There’s been a resurgence of small, low-cost laptops in the past few years. The term “netbook” may have died around the turn of the decade, but low-cost Chromebooks continue to grow in popularity, and in recent years Acer, Asus, HP, and Lenovo have all introduced small Windows notebooks with price tags in the $200 to $300 range.
Now Acer is taking things a bit further with its Cloudbook line of laptops. The Acer Aspire One Cloudbook 11 and Cloudbook 14 are basically the company’s effort to offers Windows laptops with Chromebook-like features and price tags.
You can pick one up for as little as $169… but you probably shouldn’t, because for $20 more you can get a model with 32GB of storage, which is twice as much as you get on the entry-level model. The $189 version also comes with a free 1-year subscription to Microsoft Office 365, which is worth $70. It’s kind of like paying for one year of access to Microsoft Office and 1TB of online storage space and getting a laptop for $119.
OK, so the new Cloudbooks are cheap. But are they any good? It depends what you’re looking for.
Acer loaned me an Aspire One Cloudbook AO1-131 model with 2GB of RAM, 32GB of eMMC storage, an Intel Celeron N3050 dual-core processor, and an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display.
The notebook weighs about 2.5 pounds and measures 11.5″ x 8″ x 0.7″, making it small enough to slide in a bag and carry with you almost anywhere. Sure, it’s a bit heavier than a tablet, but notebooks don’t get much more compact than this.
Acer says you should be able to get around 7 hours of battery life from the notebook’s 4,200 mAh battery, and based on my tests, that figure seems just about right.
Other features include 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, a USB 3.0 port and a USB 2.0 port, an HDMI port, and an SD card reader.
It’s nice to be living in an era where even dirt cheap notebooks have fast WiFi and USB (although pretty soon even USB 3.0 ports are going to start to look dated).
The Cloudbook 11 has a pretty nice keyboard: the keys feel a little smaller than those on a full-sized keyboard and there’s a bit of flex if you push down on the center of the keyboard. But the island-style keyboard layout means there’s a little bit of space between each key, and the 1.7mm key travel feels pretty good too, making touch typing easy.
I also think the keyboard layout makes a lot more sense than the one Acer used on the Aspire R11 convertible notebook I reviewed recently. The arrow keys are larger on the Cloudbook 11 and easier to find with your fingers when you’re not looking at the keyboard. Those keys also function as Page Up, Page Down, Home, and End buttons The volume and screen brightness shortcuts are in the Fn key row at the top of the keyboard.
Below the keyboard is a fairly large touchpad which supports edge gestures and multi-touch input for scrolling, right-clicking, and more.
While most of the laptop case has a rough plastic texture, the touchpad is smooth, making it easy to slide your finger across the surface.
Look up and you’ll see the laptop’s 11.6 inch matte display. While colors can look a bit more muted on a matte screen than on a glossy display, the screen also doesn’t reflect as much glare as it would if it were glossy. This makes it a little easier to see the screen when using the laptop outdoors or near a window.
Viewing angles are limited: tilt the screen too far back and colors start to look washed out, making it hard to view images or videos. But things look fine if you view the laptop from the right or left sides.
While wide viewing angles are nice to have on a laptop, they’re not really essential since you can adjust the screen until you’ve got the perfect angle and then leave it there. If this were a computer that’s meant to be used as a tablet (like the Aspire R11), then the poor viewing angles would be a lot harder to forgive.
Turn over the laptop and you’ll find only two holes in the case: the grills for the stereo speakers near the front of the laptop (they’re certainly audible, but you’ll want to connect headphones or an external speaker if you want good sound).
The laptop doesn’t generate a lot of heat, so Acer was able to use a fanless design. That means there are no ventilation ports.
It also means the computer runs pretty much silently. While the bottom of the laptop can get a little warm during extended use, it never gets uncomfortably hot.
Overall, the design is pretty good for a notebook in this price range. Performance, on the other hand, can be another story
There are times when it’s hard to remember that this is a $190 notebook. Fire up an app to watch a video, edit a document, or surf the web and it works as well as a machine that costs twice as much.
Other times, the Acer Aspire One Cloudbook 11 is so frustratingly sluggish that it’s hard to imagine you can use this laptop to do anything.
In terms of raw power, the Cloudbook 11 has a 1.6 GHz dual-core processor based on Intel’s Braswell architecture. It offers a little more CPU performance-per-watt than the Bay Trail chips of yesteryear, but most of Intel’s Braswell chips also have lower clock speeds than their Bay Trail counterparts, so they may actually be slower in some circumstances.
