Acer C720 Chromebook -- best bang for your buck [Review]

My relationship with Chromebook and Chrome OS has been rocky. When Google first announced the concept, I was highly dubious. After all, I had done all of my computing on Windows and Linux -- locally installed apps were all I knew. Ultimately, curiosity got the best of me and I bought the Samsung ARM Chromebook. The simplicity of the platform melted my heart and I became an enthusiast.

Sadly, I outgrew the Samsung model due to its poor performance -- it is slow on certain websites, like Google+. I decided to postpone the upgrade until the Haswell models would arrive. However, in the midst of the Haswell-Chromebook revolution, HP and Google threw a curve-ball and released the wonderful Chromebook 11, that has an ARM processor, which took an Apple approach to laptop design.

Historically, Apple's computers have always been very well-made and beautiful -- and for that, the consumer paid a premium. However, consumers could always buy a more powerful Windows machine for a lesser price.

The HP Chromebook 11 at $279 is akin to Apple computers -- lesser specs, in a prettier package, with a higher price tag. Heck, the HP variant is even white, which feels very Apple-esque. However, the Acer C720 at $249 is like a Windows machine -- faster and cheaper but with a less-fancy design. Essentially, with the HP, you are paying $30 more for a slower computer that arguably looks better -- Steve Jobs must me smiling down on HP and Google.

However, the C720 is by no means ugly -- it is actually very attractive and professional looking. Upon removing it from the box, I did rather like the grey body, although it can be a fingerprint magnet. When opening the lid, I was impressed with the chiclet keyboard and well-sized trackpad.

The true testament to this laptop is the Haswell-based Intel Celeron 2955U processor and 4GB of RAM. From the moment of the first boot, I have been immediately satisfied with the speed of the machine. Web pages load fast and scrolling through them is very fluid. It is a much better experience than both the Samsung and HP ARM-based offerings. The C720 feels premium in this regard.

While the overall Chrome OS experience is premium, the hardware is not. Colors on the display can appear a bit washed out although viewing angles are sufficient. Also, the seams where the plastic meets around the edge of the display are ragged and sharp. While I haven't cut myself, it just feels unpolished.

My biggest gripe is the rattling of the keyboard and trackpad. If you are to shake the computer, you can actually hear the keys and the trackpad slightly move. However, this does not affect the function as both the keyboard and trackpad are a dream to use. Quite frankly, I find the trackpad on the Acer to be superior to the HP. This is because the materials used on the Acer trackpad allow my fingers to glide easily whereas the HP has more friction and my finger tends to stutter slightly. However, while the Acer keyboard is very nice to type on, the HP is just better -- it has a better feel on the fingers with better spacing.

The Acer does not just have the edge with the processor and RAM, it has more input and output ports too. It has USB 3.0, HDMI, an SD card reader and a Kensington lock -- all of which are not found on the HP. While many people will write-off the USB 3.0 port as not needed, I beg to differ. While it is true that Chromebooks are very cloud-centric, you may find yourself wanting to connect a USB 3.0 flash drive or other device and the speed boost will be appreciated. Also, HDMI allows the Chromebook to be used with a large monitor. When using the computer at home, I might prefer to have a large display for an improved web experience.

Chrome OS aside, I also tested the new Ubuntu 13.10 on this computer using Sea BIOS. Installation was a breeze and almost all hardware works out of the box. As of this writing, the only thing that doesn't work is the trackpad. While this should be remedied in the future, I am using a wired mouse in the interim with great success. Canonical's distribution runs extremely fast on Acer's hardware.

While not everyone will need a full Linux distribution, it is a nice option to have just in case. It is actually a dual-boot affair so I can choose Ubuntu or Chrome OS after powering on the device. This should be less necessary as the latter operating system matures. However, I do sometimes need access to local software like GIMP for photo editing or UNetbootin to create a bootable Linux USB drive. Not to mention, Chrome OS does not support most printers so Ubuntu can get you out of a jam if you absolutely must print something using a non-compatible printer.

As far as battery life, Acer claims up to 8.5-hours. However, "up to" are the key words -- it will obviously vary based on usage. In my experience, with heavy Google Play Music usage and web surfing on Chrome OS, I got more like 6 hours before needing to charge. However, Ubuntu caused the machine to take a a bigger hit and I got about 3-4 hours. Both cases are acceptable for my needs.

This holiday season, the big question on the minds of Chromebook consumers will be "Which 11.6-inch laptop do I buy? The Acer C720 or HP Chromebook 11?" I can confidently say that the Acer is the much better machine. Let us not forget that the ultimate function of a Chromebook is to surf the web. Definitively, the Acer surfs the web better because of three things -- performance, performance and performance. While the HP model is beautiful, don't fall into the trap of buying a lesser computer just to look cool.

I highly recommend the C720 as the Chromebook to buy. With a rock-bottom price of $249 and blazing fast performance courtesy of the Haswell processor and 4 GB of RAM, you will not be disappointed. The HP model is already slow -- you will likely be looking to upgrade it next year whereas the Acer should last you for many more.

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