Hands on: How much faster is a Core i3 Chromebook?

We might not have a true midrange Chromebook yet, but as new Chrome OS devices continue to show up and push different boundaries, we're getting closer and closer to that elusive goal.

The recent batch of Haswell-based Chromebooks brought us a new level of speedy performance second only to the pricey Chromebook Pixel. And now, the first Chromebooks with powerful Intel Core i3 processors are starting to arrive -- and they're surprisingly affordable.

Core i3 Chromebook

The first one to launch is a Core i3 model of Acer's C720 Chromebook. It's on sale now for $350 for a 2GB model or $380 with 4GB of RAM.

I've been testing out the 4GB model for the past week and comparing it with both a Haswell-based Intel Celeron system -- specifically, Asus's Intel Celeron 2955U-powered Chromebox, with a comparable 4GB of RAM -- and the Pixel, which utilizes a Core i5 processor along with 4GB of RAM.

Here's what I've noticed in real-world terms:

• When it comes to boot-up time, Acer's Core i3 Chromebook is significantly faster than the Celeron system. We're talking a solid several seconds' difference from the time I press the power button to the time the login prompt is on-screen and ready (and relative to Chrome OS, several seconds is a lot). The Core i3 Chromebook is pretty much equal with the Pixel in that regard.

• In actual use, the differences in performance are apparent but more subtle. Things definitely feel a little snappier on the Core i3 Chromebook compared to the Celeron device: Pages often open a few seconds faster and scrolling is slightly smoother, particularly when you have numerous tabs open.

But unlike the last bump in Chromebook processing technology, when we leapt from the early ARM devices to the current Haswell systems, this one is very much of a case of going from "quite good" to "a little better." It's far less of a night-and-day difference -- and that perspective is important to keep in mind. (And yes, if we were to compare either of these systems to Samsung's Chromebook 2, which still uses a slower ARM-based processor, they'd both be a noticeable step up from that setup.)

Moving up the spectrum, Acer's Core i3 Chromebook isn't quite at the Pixel's level of performance -- as you'd expect -- but it isn't terribly far behind. The Pixel tends to be another couple seconds faster with page loads and another notch ahead in scrolling smoothness (especially while a page is actively loading). We're really talking shades of gray, though; both systems do impressively well.

• Performance aside, Acer's Core i3 Chromebook is essentially identical to the company's existing Celeron model of the device -- including in its battery life. Both models are listed for the same 8.5 hours, which is about what I've experienced.

Core i3 Chromebook Comparison

So all in all, the new Core i3 Chromebooks bring a subtle but noticeable step up in performance from the previous-gen Celeron models while landing an even more subtle step down from the top-of-the-line Pixel. Not a bad middle ground to achieve.

Performance isn't the only factor to consider, of course, and a product like the Pixel is still light years ahead of any other products in terms of build quality, display quality, keyboard and trackpad quality, and overall user experience (though its battery life does leave something to be desired). But hey, one step at a time, right?

The bottom line: What should you buy?

For now, I'd say this: The Pixel remains the best all-around Chromebook experience money can buy -- by a country mile. It's a luxurious and unmatched computing experience. If you want the best of the best and can justify the cost, it's the one to get. But realistically speaking, at $1300, it's not the kind of purchase most folks are going to make.

The new Core i3 Chromebooks get you incredibly close to the Pixel's level of performance, only without all the physical niceties. If you're a power user or just want the best possible performance at a reasonable cost, a Core i3 Chromebook like Acer's is well worth considering. That level of power for under 400 bucks is a damn good deal.

(And remember, Dell is also slated to come out with a Core i3 model of its excellent Chromebook 11 sometime in the next couple of months, so there'll soon be a little more variation in build quality -- and presumably also cost -- within that category.)

But you know what? For the majority of casual computing users, I'd still recommend sticking with one of the Haswell-based Celeron devices like the current Dell Chromebook 11, Acer's original C720, or the HP Chromebook 14. Those systems really hold their own, and if you typically keep only one or two tabs open at a time and don't do much heavy-duty computing, you probably won't notice a heck of a lot of difference between them and their new Core i3 equivalents (besides boot-up time, that is -- but with all these systems being well under 30 seconds, that really isn't that big of a deal).

So if you fall into that "casual user" category, you might as well save yourself the cash and use it to get a slightly nicer laptop -- like one of the models with elevated build quality, built-in 4G access, or maybe even a touchscreen. Heck, you could even buy two of the lower-end Haswell devices for about the same cost as one of the current Core i3 models. If the bump up in processor isn't going to make much noticeable impact on your real-world use, why not?

Looking ahead, we've got a few more interesting Haswell-based Chromebooks on the way this summer along with the first Bay Trail-based devices, which are supposed to get the best battery life we've seen so far (though slightly less impressive performance than their Haswell-based cousins). Personally, I'm pretty interested to check out Lenovo's cool-looking convertible Chromebook options -- especially the one with the higher-quality IPS screen that's capable of being flattened out completely.

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And that's just what's in the hopper right now; the tech beast never sleeps, and odds are we'll see even more new Chrome OS options popping up before long.

There's never been a better time to have your head in the cloud.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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