While the whole netbook boom kind of died with the introduction of tablets, Chromebooks have been gaining more and more traction recently. The original Windows netbooks failed to provide a smooth user experience due to the lack of operating system optimization, and Windows was simply way too heavy to be run with such limited resources. Chrome OS on the other hand was designed specifically for netbook-like devices. Google took a totally different approach by designing the Chrome OS around web and cloud-based services, which allowed the OS to be run with very little onboard storage.

Most of today's Chromebooks actually ship with either a small mSATA/M.2 SSD or have an eMMC package onboard, which is a bit ironic since Chromebooks are generally the cheapest laptops around, yet if you buy a Windows laptop that costs twice as much you will most likely end up with a traditional hard drive for storage. That is an enormous benefit that Chromebooks have because the lack of a hard drive enables much thinner and lighter designs, which translates into a better user experience.

The majority of the Chromebooks have 16GB of onboard storage with some high-end models having twice that. For the intended usage where everything is done in the web, that is sufficient, but when you need local storage for offline occasions (e.g. when traveling), 16GB or 32GB will not get you far. There is always the option of carrying external storage to expand the internal storage, but there is another alternative: upgrading the internal SSD.

For the purpose of this review, MyDigitalSSD sent us a 256GB Super Boot Drive in M.2 2242 form factor along with Acer's C720-2848 Chromebook.

Acer C720-2848 Chromebook Specifications
Display 11.6" 1366x768
Processor Intel Celeron 2955U (2/2, 1.4GHz, 2MB, 15W)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics (200MHz, 1GHz max Turbo)
Memory 2GB DDR3
Storage 16GB SSD (M.2 2242)
Connectivity WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0, 1x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0, SD card reader, 1x HDMI
Dimensions 11.34" x 8.03" x 0.78" (W x D x H)
Weight 2.98lb

The C720 is what you would expect a Chromebook to be. The display is a bad TN panel, the trackpad does not always feel responsive, and the overall build is just plastic. It feels cheap, but the positive thing is that it really is cheap, as the C720-2848 currently retails for just $200. I cannot really give an objective review of the laptop itself as I have not used any other Chromebooks, but overall I am fairly impressed with what $200 gets you nowadays.

MyDigitalSSD Super Boot Drive M.2 2242 Specifications
Capacity 8GB 16GB 32GB 64GB 128GB 256GB
Controller Phison S9 (PS3109)
NAND Toshiba A19nm MLC
Sequential Read Up to 545MB/s
Sequential Write Up to 410MB/s
Warranty Three years

Like other MyDigitalSSD's SSDs, the Super Boot Drive is based on a Phison controller and comes in a variety of capacities. The M.2 2242 currently tops out at 256GB since the form factor limits the number of NAND packages to two, and with 16GB die 128GB packages are the biggest that are available in the open market.

Notice that there is no DRAM at all. The M.2 2242 form factor lacks the space for a dedicated DRAM chip, so the NAND mapping table and host IO caching is done in the internal caches of the controller (usually a few megabytes of SRAM). There is a bit of a performance penalty from doing that as the internal caches are much smaller, but it is the only viable way to squeeze a full SSD into such small area.

Test Systems

There are two major items we want to look at in this review: first, we want to investigate the upgrade procedure for the Acer C720 Chromebook and examine Chrome OS performance, and second we're going to look at the MyDigitalSSD Super Boot Drive as a standard SSD and run our usual storage tests. For AnandTech Storage Benches, performance consistency, random and sequential performance, performance vs. transfer size and load power consumption we use the following system:

CPU Intel Core i5-2500K running at 3.3GHz (Turbo & EIST enabled)
Motherboard ASRock Z68 Pro3
Chipset Intel Z68
Chipset Drivers Intel 9.1.1.1015 + Intel RST 10.2
Memory G.Skill RipjawsX DDR3-1600 4 x 8GB (9-9-9-24)
Video Card Palit GeForce GTX 770 JetStream 2GB GDDR5 (1150MHz core clock; 3505MHz GDDR5 effective)
Video Drivers NVIDIA GeForce 332.21 WHQL
Desktop Resolution 1920 x 1080
OS Windows 7 x64

