Acer has made a habit of releasing Chromebooks which pack more power than you’d expect into a dirt cheap laptop. The company’s Acer C720 Chromebook has an Intel Celeron 2955U processor, an 11.6 inch display, and around 8 hours of battery life. Not bad for a notebook that sells for about $200
The company also offers models with extra RAM or additional storage at higher prices — and recently Acer launched its first Chromebook with a touchscreen display. So how much do you pay for a bit of touchy-feely Chrome? Not much.
The Acer C720p Chromebook with a touchscreen display sells for just $300, making it one of the cheapest touchscreen laptops on the market.
Acer loaned me an Acer C720p Chromebook to review, and there’s a lot to like about this little laptop — especially given its low price. No, it’s not the prettiest laptop I’ve ever seen, it doesn’t have the best keyboard or display, and Chrome OS isn’t an operating system that’ll appeal to everyone (although there are ways to run Ubuntu or other operating systems on this laptop).
But for $300 it’s hard to complain about a touchscreen laptop that’s fast, gets long battery life, and which gives you both touchscreen and keyboard and mouse input.
While Acer offers several different configurations for its non-touch Chromebooks, the touchscreen model is currently only available in one configuration. It has an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display, an Intel Celeron 2955U Haswell processor, 2GB of RAM, a 32GB solid state drive, and up to 7.5 hours of battery life.
If you’re thinking of upgrading the hardware yourself, there are a few things you should know. First, opening the case voids your warranty (at least according to a little sticker covering one of the screws on the bottom of the case).
Second, while you can pop out the SSD and replace it, the RAM is not user replaceable. So if you think you might need more than 2GB of memory, this might not be the best laptop for you.
Around the sides of the laptop you’ll find a USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port, headset jack, and SD card slot. While there aren’t a lot of ports, they’re all full-sized, which isn’t the case on every Chromebook these days.
The notebook weighs just under 3 pounds, measures about 11.3″ x 8″ x 0.8″ and has a3950mAh battery.
It supports 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0, and there’s a 720p webcam just above the 10-point multitouch display.
When you buy an Acer C720p Chromebook you get 100GB of free Google Drive cloud storage for 2 years and 12 in-flight WiFi passes from Gogo.
Like most Chromebooks with Intel processors released in late 2013 or early 2014, the Acer C720p Chromebook has an Intel Celeron 2955U processor based on Haswell architecture. It’s one of Intel’s cheapest Haswell chips, but the dual-core processor is still powerful enough to make this Chromebook zippier than almost any model that shipped before Intel’s Haswell chips hit the streets.
The Google Chromebook Pixel with an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor is the exception. That’s the one Chromebook that outperformed the Acer C720p in all of my tests… but Acer’s Chromebook sells for $300. Google’s costs $1299… and it’s not really all that much faster (although it does have a much nicer display and case).
The results were pretty much the same with two other web-based benchmarks, Peacekeeper and Google Octane — but in these tests, the performance difference between the new Chromebooks with Haswell chips and models with older Intel Celeron chips or Samsung Exynos 5 dual core chips was even more dramatic.
Intel’s Haswell chips are also much more efficient than their predecessors. Acer says you should be able to get up to 7.5 hours of battery life from the Acer C720p and even more run time if you have one of the non-touchscreen models. That seems plausible based on my tests.
I regularly got close to 7 hours of use while running a number of web apps and surfing the web with a dozen or so browser tabs running at once. You could easily get even longer battery life with lighter use.
The older Acer C710 Chromebook with a Celeron 847 CPU, by comparison, lasted for just about 4 hours on a charge.
What’s kind of remarkable is that the $200 version of this laptop should get similar performance and even better battery life.
So what’s the catch? Well, there are a few.
Fist, the Acer C720p Chromebook is clearly a pretty cheap piece of hardware with a solid plastic case and a keyboard that has a bif of flex in the center. In fact, if you press down on the palm rest area, it’ll bow a little bit as well.
Second, the 1366 x 768 pixel display looks decent when viewed head-on in an indoor environment. Horizontal viewing angles aren’t bad, allowing you to see the screen from the side. But if you tilt the screen back too far, colors wash out until it seems like you’re looking at a photo negative.
Since the laptop has a glossy screen, it reflects glare if you’re sitting by a light bulb or a window.
Even at the brightest setting, the screen was no match for a brilliant ray of sun that shone in through a coffee shop window at one point while I was writing this review. I had no choice but to reposition the laptop in order to keep working.
The good news is that despite the relatively cheap design, the computer is actually pretty responsive and easy to use. The speedy processor means that the system wakes from sleep nearly instantly, reboots almost as quickly, and the touchpad and touchscreen are both pretty accurate ways to select, highlight, click, or generally interact with content on the screen.
You might not think you’d need a touchscreen to interact with web pages and web apps — and for the most part you don’t. But recent versions of Chrome feature icons and menus that are large enough to navigate with your pudgy fingers, and often reaching up to the screen to scroll or tap a button is at least as fast as moving your hands down to the touchpad — especially if you weren’t already using your fingers to type.
Folks who spend a lot of time with smartphones and tablets should feel right at home with a touchscreen-enabled notebook like the Acer C720p.
Probably the biggest limitation for some folks is the operating system: Chrome OS is an increasingly powerful platform. But it’s not going to replace Windows or OS X for everybody.
