My first technology review – the Acer C720 Chromebook

The Acer C720, newly arrived at my domicile.

The Acer C720, newly arrived at my domicile.

First impressions.

Well packaged and clean – not overly packaged by any means – quick delivery from Amazon (3 days using Amazon Prime).

The box seemed much heavier than I expected it to be for just a Chromebook but, after opening the box, the additional weight was explained by the power brick.

Contents:

  • Acer C720 Chromebook (covered in microfiber sleeve)

  • power block and power cord

  • Quick start guide and guidebook

IMAG0613 - Acer C720 sm

Dead simple set-up. Power on, be astounded by start-up time and log in. Make sure you have the Chromebook plugged in to a wall outlet prior to starting. Even though the battery was at 100% on delivery, the C720 would not start without being plugged in.

First login was a minor test of patience, since the Chromebook was a bit slow to connect to my account and pick up my G+ account photo – have patience and wait for your photo to appear in the list of photos for your login.. Otherwise, extremely quick. My wife and I actually had comical faces of disbelief when we saw how quickly the C720 started from complete power-off.

The C720 has a clean and simple design. Nothing unfamiliar on cutting edge. There have been some complaints about the boring exterior but honestly, it’s a tool that doesn’t get in your way with a bunch of bells and whistles, and I appreciate that.

Bottom line? The C720 was so easy to set up, a 5 year-old could do it without trouble. Even Apple products are more complex to unbox and use for the very first time.

Build quality is good although the laptop seemed delicate to me, at first blush. I normally either carry iPads, Alienware laptops or Macbooks around, so I may be used to an extremely high build quality and a heavier overall design. However, there is very little flex when holding the C720 at angles and it feels lighter than our 4th gen iPad. Really, “featherlight” is not hyperbole for this notebook.

I have considered buying an LED light strip to attach to the Chromebook at night, since one of the primary reasons I got it was to use at night without disturbing my wife, but there is no backlight on the keyboard. For $250, I can search around for a janky solution that allows my wife to sleep and me to keep typing away.

The C720 did get hot enough for the fan to start running when I started using it on my lap. However, using it on a flat surface seems to have addressed the and it is cool to the touch, with just the ambient venting working to keep the intel chip cool. I would suggest keeping the vents on the underside of the C720 free from blockages. Use it on a lapdesk or hard surface, or be prepared for a bit of fan noise and heat.

Initially, I noticed some lag with a few tabs open and a flash game running in one tab. However, I have run a number of games since, with no noticeable lag. If you want to play games, probably a good idea to close all other tabs. Also, I believe that a number of background processes were taking over, since it was the first use of the Chromebook. After a month’s worth of use, I am nothing but impressed with the peppy performance of the C720.

Absolutely no operational noise, even while under load. When the fan kicked in, it was barely audible in a very quiet room. And from everything that I can see, you really have to put the processor under stress to get the fan to kick on or create any kind of noise.

Battery life is great, but not any more awesome than my wife’s Macbook Pro – it was definitely not 8 hours on the first use, and arrived fully charged. During my first session, I always had about 10 tabs open, a flash game running and Google Play Music running, and I was down to under 20% battery within about 5 hours. That’s actually very good in comparison to my 1 year old Alienware M14, whose battery would last roughly 3 hours under the same load.

When I was shopping for Chromebooks, I noticed that Plex was an app that was available for Chrome OS, but had no luck finding it in the Chrome Web Store prior to purchase. I was really pleased to see the Plex app was included under a special section of the Store, which only appears when you are using Chrome OS to navigate to the Chrome Store.

So you understand why I chose to get a Chromebook, and an Acer specifically, I will explain.

I have been seeking a better way to interact with the internet. I do almost all my news-gathering and reading via internet. I found that a touch interface was extremely frustrating for me to deal with if I wanted to type more than a few words. A tablet, even though the screen is larger than my phone, was even more uncomfortable to use for any kind of typing. So what did I think I needed? A light internet device with a reasonably small screen that was dead cheap. I don’t need to spend a bunch of $$ on yet another device. And I need a keyboard that is at least comfortable on which to type.

