Acer C720 review (Core i3): Chromebooks just got a little more powerful

Whether rightly or wrongly, Chromebooks have earned a reputation for being the new netbooks. Slowly, though, things are starting to change. The designs are starting to feel less cheap -- at least if you're Samsung. Battery life is getting longer, sometimes even better than on full-fledged laptops. And now, performance is getting stronger, too: Acer just became the first company to release a Chromebook with a Core i3 processor, one that can better withstand multitasking, gaming and whatever rich websites you're likely to visit. The C720, as it's called, is actually the same 11-inch Chromebook Acer's already been selling, just with a beefier CPU inside, and theoretically longer battery life -- 8.5 hours, up from 7.5. As ever, though, Acer kept the price down: This guy starts at just $350, just a little more than what you'd pay for a much lower-powered system from some other brands. The question is: Does processing power trump everything else? And if it does, are you better off waiting for other Core i3 models to come out?

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Acer C720 Chromebook review

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Acer

C720 Chromebook (Core i3)

Pros

  • Core i3 processor offers modest, but noticeable performance gains
  • Battery life keeps pace with lower-powered models
  • Generally a good value, especially considering the price

Cons

  • Screen has poor viewing angles
  • Generally cheap build quality, including a shallow keyboard
  • Only Acer's lower-end Chromebook is offered with a touchscreen
Summary

As the first Chromebook with a Core i3 processor, the Acer C720 offers modest performance gains over its rivals, along with equally long battery life. You might want to wait and see if other laptop makers come out with something a little better designed -- perhaps with a nicer screen. Even so, at this price, the C720 remains a good value in its own right.

Hardware

I'm sure Acer will eventually redesign the C720 from the ground up, but for now, it's clear the company's main priority is to improve the performance -- and be the first with a Core i3 Chromebook. For now, then, the C720 is as compact, plain-looking and -- I hate to say it -- netbook-like, as it always was. The entire thing is made of plastic, with a rough-feeling bottom edge and a palm rest that flexes when you grip it. The keys are made of scratchy plastic, too, and the underlying panel will bend a bit if you type vigorously enough. And indeed, you might well need to start pounding the keyboard: The buttons are so shallow that if you hit them too gently, you're likely to suffer some missed key presses. There were instances when I had to type my long Google password as many as three times before I could successfully log in; unless you type everything slowly and deliberately, the keyboard probably won't recognize every single keystroke.

On the inside, the 11.6-inch display has a category-standard resolution of 1,366 x 768. Want something sharper? Tough noogies, kiddos: There currently isn't a single Chromebook this size with a sharper screen. What you might find elsewhere, perhaps, are better viewing angles. Before you settle in to stream a movie, you'll want to adjust the angle very carefully; dip the screen too far forward, and everything very quickly becomes washed out. Fortunately, viewing angles are better from the side, and it helps that the (non-touch) panel has a low-glare, matte finish. On a similar note, the sound coming from the two speakers will do in a pinch, but if ever I had a second, more full-fledged laptop lying around, I'd use that for music playback in a heartbeat.

On the plus side, the machine's smooth lid hasn't picked up scratches yet on either of the units I've been testing, and it does a relatively good job masking fingerprints, too. The trackpad also works well -- no small feat, given how often laptop makers seem to screw that up. Also, as shallow as the keyboard is, it's at least more spacious than it used to be. Remember how cramped the original C7 was? Yeah, well, it's probably good you forgot.

And now, we get to the part where I call a 2.76-pound laptop "heavy" and feel like a big jerk. And really, it's not even heavy, per se; it's just weighty compared to the competition. And slightly thicker, too. The C720 measures 0.8 inch thick, whereas rival machines from Samsung and HP weigh 2.65 and 2.26 pounds, respectively, and come in at 0.7 inch thick or less. Even the ASUS C200, which is also around 0.8 inch thick, is lighter at 2.5 pounds. That being said, none of this negates the fact that this is a compact system. It's easy to stuff inside a backpack or even a shoulder bag, and carry from room to room. You want a light machine? Boom: You've got a light machine.

You've also got the usual array of ports. On board, you'll find two USB connections (one 3.0, one 2.0), a full-sized HDMI socket, an SD card reader, a headphone jack and a standard lock slot -- a must-have for school districts planning on locking these down inside computer labs. You'll find the exact same spread on most other Chromebooks, so of all things, don't let this sway your purchasing decision.

Performance and battery life

SunSpider v1.0.2 Google Octane Mozilla Kraken
Acer C720 (Core i3-4005U, 4GB RAM) 289.4ms

14,530.3

2,112.5ms

Acer C720 (Celeron 2955U, 2GB RAM) 342.2ms

11,502.0

2,614.3ms

Dell Chromebook 11 (Celeron 2955U, 4GB RAM) 339.8ms

11,533.3

2,621.9ms

ASUS C200 (Celeron N2830, 2GB RAM) 482.8ms

7,197.7

4,291.4ms

Toshiba Chromebook (Celeron 2955U, 2GB RAM) 323.6ms

11,306.7

2,626.3ms

*SunSpider and Kraken: Lower scores are better.

