A Chromebook is basically a laptop that runs Google’s Chrome Operating System. Up until recently all Chromebooks have also taken a few design cues from Google, shipping with 16GB of solid state storage instead of a large hard drive, and with a custom keyboard which has a search button instead of a Caps Lock key, for instance.
The Acer C7 Chromebook breaks the mold. Basically Acer took one of its cheapest existing Windows 7 laptops, retooled the keyboard a bit, and loaded up Chrome OS instead of Windows. The approach helps keep the costs down — the Acer C7 is the least expensive Chromebook ever released, with a starting price of $199.
The result is one of the most inexpensive laptops on the market, yet one which provides a reasonably good user experience. It boots Chrome OS in just 20 seconds, resumes from sleep nearly instantly, and as an added bonus, it’s easy to install Ubuntu Linux (and possibly other operating systems) or to upgrade the memory or storage.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some trade-offs to consider before buying the Acer C7 Chromebook. It’s not the fastest Chrome OS laptop around. It doesn’t get the best battery life. And I did run into some performance issues when putting the C7 through the paces.
Acer and Google loaned me an Acer C7 Chromebook for the purposes of this review. It as a 1.1 GHz Intel Celeron 847 CPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive, and it’s available for purchase for $199 from the Google Play Store or Best Buy.
Chrome OS Overview
Chrome OS is a light-weight operating system designed around the Google Chrome browser. While it has a few built-in features that you won’t find in the Chrome browser for Windows, Mac, Linux, or Android (such as a native camera app, file browser, and music and video players), you can’t download and install Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, iTunes, or any number of programs you may be used to running on a laptop or desktop computer.
Instead, you can “install” web apps from the Chrome Web Store. In many cases, this is pretty much the same thing as adding a bookmark to a website to your app launcher. Sometimes web apps can save content for offline use, such as the Gmail or Google Docs apps.
Chrome OS also supports Chrome browser extensions, allowing you to extend functionality of the browser by adding bookmark or password managers, media playback controllers, task lists, or other items which may be accessible from the toolbar at the top of the screen.
Since there are no apps to install or run, a Chromebook shouldn’t get slower and slower the longer you own it and the more apps you’ve loaded it with. Chromebooks also don’t generally need a lot of storage space since web apps take up very little space and Google wants to encourage users to keep their music, documents, and other files online.
Most Chromebooks do have an SD card slot and USB ports for folks that want to transfer files to or from the computers or add extra space for music, movies, or other content. But the Acer C7 is the first Chromebook to ship with a large 320GB hard drive which you can use to store an awful lot of files… but no third party apps (while running Chrome OS, anyway).
In other words, Chrome OS is an operating system for people that already spend more than 90 percent of their time on a computer in a web browser — or who are willing to use web apps to things that people have historically used native apps to do (such as editing photos or documents, playing games, or playing music or movies).
While that might sound limiting (and Chrome OS does become a heck of a lot less useful if you’re stuck someplace where there’s no internet access), there are some advantages.
- Since the operating system is streamlined, Chromebooks tend to boot more quickly than laptops running most other operating systems.
- They resume from sleep pretty much instantly.
- All of your data is synchronized with your Google account, so if your Chromebook is lost or stolen, or you just need to switch computers, all you have to do is login with your username or password to pick up where you left off (although files stored locally won’t be synchronized).
- Chrome OS seems to be more energy efficient than some other operating systems — the Acer C7 gets about 4 hours of battery life with Chrome OS, but Acer says it’s rated for closer to 3.5 hours with Windows, and I got just over 2 hours of run time with Ubuntu Linux.
Chrome OS also makes a lot of sense if you don’t think of it as a replacement for a full-fledged desktop operating system. With Chromebook prices now dropping below $199, it’s easy to think of a Chromebook as an extra device, much like a tablet or portable media player. It’s a device dedicated to accessing the web and it does that quite well — allowing you to open the lid, tap out some emails and close the lid much more quickly than you might do on a Windows laptop.
Google has brought Chrome OS a long way in the last year or so. When the operating system first hit the streets, it was literally little more than a full-screen web browser.
Now there’s a desktop, an app launcher menu with a built-in search bar, and support for multiple windows as well as browser tabs. While it’s still a browser-based operating system, Chrome OS now looks a lot more like a traditional desktop operating system.
