What do you use your PC for? That’s the simple question Google is asking with Chromebooks. Ever since the CR48, Chrome OS has had a troubling time convincing users that it is a serious Operating System, and not just a glorified browser with access to tons of web apps thanks to the Chromium underpinning. But surprising all critics, Chromebooks have made a great impact, with four of the top ten current bestselling laptops on Amazon running Chrome OS. Contrary to expectations, Google’s idea for a light-weight, affordable computing experience had legs. With the more recent versions of OS able to run apps outside the browser, Chrome OS has finally got the basics in place to challenge the big duopoly of Windows and OS X.
Will it ever achieve that success? It’s up to markets like India, where per capita disposable income is not high and where an affordable PC nearly always means a low-powered Windows machine. The fact that Chrome OS is still a novelty here in India, where Acer and HP launched two systems only last month, the first Chromebooks to officially launch in India. Both machines are priced under Rs 30,000, with the C720 sitting on the lower end of things thanks to the smaller display. With an official price of Rs 22,999, the Acer Chromebook C720 surely will attract a fair share of attention. We got the Chromebook C720 (Model 29552G01aii) a couple of weeks ago and spent a few days of familiarising ourselves with the new (to us) OS, before diving deeper. Let’s find out whether the experience is worth the learning curve.
Minimalist branding on the grey lid
Design and build
If notebooks were ice-cream flavours, the C720 would be vanilla. And we mean plain vanilla, with no chocolate swirls or colourful sprinkles. The best thing you can say about the design is that it’s not obtrusive in any manner. The only design flourish is seen on the sides, where the front half tapers down to add a slimming illusion.
The slate grey top has off-centre logos for Acer and the familiar Chrome icon. The plastic used here has a matte finish, but is slightly slippery nevertheless. So it helps that the bottom is formed from a grippier matte black plastic that lends itself very well when holding the laptop in a closed position. It’s not possible to open the C720 with just one finger or even a hand, as the base lifts off the surface easily. That minor gripe aside, the external build quality is fairly good for a laptop in this price range.
All port: Lack of an Ethernet jack might be a dealbreaker for some
We can’t say the same once the laptop is opened. The same grey plastic has been used for the keyboard chassis and there’s considerable flex on the keyboard and above it.
One big build issue is that when the lid is closed, the edge above the armrest leaves a dust imprint on the display, especially if you have been using the laptop outdoors or in a dusty room. I found myself wiping down the display every time I opened the lid.
Keyboard and trackpad
The chiclet-style keyboard is recessed and as a result, the keys are at the same height as the armrest. The keys don’t have much travel, which is something we expected. It’s by no means an unsuable ‘board, but speed typing is a hit-and-miss affair, which is a shame if you are going to primarily use the notebook to churn out long texts.
Keyboard suffers from flex and lack of travel
A word about the keyboard layout: In keeping with the Chrome OS leanings, the keyboard loses the Function keys that are standard in Windows. Instead, you will get a full row of keys for common actions such as back, forward, full screen, switching windows and of course volume and brightness controls. You will also not find a Caps Lock key – the search button can be customised to toggle capital letters on and off. The double-wide Alt and Ctrl keys are a great choice, in my opinion.
The arm rest and trackpad don’t suffer from the same flex, which is a good thing, because for most parts the trackpad is quite good. Taps register as clicks just fine. There’s no right click button, so a two-finger tap/click or an Alt + tap/click, brings up the right-click contextual menu. Multi-touch gestures work very well in the browser, making going back and forward easier than ever; pinch-to-zoom works as advertised too. If there’s any complaint about the trackpad, it’s that it’s too cramped, leaving you with quite a learning curve to make gestures. Once your fingers get used to the small surface, the trackpad is great to use.
Display and sound
Once open, you are faced with an 11.6-inch 1366×768 TFT display. It looks great straight on, which is how you will be using the laptop primarily, we hope. But that’s about it. Viewing angles are mediocre for a group of friends watching a movie around a table, but the colours warp and wash out if you are viewing the screen from above at an awkward angle, like in an economy class seat or a long-distance bus ride. Colour reproduction is not a strong suit of this display; colours are washed out in general and this gets worse as you move away from the centre. This is one area where HP’s latest Chromebook 11 has got the C720 beat, thanks to the IPS panel on the former.
The display has terrible viewing angles when seen off-centre
One odd thing we noticed was the display was able to go higher than the quoted 1366x768 resolution. Hitting Ctrl, Shift and the minus key scales the UI up to 1536 x 864, an obvious step up from the native resolution and our choice for most of the time with the notebook.
