After a week of testing the Acer C710 Chromebook, we have mixed feelings about it. It has a very competitive price tag and offers Chrome OS as an alternative to Windows or MacOS, but is it any better than a tablet for the regular user?
The Acer C710 is one of the cheapest laptops (netbooks, ultrabooks, notebooks, whatever-books are all laptops, ok?!) you can buy right now. Plenty of reviews have been written about this and other Chromebooks. A quick web search will lead you to a vast number of benchmarks, performance analysis, comparisons and all sort of extrictly technical reviews, but we believe that raw numbers can't be the only gage to measure a system because, what is a computer without an operating system anyway? Pretty much nothing, that's why we'll also analyze the hardware/software symbiosis present in this product.
Design - The $199.99 laptop.
You pay one hundred and ninety nine dollars with ninety nine cents for the Acer C710 and you get, well, an one hundred and ninety nine dollars with ninety nine cents laptop. Don't get me wrong here. This PC offers a better user experience than many others with a higher price tag, but don't expect luxury, refinement or the best quality materials. It is built instead with a large amount of plastics and a design that is not ugly but very hard to classify as eye-catching or appealing.
Special mention to the charger, which Acer has managed to make one of the most ugly in the whole history, second only to that power supply of the first generation Xbox.
With 1.1" thickness and about 3 lbs weight, the device enters in the ultraportable category and I found myself adopting "Kamasutric" positions with it, but also felt a couple of times that if the lid was to be opened too fast you could end up with the lid torn apart from the base of the laptop. It felt just too weak sometimes.
The keyboard is full QUERTY, including custom function keys relevant to Chrome OS, but even though it's not worse than many other chiclet keyboards the arrow keys are so incredibly small and so awfully laid out that they are almost useless, I couldn't use them even once without having to check out what key I was pressing on.
The total, complete, utter absence of a secondary button (right click!!!) was also very irritating for me, especially because you are forced to do a two fingers tap to bring up any contextual menu or any "right-clickish" action you might think of.
The raw numbers of the C710 account for an Intel Celeron 847 processor running at 1.1Ghz, 2GB of DDR3 RAM, 320GB hard drive and 11.6" screen with a resolution of 1366x768 pixels, for a density of approximately 135ppi.
These specs might not look like a lot in the paper, and they certainly aren't when compared to Mac or PC ultrabooks, but combined with (and managed by) Chrome OS, they are enough to make it a fluid experience with almost no lag at any point, and score high values in the benchmarks we ran.
The screen is rated at a maximum brightness of 200 nits, which is good enough for indoor usage but poor for outdoor use in a sunny day, an important element if you take into consideration this machine is designed for great portability. Put side to side with a Samsung TV set, its colors seemed washed out and in need of calibration to show more vivid shades, but once again, it is not the worst screen we have tested and in a daily use basis these details will probably not bother you too much.
Connection of peripherals and to Internet is possible through 2-in-1 media reader, three USB 2.0 ports, built-in wireless LAN (802.11a/b/g/n), Ethernet port and HDMI. The battery is rated at 2500 mAh and 3.5hrs, but we got four hour and some minutes after a full charge.
Performance - The $199.99 tablet.
Allow me to say something here: this netbook performs much better than old netbooks, those running full-fledged Windows and powered by slow Atom processors, but to put its performance in perspective we need to compare it to something else than PCs: tablets.
If you think about it, the way Chromebooks are designed to work is more similar to tablets than to computers; both are meant to always be online, offer high portability and rely more on cloud services than on limited hardware resources. Therefore we ran two benchmarks that are commonly used for tablets and smartphones testing : Sunspider and Peacekeeper.
Peacekeeper test the browser performance, including rendering test, a WebGL test, HTML5 video, canvas and web worker tests, data manipulation tests, DOM operations test and text parsing tests.
As you can see, both benchmarks are web browser but they heavily depend on hardware resources (specially in the CPU) to gage the system performance. The web browser's internal rendering engine(s) is also a very important factor, but so far, these are the most accurate tools we have to compare so many devices with multiple hardware architectures and operating systems. The web browsers used were Chrome 26.0.1410.57 in the C710, IE10 in the Surface, Firefox 21.0 in the Vaio and stock browsers in the Nexus 10 and iPad 4.
