I’ve already taken a longer look at Google’s Chrome OS this weekend on Forbes (you can read my thoughts here). Now it’s time to look at the hardware that runs the online OS. Acer released the C720, an update to their existing C710 Chromebook, at the end of November 2013. Three months later, and it’s still the best implantation of a Chromebook now on the market.
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While it’s not going to outgun a MacBook Pro or the latest Windows 8 ultra books, the C720 is pretty well specced for a Chromebook. The Celeron 2955U is a Haswell based CPU which delivers significant performance for relatively little battery power. It probably makes up the majority of the bill of materials for the C720 as well. The UK variant of the C720 which I’m reviewing here comes with a 16 GB SSD, and 2GB of RAM.
Like many Chromebooks, the C720 is built to a price, which leads to some compromises in the hardware design. 2 GB of RAM is the obvious one, but the nature of Chrome OS means this is not as weak as spec as it would be on a Windows 8 machine. While the Haswell CPU is one of the slowest around, the 1.4 GHz clock speed is still faster than Acer’s previous Chromebook (the C710). That gives you fast boot times, with Acer quoting under seven seconds, and I’ve not seen any stutter or lag in use that I would attribute to the silicon – most of the issues and delays seem to be down to latency of the internet connection.
Using the Haswell architecture with the slowest components possible means that the battery life on the C720 is a comfortable eight hours with around two-thirds brightness on the screen. That gets you through the working day and you’d struggle to find a lightweight machine in this price range running Windows 8 that can match that runtime. Yes, the MacBook Air does beat it, but the MacBook Air is a lot more expensive.
In short, these are some of the highest specs for a Chromebook out there. I’d even argue that the C720 is very slightly over-specced for Google’s lightweight OS. If you’re looking for a Chrome OS device that has a little bit of head-space in the specs at a very aggressive price, the C720 is your model.
Unfortunately the screen is not as promising as the circuitry, and it’s one of the weaker areas of the laptop. Acer has added an anti-glare layer added to the screen compared to the earlier C710. This gives the C720 a distinct advantage over other models when used outside or in bright lights. It’s not the highest of resolutions (at 1366×768 pixels on an 11.6 inch diagonal screen). While the active matrix TFT screen does the job it is not the strongest link in the hardware chain. The LED backlighting has to run at high brightness setting, and I would have liked an easily accessible contrast control – dark colours and blacks did not feel as deep as they could have been, and you’ve got to get the viewing angle just right for accurate colour reproduction.
Again, I suspect this is more to do with reaching a price point than deciding on a screen purely for color reproduction.
The plastic construction does lead to some flexing of the chassis, notably across the screen as you open the laptop up. While you should be able to do this one-handed, the flex here made me worried that I was stressing the hinges, and I invariably moved back to opening the C720 with two hands.
I’m still getting used to a keyboard that does not have a caps lock key – Acer has replaced this with a search button, which brings up the search box and app launcher window, much like the Windows key would do on a Microsoft based laptop. It’s just in a very strange place. Why make the ctrl and alt keys on the left hand side so large? Reduce those to a smaller size and you get a search button in the Windows key position, and caps-shift is available for the writers.
It’s also strange to have hard-keys for your browser functions. Forward and back navigation buttons, as well as full screen and reload buttons are present along the top edge of the device. Brightness and volume buttons finish the top strip, with the power button to close out the ‘function key’ row.
It did take me some time to get used to the keyboard. It’s the chicklet style design that seems to be in fashion at the moment, but Acer has given the keys a slightly convex top surface. With this, the tactile feedback meant it never felt like I was hitting the keys dead centre, which made it hard to become comfortable with it. Even now I would say that I am looking down at the keys far more than I would expect to with a laptop, even though the accuracy seems quite high. Because of the lower price of the C720, there’s no definitive feeling that you have hit the bottom of the travel of the key, so typing feels spongy. The feedback from the keys is there, but without any level of consistency. Again this is a by-product of a machine that is targeting a $200 price point, and given that caveat, the keyboard is certainly acceptable quality.
I’m not as forgiving with the touchpad as I am the keyboard. It’s one of the few areas that acts and feels cheap. The click is loud and expressive on the touchpad, and the movement required to trigger it feels excessive. You have single tap and double tap with a light touch of your fingers, and I wonder if the minimalist approach of Chrome OS would have lent itself to Acer dropping the physical click?
In use the C720 is a nippy little machine, handling much of my browsing needs with ease. The lower RAM issues only really kick in if I switch between tabs that have significant code running (such as online photo editing, Google Play, and pages with intensive layouts. For regular web work, social media sites, news, and reading, everything worked as advertised. It’s tough to say more than ‘it’s the Chrome browser, it works well, and the extra functionality offered by extensions just work.’
The only time that the C720 struggled for me was during video chats with Google Hangouts. My home wi-fi delivers a hangout experience that works well on other machines, but the Chromebook exhibited far more stuttering and lost frames. Switching the video camera off at both ends does help, and I think that there’s just too much data coming in over a hangout for the slower CPU and GPU combination in the C720 to cope with.
I like the touch of having multiple accounts on the machine. This makes it really easy to hand over the C720 to my wife, and she can simply log in and have ‘her’ machine in front of her, and I can easily switch back when it returns to my desk. There’s no fuss, there’s nothing extraneous, you get your browser, you get your tools that run in a browser window, and there are a handful of extra dialogs and windows for setting up.
That’s really the point of a Chromebook in general, and the C720 in particular. It just works. Open it up, switch on,log on, and go. Yes, if you need more advanced tools such as video editing, podcasting, detailed image manipulation, or specialist applications , then Chrome OS in general is not for you. Chrome OS is to get you online, to do the majority of tasks that you need an online computer for, and nothing else.
I can get a lot done in Chrome OS, but as noted previously, there are some gaps in the functionality that means I personally would not be ready to make the switch just yet. But I’m not the target market for this notebook. The Acer C720 delivers a low-cost computing solution that offers web access, Google’s app suite to communicate and manage your life, as well as work with office-styled files, in a workhorse package. In that sense Acer’s C720 captures not just the spirit of Chrome OS, but the advantages as well. The price is incredibly competitive, and the notebook is light enough that it can be picked up as an after thought, tucked in a bag when travelling, or happily passed around the family as required.
If you’ve made the decision to go for Chrome OS, or you need a second computer that does the basic online tasks with ease, then the Acer C720′s mix of hardware, pricing, and utility, makes it an attractive option for the general consumer.
Disclosure: Acer UK provided a C720 Chromebook on loan for this feature.