Acer Chromebook 15 review: A large laptop with ample appeal

Acer's new Chromebook 15 packs a splendid screen and solid performance into a plus-sized package with lots to like.

Would you rather have a Chromebook that's small, sleek and easy to carry or one that's large and less portable but with a more spacious screen?

Acer's betting a lot of people will choose the latter -- and if you're one of them, the company's new Chromebook 15 might be just the laptop for you. The Chromebook 15, going on sale in early April, is the biggest Chrome OS device to date -- and that's no mistake: The system is meant to be more of a desktop replacement than a drop-it-in-your-bag-and-go kind of computer. With its 15.6-in. display and all the surface area that comes with that, the laptop offers some attractive perks for anyone who lives in the cloud and doesn't mind a little bulk.

The Chromebook 15 will be available with a variety of different options and prices. The system starts at $250, but the model most people will want to consider is the $350 version (model CB5-571-C09S), which has a 1080p IPS display and an Intel Celeron processor.

I've been using that version of the Chromebook 15 for the past several days to see how it holds up in the real world. Here's what I've found.

Mostly impressive hardware

The Chromebook 15 -- which, unless otherwise noted, will refer to the aforementioned $350 model for the purposes of this review -- is very much a midrange Chromebook. It's nowhere near the top-of-the-line $999 Chromebook Pixel, but it's still pretty pleasant to use and a significant notch above the entry-level options at the lower end of the spectrum.

That's not entirely because of its design. The laptop is built out of plastic, with a textured matte material on the outside and a smoother finish on the area surrounding the keyboard and display. That's perfectly fine -- I wouldn't expect a $350 system to be premium -- but the Chromebook 15 has some flimsy-feeling touches like creaky bezels around the screen, along with hinges that move a little too much (and even snap apart and back together!) when you press them. Still, it's a step up from Acer's typical budget-level Chromebook offering and is reasonably well-made for its class.

More important, though, is the laptop's display: Unlike the vast majority of affordable Chromebooks, Acer's new Chromebook steps things up with 1080p resolution and a higher-quality IPS panel. The latter is the most meaningful distinction: Most Chromebooks, even those with 1080p resolution, stick with the lower-quality TN display technology. That tends to result in a grainy and subpar screen with awful viewing angles and ongoing eyestrain.

The Chromebook 15 suffers from none of those issues. Its matte IPS panel is bright, clear and easy on the eyes -- and while its image quality and viewing angles can't compete with those of a super-high-end display like the Pixel's, they're light-years ahead of what you'll get on any non-IPS system. It's a night-and-day difference from what we've seen on Acer's past Chrome OS devices and it's a welcome improvement your eyes will definitely appreciate.

You may also appreciate the spacious nature of the Chromebook 15's display: At 15.6 in., this thing is like a mansion compared to the more common 11-in. Chromebook screen or even the 13-in. size found on some current devices. The added real estate can be nice for anyone who likes a little more viewing room or wants to keep multiple windows open side by side.

There is one quirk that often pops up with 1080p Chromebooks: Between the screen size and the resolution, objects on-screen end up being just a bit too small for comfort. Increasing the default system font size to "large" and the default page zoom level to 125% helps, but those steps don't do anything to address OS-level elements like icons, the app launcher or the Chrome OS quick-settings panel.

And the tradeoff of enjoying a big screen, of course, is having to lug around a big device: Acer's Chromebook 15 is 15.1 x 9.7 x 0.95 in. and 4.9 lbs. That's unquestionably bulky compared to the laptop's more svelte Chromebook cousins; for comparison, the $330 13.3-in. Toshiba Chromebook 2 measures 12.6 x 8.4 x 0.76 in. and weighs just under 3 lbs. Acer created the new system to address the needs of folks who want a larger computer and don't mind the heft that accompanies it, so it all really just boils down to what type of experience you're after.

Along with the spacious screen comes a roomy panel on which to rest your wrists while you type. The Chromebook 15's keyboard is full-sized and comfy, with chiclet-style keys that are optimally spaced and pleasant to use, if a bit plasticky and insubstantial. The trackpad is similarly ordinary in material but effective in use, with smooth and responsive behavior.

