Acer Chromebook 13: Subjective Evaluation

I’ve said for a while now that arguably the most important aspects of any laptop are things that are more subjective rather than objective. By that, I mean that things like the keyboard, touchpad, build quality, and screen quality often end up being more important than raw performance. Which isn’t to say that performance doesn’t matter, but you could have the fastest laptop in the world and if the keyboard, touchpad, and build quality are terrible the performance it offers may not be enough to overcome those flaws. Conversely, a laptop that looks and feels great that perhaps underperforms can often be “good enough” for a lot of users, especially if the price is right.

The Acer Chromebook 13 ends up doing exceptionally well in one area that’s near and dear to my heart: the keyboard. This is a bit ironic as Acer has had quite a few poor keyboards in previous laptops. The layout and general appearance of the Chromebook 13 keyboard isn’t all that different from the C720, but it has very different feel, decent key travel, and the keys don’t have any play (looseness), which was something I noticed with the C720. It’s not that the C720 keyboard was horrible (or exceptional), but the new Chromebook 13 has a great feeling keyboard, especially for a laptop that costs under $300.

The touchpad ends up being more of a middle of the road solution – it works okay, but here performance does become a factor, and particularly on some of the more complex websites the touchpad gestures can end up being very laggy. It’s not a bad touchpad, and really the problem seems to be the lack of processor performance, but the net result is that there are times where you feel like the touchpad isn’t doing its job properly.

The screen is another area where there are good and bad aspects. The good news is the 1080p resolution being available – surfing and doing other work on a 1366x768 display feels very limiting, and 1080p ends up being much better. The display is also anti-glare and can get reasonably bright. The problem is that the anti-glare coating is very visible, resulting in a lot of “sparkle”, and the contrast and viewing angles from this TN panel are quite bad. Those looking for a great display in a Chromebook really only have one option right now, unfortunately: the Toshiba Chromebook 2 has a 13.3” IPS panel that’s quite good. Everything else in Chromebook land suffers from the race to the bottom. (Note that Acer’s upcoming Chromebook 15 will also have a 1080p IPS option; I’ve seen it in person at CES, and I’m very much looking forward to reviewing one.)

Wrapping up with build quality, Acer’s Chromebook 13 is actually pretty nice. I personally think the use of white instead of some other color is great and I’d like to see more laptops go that route (though of course dirt and discoloration is a potential long-term problem), but it’s not just the color. Being fanless means there’s no noise, and the chassis can be made thinner and lighter without really sacrificing other elements. It’s still a plastic shell and it’s not going to rival a unibody aluminum chassis, but it doesn’t feel too chintzy either. Overall it’s a decent feeling laptop and should hold up well as long as you don’t pound on it.

You can also access the internals if you’re bored, which I did, but there’s not really anything to do inside a Chromebook like this. There are no memory slots or hard drives – mSATA or otherwise – so you basically get what you purchase and there’s nothing to upgrade. If you need more storage, you can slot in an SD card, but that’s about it. I do have to admit that the size of the battery was rather surprising when I opened the chassis – I expected something like a 30Wh battery, but Acer has a 48Wh 4-cell battery in here. That’s basically the same size as what they used in the 11.6-inch C720 (45Wh), but 48Wh to power a Tegra K1 is a big part of why Acer can claim 11 hours of battery life (or 13 hours with the 1366x768 display).

Subjectively then, there’s plenty to like with Acer’s Chromebook 13, but it’s by no means perfect. What is a bit surprising is that the base price ends up being nearly $100 more (MSRP) compared to the previous generation C720, and that’s a bit difficult for me to justify. It looks and feels nicer, but performance as we’ll see in a moment is a step backwards and the various upgrades really shouldn’t have increased the price that much. The good news is pricing has dropped substantially now, so it's only a $30-$50 difference compared to the C720, so it’s worth checking out, but even if you love the idea of a Chromebook I’m not convinced this is the best solution. Give me a better display (IPS or similar) at the same price point and I’d be sold; give me the internals of the C720 with this chassis and I’d be happier. As it stands, I have mixed feelings.

Meet Acer’s Chromebook 13 Acer Chromebook 13 Performance
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  • lefty2 - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Beware, Haswell and Broadwell Chromebooks are being subsidised by Intel, but the subsidy is only tempory. As soon as Intel corners the market the subsidy will disappear and they will be replaced with cheaper Bay Trail chips:
    http://techtainian.com/news/2014/6/1/intel-is-subs...

    is a strategy by Intel to make
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Intel subsidizes a lot of things by offering chips at discounted prices. You'll note that the article talks about Haswell Celeron chips being subsidized by Intel, and yet here we are with a Broadwell Chromebook six months after that article was written. And yes, a lot of Chromebooks in the meantime used Bay Trail.

    Celerons are used in other laptops besides Chromebooks, but where the limited RAM and other cut corners are a problem on Windows that's not generally the case with Chrome OS. Intel may have dropped the price of the Celeron chips $50 to get into things like the C720, but as I've just shown with the benchmarks, C720 at $249 (i.e. unsubsidized) would hardly be a bad option.

    Long term, we'll have to see what's available and the pricing -- and we still don't have a clear idea how much the 1080p IPS Chromebook 15 from Acer will cost. But if they can get that out at $299, it's guaranteed to win a ton of awards. At $349, it ends up more like the Toshiba Chromebook 2: lovely display, but $349 for a Chromebook is getting to be a bit high in pricing.
    Reply
  • errorr - Sunday, January 25, 2015 - link


    of course what you suggest is illegal as well...
    Reply
  • savagemike - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Doesn't Toshiba offer a 13 model with an IPS display? I think it only has a baytrail though.

