Saturday, February 21, 2015

Chromebook Review - Acer C720

I'm back! After a long hiatus due to a real bear of a year, I bring glad tidings for the new year and a review of my favorite Christmas present (to myself), my new Chromebook, the Acer C720. Let's dive right in, shall we?

Make and Model: Acer C720
Specs: 1.4 GHz Celeron processor, 2 GB RAM (4 GB optional), 16 GB SSD (32 GB optional), 11.6" screen with 1366 x 768 resolution, battery life 8.5 hours (advertised), weighs 2.76 pounds
Ports: USB 3.0 (x1), USB 2.0 (x1), HDMI out, SD card, 3.5mm audio
Price: $199.99 on Amazon (I set a price alert with Camelizer and got it for $149.99)

Okay, so before I get into a review of the Acer C720 itself, I want to just quickly talk about things I love about Chromebooks in general. First of all, they are SO fast. Every Chromebook I've used has been lightning fast. I took this thing out of the box, took it out of the little plastic baggy, and turned it on. Within less than 5 seconds, I was logging in to my Google account. After that initial set-up, it's even faster. I opened the Chromebook to write this blog post and was typing in my password in less than 1 second (I have mine set to require a log-in every time. If you have yours set to automatically log-in, then you'll literally be looking at whatever you had opened the last time you turned it off in the time it takes to open the screen). Considering that I grew up in an era when computers typically took upwards of 5 minutes to start up, I get unreasonably angry at slow computers. So this gets a big check-mark in the Pros column.

Another win for most Chromebooks I've seen is that they are really lightweight. That isn't a big deal to me, but considering that my other laptop is a 24" Macbook Pro that I could probably use to beat down an attacking lion, I'm quite happy with the Acer's 2.76 pounds. I also have a school-issued iPad that I never use. This laptop feels just slightly heavier than that and is way more useful.

Another great thing about Chromebooks is the obvious fact that you are really swimming in Google's swimming pool in a way that you've never done on a PC or Mac. I logged on to the computer for the first time and immediately opened Chrome. Without a second of delay, I was looking at my browser exactly as it appears on my other computers. The bookmarks were the same, the theme was the same, all of the extensions were already there, the passwords and auto-fill settings were already there. I've never had such a seamless experience with Chrome on any other machine. If you're deeply invested in the Google environment, you really need to get a Chromebook.

Love the glossy, dark graphite finish, too.

Okay, so enough about Chromebooks in general. Let's talk about the Acer itself. I spent almost a year reading reviews of different models. I knew that I wanted to come in at around $200 if possible, which narrowed my choices down to a handful of models. The reviews mostly agreed that the Acer C720 was one of the best models at this price point. The reviews also almost universally bemoaned the keyboard, trackpad, and speakers as all being very sub-par, with some reviews even saying that the keyboard was so bad that it made typing a pain. I have to say that I disagree totally. The keyboard is tiny, which does make my big hands start to hurt after a solid 4 hours of typing, but there is nothing physically wrong with the keyboard that you wouldn't have with any other netbook-style laptop. In fact, I find the keys easy to press with a good texture and bouncy feedback. Some of the competing models that were supposed to have better keyboards were, in my opinion, awful. The keys felt gummy, unresponsive, or in the case of one Samsung model, downright painful to the touch. The trackpad is also regularly stomped on by reviewers, but again, I don't see the issue. It's not the best trackpad I've ever used, but it's better than many. It has a glossy feel, which I like, is very responsive...I don't really know what more you need from a trackpad. As far as the speakers go, I'm far from an audiophile, but I think the speakers sound great. I usually use headphones instead because I’m usually using it somewhere public, but I've played music from it with the Chromebook sitting on the kitchen table and thought it sounded excellent from two rooms away.

Battery life - it advertises 8.5 hours of battery life. I tested it while working in Starbucks. I had a music app playing music from my SD card, watched a video on YouTube, ran 2 to 4 apps, and had around 5 tabs open at a time. The whole time, I was also connected to wifi. After 3 hours from a full charge, my battery was at 56% and said it had 3 hours left. So, I’d judge that under a moderately heavy workload, you would probably get around 6 hours. That’s still better than any laptop I’ve ever had, so I’ll label that a pro.