That feels pretty true in everyday performance, and it’s also demonstrated by benchmark results.
The Acer Aspire One Cloudbook takes longer to transcode video using Handbrake than any other computer I’ve tested in the past year. The same is true when it comes to creating ZIP archives using 7-Zip.
Computers with quad-core Intel Atom Cherry Trail and last-gen Bay Trail chips both outperform the Cloudbook 11. So does the Acer Aspire R11 with its quad-core Pentium N3700 Braswell processor. And it should come as no surprise that the Asus Zenbook UX305 with a Core M Broadwell processor is also faster.
Results are a bit more mixed in our audio transcoding test. But suffice it to say that this computer isn’t the fastest thing on the market today.
The good news is that Braswell chips use less power than Bay Trail processors. The Celeron N3050 has a TDP of just 6 watts, which helps the Cloudbook 11 get close to 7 hours of battery life and which allowed Acer to use passive cooling instead of a noisy fan.
There’s a little more good news: Braswell chips also offer better graphics performance than Bay Trail, which means this machine should do a somewhat better job with HD video playback and 3D graphics rendering than a computer like the Asus EeeBook X205 which has a Bay Trail processor.
But better is a relative term: neither laptop is really ideal for gaming. And both can handle 1080p videos without any problems, so it’s unlikely you’ll see much difference in performance for video playback.
Which brings us back to CPU performance: when you’re running a single app at a time, you might not have any problems. But if you’re doing a lot of multitasking, or even running multi-threaded apps like a web browser with multiple tabs or windows open, the system can slow to a crawl at times.
Fire up the task manager when using the Google Chrome browser with more than three tabs open, and this will be a regular sight:
Notice how the CPU and memory usage are pretty much maxed out, with Chrome accounting for most of the resource usage. The only other third-party app that was even open when I grabbed that screenshot was Irfanview, a light-weight app for viewing and editing images.
In this instance, the CPU usage spiked when I opened a web page in a new browser tab. After the page was fully loaded, the CPU consumption dropped and stayed between 25 and 60 percent for a while and the computer felt very usable during that period… until I opened another page in another browser tab.
Try opening a handful of web pages at the same time and there’s a chance the computer will be unresponsive or that the browser will crash. I’ve found that the Microsoft Edge browser seems to work a little better than Chrome, but I prefer Chrome since it has my browser history and supports the LastPass password manager extension.
The notebook does boot and launch apps more quickly than the Aspire R11 convertible, even though the R11 has a more powerful Pentium N3700 quad-core Braswell processor and 4GB of RAM. I suspect that’s because the R11 has a hard drive while the Cloudbook 11 has a faster (but smaller) eMMC flash storage drive.
The Acer R11 also has a lot more bloatware: both computers run Windows 10 software, but the convertible comes with a boatload of preloaded programs from Aer and third parties including CyberLink, Foxit, Spotify, Evernote, Flipboard, and WildTangent. Acer mercifully included just a handful of its own programs on the Cloudbook 11… possibly because there’s simply not enough storage space to hold much more.
But in terms of general performance, I was surprised at how much slower both of these machines felt during day-to-day usage than the many Bay Trail models I’ve tested over the past year or two.
I don’t feel like opening a half dozen browser tabs, watching some online video, and composing articles in the WordPress web interface is too much to ask for… even from a $190 computer like the Cloudbook 11. I didn’t have any real problems doing those things with the $200 Asus EeeBook X205 notebook I reviewed earlier this year, and that system had an Intel Atom Z3735F Bay Trail processor.
That’s not to say that the Cloudbook 11 always feels slow. You’re just going to want to temper your expectations and limit the amount of multitasking. When you run one app at a time, things can be pretty smooth. That applies to classic Windows programs and modern Windows Store apps.
Fire up Netflix or Minion Rush in a full-screen window, and the Cloudbook 11 performs admirably for such an inexpensive notebook. But fire up more resource-intensive programs like Firefox, Chrome, Photoshop, or Office, and expect inconsistent results if you’re doing anything more complicated than loading a single web page at a time.
All told, the Cloudbook 11 can offer acceptable performance… as long as you don’t expect too much from it. If you’re looking for a no-compromise machine that can handle multitasking, gaming, and other resource-intensive tasks, you’ll probably want to spend more money.
Hoping you can upgrade the Cloudbook 11? You can’t.
While it’s relatively easy to open up the case (just remove the 6 screws holding the bottom panel in place), once you get inside you’ll notice that there’s no way to upgrade the memory or storage. You could theoretically replace the wireless card, but WiFi and Bluetooth performance is actually pretty good, so I’m not sure why you’d bother.