With all the added surface area on the laptop's lower panel, Acer has opted to place upward-facing speakers on either side of the keyboard. It may not be the prettiest or most discrete configuration, but boy, do those things sound good: Audio played through the system is loud, clear and fairly full-sounding -- so much that you can actually feel the vibrations when you listen to music with the Chromebook on your lap.

The combination of those speakers and the large, clear display make the Chromebook 15 a great device for video chatting, too. The laptop has a 720p Webcam centered above its screen for such endeavors.

Performance, stamina and storage

The Chromebook 15 model I've been using -- with a dual-core Intel Celeron 3205U processor and 4GB of RAM -- has been perfectly capable of keeping up when it comes to performance. It's not as snappy as what you'd get with a high-end Core i5- or Core i7-packing Chromebook like the Pixel (which also has a whopping 8GB to 16GB of RAM), but it's still quite fast and responsive.

Even with my abnormally high level of multitasking -- as many as 15 to 20 tabs open at a time -- the system hasn't once stuttered or shown any signs of lag. That's a refreshing change from what I've seen with many previous-generation Chromebooks in this price range; for most users, it should be more than enough horsepower to keep things running smoothly.

For power users who want a little more oomph, Acer is also planning to offer a version of the system with a 5th-generation (Broadwell) Intel Core i3 processor. The company hasn't finalized its pricing for that upgrade, however, so it's hard to say whether it'll be worth the added cost.

[Update: A day after this review was published, Acer announced plans for an even higher-level Core i5 variant of the system. While the Core i3 model pricing is still unknown, Acer says the Core i5 version of the device will sell for $500. The extra expense probably isn't necessary for most folks, given how well the base model performs, but the option is available for anyone who wants it.]

The Chromebook 15 is fairly cool and quiet while running. If I put my ear near the four vents on the laptop's bottom panel, I can sometimes hear a faint fan noise -- but you really have to be listening closely to notice it.

How about battery life? The Acer Chromebook is listed for "up to nine hours" of use per charge. I've been hitting closer to eight hours with numerous tabs open at a time -- a still-respectable level of stamina, especially for resource-intensive use. With fewer tabs running or with the display dimmed down from its default level of about 63% (where I've left it for testing purposes), the nine-hour mark should be quite attainable.

As far as charging goes, the Chromebook 15 uses a proprietary port to get its power. USB Type-C may be the up-and-coming standard for Chromebooks as well as Android devices, as we learned with Google's recently launched Pixel, but it hasn't made its way down to most of the market just yet. Acer's laptop does, however, have a dedicated HDMI port -- a relative rarity on Chromebooks these days -- along with one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port and an SD card slot for external storage expansion.

The Chromebook 15 comes with a 32GB solid-state drive for internal storage along with 100GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage that's free for two years. That level of Drive storage would normally cost you $1.99 a month, so it's a value of about $48 over that same two-year span. (After the two years have elapsed, any files you've stored will remain in your account and accessible, but your available free space will drop back down to the standard 15GB level.)

If you're absolutely positive you'll never need much local storage, Acer has a version of the system with a 16GB SSD for $300 (model CB5-571-C1DZ) that might be worth considering. The other available Celeron CPU configurations, which range in price from $250 to $330, drop you down to a lower-res and lower-quality TN display and/or to 2GB of RAM instead of 4GB. Both of those downgrades are likely to have a noticeable and meaningful effect on your user experience and consequently are compromises I wouldn't advise making.

Bottom line

There's really only one question you need to ask yourself in considering Acer's Chromebook 15: Are you looking for a large-screen Chrome OS laptop that can serve as a desktop replacement? If yes, then the $350 Chromebook 15 is almost certainly the system for you.

With its spacious 1080p IPS display, capable performance and commendable battery life, Acer's latest offering is an attractive midrange package for anyone who wants to use Chrome OS in a plus-sized form. As long as you're okay with the heft that inherently accompanies a 15.6-in. display, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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