Acer Chromebook 13: Subjective Evaluation

I’ve said for a while now that arguably the most important aspects of any laptop are things that are more subjective rather than objective. By that, I mean that things like the keyboard, touchpad, build quality, and screen quality often end up being more important than raw performance. Which isn’t to say that performance doesn’t matter, but you could have the fastest laptop in the world and if the keyboard, touchpad, and build quality are terrible the performance it offers may not be enough to overcome those flaws. Conversely, a laptop that looks and feels great that perhaps underperforms can often be “good enough” for a lot of users, especially if the price is right.

The Acer Chromebook 13 ends up doing exceptionally well in one area that’s near and dear to my heart: the keyboard. This is a bit ironic as Acer has had quite a few poor keyboards in previous laptops. The layout and general appearance of the Chromebook 13 keyboard isn’t all that different from the C720, but it has very different feel, decent key travel, and the keys don’t have any play (looseness), which was something I noticed with the C720. It’s not that the C720 keyboard was horrible (or exceptional), but the new Chromebook 13 has a great feeling keyboard, especially for a laptop that costs under $300.

The touchpad ends up being more of a middle of the road solution – it works okay, but here performance does become a factor, and particularly on some of the more complex websites the touchpad gestures can end up being very laggy. It’s not a bad touchpad, and really the problem seems to be the lack of processor performance, but the net result is that there are times where you feel like the touchpad isn’t doing its job properly.

The screen is another area where there are good and bad aspects. The good news is the 1080p resolution being available – surfing and doing other work on a 1366x768 display feels very limiting, and 1080p ends up being much better. The display is also anti-glare and can get reasonably bright. The problem is that the anti-glare coating is very visible, resulting in a lot of “sparkle”, and the contrast and viewing angles from this TN panel are quite bad. Those looking for a great display in a Chromebook really only have one option right now, unfortunately: the Toshiba Chromebook 2 has a 13.3” IPS panel that’s quite good. Everything else in Chromebook land suffers from the race to the bottom. (Note that Acer’s upcoming Chromebook 15 will also have a 1080p IPS option; I’ve seen it in person at CES, and I’m very much looking forward to reviewing one.)

Wrapping up with build quality, Acer’s Chromebook 13 is actually pretty nice. I personally think the use of white instead of some other color is great and I’d like to see more laptops go that route (though of course dirt and discoloration is a potential long-term problem), but it’s not just the color. Being fanless means there’s no noise, and the chassis can be made thinner and lighter without really sacrificing other elements. It’s still a plastic shell and it’s not going to rival a unibody aluminum chassis, but it doesn’t feel too chintzy either. Overall it’s a decent feeling laptop and should hold up well as long as you don’t pound on it.

You can also access the internals if you’re bored, which I did, but there’s not really anything to do inside a Chromebook like this. There are no memory slots or hard drives – mSATA or otherwise – so you basically get what you purchase and there’s nothing to upgrade. If you need more storage, you can slot in an SD card, but that’s about it. I do have to admit that the size of the battery was rather surprising when I opened the chassis – I expected something like a 30Wh battery, but Acer has a 48Wh 4-cell battery in here. That’s basically the same size as what they used in the 11.6-inch C720 (45Wh), but 48Wh to power a Tegra K1 is a big part of why Acer can claim 11 hours of battery life (or 13 hours with the 1366x768 display).

Subjectively then, there’s plenty to like with Acer’s Chromebook 13, but it’s by no means perfect. What is a bit surprising is that the base price ends up being nearly $100 more (MSRP) compared to the previous generation C720, and that’s a bit difficult for me to justify. It looks and feels nicer, but performance as we’ll see in a moment is a step backwards and the various upgrades really shouldn’t have increased the price that much. The good news is pricing has dropped substantially now, so it's only a $30-$50 difference compared to the C720, so it’s worth checking out, but even if you love the idea of a Chromebook I’m not convinced this is the best solution. Give me a better display (IPS or similar) at the same price point and I’d be sold; give me the internals of the C720 with this chassis and I’d be happier. As it stands, I have mixed feelings.