    One great thing about ChromeOS you didn't mention was the upgrade paradigm/procedure. It takes literally 10 seconds or so to upgrade my Chromebook. Compared to the hours of my life I've spent tapping my fingers and waiting for Windows to cycle through installing updates it's a breath of very fresh air.
    I would actually say a Chromebook does 100% of what 'most' people want. I think you'd only have to look at some simple numbers to see that 'most' Windows computer users aren't in fact running Photoshop or high end games or anything like that. And the Windows machines available at these same prices would not be a good choice for those activities at any rate.
    Most computer users are surfing the web, doing some e-mail and facebook and that's about it.
    I see a lot of comments about needing Windows to do 'real work'. This usually referring to MS Office I suppose. A lot of businesses run using Google Docs though. And I'm sure their work is just as 'real' to them. So I don't really get such notions. You can do plenty of 'real work' on a Chromebook, depending on what your work is. There certainly isn't anything stopping you from doing school work or running a business or writing the great American novel on one.
    I'm interested to see what Google does with ChromeOS going forward. Frankly I think the answer lies in the massive uptake of containerization going on in the Linux community.
    It would be very easy for Google to take advantage of the wide range of powerful Linux apps while still maintaining the high security and ease-of-use of Chromebooks if they implemented some type of Docker type container mechanism into the heart of it.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Yes, I mentioned the Toshiba CB2 with 1080p IPS a couple times. As for the "100% of what most people want"... no, I don't believe that at all. It's 100% of what some people do, sure, but even my non-techie wife ran into limitations pretty quickly when I had her use a Chromebook. Some of it was due to differences in how you use the laptop (where are my files kind of stuff), and she could live with the platform if necessary, but there are lots of small things that can get missed. Maybe it's 99% of what most people need, but that 1% can still be too much if it's an important item (e.g. a bank site that doesn't work properly with Chrome, though that's rare these days). Reply
  • savagemike - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Use certainly depends on ... well... use. But of the handful of friends and family I help out with computer stuff most only need to know anything about the file system ever to download and install applications. Typically a browser or virus program or flash plugin installer and the like. Most of that stuff goes away with ChromeOS. For the little that's left I don't find using the file system any worse than explaining how to use a traditional file system to them.
    But yes, certain people will have certain needs or uses which either wouldn't work or would require learning a new routine.
    Reply
  • AmdInside - Sunday, January 25, 2015 - link

    Agreed. When patch Tuesday is here and I see an update to .Net I cringe cause those are the slowest updates, even with Windows installed on an SSD. Reply
  • harrynsally - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    I'm not digging Chromebook's power / functionality / utility.

    I just purchased a Dell laptop with 15.6" touch screen, Intel Haswell core i3, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD, DVD, HDMI, USB 3.0 & 2 x USB 2.0, 6 cell battery etc. for $299. For less than $100 replaced the HDD with a Samsung 250 GB 850 EVO SSD,

    OK, it came with Win 8.1 OS. I've been using Windows since it first came out (e.g. 3.1, 95, XP, 7) and have yet to have a malware issue. I set it up to boot to desktop mode (e.g. have a Android tablet for touch apps) and find the Win 8.1 experience comparable to Win 7 and sometimes better. Additionally, MS just announced that they will provide a free upgrade to Win 10 (to users of Win 7 and 8.1).

    I find the ability to easily choose/ add upgraded components, run applications and have productivity independent of the cloud, USB / HDMI connectivity and much higher performance for just a few $ more, a no brainer.

    On a budget? My daughter just purchased a ASUS laptop with 15.6" screen, Intel 2.16GHz N2830, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD, HDMI, USB 3.0 & USB 2.0 and Win 8.1 BING for $219.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    I don't know when the last time is I actually got hit by malware/virus on one of my PCs. But I have friends and family I help who are not as savvy that get malware ALL. THE. TIME. It's crazy to me -- like a person will have a system for less than two weeks, and it has malware (that happened with my dad just this past month). I'd blame porn sites for some users, but that's not even the problem on some of these systems. It's looking for "free [anything]" and going to the wrong web sites, or searching for a web site in Bing instead of typing in the URL (that's what got my dad I'm pretty sure).

    I'd love to say the solution is user education, but that just doesn't work. Get yourself a bunch of friends or relatives with children 8+ years old who are allowed to use the PC on a daily basis and I guarantee some of them will get hit with malware within a month. I tend to fix at least 20 computers a year where the only problem is that they got hit by malware. Thankfully, most of them aren't as bad as Cryptowall, which wiped out my dad's desktop and is asking for a $2000 ransom. (And that was with Norton AV running.)
    Reply
  • BackInAction - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    @JarredWalton: I hear you loud and clear! My father gets stuff on his machine within days after I clean it. I dread going home. I just can't protect him enough from his stupid habits. In his case, I think is 'gun' sites. And randomly clicking on anything that pop-ups up in his face.

    While my kids were young it wasn't much of a problem. Now that they are older it is crazy ("gee I can get free music, or the latest episodes of Teen Ware-wolf before it is on Netflix, from this site, all I have to do is download this .exe." Doh!). I had to remove their admin rights. It is a bit of pain now and then, but it was the only way I could keep sane.

    That said, I have a Chromebook (13" Toshiba for $180 last fall) and they all fight for it. I don't care what they do on that thing. I can wipe and rebuild it in 15 min if needed.
    Reply

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