Thanks to G.Skill for the RipjawsX 32GB DDR3 DRAM kit

For slumber power testing we used a different system:

CPU Intel Core i7-4770K running at 3.3GHz (Turbo & EIST enabled, C-states disabled)
Motherboard ASUS Z87 Deluxe (BIOS 1707)
Chipset Intel Z87
Chipset Drivers Intel 9.4.0.1026 + Intel RST 12.9
Memory Corsair Vengeance DDR3-1866 2x8GB (9-10-9-27 2T)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4600
Graphics Drivers 15.33.8.64.3345
Desktop Resolution 1920 x 1080
OS Windows 7 x64
The Upgrade
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  • Alexstarfire - Friday, October 24, 2014 - link

    I remember the keyboard and screen resolution being the two biggest drawbacks for me. With the size of the netbooks there really wasn't/isn't a way for them to do much about the keyboard problem. My hands are simply took big for a standard keyboard on a 10" platform.

    The resolution was something they potentially could have fixed, at a cost. I couldn't fit enough on the screen to make it worthwhile for me.

    On the other hand, the netbook wasn't for me but for my GF at the time and she had smaller hands than mine. She didn't really find any issues with the netbook other than the 1 time or so we actually needed an optical drive. Fortunately I had an external drive.
    Reply
  • xamigax - Monday, January 19, 2015 - link

    I own the C720 (without "p", hence no touchscreen), 2Gb ram 16Gb SSD, and Haswell architecture.
    It's small, light, has a very decent autonomy (>6hours, nothing optimized yet) and is surprisingly fast, thanks to Haswell chipset.

    I dumped ChromeOS and installed a regular Ubuntu 14.10 (only "tweak" so far: update kernel to 3.17.3-031703-generic so touchpad is included), it's quite a fantastic machine for the price.

    I do love this enough to be seriously considering buying a bigger SSD (128Gb should be perfect) to be able to download all my raw photos onto it before working on them with darktable / rawtherapy / ...
    This should become a wonderfull portable studio!

    The 2Gb RAM C720 was available for 199$.
    128Gb ssd M.2 type 2242 can be found near 70$.
    I can't think of any windows based model that might not get totally humiliated in such price range.
    Reply
  • WithoutWeakness - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    Not only were SSD's much more expensive 4 years ago but Windows 7 on a 16GB drive would be a nightmare to try and market. I know it can be done with compression but there would be next to no free space. Chrome OS can get away with it because all the apps are tiny little browser extensions and users are conditioned to store next to nothing locally. Windows users expect local storage with enough space to install full-blown 1GB+ software packages and hold all of their media. Netbooks were initially created and marketed as a small, portable web machine that could run some programs if needed but a lot of people just bought them because they saw them as $200-$300 Windows laptops. Reply
  • pSupaNova - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    Microsoft's Windows was not on the first Netbooks, they had a flavour of linux on them. So no Microsoft was not ahead of their time they scrambled to put their bloated OS on these machines and ended up killing them.

    Chrome OS is here to stay because it easy to use and maintain. Windows 10 has not got a chance on these form factors it fuzzy and tries to do to much when the world is quickly moving to SAAS model.
    Reply
  • LostAlone - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    But no-one bought the Linux netbooks. Geeks who get what linux is did a little bit, but not the general public. If you are a normal human being, what possible reason would you have for getting a linux-anything?

    It wasn't until September of 2014 that you could watch Netflix natively on Linux. And even today it still takes a hack to actually work. These kinds of problems exist in droves, and of course that's part of the downside of Linux being free and open, but if you are a consumer all you care about is if you can watch Netflix or not.

    MS didn't somehow bully linux off of netbooks. Microsoft wasn't even involved. OEMs took stock Vista and put it on very underpowered hardware. Off course the results were bad. But it was never Microsoft's fault. It was Dell and Packard Bell and Acer and all the others who put Vista on very low end hardware.

