shared With Me and Recent tabs, which is a simple but welcome bit of organization.
Further, any storage device you connect to the chromebook will show up as an accessible drive under Files, so you can easily expand your effective storage capacity beyond the 16GB that the Acer C720 offers.
Even though it’s clear that chromebooks offer quite a bit more in terms of offline functionality than many might think, they’re not without drawbacks. For example, if you need to use a piece of software for work that doesn’t have a web-based version or an app in the Chrome Web Store, you’re out of luck. Further, there have always been issues with formatting in Word, Excel, and other Microsoft Office documents displaying correctly in Google's alternatives, and it’s not likely that will go away anytime soon, so if you collaborate with others that frequently use Office documents, you’ll certainly run into problems at some point.
|Performance and Benchmarks|
|In the following tests, we take a look at how the Acer C720 Chromebook compares to other Chromebooks as well as some standard notebooks by running a few common benchmarks that are currently available on the web.
The Acer C720’s score in Rightware BrowserMark foreshadows the rest of our benchmarks: this Chromebook doesn’t top this bank of competitors very much, but most of these devices boast burlier specs--most notably better processors. In fact, with the exception of the Samsung Series 5 chromebook, which runs an Intel Atom processor all have an Intel Core series chip inside.
All things considered, the Acer chromebook hung in there quite well. It was a step or two behind the top three finishers, but ahead of the Acer Travelmate and far ahead of the Samsung Chromebook.
Although it still finished fourth, the Acer C720 scored close to the Google Chromebook Pixel. It didn’t score as closely to the Dell and Lenovo notebooks as you’d like to see, but as we mentioned before, the Acer C720 is hanging in there with machines sporting stronger specs. The most important item to note here is that compared to the other two chromebooks in our test bank, the Acer is doing quite well.
The Mozilla Kraken results aren’t great for the Acer C720; the performance delta between it and most of the competition is greater than in some of our other tests.
Note, however, that we cut the Samsung Series 5 chromebook score from this one (14,044.60) because leaving it in would have wrecked our graph.
WebVizBench is a more complex, very unique benchmark that pushes a browser's HTML5 rendering to its limits. Hundreds of albums are floated across the screen, with multiple real-time image layers overlaid as well. The Acer C720 was much more impressive in this test, besting the Chromebook Pixel by a longshot and nipping closely at the heels of Dell Latitude E6530.
Although the Acer C720 blasted past the other Acer notebook in the group as well as the Samsung Series 5, it wasn’t even close to the top three finishers in the Google Octane test.
Fishbowl is a graphically-intense benchmark that places an array of fish on-screen, along with other intense elements, in order to push a browser experience to the max. Our Acer C720 finished behind the top three finishers, but as we’ve seen in our other tests, it bested the latter two systems.
|Battery Life Testing|
|In an attempt to quantitatively measure the Acer C720 Chromebook's battery life in a controlled benchmark environment, we ran a test in which we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics, Flash media, and text. The page automatically refreshes every three minutes. This is a simple baseline test that measures up time while web browsing. For this test, we set the Acer C720’s display to 50% brightness, which is still plenty bright and easy on the eyes, and connected to the web via an 802.11n wireless network.
Being that this is a Chromebook and can’t run our normal Battery Eater Pro test, the web browsing test must suffice. However, because most of the systems we run the browser test on are mobile devices, the chart below includes scores from those systems instead of scores from the laptops we’ve been comparing the Acer C720 to in our other benchmarks.
There's no question that the Acer C720 holds its own here. The chromebook finished near the top of the field in the browser test, lasting just about 10.5 hours before the battery finally gave out.
|Summary & Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: Considering the competition, the Acer C720 Chromebook delivered solid scores in our web-based benchmarks. In our hands-on time with the machine, we were pleased with this chromebook’s performance; the system’s responsiveness is always snappy, the keyboard and touchpad are pleasant to use, and the device itself just feels sturdy despite its surprising lack of heft. The audio performance, though nothing noteworthy on its own, is excellent for a pair of laptop speakers, especially on such a slim and light device. And the battery will last you all day.
The Acer C720 Chromebook is simply a nice product. In terms of the end user experience, the design and build is so good that it makes you want to keep the computer perched on your lap, which is rare when using such a smallish notebook. The array of ports give you plenty of options for peripherals and connectivity; for example, having two USB ports, one on each side of the device, is great, and the full HDMI port and SD card slot are welcome additions, too.
I can sum it all up by listing the number of glitches, crashes, headaches, and complaints that I experienced while using and testing the Acer C720, which is: Zero. Not a single thing went wrong over the course of this review.
To the question of whether or not the Acer C720 Chromebook, or any chromebook for that matter, can replace your laptop, the answer is “It depends.” (Sorry.) If you need a single computer for your whole life, a chromebook will probably fall short. However, if you’re a student with access to on-campus labs or a professional that has a PC at work, a chromebook might be perfect, because it can handle many of the computing tasks that most people need.
Further, chromebooks may be ideal solutions for giving multiple family members their own computers without breaking the bank. Many families would subsist just fine with a shared desktop or laptop and a few chromebooks, whether they’re for Mom and Dad to have their own private laptops or for the kids to alternately do schoolwork and noodle around online.
In short, for those who find themselves enjoying the benefits of using a traditional PC as their primary computer, a chromebook is an excellent secondary device. The problem with a lot of secondary devices such as tablets and even traditional laptops is that they can be uncomfortably expensive. Sometimes it’s tough to justify dropping $350, $500, or upwards of $750 for something that isn’t your primary machine, no matter how amazing the device may be.
And this is where chromebooks can really shine: They offer a secondary device with a pleasing user experience that can do almost everything a normal PC can do, but they cost much less than most other options available. This excellent Acer C720 Chromebook costs just $249, which is hardly more than you’ll pay for the average 7-inch tablet. (As we mentioned earlier, a $199 version is coming, too.)
If you’re looking for a straight-up notebook replacement you may find the Acer C720 somewhat lacking, but if you're looking for a secondary device that's enjoyable to use and won't cost you much, you’ll probably dig this machine.