Chrome OS hasn’t changed much since I reviewed the $249 Samsung Chromebook earlier this month. So if you want a more detailed look at the ins and outs of the operating system, I suggest you check out that review. For now I just wanted to highlight some of the pros and cons of Chrome OS.
The Samsung Chromebook is also a thinner and lighter device than the Acer C7 Chromebook, and a model which gets better battery life. But it’s a little slower than the C7, and in some ways it’s not as versatile, thanks to its design and its ARM-based processor.
Acer has been making notebooks with 11.6 inch screens for a while, and the Acer C7 shares a lot of DNA with the latest Windows models. In fact, it’s virtually identical to the Acer Aspire One 756, which has a slightly faster CPU, Windows software, and a starting price of less than $300.
The key physical difference is the keyboard. Like other Chromebooks, the Acer C7 has dedicated buttons for browser functions including forward and back buttons, keys that let you maximize or switch between windows, and dedicated search buttons.
But unlike most Chromebooks, the Acer C7 also has a Caps Lock key and tiny lettering below the top row of keys letting you know that you can hold down the Fn to access F11, F5, or other keys instead of toggling WiFi, volume, brightness, or other settings.
The keyboard uses an island-style layout, with flat keys surrounded by gaps. One of these days I suspect I’ll stop writing that, because it seems like most portable notebooks have this kind of keyboard layout.
Overall, I found typing on the keyboard to be pretty comfortable. There’s a little flex is you push down hard near the center, but that’s not something I do very often. I just check because I know it bugs some people.
My one complaint about the keyboard is that it feels like Acer tried to cram too many functions into a small space. While the number and letter keys are comfortably arranged, the tiny arrow keys and PgUp and PgDn keys are crammed into a tight space in the lower right corner. I have a difficult time hitting the right key in that area without looking down at the keyboard.
Instead of placing the Home and End keys in that area, Acer put them at the top of the keyboard next tot he Insert and Delete keys. Perhaps this is something you get used to in time… but during the two weeks I spent with this Chromebook I never got used to it, and constantly found myself hunting for those buttons.
Below the keyboard is a touchpad which is a little smaller than the one you’ll find on Samsung’s latest Chromebooks. But it gets the job done.
There’s no right-click button on a Chromebook touchpad. Instead, you can use one finger to scroll, tap, or click. Or you can place two fingers on the screen and tap in order to open a right click-style context menu.
The touchpad also supports two-finger scrolling for both up/down scrolling or left/right scrolling. Generally I found the touchpad to be pretty easy to use, but I prefer using a mouse — and one of my favorite little things about Chrome OS is that while it doesn’t support a wide range of USB peripherals (such as printers), when you plug in a mouse you never have to wait for the operating system to download and install drivers before you can use it.
Chrome OS recognized the wireless mouse dongle I plugged in immediately, while Windows 7 laptops typically take 30-60 seconds to install the appropriate drivers — even if I’ve already used the mouse with that laptop, but accidentally plug it into a different USB port the second time.
Around the sides of the Acer C7 you’ll find full-sized Ethernet, VGA, and HDMI ports, 3 USB 2.0 ports, and a headset jack.
There’s an SD card slot in the front of the laptop. Since the Acer C7 has ample hard drive space you probably won’t need to use an SD card to store files, but it’s nice to be able to pop a card out of your camera to view pictures on the laptop.
When you turn over the laptop you’ll find a single large access panel. You can open it up by removing some screws — although you’ll have to break a sticker to do that, so if you send in the Chromebook for repair, Acer will know that you’ve tampered with it.
But under the hood you’ll find a spare memory slot and a hard drive that’s plugged into a standard SATA connector. That means that you can easily upgrade the RAM or replace the hard drive with a larger model or a faster solid state disk — something that’s easier to do on this model than on any other Chromebook released to date.
The 37Whr battery is also easily removable. In fact, an Acer rep told me the company is considering releasing an extended battery for this notebook, or selling a model with a higher capacity battery for customers that want longer battery life and are willing to pay extra for it.