While the Microsoft Surface tablets have an add-on keyboard I have been disgusted by the Windows 8 interface, and the keyboards (unless you get an aftermarket full-size keyboard) are not much better than an on-screen keyboard. Ultrabooks? Too expensive and heavy. Macbook Air? Let’s not go there – I needed a tool, not a status symbol.

So I reviewed the Acer C720. If I was going to learn a new OS, why not one that was designed for the purposes I had in mind?

Much had been written about the “tinny” speakers included with this Chromebook, especially in comparison to the Chromebook 11 (HP). The speakers are really nothing to be amazed by, but output well for the music and movies I ran during my initial session with the C720. It is truly rare to find a laptop at any price point with really good speakers, and much less so with this price point. The speakers were certainly not bad and I felt no disappointment while using them.

Another key reviewer complaint was the “closed ecosystem.” Apple products basically boil down to the fact that everything I do MUST be Apple-oriented supported once I buy one of their devices. Breaking out of those restrictions is often extremely difficult or impossible. The reflexive argument may also be true with Google devices – with the C720 you may initially feel that you are restricted only to Google services, but it is a simple matter to have Ubuntu running in conjunction with the Chrome OS (which is a derivative of Linux anyway), switching between the two with just a few keystrokes. And Ubuntu opens me up to any regular desktop applications I may wish to use. I imagine that, as Chrome OS matures, there will be less need for even this type of simple work around, although I love messing with Ubuntu as a rule.

One thing you should be aware of is that the Chromebook’s simplicity can be an inconvenience as well. If you are like me, you rarely read manuals. I watched the few existing video reviews on the Acer C720, but none covered the actual use of the freebies that owning a Chromebook allows you. After a day a of use, I went into my Google Drive, only to find out that I had no increase in storage. Just logging into the C720 did not automatically give me access to the new services (Free GoGo, increased Google Drive storage, and two months of free Unlimited Google Play Music) My suggestion is to go straight to the “Get Started” app and review your options.

The entire contents of a delivered Acer C720

The entire contents of a delivered Acer C720

So let’s get down to the meat of the issue and address some of the pros and cons of this Chromebook.

Performance. From everything I can see the C720 is super-fast. Not new, out-of-the-box Windows 7 performance laptop fast. It’s actually faster than that. The C720 (as I have heard is true of all Chromebooks) starts up in less than 7 seconds. That is from the point you press the power button to the time you can login. And, in all honesty, I was stunned by how quickly the C720 starts up. The Haswell processor, 16 GB SSD and 4 GB of RAM work stunningly together with Chrome OS to give a truly flawless user experience. For those of you holding off on getting a Chromebook because you heard that early (or even existing models) were slow, you can rest easy. The C720 is always very fast – faster than my Alienware when browsing with Chrome.

Now, that is largely because there are practically no large background processes checking and rechecking the condition of the hardware and the OS prior to usability stage. This does not mean the a Chromebook is just a browser, or that you absolutely need the internet to work. Many apps, including browser-based apps can work fine by caching your information in the admittedly tiny hard drive and then syncing that work when you regain an internet connection. Be aware that Chrome OS does NOT support Java, so if you use Java a lot, you may not want to get a Chromebook.

Design. I love tech reporters that try to make something of nothing. When Lenovo continues to make severe black rectangles called laptops, they are praised for their adherence to traditional design. Acer? They get compared to a bubblegum Chromebook 11 by HP, which looks more like a child’s toy than a notebook. I like the svelte slate design of the C720. I equate HP’s attention-grabbing Chromebook 11 design to driving a jacked up, loud 4×4 or a cherry-red Ferrari. Someone’s compensating for something. I don’t need to make a fashion statement with the looks of my Chromebook. I just need to get my reading, writing and research done. And the C720 does that beautifully well.

Practicality. I have been using an Android smartphone for years now, and Google has slowly permeated my digital life. So, I store things on Google Drive instead of the C720 hard drive? No problem. Google + is my repository for photos? Ok. No way to use anything but Google services or web interfaces? That’ll take some getting used to. Chrome OS needs more apps and access to more games or streaming game services would go a long way. But, in all honesty, I am 90% satisfied with the current use cases the C720 does provide.

