Acer was one of the first companies to launch a laptop running Google’s Chrome operating system, and the company has updated its Chrome OS laptops a number of times over the past few years. This year’s lineup includes models with bigger screens, ARM and Intel Celeron and Bay Trail processors, and Acer’s most powerful Chromebook to date.
For the most part the Acer C720 Chromebook with Core i3 looks and feels exactly like the cheaper models which feature Intel Celeron 2955U Haswell processors. I reviewed the Acer C720p with a Celeron chip and a touchscreen display earlier this year, and it was one of the best Chromebooks I’d tested so far.
Acer loaned me a new C720 with Core i3 to test, and honestly it’s nearly identical to the Celeron version. They have the same case design, similar displays, and for most day-to-day tasks you’d be hard pressed to notice any difference in performance.
Sure, the model with the Core i3 processor scores a little better in benchmarks, but web pages load quickly on both laptops, the systems both resume from sleep almost as soon as you can lift the lid, and web apps and internet video work well on either system. But specs junkies will note that from time to time tasks that seemed a bit slow on the Celeron model might be a bit quicker on the Core i3 model… and that might help justify the extra cost.
You can buy an Acer C720 Chromebook with a Celeron chip for as little as $199, while the Core i3 models sell for $350.
For most people. I’d recommend saving some money by picking up the cheaper version. But there are certainly a few situations where the Core i3 model might be a better option. For example, if you want to load Ubuntu or another operating system on the Chromebook, the extra processing power could come in handy.
The Acer C720 Chromebook is basically a cheap, portable notebook that runs Google’s browser-based Chrome operating system. Since it’s designed to run web apps it doesn’t need much local storage… and it doesn’t have much.
The system features 32GB of solid state storage, which is about twice as much as you get on some Chromebooks. But it’s a small fraction of the storage space you’d get with most Windows laptops. However it should be more than enough space to install a handful of Chrome web apps which are designed to function offline and you have some space to store some music, movies, documents, or other files as well.
When you buy an Acer C720 (or most other Chromebooks), you also get 100GB of free online storage with Google Drive for 2 years.
If you need more storage space for files there’s an SD card slot as well as two USB ports. One is a USB 3.0 port while the other is a USB 2.0 port.
The notebook has an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel matte TFT display, 2GB of RAM, and an Intel Core i3-4005U dual-core processor with Intel HD 4400 graphics. It features 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0, a 3950mAH battery, HDMI output, a headset jack, and a webcam and microphone.
There’s also a model with 4GB of RAM which sell for a little more money.
What you won’t find are premium features such as high-resolution displays with wide viewing angles, backlit keyboards, or touchscreen.
While this isn’t the first Chromebook to feature an Intel Core series processor, it’s certainly the cheapest. Google launched the Chromebook Pixel with a Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor, a 12.85 inch, 2560 x 1700 pixel touchscreen display, and premium build quality (and pricing) in early 2013. But that was a niche product designed to show that Chromebook didn’t have to be synonymous with “cheap.” It sold for well over $1000.
The Acer C720 looks more like a typical Chromebook. It appeals to some because it’s a small, easy-to-use laptop that’s virtually immune to viruses and bloatware that could slow down your system thanks to the way apps are run in a sandboxed mode and most content isn’t stored locally. But a big part of what makes Chromebooks attractive is certainly their price points: most Chrome OS laptops sell for between $200 and $400.
While the Acer C720 is at the upper end of that range, it’s still a lot cheaper than most Windows notebooks with Core i3 Haswell processors.
The Acer C720 with a Core i3 processor is part of the same family as the Acer C720 with Haswell… and it looks virtually identical. In fact, it looks a lot like last year’s Acer C7 Chromebook and any number of cheap 11.6 inch Windows notebooks Acer offers.
What I’m saying is, Acer’s been making portable notebooks for a few years, and for the most part the company knows what it’s doing. The Acer C720 Chromebook with Core i3 measures just 0.8 inches thick and weighs less than 2.8 pounds.
It’s compact enough to throw in a bag and carry with you — even if you’re not sure you’ll need a laptop wherever you’re going. That’s kind of what separates a good portable notebook from a desktop replacement for me. The fact that this model also gets over 7 hours of battery life also helps, since it means you can usually leave the charging cable at home.
There’s no mistaking the Acer C720 for a premium notebook though. It has a full-sized QWERTY keyboard, but there’s a bit of flex in the center. The case is made of plastic. And the display has limited viewing angles.