Now for the cons. First, the SD slot only takes in half the card. The result is that you have an SD card jutting out of the side of your Chromebook. I guess the plus-side to this is that you never forget your SD card. The downside is that you can't leave it in all the time like you can with most laptops. I don't think a lot of thought went into this because the assumption is that you're going to save everything to Drive anyway, but I like to keep my music and videos on a 32GB SD card that cost me all of $15. I do this just because I don’t want to slow down anyone’s internet by streaming music, a lot of public and institution wifi networks block streaming, and I don’t want my music to stop playing because the Internet goes down. A second issue is that there aren't any media buttons on the keyboard aside from volume control. Would it have been that hard to have a shift-function on the top row of keys so that you could change tracks in the music player or Google Music? And...that's it. Those are the only two flaws I can think of specific to this Chromebook. 

Now, as for Chromebooks in general, I do have a few. One issue is logging into multiple accounts. This is supposed to be very seamless and easy on Chromebooks, but I've had two problems with it. First, there was nothing to indicate how to do this. I eventually figured it out by exploring on my own, but it should have been more clear. Second, I've only been able to add two accounts total, when everyone online talks about having a different account for every family member. I can only assume it's a bug dealing with my Google Enterprise account. I'll stick a pin in this one until I find a solution. Speaking of users, though, passwords are a pain. If you want to set your Chromebook so that it needs a password on wake-up, you can't set a special password just for the Chromebook. Instead, it uses the password for your Google account. Well, my Google accounts all have passwords that are about 25 characters long and include capitalization and special characters, whereas I normally set the lock password on laptops and workstations as something simple and easy to type. So, that's a minor annoyance, though hardly a deal-breaker. Another user issue is that it automatically logs in to certain sites with your Google account and then doesn't allow you to log out and log back in with a different one. I've specifically had this problem with I use my school e-mail account for this site, but on my Chromebook it automatically logs me in with my personal account (I don't actually have one - it created one the first time). It won't let me log out, either. The only way for me to use Remind on my Chromebook is to open an incognito window and then log into it. Which is fine, but again, kind of annoying. That's about all I can think of against Chromebooks.

Other interesting observations:

  • Apps on the Chromebook either launch a fully-fledged app, or just open a tab in Chrome. There is no indication which one it will be until you launch it, either. This isn’t a pro or a con, just an interesting observation. I had expected some things to be apps that weren’t and vice-versa (Play Music, for instance, just opens in browser, which means you can’t have floating audio-navigation buttons, which is a very minor con). You may be able to download some of these as apps, though.
  • It uses Drive as if it were just another folder on your physical drive in a way that PCs and Macs don’t. I found this out when I kept downloading files from my drive to my SSD so that I could attach them to e-mails using e-mail clients other than gmail for work (one for my high school teaching job, one for my college adjunct professor job). I noticed after about the 5th file that my Google Drive was an option right above my SSD and SD card. This has been an option in Gmail for a long time on the PC and Mac, but this is the first time I’ve ever been able to do it in those other, clunky clients.
  • If you click the help button in the user tab, it pops up a welcome center type box with a mix of good, useless, or conspicuously missing information. For instance, it doesn't tell you how to add users. It also doesn't tell you anything about your specific model of Chromebook in the tab titled "About your Chromebook." On the other hand, in the Apps section, it tells you which apps replace various apps you might be used to on the PC. This is also randomly where you change various settings, while the actual "settings" button is mostly settings specific to Chrome.
  • I haven't compiled a list of apps specifically for Chromebook yet, but here's a great one: Songist. The app does come with a music player by default, as well as Google Music as basicaly just a Chrome bookmark, as I noted above. But Google Music is only for streaming on Chromebooks, it appears (maybe there is a local storage option like on Android, but if so I didn't see it). The on-board music player is extremely basic. It doesn't have playlists, which is a problem for me. Songist is a good, lightweight, music app. It doesn't just open as a tab but as a full program, so you can position windows so that you have easy to see buttons while working in something else. And it has playlists. All of those things are hardly pluses so much as what you should expect as the default in a music app.
  • It says that it comes with 100GB of Google Drive space for two years, but mine came with 1 terabyte! So, bonus.

That's about it. Overall, I'm very happy with my Acer C720. This and my HTC One Android phone are probably my favorite gadgets that I've bought in years. I highly recommend it (the HTC One, too).

Thanks for reading. I promise I'll be better about posting. See you soon.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great read, though I don't think Apple ever made a 24" Macbook :p

    I really wanna get my hands on a Pixelbook. Have you seen one IRL?

    1. Oh, heh...I'm not sure what size it is. It's huge. It's like carrying around a small television.

      No, I haven't seen a Pixelbook out in the wild yet.

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