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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  • nevertell - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    Could you do a review with putting Arch Linux or any other linux distribution and see how well that would fare on a cheap notebook such as this ?
    Nvidia is claiming to provide proper drivers for their tegra k1 this time around and it might be interesting to see how well a 'desktop' OS would fare on an arm chromebook.
    Reply
  • kpb321 - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    I agree. Putting more storage in a Chromebook doesn't make sense for exactly what the article found. The Chrome OS isn't designed around using local storage. Generally, you can't install windows on these machines because their bios doesn't support everything windows needs but ChrUbuntu or Crouton are designed to installed linux on this type of machine and a larger SSD might actually be useful then. Reply
  • danjw - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    For any future M.2 drive reviews, I would suggest you include in the specs grid what the keying is SATA, PCIE or both. Reply
  • BackInAction - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    "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."

    While I believe "better/thinner/lighter" inexpensive windows devices are on their way. This is one of the top benefits of CB over $300 Win laptop. That and the fact that I have no worries about AV and/or software updates.

    I own an 2nd gen i3 Win7 desktop, 2nd gen i3 Win7 laptop and a chromebook (Toshiba 13). Until I swapped out the HD on the laptop with a $50 SSD, it was nearly worthless. That said it is still a "tank" compared to the chromebook.
    Reply
  • andrewaggb - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    Agreed. I have two first gen I7 laptops and I had to put SSD's in both. Night and day difference. Went from buyers remorse to completely satisfied. Reply
  • LostAlone - Thursday, October 23, 2014 - link

    There's obviously fewer worries with a chrome book, but massively reduced functionality too. Chrome books are really awesome for what they are, but is so very hard to recommend them to anyone simply because you don't have the rich application support you have on a full OS. People always seem to think that they browse the web and nothing else, but missing desktop games makes it feels like such a compromise.

    People need to know for sure that a chrome book will give them exactly what they want when they buy it. That's why it's uptake has stayed so low. Normal human beings aren't so keen because having no local storage and no music player is pretty tough to handle. IT deparments on the other hands go nuts over them because it's the perfect 'work and work alone' kind of machine that is both cheap to replace and with much less scope for things to go wrong.

    But in todays world, I'd either spend more and get an MS Surface, or stick with a crappy old laptop because at least I can play Diablo on it.
    Reply
  • LoneWolf15 - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    I have used two MyDigitalSSD mSATA drives for some time, a first-gen 128GB and a second-gen 256GB. For anyone concerned about longevity, you needn't be. I got both at release time for each drive, and they are highly reliable. One is in my home theater PC now on an mSATA<->SATA conversion card, and one is in my ThinkPad. At their competitive prices, I'd gladly use them again. Reply
  • Walkop - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    Could the drop in read performance be due to the fact that one of the storage packages within the SSD was filled up before the other…? Reply
  • Dr.Neale - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    Interesting article, illuminates pros and cons of Chrome OS nicely.

    But I noticed a tiny typo in "Managing Storage in Chrome OS": In the first sentence, the phrase "when it comes file management" should read "when it comes to file management". (Just trying to help to perfect the piece!)
    Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - link

    Good catch, fixed! Reply

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