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.

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Surrounding the C720's display is a shiny bezel that holds a 720p webcam above the display and a prominent Acer logo below it. Two black hinges attach the display to the lower half of the laptop, leaving a visible gap between the pieces.

Keyboards are usually a highlight of Chrome OS devices, but I found the quality of the Acer Chromebook's keyboard to be rather disappointing: The keys feel plasticky, clicky and generally cheaper than those on the Chromebook 11 -- and even on last year's Samsung Chromebook. The keyboard is also a bit smaller than the standard full-sized setup: It's about a quarter-inch narrower from edge to edge than the Chromebook 11's keyboard, with each individual key being slightly smaller -- just enough to mess with your muscle memory and make it slightly uncomfortable to use.

A matte plastic trackpad sits directly beneath the keys; I found it to be accurate and responsive in real-world use. As with all Chromebooks, the trackpad supports a variety of one-, two- and three-finger gestures and acts as a giant button that can be pressed with one finger for a left-click and two for a right-click. It's smaller, cheaper-feeling and a bit harder to press than the trackpad on the Chromebook 11, but it's comparable to past entry-level models and good enough to get the job done.

Performance, storage and networking

Forget the hardware and design shortcomings for a minute. The stars of the Acer C720 Chromebook are the parts you can't see -- namely a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Celeron 2955U processor and a full 4GB of RAM.

The Haswell-based chipset provides ample horsepower for both light and heavy use. In my side-by-side tests, Web pages tended to load a solid few seconds faster on the C720 than they did on the ARM-based Chromebook 11. And even with as many as 20 tabs open, the system never felt sluggish or like it was struggling to keep up, as the Chromebook 11 sometimes does in such scenarios. All around, the C720's performance -- while not at the same lightning-fast level as the $1,300 Pixel -- is unquestionably the best I've seen on an entry-level Chromebook so far.

The C720 runs quiet, too. It may not be as dead-silent as its ARM-based cousin, but you really have to put your ear near the computer and listen to hear its subtle hum. The bottom of the laptop gets ever-so-slightly warm during use, but it's barely noticeable.

In addition to its performance perks, the Haswell-based setup promises to deliver outstanding battery life -- and the C720 Chromebook doesn't disappoint in that department. The laptop is listed for "up to 8.5 hours" of active use; that lines up almost exactly with what I experienced, even with near-nonstop multitasking-heavy computing.

The C720 supports Bluetooth 4.0 along with 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. At this point, no LTE-connected model is available, though Acer has vaguely said that "additional configurations" will be introduced soon.

The C720 Chromebook comes with a 16GB solid-state drive for internal storage. It also includes 100GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage for two years -- an upgrade that'd cost about $120 if bought outright. (After the two years elapse, any files you've stored utilizing that space will remain in your account and accessible; you'll just lose any unused space from the allotment unless you choose to renew the subscription.)

Along with the Google Drive space, the C720 Chromebook includes 12 free sessions of GoGo Inflight Internet service and a 30-day subscription to Google Play Music All Access, Google's on-demand streaming service.

The software

As you probably already know by now, Chrome OS revolves around Web-centric services -- although it is fully capable without active Internet access, with a huge selection of apps offering robust offline functionality. It also includes a variety of packaged applications that run in the browser but look and act like regular desktop programs.

As a result, Chrome OS provides a very different experience than what you get with a traditional computer operating system like Windows or Mac OS. Depending on your needs and preferences, that could either be a refreshing change or a frustrating limitation.

I've covered Chrome OS exhaustively elsewhere; for a more in-depth look at the software and what it's like to use in the real world, see my two-week-long hands-on evaluation or my myth-busting list of misconceptions about the platform.

Bottom line

Acer's C720 Chromebook offers unprecedented power for an entry-level Chrome OS system. The computer provides solid performance for both casual and resource-intensive use while simultaneously delivering admirable battery life. It also includes some nice connectivity options like USB 3.0 and native HDMI and SD card support.

The problem is that while the C720 feels like a next-gen system on the inside, it feels like last year's low-end computer on the outside. Its display is disappointing, its keyboard is unpleasant to use, its design is uninspired and its build quality mediocre at best.

Ultimately, you have to decide what factors matter the most to you. The Acer C720 Chromebook certainly has some compelling qualities -- and at $250, its performance and stamina alone make it worth considering.

If only we could combine those qualities with the Chromebook 11's exterior, we'd have a near perfect product on our hands.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

This article, Acer C720 Chromebook review: High on power, low on panache, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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