The C720’s speakers fire down from the bottom, instead of up through the keyboard. It gets reasonably loud and can fill up a moderately-sized room with clear audio. There’s some distortion in the higher ranges and there’s not much in the way of bass reproduction. To put it simply, this is a great pair of speakers for watching YouTube, streaming music and the occasional movie with your friends.
Video playback was flawless
Speaking of multimedia playback, the Chromebook plays FLAC files with the same aplomb as MP3s. Thanks to the loud speaker, the Chromebook took up the music duty at home and office. Videos also played with ease; MP4, AVI and MKV files all played without stutter.
The Acer C720 has Intel Haswell-based Celeron Dual Core 2955U processor, clocked at 1.4GHz. Don’t expect the same performance as the high-voltage Haswell processors in regular Windows Ultrabooks, but the chipset is more than enough to keep everything smooth and fuss-free in terms of usability. As advertised, the laptop boots up in about 7 seconds – give or take a few milliseconds- and switches instantly between sleep and wake when opening the lid. The rest of the C720's specs include 4GB of non-upgradeable DDR3 RAM, dual-band 802.11n, Bluetooth v4.0, and a 16GB SSD. Of course, this being a Chromebook, you get free Google Drive storage of 100 GB for two years.
OS X-like 'Expose' multitasking screen
We didn’t have any issues when putting the machine through its paces. At one point, we had ten browser tabs with one open spreadsheet, two out-of-browser games, a music streaming app and a video running simultaneously. You are unlikely to find a use case, where you will be doing more than our arbitrary test. The C720 managed to switch tabs and windows easily, and the video played without stutter.
If you have been using Chrome as your browser elsewhere, you will be right at home with the C720's Chrome OS. Signing in with your Google account will give you instant access to your Gmail, Drive, Docs, Music, YouTube and every other Google service.
The app shelf and the Chrome OS taskbar
Ships with a bunch of cool wallpapers
The app shelf contains all the apps and it’s similar to the Android app drawer. Google has preset a bunch of shortcuts for the first time you boot up the system. You can customise them or move them out entirely for an even cleaner look. The taskbar can now be set on either side or the bottom of the display. It has an auto-hide setting, which lends a cleaner look to the desktop, and it reappears in an instant when the pointer hovers over it.
Out-of-browser apps and games
Apps are available through the Chrome Web Store and there is a dedicated section for the out-of-browser apps, which have been a recent addition to the OS. Even some core Google apps such as Keep and Hangouts works outside the browser, which improves user experience greatly. Other out-of-browser apps include photo-editing tools such as Pixlr and Google+ Photos, reminder and notetaking apps WorkFlowy, Any.do, Wunderlist, UberConference for teleconferencing, VNC Viewer for remote controlling another system, Gliffy and LucidChart for making graphs, diagrams etc. Then there are apps such as Magisto, Exfm, Plex, Booktrack that take care of your entertainment needs. Your basics are more than well-covered with the initial bunch and no doubt more will follow.
Accessing the settings, and the update centre
As for other apps, you get everything that you will see on the Chrome Web Store from your Mac, Windows or Linux systems. One particular app, Writebox, is a must-have, as it gives writers a clean, uncluttered interface to type away. At least some of this review has been written on Writebox.
With the C720, you can easily forget the power adapter at home and get through the day’s work without worrying about charging it. That’s because the C720 lasts close to 9 hours on a single charge. The official rating is 8.5 hours and we found that Acer’s claim is more than right. In fact, with conservative use, the C720 lasts close to ten hours.
C720 in profile
Chromebooks are still a new idea, so it helps a great deal that the C720 has such great pricing. If you are heavily into gaming or need to run specific software for your work, then you can forget about this machine - the lack of serious games is a big disadvantage. But there are a lot of use cases, where the C720 Chromebook makes so much sense. The only complaints we have are the display and the keyboard; the former needs to be replaced and recalibrated, while the keyboard is in need for some serious tactile and build improvement.
Aside from these issues, it’s fast, portable, lets you edit documents, plays a wide variety of music and video formats and the loud speaker is certainly better than some of the low-end Windows competition. Yes, the lack of full-blown apps for all purposes does take some sheen out of it and the Chromebook loses points for the same. However, for the price the build quality is not half bad, and more importantly, the battery life is stellar. But once again we come back to the question: What do you use your PC for? At the moment, it’s hard not to recommend the Chromebook if it fits your scheme of things.
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