At home, I have a file/media server and it was strange to not have network share access directly through a network-dedicated interface. I actually had to use my server’s web interface to grab files from a shared folder. When every operating system I have used has some sort of file manager, using a web interface for file management felt a little strange. However, it was no less effective. Perhaps Google will improve this in some way, but I doubt it. Google’s play here is obviously to get you further tied into their internet services and I don’t think they could care less about your home designed cloud services.

The C720 has the best hardware in a bargain-basement Chromebook, hands-down. The Haswell processor, although a Celeron, has more than enough oomph for the tasks at hand. Flawless YouTube playback. Flawless Plex playback at 720p (1080 would be a waste on this screen), and tabs and apps snap open and closed, even after days of continuous use. As of the time of this writing, I have not yet shut down the C720 after two days of use and there is no lag or odd behavior. Try that with a new price-conscious Windows notebook or the lowest-end Macbook you can buy, and you won’t have the same experience.

The battery life is decent, but I would have to wait a few more weeks to really feel like I have a base understanding of how well it performs. I certainly think that battery life will not be a concern with the C720, but I am not sure I can really verify 7-8 hour operational times right now. Update – battery life is great until you start using browser windows with Flash or high refresh rates. If I avoided Flash, I would easily get more than 8 hours of use. Let’s just say that you will have no trouble using this notebook unplugged throughout an average day.

One interesting thing that has surprised me is the relative good build quality, considering the materials used. I can tell you that I have previously not had a good experience with Acer and consider them to be on par with the lowest levels of computer hardware retailers. I was somewhat nervous about getting the C720, and would not have bothered if other tech news outlets had not been universally positive regarding this model. It is as solid as you can expect a $250 notebook to be. And, as of this writing, I understand that the C720’s stiffest competition, the HP Chromebook 11, is actually being pulled from the shelves in Best Buy (just before the holiday shopping season) and being removed from Amazon’s listings due to issues with the charger.

The C720 is stiff and there is little to no flex when open or closed. The display is crisp and reasonably bright. It is no IPS display but, really, that would be overkill for a device like this until the technology is a little more commonplace (read, “cheaper”). The keyboard is surprisingly responsive and functional, and for someone like me who is a ham-handed typist, it is really comfortable. I have always been unhappy with chiclet keyboards, but this one works wonderfully. Although the USB 3.0 port has not yet been used, I appreciate having a fast i/o port in the case that I want to carry around a bunch of 1080p movies in my travels.

The bad. I think that, for many people, the C720 would be an ideal internet gateway. If all you really need to do is email, web surfing, light photo editing, light video composing and some light writing, this Chromebook is for you. However, if you want to get some work done via office suite, I think you will be very frustrated. Unlike Libre Office, Google Docs is really not ready for prime time. It literally took me a half an hour to learn how to convert an existing Libre Office spreadsheet file to Google Calc and then convert the resulting document to .xlxs format and .pdf. There is also a very limited library of apps/software available to use on Chrome OS, so you have to be prepared for that. It stuns me that Chrome OS has not really reached a true level of interoperability with other common office products in the time since its launch. There have been great improvements, no doubt. But these improvements seem to be going slowly. Especially considering Google is the driving force behind the OS.

Overall, the Acer C720 Chromebook is a fantastic little machine. It is light, functional, and has pretty comprehensive utility with a few caveats noted above. In the current field of players, I would suggest that unless you are a serious game player or need a supremely powerful PC/Mac for specific reasons, this is the device you should be getting for portability, dependability and ease of use. This would be a great gift for the holidays, to boot.

The Acer C720, up and running.

The Acer C720, up and running.

Processor:
Graphics:
Operating System:
Display:
Storage:
Memory:
Camera:
Sound:
Communications:
Ports:Battery:
Weight:
Dimensions:
Software Extras:

Price:

Intel Celeron 2955U (1.40GHz, dual core)
Intel HD (Haswell) graphics
Chrome OS
11.6 inches (1366×768), 16:9
16GB
4GB DDR3 RAM
Front-facing webcam
Stereo speakers
Dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n
Bluetooth 4.0
Full-size HDMI
USB 3.0, USB 2.0
SD card slot
3.5mm headphone/mic jack
36Wh, est. 8.5 hours of use
2.76 lbs
0.75 inches thick
100GB Google Drive cloud storage
30-day free trial Google Play Music All Access
$249 currently on Amazon, $199 for 2GB of RAM
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