    It wasn't until recently that Microsoft actually got more directly involved in how their OS is used, and as a result we ended up with Windows RT, a slimmed down OS designed for lower powered devices, and specifically for ARM chips that dominate the market in tablets. Once MS actually got involved they did a great job.

    Chrome is a great OS, essentially because it tries to make it so users don't ever need to deal with the operating system, just a browser that they are already familiar with. That's the reason why it's had any success at all. But Windows 10 is going come, and it is going to be aggressively pushed, and with today's low powered chips, the faster speed of storage and the greater amounts of RAM, it's going to perform really well and people are going to buy it because it's familiar to them.

    And for the record - It doesn't matter if the world moves totally to SAAS (good luck making games work like that ;) ) people will still need an operating system on their PC, and they are still going to stick with Windows because it's what they know, and likely what they have used for years. SAAS will never change that the vast majority of personal machines in the world will run windows for the forseeable future. Not even OSX's rise from the ashes as the coolest, hippest, sexiest OS has significantly changed that. Windows is here to stay.
    Reply
  • tuxRoller - Wednesday, October 22, 2014 - link

    "that's part of the downside of Linux being free and open"

    Citation, please.
    Reply
  • LostAlone - Thursday, October 23, 2014 - link

    Are you saying that Linux's driver support is equal to windows? I think that's something that needs a damn citation. Reply
  • jejones3141 - Saturday, December 20, 2014 - link

    My experience buying a netbook makes me think that someone was flat out intentionally making Linux look bad. Here's my story:

    I bought an Asus Eee 900A at Best Buy. 32-bit Atom CPU, tiny but usable keyboard, 1 GB RAM... and, I am not making this up, a 4 GB SSD with Xandros Linux installed on it using UnionFS. UnionFS makes it easy to drop back to the initial factory configuration, but takes up quite a bit of space for that read-only partition with the factory configuration on it. I took it home, fired it up, it announced that there were a dozen packages with upgrades--sure, download and install them. Before it finished downloading them, the SSD was full and the netbook hung.

    I was lucky--I knew that the thing to do was wipe that read-only partition and install what was then eee Linux, later on easy peasy Linux. Worked like a charm, and later on I got a bigger SSD, maxed it out with 2 GB of RAM, and moved to Bodhi Linux. Still works fine; I'll find it a good home once my C720 arrives (and I'll upgrade its SSD and set up to dual boot ChromeOS or Linux)...

    ...but here would be the more common scenario: Joe Average--no, Grandpa Average--sees an inexpensive computer to get his grandchild for Christmas, buys Eee 900A. The big day arrives, the kid tears open the box, starts it up. "There are a dozen packages that have upgrades." Sure, upgrade them... and the SSD fills up, the computer hangs, and the grandchild throws a tantrum. At the crack of dawn on December 26th, Grandpa Average is pounding on the Best Buy door demanding satisfaction, and I'm sure the salesperson was happy to blame Linux for the problem and upsell Grandpa Average to a far more expensive laptop running Windows.

    I can't believe that kind of misconfiguration was unintentional; someone made sure that people who dared run Linux would have a bad experience.
    Reply
  • rahvin - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    Microsoft actively killed the netbook. They placed heavy restrictions on the hardware and software allowed to be included through their OEM contracts. For example, netbooks weren't allowed to be installed on anything but ATOM processors, they were limited to IIRC 1 gig of ram, etc. Even stuff like hard drive size was limited. Microsoft didn't want netbooks to succeed because they would have eroded their margins.

    Thankfully Google has no such concerns and has happily eroded the entire PC market pricing. Microsoft's hubris cost them significant market share with chromebooks now occupying the 3-4 of the top five sales spots on Amazon, consistently every month. Even Dell, who is adamantly Microsoft and Intel, has announced their intent to produce a chromebook because chromebooks are now major sellers. Hopefully chromebooks will continue to be successful.
    Reply
  • Michael Bay - Wednesday, October 22, 2014 - link

    Your bias is laughable. At least use your beloved google to learn who defined the category first.

    And how do you even "install" netbook ON to something?
    Reply

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