posted by Eugenia Loli on Sat 15th Feb 2014 22:02 UTC
IconWhen my 3+ year old DELL laptop died a few weeks back, I decided to give Chromebooks a try. So the Acer C720, at just $199, became my new laptop. This is my experience with it so far.

The Acer C720 is similar in specs to other Chromebooks currently on the market. It's a Haswell architecture with a dual core Celeron, 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB flash, HDMI-out, 3 USB, webcam, Bluetooth, and a 1366x768 px screen. It's 0.8" tall, and weighs just 2.76 lbs. Its battery life is rated for 8.5 hours but in real world usage rated at about 7 hours. You can view its specs in detail here.

The laptop feels very light, sturdy and of a good build quality. Its keyboard is easy to get accustomed to, and I had no trouble at all, coming from a radically different keyboard design on the DELL. The ChromeOS function keys are really handy too, e.g. to change brightness, volume etc. The touchpad has the right size, position and responsiveness too.

The C720 is a fast booter too, definitely faster to boot than Ubuntu or Windows 7 on my previous DELL V130 laptop (Intel i3, HDD), and also faster than my husband's Samsung Chromebook (Exynos, flash). The OS updated automatically as soon as it connected to the Internet, and rebooted fast too. All my bookmarks and information from my other Chrome browsers were automatically added to this laptop's Chrome version, and so the switch was painless. I only needed to move over my custom index.html page that I use as my startup page for years (I don't use bookmarks or Chrome's startup page, I use my own). Apart from that, I was up and running within 5-10 minutes.

I installed a few third party Chrome apps/extensions but I found most of them to be largely useless. I only kept Caret (an offline text editor that I'm typing this review with right now), Pixlr Touch Up (offline basic image manipulation), two links to an online calculator (is there any good, offline one?), and to Amazon Kindle reader page. And 2-3 online games.

I must note here that if something like Pixlr didn't exist for ChromeOS, I wouldn't have bought the Chromebook. I often snap pictures of my (Paleo) food and post recipes on my blog, so I need some basic image manipulation: crop and resize are paramount, and if possible, some brightness-fixing. Pixlr for the win!

Acer and Samsung chromebooks
Acer C720 on the left, Samsung Chromebook on the right

In this last week, there are only two apps that I missed. One of them is actually a common complain among Chromebook users, and the other one is more of a personal need. So, the first app that some might miss is Skype. Sure, there's Hangouts that works well, but our (older) friends and family use Skype. I constantly need to Skype with my mom in Greece for example, and I have to have an iPad for that! Unfortunately, Skype's performance and stability is atrocious on Android too (we have 5-6 such devices here, none works as well as iOS does with Skype).

Interestingly, to use Hangouts text chat you still need to open a G+ or Gmail page. The provided Hangouts app is only for video and group text chat associated to the video. All I want is to sometimes text-chat people who are at work and can't video-chat, so why do I still need to open up a Gmail or G+ tab just for that? And why when they IM me instead, don't Hangouts or some other desktop daemon notify me? GTalk is not as integrated so far. I don't get Gmail notifications either. Update: Another user suggested this extension which works well.

On the positive side of things, the C720 can playback 1080p video without dropping frames, from either Youtube, Vimeo, or from my Canon digicam (1080/24p, h.264 35 mbps). Apple's popular trailer videos don't work, as expected, due to Quicktime. I also tested a 4k/24p video on Youtube, which played back at around 12 fps (which is still impressive, considering). While playback is fine, I still need a basic h.264 encoder and/or editor. I snapped a video the other day with my digicam that records at 35 mbps, so I needed a tighter encoding at that resolution, similar to the one Youtube or Vimeo do at around 5 mbps VBR. I needed to send that video to someone via email, so it had to be tight in terms of size, while retaining its clarity. I had no way of doing this kind of re-encoding on ChromeOS. And I couldn't upload to youtube or vimeo either, because that video was about official, legal business, so I'd prefer it if I didn't have to upload it online -- even if it was marked as "private" or set with a password. At the end, I caved in and uploaded it with a password, only to find out that the recipients never clicked through, they prefer attachments. Long story short, just as there's a very basic, *offline* manipulation app for images, I also need one for video.