Chrome OS is a 32-bit operating system, so conventional wisdom would be that it can’t recognize more than 4GB of RAM. But because Physical Address Extension is enabled, it’s theoretically possible to install (and make use of) up to 16GB of RAM. That might be overkill, but I suspect that upgrading from 2GB to 4GB of RAM or more would help improve performance a bit. We’ll get into performance issues a bit later though… in the section labeled “Performance.” Creative, eh?
The Acer C7 has an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display with a glossy finish. In a reasonably well-lit room, it’s perfectly serviceable. But if a bright light source (such as a lamp or the sun) is shining right at the screen it will reflect a fair bit of glare.
Viewing angles are… interesting. When you tilt the laptop from side to side, images, colors, and text look pretty good. But if you push the screen back colors start to wash out and pictures start to look like photo negatives.
What’s unusual about that is that the Acer C7 display can be tilted back so that it’s open at an almost 180 degree angle from the keyboard. You’d think if Acer was going to let you tilt the screen back that far, the company would have used a display that looks halfway decent when you do it.
The bezel around the display has a glossy black finish which reflects glare at least as well as the screen.
In terms of overall design, the Acer C7 Chromebook doesn’t necessarily look like a $199 laptop. It’s got a plastic case, but it has a metallic gray finish that looks pretty decent and feels sturdy, but light-weight.
The laptop measures about an inch thick and weighs about 3 pounds.
You wouldn’t expect a $199 laptop to offer bleeding edge performance… and you’d be right. But the Acer C7 Chromebook is a lot snappier than you’d expect a laptop in this price range to be. You can thank not just the processor, but also the light-weight operating system for that.
It takes just 20 seconds to boot Chrome OS on the Acer C7. That’s about twice as long as it takes on Chromebooks with solid state disks instead of hard drives, but it’s still about half the time it takes to boot Windows 7 on a typical notebook with a much more powerful CPU.
Once the system is up and running, you can close the lid to put it to sleep almost instantly, and it resumes from sleep as soon as you open the lid again.
More importantly, the laptop never felt slow while surfing the web or using web apps to watch videos, listen to music, edit photos or documents, or do just about anything else.
Technically, the Acer C7 has a slightly slower processor than the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 I reviewed this summer. But Google has released a few updates to the Chrome OS operating system since I published that review, so I actually saw higher scores in some benchmarks with the Acer C7. I’m pretty sure if I ran the same tests on the Samsung model again today, they’d be higher.
In other words, the benchmarks in these charts are a moving target, since software updates can have a pretty big impact on overall performance.
Another thing that makes the test results a little suspect is the fact that I was running the Chrome OS dev channel on the Acer C7, while I tested previous Chromebooks using the stable channel. I tried to switch back before running these benchmarks, but while Google makes it easy to quickly switch from stable to beta or dev channels, switching back means waiting for a new stable update to be released so that it will overwrite your operating system. That can take days or weeks.
One of the reasons Chrome OS feels just about as zippy on a computer with a hard drive as on one with a solid state disk is because most of the operating system actually runs in RAM. But like many web browsers, Chrome can be a bit of a memory hog, and sometimes the 2GB of included memory doesn’t quite feel like it’s up to the task.
While the Acer C7 feels pretty zippy most of the time, it started to exhibit some annoying behavior when I decided to use it as my primary work machine for a day. This involves keeping about 8 to 10 browser tabs open at once, including tabs for email, chat, research, and blogging.
In order to free up memory from time to time Chrome OS will sort of ignore a browser tab you haven’t visited in a while — so the next time you click on that tab, the page will reload. That means you might not notice new email notifications right away. Or, say you’re composing a blog post in WordPress and you decide to spend a few minutes hanging out in other browser tabs before returning… the page might refresh and cause you to lose any data that wasn’t automatically saved.
Fortunately, as mentioned above, it’s pretty easy to upgrade the memory or storage. With more RAM, I suspect the occasional page reloading problem would disappear — it’s not something i noticed on the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550, which has 4GB of memory.
You may have to void your warranty to do perform those upgrades, though.
The bottom of the Chromebook can get rather warm, and the notebook will blow some hot air through a vent on the left side. But even after using the Acer C7 for 7 hours straight, the keyboard area never got uncomfortably hot. Warm, yes, but not hot.