The above results show a clear advantage of the C710 over Google's flagship tablet, the Nexus 10, also performing better than Apple's iPad 4. When compared to a first generation i3 Vaio laptop (my working PC, if I must say) and a Surface Pro tablet, you can clearly see that the Celeron can't keep up with their higher class cousins.
The C710 was easily able to deliver 1080p video to an external display over the HDMI connection while we kept working on it. Switching between open tabs was fluid as well, even when several of them were open at the same time and the magic behind it lies in the fact that each one of those tap was taking advantage of cloud computing, so the device was up to a certain degree not more than a dummy terminal, like the ones that were used in the 70's and 80's to connect to big, heavy, expensive mainframes, remember them?
Battery life was as good as Google and Acer claim it to be, and we actually got a little more than the announced three and a half hours on battery before having to charge, but with moderate to heavy use, you will surely have to carry around the horrible charger or won't make it until the end of the day.
The Operating System.
Chrome OS deserves a full review by itself (we're on it!), but there are some aspects of it that we have to mention here, because it is so deeply connected to the hardware it resides on, that it is very hard to spot the seam that connects them, and it is the factor that can make the C710 either loved or hated.
It is ironic to see how two powerhouses that always supported the philosophy of creating operating systems that would run in any hardware, from any manufacturer, like Microsoft and Google, have ended up bringing products to the market that are based on Apple's dogma of controlling the user experience by integrating hardware and software in a single package. Chrome OS is not open source, nor will be in any foreseeable future. Yes, you can get Chromium OS which is free and almost the same, but Chrome OS, the one that comes installed in the Chromebooks, is controlled by Google and its partners to offer the best possible user experience, according to them, of course.
When you turn the machine on by first time, you are prompted with a welcome screen that asks you to login to your Google account or to create it in case you don't have one, and then you go from 0 to 60 in just a few seconds, because this thing boots up and loads fast, very fast indeed.
Then... well, not much new here. You are presented to a nice interface that doesn't differ much from Vista, or maybe some Gnome desktops.
Instead of having a Start button, you have a Chrome icon and to its tight, in the quick launch area, more icons for the most used Google's services: Gmail, Youtube, Drive. But don't let them fool you! Click on any of those and what will pop up is actually the web browser to take you to the corresponding service, so they actually are bookmarks and not links to an installed software on your computer. As a matter of fact, when you go to the Store and install any other app, all what happens is that a bookmark/shortcut to the web address of such service/web app is created.
The app store is poor. I don't care if Google says there are more than ten thousand listed there, I didn't find more than 20 of my interest. Maybe I didn't look hard enough, or maybe I just don't want to play Angry Birds anymore.
If you're a usual of Google services such as Gmail, Drive and Youtube you'll feel like a fish in the water. I gave up on MS Office long time ago and rely on OpenOffice, Google Docs and Evernote; my CMS are (obviously) web based, so the only apps that I really missed were Inkscape and Photoshop, but Chrome OS offers basic images editing features built in that will probably be satisfactory for most users. If you are in need of more advanced features either to code, design, edit, etc. you will have to search around and find appropriate web tools, luckily there are a few of good quality such as iPiccy, CodeRun, ShiftEdit or ScribblerToo.
The wrap up.
I wasn't especially sad when it was time to wrap up the testing machine and send it back. I didn't feel the urge of putting it in a bag and running away as if I had stolen a Faberge egg or like Gollum hiding his Precious. It is easy to get used to it, and it is easy to forget about it. But I honestly believe Google is in the right path with this project (because I think this still is a project for them!)
If I could request a couple of things, they'd be a backlit keyboard, a slightly larger display with better density and specially an enhanced app store with more and better products/services. I think Google must be a strict curator of what is exhibited on its gallery, or store, to be exact. I know this improvements would come with a certain price increase, but it should still be less than the absurd $1300 for a Chromebook Pixel.
The Acer Chromebook C710 is a perfect secondary laptop, I found it especially useful for taking last minute notes after having turned off my working PC, bringing it with me to meetings and being able to connect to HDMI projectors and in general, everything what you'll usually do with a tablet but enjoying the benefits of a keyboard.
There's nothing you can do in a Chromebook that you cannot do in a Windows or Mac PC, but the overall experience is rewarding and in the specific case of the C710, at $199 is very affordable. Just make sure you don't ditch your old PC until Chrome OS is a fully baked operating system.
Article was originally posted on June 7, 2013