Positioned correctly, the screen is adequate for most daily tasks. But tilt the display back too far or bring it too far forward and colors start to look washed out. Keep going and you’ll find yourself looking at what look like photo negatives.
The screen looks better when viewed from the left or right sides, so you might be able to sit a few people on a couch and watch videos together… as long as you’re all the same height.
HDMI, audio, and a USB 3.0 jack are located on the left side, along with a port for the power adapter. On the right side you’ll find a USB 2.0 port, SD card reader, and a locking port.
The battery isn’t user replaceable, and while the solid state storage is upgradable, the RAM is not… and you’ll potentially void your warranty if you crack open the case to try any repairs or upgrades.
There’s a sticker covering one of the screws that holds the bottom panel in place that warns your warranty will be void if the seal is broken.
Like most Chrome OS laptops, the Acer C720 has a full-sized keyboard with dedicated keys for some Chrome features. For example there’s a search icon where you’d normally find a Caps Lock key (although you can change it to a Caps Lock key if you really want). There are also page refresh, full-screen window, and arrow keys above the number keys on the keyboard.
I really wish Chromebooks had a few more keys. There’s no Page Up, Page Down, Home or End buttons. You can still use those functions, but you’ll have to memorize a list of shortcuts including Alt+up for Page Up, Alt+down for Page Down, Ctrl+Alt+up for Home, and Ctrl+Alt+down for End. There’s also no Del button, but you can hit Alt+backspace to delete text.
Chrome OS is a relatively light-weight operating system that’s designed to run on a range of hardware including computers with ARM or Intel chips. But that doesn’t mean that it runs equally well on a device with a Samsung Exynos 5250 or Intel Celeron Bay Trail chip as it does on a machine with an Intel Core i3 processor.
In terms of benchmarks that test raw CPU and graphics performance, the Acer C720 Chromebook withe Core i3 is faster than just about any other laptop that ships with Google’s Chrome OS software at the moment. But in terms of day-to-day use, it feels a lot like using cheaper models with Intel Celeron 2955U Haswell chips. That’s not to say that the Core i3 model is slow… it’s just that the Celeron models are fast enough to handle almost anything you can throw at them.
That said, there are other models that do feel a bit more sluggish. There are a growing number of Chromebooks with Intel Celeron Bay Trail processors, including the Asus C200 Chromebook I reviewed a few months ago, as well as models with ARM-based chips from Samsung and NVIDIA. While those systems aren’t exactly painfully slow, they definitely don’t load web apps or other content quite as quickly as models with Haswell chips.
The closest competition in these benchmark results comes from the Google Chromebook Pixel, which has an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor. It’s an older chip than the Core i3 Haswell in the Acer C720, and it comes out ahead in some tests and behind in others… but it’s also worth noting that I tested the Chromebook Pixel a year and a half ago. While the processor hasn’t changed since then, Chrome OS has and it’s possible that the scores in these charts don’t reflect how the Chromebook Pixel would score if I ran the tests again today.
These benchmarks are handy if you’re looking for concrete numbers to compare. But I still feel like the Celeron model feels just about as fast as the Core i3 version in most tasks.
The magic of a Chromebook is that everything feels just about instant when you’re using a model with a reasonably fast processor on a reasonably fast internet connection. Open the lid and the Chromebook springs to life. Open a web page to read the news, watch a video, or even edit a photo and everything loads immediately.
Acer’s C720 Chromebook with Core i3 lives up to that promise. Everything works exactly the way it should. My demo unit never felt slow. It downloaded software updates automatically and kept up to date during the weeks that I tested it. And it had no problem streaming HD video from the internet (expect when I was trying to do that at a coffee shop with a weak WiFi signal — but that wasn’t the Chromebook’s fault).
There are some things I still find it difficult to do with a Chromebook. There’s an image editor built into the file manager, but it’s not particularly full-featured and doesn’t let you do some things as simple as resizing photos. There’s also no video editing software.
You can sort of get around both of those issues by using web-based tools or apps available from the Chrome Web Store, but it feels silly to upload a video to the internet so that you can edit it and download it again. Another solution is to sidestep Chrome OS altogether… but installing Ubuntu or another operating system on the Chromebook. This lets you use desktop apps such as GIMP, Lightworks, or LibreOffice instead of web-based apps such as Pixlr, YouTube, or Google Docs to edit photos, videos, and documents.
Google also recently started bringing Android apps to Chrome OS. Right now only a handful of apps are officially supported, but we could see more in the future. If you’re adventurous you can even try porting a few Android apps yourself.