Another app I needed was an "offline" based FTP client ("offline" meaning, it doesn't go through third party services to load itself) to upload the pictures for this review. Not that plain FTP is that secure itself, but still, it's risky using third party web sites online to connect to a 3rd party server.

Overall, the above are just small grievances, usage patterns that differ between users. What might be a bigger problem though is Acer C720's WiFi chipset/driver. It would disconnect every few minutes from our TrendNET router, and it would in fact lose all its WiFi while doing so (looked like a driver crash). Disabling WiFi and re-enabling it would give me WiFi access for another few minutes again, until the next crash would occur. A quick Google search about it revealed that others had the same experience with the specific Chromebook model and some routers. I eventually found that I had to change the WiFi Channel from "Auto", to a specific number. When I did that, all WiFi problems went away. Please note that this seems to be a bug on the Acer Chromebooks models, and not necessarily a ChromeOS bug. My husband's Samsung Chromebook (or any other of our devices) never exhibited these WiFi woes with our router. Update: Since I've written this review, a yet another ChromeOS update seems to have the problem fixed.

In terms of performance, my Haswell Acer C720 runs circles around my husband's Samsung Exynos-based Chromebook. It loads and renders much faster, and it feels much more responsive. However, it still comes with a limited 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of storage. That amount of storage is enough actually, if you don't want to store or edit video, or if you don't have aspirations to also have room for an Ubuntu partition. But the 2 GB of RAM might prove a problem to some users, particularly those who open lots of tabs. If you're a tab-o-holic, and you open more than ~20 tabs at the same time, you might want to wait for a 3-4 GB RAM Chromebook model. Otherwise, you'll experience re-renders of each page every time you click a tab, and this can be an annoying user experience after a while. For my personal usage patterns, this has been a problem only once (I opened about 20 tabs on a recipe web site), but generally it's not a problem.

Bluetooth works well with mice, keyboards and headphones, but it's got a major limitation for my needs: it doesn't support OBEX or a similar file-transferring protocol. I'm very often snapping food pictures with my Galaxy Nexus that I want to slightly manipulate before I upload on my recipe blog (crop and resize). Unfortunately, there's no way to transfer the picture from my Google phone to my Google laptop wirelessly. If Google's suggestion for this problem is to upload to Picasa, my reply is that I don't care about Picasa, neither I want to use it on my Wordpress blog. I also never carry cables, so I'd really would like a Bluetooth profile update about this on ChromeOS.

The file manager that comes with ChromeOS is sufficient but it has problems. I can't fullscreen images to 1:1 size when I view them, if I delete a zip file while mounted the entry doesn't go away until I reboot, and other such small problems that indicate an issue with a mature UI and user experience, rather than major engineering holes.

In terms of quality, for most of the hardware I'm pleased: USB 2.0 and 3.0, SD card slot (SD card doesn't go all the way in btw, it hangs out), mic and headphones port, a very loud, good-quality speaker, HDMI-out, and a good battery life. The screen is sufficient for what it is too. There's only one hardware part that's sub-par: the webcam. This is marked as VGA camera, but it looks worse than that. Imagine QVGA quality, stretched to 720p, and applied a gazillion of filters by default to hide the noise, resulting in a plasticky, "fake" look (no matter the lighting conditions).

webcam quality
Webcam grab on good lighting conditions

However, I'm sure most of us will survive a bad webcam quality. ChromeOS is primarily a web browsing OS, and that, it does well. For those people who don't have special-interest usage patterns, it will fulfill its goal. It's fast, it's stable, and it fills-in a niche: the type of niche that has users wanting a better browsing experience than that found on a tablet, but without needing the full-fledged abilities of a conventional laptop. Would I recommend it? Yes, but not to absolutely everyone. If you're into just web browsing and you don't require Skype, go for it. If you require heavy apps, get a conventional laptop. If you require mostly "peripheral" apps and lite HW, get a tablet.

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