**We regrettably didn't run enough of these tests on the Samsung Chromebook 2 when we had a unit in our possession; otherwise, we would have included it in this table.

For some time now, I've been saying Chromebook performance is good enough. Not great, but good enough. Even on the lowest-powered machines, you can get by checking email, surfing the web, working in Google Docs and streaming the occasional Netflix movie, all with a pretty low chance of a browser crash. And I still believe that. But here's the thing: Some people like to push their machines harder than I do. Some people want to play games. Others -- particularly teachers -- will be interested in interactive web apps as a kind of modern-day textbook. For those folks, "good enough" is a nebulous concept. Plus, once you've had the chance to try a Chromebook with a little more kick, you might not want to go back.

That's how I feel about the C720 with Core i3. It's still not a perfect device by any means -- Acer should really revisit that display and chintzy design -- but the performance is noticeably stronger than anything else currently on the market. Everything just feels slightly faster. It boots up a few seconds faster, and is also quicker to sign out -- a boon if you frequently let your boyfriend/girlfriend/roommate/whomever use your computer in guest mode. Browser games like Plants vs. Zombies feel a tad more responsive, and in rich websites like BioDigital Human, motions like zooming in and spinning 3D objects feel ever-so-slightly smoother. With the adventure game Assassin's Creed: Pirates, game play was a touch choppier on the Celeron-based C720. The benchmarks tell a similar story: The Core i3 model swept its competitors, but the margins were modest.

In any case, I think you get the picture: Performance here is better, but the difference isn't what I'd call dramatic. If you ripped the Core i3 machine out of my hands and told me I had to use the Celeron version, I'd carry on without suffering a huge impact in daily use. That said, if it were me shopping, and I saw a Core i3 machine for a reasonable, I'd choose that in a heartbeat.

Battery life

Acer C720 Chromebook (Intel Core i3) 7:53
ASUS C200 11:19
Dell Chromebook 11 8:37
Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch) 8:22
Toshiba Chromebook 8:15
Acer C720 Chromebook (Intel Celeron) 7:49
Samsung Chromebook (2012) 6:33
HP Chromebook 11 5:08
Chromebook Pixel 4:08 (WiFi)/3:34 (LTE)
HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook 3:35
Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550 3:23
Acer C7 Chromebook 3:16

As you'd expect, a heavier-duty processor doesn't exactly help battery life, but if these test results are any indication, it doesn't hurt, either. With WiFi on and the display brightness set to 10 out of 16 bars, the C720 with Core i3 managed to last through seven hours and 53 minutes of continuous video playback. That's not too far off Acer's claim of 8.5 hours, and it basically matches the C720 with Intel Celeron. As for everything else on the market, most Celeron-based machines tend to cluster around the eight-hour mark, with the exception of the new ASUS C200, which somehow manages to last an insane 11 hours. Basically, then, if you go with a Core i3 Chromebook, you can expect roughly the same battery life as you'd get on a less powerful machine. Kind of a big deal, that.

Software

Surely you've heard by now: Chrome OS is basically like using a computer with only the Chrome browser installed. That's frankly sort of true, but even so, I'd be doing you a disservice if I left it at that; Google continues to make lots of improvements to the software. In particular, many of you may be confused about how much you can do offline, without an internet connection. At this point, some three years after the first Chromebooks came out, you can use Gmail and Google Drive offline. Ditto for many third-party apps in the Chrome Web Store. As of two months ago, you can also watch Google Play Movies and TV offline, too. See? The list keeps growing, albeit at a fairly gradual rate.

Other new features include full pinch-to-zoom support (revolutionary!), improved file management and background uploading for Google+ photos. As ever, the ability to minimize and maximize windows, as well as launch apps from a desktop, makes this feel more like a "real" OS, even if it is based on the Chrome browser. If it weren't for the fact that I prefer Skype to Google Hangouts, and need certain desktop apps like Photoshop, I might actually buy a Chromebook myself. As it is, I can see owning one as a secondary computer, maybe just for travel. And hey, depending on your needs, you might actually find a Chromebook is enough for everything. To each his own.

Configuration options and the competition

There are lots of different versions of the C720, including the older, lower-powered version I keep mentioning. I still recommend that, mostly because the performance isn't that much worse, and the price is fair -- $300 with a touchscreen, $200 without. For the Core i3 model, meanwhile, there are just two configurations to choose from: one with 2GB of RAM, for $350, and another with four gigs, for $380. Other than the memory, they have the same specs -- namely, a Core i3 processor, 32GB of solid-state storage and an 11.6-inch, 1,366 x 768 display. Unfortunately, there aren't any Core i3 models with a touchscreen, and Acer says it currently has no plans to release one either.