Want to try to improve performance by switching operating systems? The Cloudbook 11 comes with Windows 10, but it shouldn’t be too hard to install an earlier version of Windows or a Linux-based operating system such as Ubuntu or Fedora.
I didn’t spend a lot of time looking into this, but I did confirm that you can disable UEFI secure boot, enable legacy boot, and boot software from a USB drive by hitting F12 before the Acer/Windows splash screen comes up.
Just want more reliable entry-level performance? You might be better off with an older system like the EeeBook X205TA. Or you could treat the Cloudbook 11 like a tablet that just happens to have a keyboard, and just run one app at a time.
But if that’s what you’re looking for, then maybe you should buy a tablet. Or there may be another option….
Would I be better off with a Chromebook?
Part of the appeal of a computer like the Cloudbook 11 is that it’s a small cheap laptop that can run Windows software like Microsoft Office. But what if you don’t absolutely need Windows apps?
Then you might want to consider a Chromebook. Most of the laptops that run Google’s browser-based Chrome operating system are portable, inexpensive laptops with reasonably long battery life and limited amounts of built-in storage (since you’re expected to run web-based apps and keep your files in cloud storage). Sound familiar?
In a lot of ways, low-cost Windows laptops like the Cloudbook 11 are positioned as Windows alternatives to Chromebooks.
But one of the key advantages to Chrome OS is that it’s designed to run on low-power systems, and for the most part you’re only really running one apps: the Chrome web browser. That helps even the cheapest Chromebooks punch a little above their weight class, allowing you to boot in seconds, resume from sleep even more quickly, and start surfing the web almost as soon as you can lift the laptop lid.
While you can’t install Office, Photoshop, QuickBooks, or other classic Windows apps on a Chromebook, you can use web-based office, image editing, and accounting software. There’s even a free, web-based version of Microsoft Office if you’re not satisfied with Google Docs or other alternative office suites.
Chromebooks are also relatively secure, since web apps are run in a sandboxed environment and cannot alter your system files. And Google rolls out regular updates for the operating system automatically, adding new features, improvements, and bug fixes.
There are a growing number of Chromebooks with semi-premium specs including high-resolution displays and Core i3 or faster processors. But there are also Chromebooks with low-power ARM-based or Intel Celeron chips with starting prices as low as $149.
Sure, you could pick up a Windows laptop like the Cloudbook 11 and install the Chrome browser to do just about anything that you could do with an actual Chromebook while also retaining the ability to run thousands of other Windows apps. But on a low-priced, low-power device like this, there may be some advantages to running an operating system that’s explicitly designed to offer a decent user experience on low-end hardware.
The Acer Cloudbook 11 is a small, cheap laptop with a decent keyboard and touchpad, a matte display, and a fanless design. It boots pretty quickly and can run just about any app designed for Windows. You can use it to edit documents, watch videos, play casual games, surf the web, or most other common PC tasks.
But it’s slow.
If this laptop came out two years ago, I wouldn’t say it was too slow to recommend, but these days there are plenty of other computers that can do everything the Cloudbook 11 can… and do those things more quickly.
None of this is a huge surprise given the notebook’s low price: the Cloudbook 11 featured in this review sells for just $189, and some models are available for $20 less than that.
What is a little surprising is that the Cloudbook 11 with an Intel Celeron N3050 Braswell processor is slower than an Asus EeeBook X205TA notebook with an Intel Atom Z3735F Bay Trail processor in almost every way. Sure, the Cloudbook 11 has better graphics, but the Asus laptop outperforms the Acer model in almost every other way even though the X205TA features an older chip architecture and the laptop was released about 2 years ago. The Atom Z3735F is a quad-core chip, while the Celeron N3050 is a dual-core processor. But the newer chip has a higher clock speed and higher power consumption, so I expected better performance.
I wrote most of this review by typing away on the laptop, and that was fine as long as I wasn’t doing anything else with the computer at that time. But run another app or two in the background and things can grind to a halt.
I wouldn’t recommend this computer if you expect to do a lot of gaming, video editing, or other resource-intensive activities, or even if you expect to be able to do any multitasking more serious than running a web browser, music player, and chat program simultaneously. The limited amount of built-in storage means there’s also not a lot of room for programs or files unless you add an SD card or USB drive.
Ultimately, the Cloudbook 11 seems like a good idea. The 2.5 pound computer is one of the most affordable Windows laptops ever released. But it’s not that much cheaper than the $200 laptops with Bay Trail chips that we’ve seen in the past year or two, many of which are now available for even lower prices. And those older models actually offer better performance in most tasks.