Acer C720 Chromebook with Haswell battery boosting goodness
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Review You know, sometimes you’ve got to wonder what enables a design to go into production. I’m looking at the Acer C720 Chromebook and appreciating its dinkiness, the non-reflective 11.6in TFT screen and the fact that it was more than happy to take a bog-standard USB Ethernet adapter and run with it.
Acer's C720 Chromebook battery life benefits from Intel's Haswell micro-architecture
So far, I'm feeling fairly positive about this Acer-Google computing combo, especially that matt finish display. It makes such a pleasant change to not do battle with overhead lights while adjusting the screen tilt angle, which goes back some way too.
The understated, not-especially-shiny ash plastic finish around the charcoal chiclet keys is quite attractive too. Somebody has obviously put a lot of thought into this. So why is the frame around the screen a super-reflective gloss black? You might not see your fingers flit about on the display, but they’re doing a mirror dance in the frame. And it was all going so well…
Sockets for power, HDMI, USB 3.0 and mic/headphone adorn the left side
Such are my first impressions of this otherwise rather stylish Chromebook. That shiny display frame notwithstanding – actually, I’m over that now – Acer has it in mind that kids and cash strapped customers alike, won’t feel like they’re being shortchanged on style, despite the choice of Google's OS shortchanging them in quite a few other areas.
Storage anyone? Naturally, Google wants you to use its Drive cloud service and with this Chromebook you can sign up for 100GB free for two years. With a few exceptions, the local storage on Chromebooks has, by design, been pitifully small and the Acer C720 boasts 16GB internal SSD, but for some reason it seems closer to 10GB when you view the Downloads folder in the Files app with the Google Drive reporting around 15GB offline.
An SD card slot and a USB 2.0 port along with a Kensington lock slot feature on the right side
The claimed 8.5hr battery life from this configuration is all down to the current Haswell micro-architecture enhancements that have trickled down to this Intel Celeron 2955U dual-core 1.4GHz CPU. I've had it asleep for the best part of a week and found plenty of battery life left. It really does keep going on and on, awakens in a trice and boots up in seconds too.
Acer has cut the memory down to 2GB of RAM compared to 4GB offered on a number of competing models including its own C710 from earlier in 2013. You'll find references to a 4GB C720 in the US but it's not on sale in the UK, well not yet. The Celeron chip also features Intel HD Graphics which can spit out full HD to a separate monitor via the HDMI interfacing.
Extended desktop accommodates a full HD output
I’m trying it out now with a Viewsonic Pro8200 HD projector providing an extended desktop and the 1080p movie hasn’t skipped a beat. I'm on my second movie now to see how long the battery lasts in this scenario. Meanwhile, I type away on Google docs viewed on the Acer C720 Chromebook screen. It did well, managing to perform this two hander for four hours without any screen dimming on its own display.
I do miss a backlit keyboard though and the keys themselves don’t have much in the way of travel and are quite lightly sprung. There’s not too much clatter or flexing and the multitouch trackpad responds well without being too clicky. The only real weirdness is the lack of a Caps Lock key, which has been replaced by a Search function, like we need it?
I mean, the whole darned operating system is geared for search, is this really necessary? Admittedly, this Search facility operates on local files and the acquired apps, as well as on-line, but couldn’t it have been on a function key (it does have a row of them) or or accessed with some other key command?
Search... for a Caps Lock key
And if Acer really must break with 135 years of tradition, an alternative key command should be offered for the Caps Lock, but no. All you get in the way of help here is forums saying you can reconfigure the keyboard layout without specifying how this is done.
The good news is that it’s really very simple to change. Lurking in the Settings under Device is a range of options for trackpad, keyboard and display. The first wave of keyboard options enables the Search, Control and Alt keys to be reassigned. So that’s a relief, although it’s a shame the function keys can’t be remapped, especially as they don’t even have dual functions.
Alternative Search key options include Caps Lock
Oh and have you ever tried to get an accent on a Chromebook? While you’re in these settings you can delve into another layer for Languages and Input. The keyboard does have an Alt Gr key on the right which enables some modifiers, so you can easily find an accented e acute and grave.
Alternatively, you can load up a foreign keyboard to get more exotic characters and accents. However, on the French layout I couldn’t figure out how to type an e circumflex (ê) – using the Alt Gr key I found the accent on the 9 key, as usual but it wouldn’t stick to the e no matter what order you performed these keystrokes in.
Mind your language
I can envisage metropolitan Chromebook users will soon grow weary of this palaver and create a crib sheet of accented words to refer to, as the raison d’être of a word processor is to enable the creation of typed documents, rather than get sidetracked hunting for characters in foreign keyboard layouts.
On a mobile, typically holding down a key for a second or so brings up accent choices from a pop-up list. It couldn’t be simpler. This ease of use and intimate familiarity has changed habits so we no longer feel the need to have a laptop for internet access on-the-go. Nowadays, it seems laptops are more about portability and convenience in the home or office. Mobiles take care of the on-the-go side of things. And if you really need to get down to business, then phone tethering plugs the gap. Well, at least in theory.
