Acer C720 Chromebook review: High on power, low on panache

Acer's new C720 offers outstanding performance for an entry-level Chromebook, but it skimps on some important areas.

With the arrival of Acer's new C720 Chromebook, one thing is immediately clear: All Chromebooks are not created equal.

The Acer C720, on sale now for $249 and expected to ship later this month, is a stark contrast to the recently released and similarly priced HP Chromebook 11. Under the hood, it's a superior product -- especially in the realm of processing power, where the system's Haswell-based architecture helps it achieve new levels of performance for an entry-level Chrome OS system. On the outside, however -- the parts of the laptop you view, touch and interact with -- it falls frustratingly short.

I've been spending some time getting to know Acer's C720 Chromebook this week. Here's a detailed look at what it's like to use and how it compares to other Chromebook models.

Body and design

The first thing you notice when you pick up the Acer C720 Chromebook is that it looks and feels like a cheap computer. The metallic-colored plastic casing gives off a pretty low-end vibe; if you run your finger along the edge where the plastic meets the display panel, you can feel rough spots along the seam. All in all, this is just not a thoughtfully designed product.

Acer C720 Chromebook
Acer C720 Chromebook

That might be acceptable for a sub-$300 laptop if it weren't for the release of the HP Chromebook 11 earlier this month. That device, created with close involvement by the same Google team responsible for the high-end Chromebook Pixel, raised the bar of design and build quality for entry-level Chromebooks. The standard established by the Chromebook 11 doesn't bode well for Acer's offering.

At 11.34 x 8.03 x 0.75 in. and 2.76 lbs., the C720 Chromebook is small and light enough to carry around comfortably and use on your lap. The Chromebook 11, in contrast, is 11.69 x 7.56 x 0.69 in. and 2.30 lbs.; the most discernible difference among those measurements is the nearly half-inch discrepancy in height, which makes the Chromebook 11 seem significantly more svelte.

The C720 has two small stereo speaker grilles on its bottom along with two large vents and a series of visible screws. The system's sound quality is okay but not great; compared to the superb keyboard-dwelling speaker system on the Chromebook 11, the C720's audio sounds tinny, shallow and somewhat muffled.

Acer's Chromebook does have a respectable set of connectivity options: The left side of the laptop holds a dedicated HDMI-out port and a USB 3.0 port -- two elements the Chromebook 11 lacks -- along with a DC charging port and 3.5mm headphone jack. The right side has an SD card slot, a USB 2.0 port and a Kensington Security Slot that allows you to attach the computer to a third-party security lock.

Display and keyboard

Acer's C720 Chromebook boasts an 11.6-in. 1366 x 768 TN display that's more or less in line with what we've seen on past-generation entry-level Chromebooks. It's passable enough for casual use but pales in comparison to the higher-quality IPS LCD panel on the Chromebook 11; its colors and blacks appear washed out and muted, its viewing angles are relatively limited and its clarity leaves something to be desired.

The screen also suffers considerably when viewed outdoors and looks dreadful in direct sunlight, whereas the Chromebook 11 remains fairly consistent even in the glariest of conditions.

On a sliding scale of screen quality, the high-end (and high-cost) Chromebook Pixel is at the top, naturally -- not only compared to other Chromebooks but also to laptops in general. The Chromebook 11, meanwhile, delivers a pleasing visual experience, particularly for its price, and lands somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. The C720 Chromebook sits squarely at the bottom, alongside last year's low-end devices.

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Low-cost Chromebooks compared

Acer C720 Chromebook HP Chromebook 11 Samsung Chromebook
Processor Intel Celeron 2955U Samsung Exynos 5250 Samsung Exynos 5 Dual
Display 11.6-in. 1366 x 768 TN

11.6-in. 1366 x 768

11.6-in. 1366 x 768 TN
On-board storage 16GB SSD 16GB SSD 16GB SSD
SD card slot Yes No Yes
Cloud storage 100GB Google Drive/2 yr. 100GB Google Drive/2 yr. 100GB Google Drive/2 yr.
Battery life Up to 8.5 hours Up to 6 hours Over 6.5 hours
Camera 720p front-facing VGA front-facing 0.3MP front-facing
USB ports 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0 2 USB 2.0 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0
HDMI Native HDMI-out port Via micro-USB w/SlimPort adapter Native HDMI-out port
Charging Proprietary DC port Standard micro-USB port Proprietary DC port
Dimensions 11.34 x 8.03 x 0.75 in. 11.69 x 7.56 x 0.69 in. 11.4 x 8.1 x 0.7 in.
Weight 2.76 lb. 2.30 lb. 2.43 lb.
Price $249 $279 $249
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