Meet Acer’s Chromebook 13 Acer Chromebook 13 Performance
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  • jhoff80 - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Personally, I really think that Windows 10 should come with a sort of "RT mode" that doesn't let a user run anything that doesn't come from the Windows Store to protect from this sort of thing. Make it a switch that only the admin can modify, and that'd help a lot. I actually was considering a Surface 2 for my parents for a while because of this very reason (and they only need Office and IE anyway).
  • jimbo2779 - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    That's actually a really good idea. It would be really useful for the people that have to"admin" for a computer owned by a family member or friend.
  • nils_ - Sunday, January 25, 2015 - link

    This is what apple does on OS X as well, at least the Yosemite I use for work. You can set in the security settings that things downloaded from the Internet can't be run without overriding it in the security settings.
  • jabber - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    You don't get viruses etc. from porn sites. That's turn of the century thinking. You get malware from legitimate download sites. I guess you haven't read the articles from HowToGeek where they found that all the main download sites are stuffing the software with junk.

    Thats why folks and family get infected all the while due to them downloading innocent software encrusted with malware laden installers.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Okay, yes, you can get malware infections from non-porn activities, but looking for porn is also still a major source of problems. Particularly if someone looks for free stuff. But the toolbars and other addons are certainly bad as well.
  • sonicmerlin - Sunday, January 25, 2015 - link

    Maybe Microsoft should release windows RT laptops.
  • coder543 - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    You talk about those laptops like they're actually good. I wouldn't touch one of those 5400RPM hard drives with a 10-foot pole. The perceived performance of one of these chromebooks would absolutely crush all of those laptops you mentioned, just because of how glacially slow the hard drives would make them feel.

    The first laptop, where you replaced the hard drive with an SSD, is now at a total price of $400, which is roughly double the price of these Chromebooks. Of course, for more money, you can get a laptop with higher performance specs. This is how economies work. However, those are both 15.6" laptops as well, and 15 inch laptops are painfully large and bulky. 14" is as high as I could ever see myself purchasing, but 13.3" is a much more realistic "high end" for me in terms of size.

    My Acer C720P also has no problems with productivity sans an active cloud connection. Google Drive / Docs can be used without an internet connection, and it most definitely has both USB 3.0 and a full HDMI port -- so I'm not sure what you're talking about there. The battery life on my C720P almost certainly stomps whatever cheap Windows laptops you bought as well.

    To recap, Chromebooks are good because:
    - They are significantly less expensive than any Windows laptop worth having (the Stream 11 and X205TA are the first *real* competitors to Chromebooks, because they have SSDs at Chromebook price points)
    - They do have all of the connectivity you talked about, such as USB and HDMI
    - You're able to do productive things without an internet connection thanks to HTML5's notion of offline web applications, plus Google's Native Client (NaCL) initiative that allows you to run near-native code on Chromebooks in a fully sandboxed environment, including some rather intense games (though not very many)
    - Userproof: no malware, no crashing, no problems.
    - Compact, portable form factor, with build quality that far exceeds the chintzy feel of sub $400 15.6" Windows laptops which literally feel like they're 95% air, and 5% plastic that's about to break.

    I would *strongly* recommend buying a solid Chromebook (like the C720) and giving that a whirl. Your notions seem to be based on misconceptions and on the experiences gleaned from 10-seconds of clicking buttons on them at Best Buy while sneering at the Chromebooks.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Hey coder543, what "rather intense games" do you run on Chromebooks in a sandboxed environment? Serious question -- I'd love to have something a bit more demanding to test than WebGL portals! And if I can get something with a freaking benchmark in it, I'd be ecstatic. :-)
  • jabber - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    I took my little 11" Samsung Chromebook on my three week vacation to Canada a few months ago. I just charged it up and didnt take the charger with me as I reckoned it would last. Well I used it most days for checking upon stuff, was no hassle to carry around and it lasted the whole vacation...with an hour to spare on the battery. No cheap nasty $300 Windows laptop would have done that.
  • zodiacfml - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Plenty laptops these days with a slow but big Intel CPU around $200. It might be pretty bad in terms of battery life but the speed will be appreciated all the time. I'm typing on an Asus with a Celeron 1000M which is snappy for web browsing.

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