Hands on: Getting to know Acer's $300 touchscreen Chromebook

Acer C720P Chromebook

Remember Acer's C720P Chromebook? The laptop was announced with little fanfare over Thanksgiving week, when most of us were already tuned out, and then never quite got its moment in the spotlight.

Acer tends to launch a lot of minor variations to its existing Chromebooks -- a model with more RAM, less RAM, a bigger hard drive, and so forth -- so it's easy to overlook a new device with a familiar-sounding name. But while the C720P Chromebook does bear a striking resemblance to the original C720 Chromebook, it offers one new feature that's particularly noteworthy.

The Acer C720P Chromebook is the first Chromebook other than Google's high-end Chromebook Pixel to include touchscreen functionality. And while the Pixel costs a whopping $1300, Acer's touchscreen computer sells for a far more manageable $300.

To be clear, the C720P is in nowhere near the same league as the Pixel; like the original C720 device, it's very much a budget-level machine. But compared to other Chromebooks in its class, it has some interesting qualities to consider.

Here are some of the things I've noticed while using Acer's C720P touchscreen Chromebook:

1. The body

Acer C720P Chromebook Body

In terms of the exterior, the C720P looks and feels exactly like the base C720 model; the only noticeable difference is that it's available in white as well as silver (theoretically, at least -- at the moment, the white models seem to be tough to find online).

The C720P is slightly heavier than the base model, at 2.98 lbs. up from 2.76 lbs., but it's still incredibly light and easy to carry.

For detailed thoughts on the build quality and what the laptop's like to use, I'll refer you to my in-depth Acer C720 review; since not much has changed in that department, there's not much new I can say about it here. Long story short, the system's overall construction still isn't its strong point, nor is its keyboard or trackpad (which are the two negatives I probably notice the most in terms of actual use).

2. The display

What really sets the C720P apart, of course, is its display. The C720P still uses an 11.6-in. 1366 x 768 TN screen, but along with its conversion to touch, the display gets a glossy finish that makes it much easier on the eyes than the base model's matte panel. It's not at the level of a higher-quality IPS screen, like what's present on the HP Chromebook 11, but I find it to be far more tolerable than the regular C720 Chromebook -- especially for extended use.

Acer C720 Touchscreen Chromebook

As for the touch functionality of the screen, it works exactly as advertised: In addition to using the computer normally, you can reach up and tap, scroll, or even zoom on any page (pinch-to-zoom support still isn't enabled by default in Chrome OS, oddly enough, but all it takes is flipping a switch in the chrome://flags section to get it up and running).

The C720P's touch panel is accurate and responsive and quite enjoyable to use. You could ask whether you really need touch input on a laptop right now -- a fair question, and one only you can truly answer.

For a bit of personal perspective, I use the Chromebook Pixel almost every day and have really grown to appreciate having the touch functionality in place. I wouldn't say it's something I need, but it's a nice addition I enjoy having.

As I wrote when revisiting the Pixel last fall:

With the amount of time we spend using smartphones and tablets these days, being able to reach out and touch a screen feels quite natural (how many times have you seen someone inadvertently try to scroll or pinch a display on a standard laptop?).

I don't use the ... touchscreen every minute of every day, but it's nice to be able to reach up and tap something, scroll down a page, or pinch in to zoom when I feel the urge.

Whether or not it's right for you, one thing's for sure: The fact that the C720P offers touch input at an entry-level price is pretty significant in the grand scheme of Chrome OS's evolution.

3. The performance (and other internal differences)

You knew there had to be a catch, right? Here it is: The C720P Chromebook has only 2GB of RAM -- half the amount present in the base C720 model.

Acer C720P Chromebook Review

In using the C720P, I can definitely detect the difference -- but even so, I've been pleasantly surprised at the level of performance the system provides. It's less snappy than the base model but still quite usable and responsive; thanks to its Haswell-based processor, it doesn't suffer from the same low performance ceiling we tend to see with ARM-based Chromebook devices.

The system does, however, has its limits. While the base C720 model never feels sluggish, even with as many as 20 tabs open, the C720P starts to get noticeably slower once you hit around a dozen or so open tabs. I've got 18 tabs open as I'm writing this now (yes, I'm working on the C720P as we speak), and the system feels like it's struggling a bit to keep up. I can still get around without a ridiculous amount of delay, but switching tabs sometimes takes a couple seconds longer than it should and trying to open a new app or tab is far from instantaneous. I'd describe it as more annoying than detrimental.

RAM aside, the C720P has slightly less stamina than the base model -- it's listed at 7.5 hours of battery time as opposed to the base model's 8.5-hour quote -- but it still does respectably well in that department. Curiously, the laptop also comes with more local storage: a 32GB SSD, up from the 16GB drive on the regular C720 device.

Putting it all together...

In evaluating Acer's C720P touchscreen Chromebook, we have to take into account the price differences: The C720P sells for $300, while the base C720 model -- with double the RAM, half the local storage, and a non-touch-enabled matte display -- is listed for $249.

So the question ultimately becomes if having a nicer-looking display that's also touch-enabled is worth an extra 50 bucks to you, even if that means sacrificing some of the performance power you'd get with the base model. Like with all Chromebook buying decisions, it's a case of "you win some, you lose some" -- and only you can decide which setup best suits your needs.

In general, I'd say this: If you can manage to track one down, the base C720 model remains the top option for the best performance at the lowest possible price. But for folks who aren't heavy-duty users and like the idea of a touch-enabled computer, the C720P is an interesting new choice to have.

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Acer isn't the only player in the low-cost Chromebook game, of course -- and there are a couple of other models in the same range also worth considering. For a breakdown of the top contenders and where Acer's offerings fit into the pack, check out my recently updated roundup:

The Chromebook buying guide: Which model should you get?

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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