When Google first introduces the Acer C7 Chromebook, the company said the notebook offered 3.5 hours of battery life. But the company quickly updated its website to say that this model can run for 4 hours on a charge, and in my tests, I actually managed to get about 4 hours and 10 minutes of run time while streaming music over the internet with screen brightness set to about 50 percent.
Like the idea of a $199 laptop, but don’t like the idea of a notebook that only runs Chrome OS? No problem.
Google and Acer make it easy to enter “developer mode,” which lets you boot from an SD card or USB drive. Once in developer mode you can also partition the hard drive which lets you do nifty things like dual-boot Ubuntu Linux and Chrome OS without uninstalling the software that came with the device.
Note that some web apps (such as Netflix) may not work properly when you’re using Chrome OS in dev mode.
Theoretically it may also be possible to install Windows or other operating systems on this Chromebook. It didn’t even make much sense to try that on earlier Chromebooks which featured only 16GB of storage. But since this model has a 320GB hard disk (and a keyboard with Fn keys and a Caps Lock key), there’s no reason it shouldn’t be able to run Windows.
On the other hand, you could also probably save some time by spending a little more money and buying an Acer Aspire One 756 if you really want a Windows version of this laptop.
You’d probably have to hack the hardware a bit in order to the BIOS to accept Windows. But installing Ubuntu on the Acer C7 is as simple as enabling developer mode and running a script.
In the end, the laptop will take a little longer to boot, whether you decide to run Chrome OS or Ubuntu. But you gain the ability to run native apps such as LibreOffice or GIMP. In my experience, the Acer C7 makes a pretty decent Ubuntu laptop, and if you really wanted to, you could get all subversive and install Firefox or another web browser.
The one down side to installing Ubuntu is that it takes a huge toll on battery life. The version I tested only lasted 2 hours and 16 minutes while running the same streaming-music-with-the-screen-brightness-at-50-percent test I ran under Chrome OS.
A year ago it was tough to recommend buying a Chromebook. With prices starting at $450, it was hard to explain why you’d buy a laptop that only runs a web browser when you could spend the same amount or less on a notebook with a more versatile operating system… and which could also run Chrome as an app.
Now that Chromebooks are available for under $250, the value proposition becomes a lot more clear. For some people a Chromebook really could be a replacement for a traditional laptop.
If there’s nothing you do with a laptop that you can’t do in a web browser, a cheap Chromebook might be the way to go. But even if you aren’t ready to toss out your 17 inch gaming laptop, a $200 Chromebook makes about as much sense for an extra device as an iPad or Android tablet.
It’s a cheap device that looks like a laptop, but which turns on and connects to the internet almost as quickly as you can open the lid. That makes a bigger difference than you’d expect.
When I’m sitting on the couch with a Windows laptop and an Android smartphone within easy reach, I’ll usually grab the phone first if I just want to check my email or look up the name of an actor on IMDB. That’s because it’s faster and easier than waiting for Windows to wake up.
The equation is different with a Chromebook, which starts up almost as quickly as my phone. Now the question I ask myself is whether or not I want to use a keyboard to enter text more quickly.
The Acer C7 isn’t the fastest Chromebook around. But it’s less than half the price of the fastest Chromebook… and the speed difference isn’t all that great.
It’s also not the model with the best battery life… but that may not be much of a problem if you primarily plan to use the notebook around the house. It’s also the first Chromebook with a removable battery, so if you can get your hands on a spare battery, you may be able to effectively double the battery life.
If you spend $50 more to get the Samsung Chromebook, you’ll get a model which is thinner, lighter, and offers 6.5 hours of run time. But the Acer C7 is a little faster and may be a bit more versatile thanks to the large hard drive, accessible memory and storage, and full-sized Ethernet port.
They’re both good choices if you’re in the market for a cheap Chromebook… and it’s nice to have choices.
I’m just not sure why anyone would spend $450 or more on a Chromebook anymore. Hopefully Acer’s entry into the dirt cheap Chromebook space will give Samsung incentive to lower the price of the Chromebook 550.
In the meantime, the Acer C7 Chromebook is probably the best laptop you can buy for $199. Sure, it’s also probably one of the only netbooks you can find for that price unless you’re looking at refurbished netbooks… but that’s kind of my point.