The French connection: configurations abound from a pop-up settings window
I tried the Asus C720 Chromebook on a train tethered to an iPhone 4S – that was the easy part. Getting frozen out of my typing on Google Docs every time the train went through a tunnel and the signal was lost was tiresome to say the least. Of course, there is an offline mode, which takes care of this, but you have to be online first to engage it, which doesn’t seem too well thought out.
But hey, here I am in a café I’ve never been to before in a part of the UK I rarely visit and I’m back online and everything is tickety-boo, all for the price of cuppa, guvnor. While this scenario is hardly news, I’ve typically taken the mobile route for online on-foot capers, and offline tablet touchscreen typing for when the muse strikes.
The dual in the Chrome
The main difference here, is this Asus weighs a mere 1.25kg and at 288 x 204 x 19mm is only marginally more bother to lug around than 10in iPad 2 with a cover. So while the future of the PC may well be uncertain, the more we see of these lightweight, light on the wallet, low-power laptops does suggest a rather different future that isn’t in the form of an Ultrabook, if you’re prepared to make a few sacrifices.
The all-plastic casing keeps the weight down, just don't drop it
Apart from the build quality – which is fine although plastic and the lid is a bit flimsy – those sacrifices aren’t really anything to do with Acer, it’s just providing the hardware for this platform. The C720 is easy to like, but Chrome still has its shortcomings.
For instance, you’d think that with Google’s obsession with the cloud you might be able to get somewhere with a NAS box. Apparently Java often plays a part here and your mileage may vary depending on your NAS maker. Hence, using IP addresses from the browser, attempts to connect to Synology DS410 NAS failed but running an Asustor AS-304T worked just fine. This really is the sort of thing you'd hope to have resolved by apps offered in the Chrome store.
You'll void the warranty by opening it up – the memory is soldered on but you can swap the SSD. Note the three-cell battery label states 3720mAh Li-ion, not 3900mAh as quoted in the specs
Click for a larger image
Incidentally, the built-in speakers are your usual low-fi laptop fare but are quite loud and not ear piercingly bright. The 1.3Mp web cam and mic are perfectly adequate too. The colour balance is all over the place, but the image is sharp enough. I did have some luck with the Pure Connect streaming service too and even managed to get this to hook up wirelessly to a Revo Supersignal, featured in our recent DAB-Bluetooth combo radios round-up, whilst simultaneously browsing Google Streetview.
Streetview, of course, uses Flash and Chrome relies heavily on this Adobe plug-in enabler for more than compatibility with popular web sites such as Facebook. A fair amount of software featured on the Chrome Web Store is compiled as self-contained Flash apps. One of the most popular is Pixlr Editor from Autodesk. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to Photoshop for Chrome.
This 16GB Kingston SSD is removable, but there aren't many NGFF (next generation form factor) storage options to replace it with just yet
While it is perfectly functional and actually makes the Chrome experience bearable by providing a comprehensive range of image editing functions for nothing, it does have a rather major flaw. Unfortunately, none of the key commands work even though they’re listed alongside tasks on the various drop down menus. It seems working in this Flash-based walled garden from within Chrome needs some refinement, as the navigation is all point and click.
And if image editing from a mobile appeals, then you’ll need to e-mail those pics. I tried an Apple iPhone 4S, a Nokia Lumia 820 Windows Phone and a Moto G Android handset and none of them would mount as USB drives, despite various notifications on their screens recognising a computer connection. Lest we forget printing – you’ll need to go round the houses with Google’s Cloud Print to get a hard copy, even if you’ve a printer sat next to you. As it says in the Settings info “Don't try to plug your printer into your Chromebook--it won't work!”
Swapping over to a full blown Linux alternative is easier than you might think on a Chromebook
Sure there are new printers that support Cloud Print these days, but how often do you replace a printer? Probably not as often as a laptop. Still, you do have the option to run a mainstream Linux distro alongside Google's Chrome, which is also Linux-based. One way is to use Crouton, which is a breeze. After installation, simple key commands switch between them Chrome and Ubuntu without the need for restarts. It's very straightforward to set up with Ubuntu and both share the same Downloads folder, so documents can be interchanged easily.
The Reg Verdict
I’ll admit I’m warming to Chrome, but it’s a relationship that’s still far from cosy. The useful app choices remain very limited and the OS still feels rough round the edges in places and the printing limitations are as annoying as ever. Yet, whatever you think about Google’s Chromebook experience, Acer has turned out a respectable, compact notebook at an affordable price with an all day battery life.
Certainly, given the cost of alternatives, such as the Asus T100 Windows 8 touchscreen convertible at £150 more, those working to a rigid budget will be taking a long hard look at this always updated, virus-free Google experience.
Indeed, the dual OS set-up running Chrome and an alternative flavour of Linux is definitely appealing and the SD card slot can take care of storage expansion, if required. This combination of functional inexpensive hardware and a level of versatility should ensure the Acer C720 Chromebook will have its share of fans. ®