The Acer C720 already stood out for being one of the most affordable Chromebooks, despite being one of the only ones to include a touchscreen option. Now it's among the first with a Core i3 processor and, yes, it's still reasonably priced. Even more important: It's the only Chromebook with that kind of horsepower that's even available right now. Dell, for instance, will sell a Core i3 version of its Chromebook 11, but it's not out yet. Ditto for Toshiba's 13-inch Chromebook, which is also being refreshed with Core i3.

Otherwise, you'll need to settle for something a little less powerful, and consider the trade-offs. These days, everyone and their mother is selling Chromebooks with Intel Celeron processors. They're less robust than Core i3 machines, obviously, but they're cheaper, and the battery life is often longer. Similar to Acer, Dell and Toshiba each sell Intel Celeron systems for around $300 (Acer's is actually $200, though). Lenovo has a bevy of offerings too ($330 to $479), some with funky, rotating screens. Ditto for HP: The company has 11- and 14-inch models on offer, for $280 and $299-plus, respectively. Meanwhile, ASUS just entered the market with the 11-inch C200 and the 13-inch C300 (both around $250). The point is: You have no shortage of options here, so long as you're willing to sacrifice a little power.

Or what about sacrificing a lot of power? The Samsung Chromebook 2 ($320-plus) has a tablet-grade chip inside, making it even lower-powered than Intel Celeron models. That said, you should still be giving it a close look. For starters, that mobile chip translates to strong battery life -- over eight hours, according to our tests. This Chromebook is also the best designed, with a comfy keyboard, reliable trackpad and a fake-leather lid that makes the whole thing feel less like a netbook and more like a proper laptop. And though the 11-inch model tops out at 1,366 x 768 resolution, the 13-incher goes up to 1080p, making it one of just two 13-inch Chrome OS devices, and one of the only ones with a full HD display (I'm barely counting the ridiculously expensive Chromebook Pixel). And considering the performance is still good enough for basic tasks like web surfing, the weaker processing really needn't be a dealbreaker.

But what about Windows laptops?

"But hey," some of you are saying, "I can get a full-fledged Windows laptop for the same price." Yes, you can. Just not one that's this powerful and this portable. In my research, I mostly found 15-inch laptops at this price -- bulkier machines with Celeron processors. So, you get lots of built-in storage and the ability to install any Windows app you like (performance limitations not withstanding). It's all about your priorities. If you can do without a DVD burner and don't tend to download lots of apps or media, you might appreciate the simplicity, portability and longer battery life of a Chromebook.

Still, there are a few exceptions. Dell's 11-inch, Celeron-based Inspiron 11 brings a Yoga-like design with a lid that flips back into tablet mode. And at $400, it doesn't cost that much more than a similarly specced Celeron Chromebook, though the design is much more interesting. It's a similar story with HP. For $250, you can get the Pavilion 10z, which runs on an AMD E-series chip. Lenovo's 11.6-inch S215 is similar: It starts at $379 with an AMD E1-2100 processor. In Acer's own lineup, meanwhile, there's the 11.6-inch Aspire E3 ($250), which runs on a Celeron CPU. Most compelling of all might be ASUS' Transformer Book T100, a 10-inch tablet running full Windows that comes with a keyboard dock for $400. The performance on a Core i3 Chromebook like the C720 will naturally be superior to any of these alternatives, but there will of course be folks who need the full Windows experience. If that's you, this is the best you can do at that price, at least in this size category.

Wrap-up

It seems I end almost every Chromebook review with the same disclaimer: They're not for everyone. And I stand by that. As I wrote the above section on Windows alternatives, I was reminded that I cannot, in good faith, recommend a Chrome OS device to everyone. There will always be people who need to do more offline, and who need the flexibility to install whatever apps they want (Skype and iTunes come to mind).

But for folks who can get by doing everything in the browser -- and using Google services like Hangout -- Chromebooks are getting cheaper, more functional and more powerful. The refreshed C720 in particular is a bit snappier than older-gen Chromebooks, thanks to a Core i3 processor, and yet the battery life doesn't really take a hit on account of that heavier-duty CPU. And despite the improved processor, it's still reasonably priced, at $350. Good luck finding a Core i3 Windows machine at this price, especially one this portable.

My main reservation in recommending this is that other PC makers are on the cusp of coming out with Core i3 Chromebooks, and in the meantime, Acer's is held back by a poor-quality display and cheap, netbook-like design. I'm curious to see what other companies have to offer -- perhaps someone else will present us with something a little more well-rounded. Even then, the price would have to be fairly low -- the performance gains here aren't so huge that laptop makers can get away with price gouging. And as the price does get higher, you'll have to work harder to justify buying a Chrome OS device instead of a Windows machine. In any case, until those other models go on sale, the C720 remains a good value. And if its performance is any indication, we should have high hopes for everybody else, too.