For now I took the language-learning app Duolingo for a spin. For the most part it worked perfectly, loading in a small browser window and acting exactly like the smartphone version of the app. It quizzed me on written and spoken Spanish and provided a bit of encouragement to keep up with my lessons after I finished a session.
While the Acer C720 with Core i3 has a faster processor than just about any other Chromebook, the notebook still offers reasonably long battery life.
Acer says the notebook should run for up to 8.5 hours on a charge. In my tests, 7 hours of mixed use including some video playback, a lot of web surfing, and some time spent writing blog posts (including this review) seems more realistic.
That’s pretty close to the 7.5 hours of run time I saw with the Acer C720 Chromebook with an Intel Celeron 2955U processor and also pretty close to all-day battery life… if you take an hour-long lunch break.
If you do need more than 7 hours of battery life the power adapter isn’t quite as bulky as an old-school notebook power brick, but it’s also not as compact as a smartphone charger.
For folks who care more about battery life than bleeding-edge speed, the Asus C200 Chromebook with a Bay Trail processor offers up to 12 hours of battery life, which ain’t bad for a $250 laptop. But it’s also a slower laptop.
Chromebooks for advanced users
Alright, so you can use a Chromebook to surf the web, check Facebook, edit documents using online tools, or play online games. But what if you really want to push the limits?
There’s an HDMI port on the side of the laptop. Plug in an external display and you can mirror or extend your display. Or you can turn off your screen and just use an external display.
Worried that this system might not be able to power two displays? I hooked up a 1080p monitor and had no problems playing two full HD videos at once, with one playing on the Chromebook’s 1366 x 768 pixel screen and another on a 1080p monitor.
What if you need to use apps when you don’t have an internet connection? While Chrome OS is designed to work with web-based apps, there are a growing number of those apps which work without an internet connection. You can search for Offline Apps in the Chrome Web Store, where you’ll find games including Angry Birds, and Solitaire, and apps including WeatherBug, Kindle Cloud Reader, and Any.do.
Still not good enough? You can also install Ubuntu or another Linux-based operating system.
To do that you’ll need to enable developer mode by pressing and holding the Esc and Refresh keys and then tapping the power button. Your system will reboot and show a scary recovery screen. Press Ctrl+D to proceed and then confirm that you want to switch to dev mode.
This will wipe all of your data and reboot your device.
Once that’s done, you can enable USB boot or legacy boot modes if you want to load an operating system from an external device.
I prefer to use the Crouton script to install Ubuntu alongside Chrome OS and run it in a chroot environment. This allows Ubuntu to use the same Linux kernel as Chrome OS and it saves you the trouble of configuring WiFi and other settings.
Once Ubuntu is installed with the Crouton script, you can switch from Chrome OS to Ubuntu by hitting Ctrl+Alt+T to open a terminal window, typing “shell” and pressing return to enter a command shell, and then typing “sudo startxfce4” to get started. That last command differs depending on the desktop environment you choose. Since I’m running Ubuntu 14.04 with LXDE on my system, I need to type “sudo startlxde.”
Once Ubuntu is running, you can press Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Back or Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Forward to switch between Chrome OS and Ubuntu. Both operating systems run simultaneously, but you can only see one on the screen at a time.
With Ubuntu installed, I was able to load a number of Linux apps including the VLC media player, GIMP image editor, Abiword word processor, and even the Firefox web browser. They all work exactly as you’d expect.
You can delete a chroot to effectively uninstall the operating system you installed, or you can exit dev mode to wipe all data from your device again and return it to a normal Chromebook.
The Acer C720 Chromebook with Core i3 is one of the most powerful Chromebooks to date, but it’s not a perfect laptop. The limited screen viewing angles can be frustrating, and some folks would also probably prefer a model with a larger, or higher-resolution display.
It’s easier to overlook the Chromebook’s limitations when the price is right: the Acer C720 with an Intel Celeron processor can be yours for as little as $200. This more expensive model doesn’t really offer much more in terms of performance or other features to justify the higher price tag… unless you don’t plan to use it solely as a Chromebook.
At $350, the Acer C720 is actually reasonably affordable as a Linux laptop with 32GB of solid-state storage and a Core i3 processor. Spend a little extra and you can get a version with 4GB of RAM instead of 2GB. Void the warranty, and you can also add extra storage.
For folks looking for a cheap, easy-to-use laptop that doesn’t need to run Microsoft Office or other Windows or OS X-specific apps, I’d probably recommend the cheaper Acer C720 with a Celeron chip. But for Linux users or Chrome OS power users (there must be a few out there), it’s nice to have the option of a more powerful model.