Google Chrome OS is an operating system designed around the Chrome web browser. In an age when the web browser is the most important app on many people’s computers, that makes a lot of sense. If you spend 99 percent of your time on a computer interacting with web apps like Gmail, Wikipedia, YouTube, Netflix, Flickr, reddit (and maybe Liliputing) then why do you need a Windows machine?
Sure, there are some apps that have traditionally required a desktop operating system, like Office, Photoshop, or Quicken. But if you look at lists of popular Windows apps, you’ll find an awful lot of anti-malware utilities and performance boosters. Chrome OS removes the need for just about all of those.
Instead of Office you can use Google Drive or Zoho for online document editing. Instead of Photoshop there’s Pixlr or Photoshop Online. And as an added bonus, Google automatically keeps your system up to date and helps protect you from malware by sandboxing apps.
While Chrome OS is based on the Chrome browser, you don’t necessarily need to be online all the time to use it. Some apps like Google Drive can download data so you can edit documents while offline. And you can install some games and other apps from the Chrome Web Store so you don’t have to download a ton of data from the internet every time you want to play.
Since your data is linked to your Google profile, you can also sync information across multiple devices. Fire up your Chromebook and your browser history from Chrome on your phone or desktop will be available. Lose your Chromebook in a fire? Buy a new one, login with your username, and all of your apps and other data will be synchronized.
A Chromebook also makes a pretty good machine for streaming media from YouTube, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, and other online video sites.
If you need to run specific apps that are only available for Windows you’re kind of out of luck… but only kind of. You can use Chrome Remote Desktop or other software to login to a Windows computer and remote control it over the internet. Enterprise and education customers, among others, can also use more powerful remote desktop and virtualization tools like those offered by VMWare.
Not everyone will be satisfied with Chrome OS. I’m not in love with the built-in image editor, for instance. And uploading documents to the cloud so I can edit them, download them, then upload them to my website seems kind of silly. Editing videos is another pain point.
But even if you’re not a fan of Chrome OS, there are reasons to consider a Chromebook like the Acer C720p.
Running Ubuntu on the Acer C720p Chromebook
While there’s no simple way to install Windows on a Chromebook, running Ubuntu or other Linux-based operating systems is incredibly easy.
In fact, the simplest way to run Linux on a Chromebook is by using a script called Crouton which lets you run Ubuntu or Debian side-by-side with Chrome OS. You can switch from one environment to the other just by pressing a few buttons on your keyboard.
With Crouton, your GNU/Linux software is sharing a kernel with Chrome OS. That means all of the hardware including the WiFi and touchscreen should work perfectly without any modifications. You just need to enter developer mode on the Chromebook by holding the Esc and Refresh keys and tapping the power button, then follow the instructions at the Crouton site to download and install the operating system and desktop environment of your choice.
I used this method to install Ubuntu 13.10 with the light-weight Xfce desktop environment so I could install the GIMP image editor and Firefox web browser (just because I could). Everything worked pretty smoothly and for the most part the system felt like a normal laptop computer with a desktop operating system while I was using Ubuntu.
If you’d rather not use Chrome OS at all, you can enter developer mode and then replace the operating system entirely with Ubuntu or another operating system — you just may have to jump through some hoops in order to get the touchscreen to work.
One of the things I like about using Crouton is that it gives you the best of both worlds… and also makes it very easy to erase Ubuntu and revert to the stock Chrome OS software — just exit developer mode and the Chromebook will wipe all your data and return to its factory settings.
Since there’s no Windows license fee included in the cost of a Chromebook, they’re often popular choices for folks who prefer to install their own operating systems. And the Acer C720p Chromebook is a particularly attractive model if you’re looking for something that’s cheap, offers decent performance, and has a touchscreen.
It’s just too bad that there’s no way to install more memory. While the machine never felt bogged down by its 2GB of memory in my tests, I suspect that folks who install a powerful GNU/Linux distro to run some heavy duty desktop apps might be better off getting one of the non-touchscreen versions of this laptop with 4GB of RAM.
The Acer C720p Chromebook isn’t as pretty as the Google Chromebook Pixel or even the HP Chromebook 11. But it’s one of the fastest Chrome OS laptops around. It’s the cheapest model with a touchscreen. And it gets all-day battery life (assuming you count your day as a work-day with a lunch break). That means you might be able to leave the moderately bulky power adapter at home.
You can find some Windows 8 laptops with touchscreen displays for around the same price — but you typically won’t get the same kind of battery life and you don’t get the perks that come with a Chromebook including 100GB of Google Drive storage and Google’s less-is-more approach to operating systems which puts speed, security, and online synchronization ahead of the ability to run traditional PC software.
Chrome OS isn’t the best option for everybody — but the more time I spend with it, the more I’m convinced it is the right choice for some people. Google and its hardware partners have been targeting education and business customers, and that makes sense. Load up a Chromebook with apps and links to the websites you want your students or employees to use, and they make affordable and easy-to-support laptops.
For folks who already have a powerful desktop or laptop computer and who are looking for a cheap option for light usage, a Chromebook also makes a decent secondary PC. In fact, if you don’t need to run Windows-only software, edit videos, or play console-quality games, a Chromebook could be good enough to be your only computer.
So if you fall into one of those camps, should you consider the Acer C720p Chromebook? Yup. It’s a pretty great value at $300. I just wish it had more memory and a higher resolution display with better viewing angles and better resistance to glare. But given the laptop’s low price tag, it’s hard to really complain about any of those things.