9/24/2014

Acer Chromebook 13 Review

Chromebooks are finally on the rise (at least in schools), which means every major PC maker is trying to get in on the action. That includes chip makers too, like NVIDIA. Though the company previously shied away from Chrome OS devices, it's now pledging to power a whole range of different Chromebooks with its Tegra K1 chip, each of them promising long battery life and more graphics muscle.

The Acer Chromebook 13 is the first of the bunch, and while some of you might be Chromebook'd out, we were actually excited. Here was a $300 laptop boasting at least 11 hours of battery life, a 1080p display option and enough horsepower to clobber Intel at things like gaming and rich websites. As it turns out, it was all just a little too good to be true.

Acer Chromebook 13 Review


PROS

One of the few Chromebooks with a 1080p screen
Long battery life
Runs quietly, stays cool
Comfortable keyboard and trackpad
Competitive price

CONS

Performance not as strong as promised
Limited viewing angles
SUMMARY
As the first Chrome OS device with an NVIDIA Tegra chip, the Acer Chromebook 13 isn't as powerful as promised. Still, it manages to redeem itself with long battery life, a sharp screen, a comfortable keyboard and, most importantly, a fair price.

Looking at the Chromebook 13's spec sheet, you'd assume design was the main place where Acer cut corners. And you wouldn't exactly be wrong. The machine is fashioned entirely out of plastic, with certain parts, like the bezels and bottom side, actually feeling a bit rough to the touch. Next to the Samsung Chromebook 2, which sports a fake-leather lid, this is clearly the cheaper of the two. Acer's model is also about a quarter-pound heavier, at 3.31 pounds and 0.71 inch thick, versus 3.06 pounds/0.65 inch for the Chromebook 2. If you want something as light as a 13-inch Ultrabook, you better be prepared to pay an extra $100 for the Samsung.

Still, compared to Acer's older Chromebook, the C720, this is a marked improvement. Whereas the 11-inch C720 is small and cramped, like a netbook, this 13-incher is broader, with a more spacious keyboard and a wide touchpad to match. The design is simpler, too. Yes, it's plastic, but the all-white look is at least clean and modern-looking. Also, not that the lid and palm rest pick up scratches easily, but if they did, they'd be all but invisible thanks to the white paint job.

Even if Acer's design here is on the plain side, it's all worth it when you see the display. For all the scaling-back Acer did with the rest of the chassis, the screen here is quite nice for a Chromebook, especially one this size. What we have here is a bright, 1,920 x 1,080 display with a matte finish that allows for some relatively wide viewing angles, especially from the sides. Even so, there's only so much you can dip the lid forward before the panel starts to wash out. This, I'm afraid, is a problem across all Chromebooks -- even on models with sharper, 1080p screens, I've yet to see one with truly good viewing angles.

That means all of the major keys (Shift, etc.) are amply sized and easy to strike without looking. That said, the keys don't seem to have much more travel than they did on the C720, which means I once again found myself having to re-type things after my key presses didn't register the first time. Even so, I found it usable, and I think you will too. On a brighter note, the touchpad is nice and big, and responds well to both single-finger tracking as well as multi-touch gestures like pinch-to-zoom.

Around the edges, the Chromebook 13 has all the same ports as competing devices, which is to say it sports two USB ports, an HDMI socket, a full-sized SD card slot and a headphone jack. You might not know it at first glance, though: Whereas most machines stack all the ports along the right and left sides, the Chromebook 13 has a USB and HDMI port tucked around on the back, out of sight. So, it might seem at first like Acer was stingy -- that it could only be bothered to include one USB port, a memory card slot and an audio port. But that's just the extent of what you can see when the machine is in front of you.


Acer Chromebook 13 (NVIDIA Tegra K1, 2GB RAM) 609ms
7,051
4,816ms
Lenovo N20p (Celeron N2830, 2GB RAM) 567ms
7,288
4,287ms
ASUS C200 Chromebook (Celeron N2830, 2GB RAM) 483ms
7,198
4,291ms
Acer C720 Chromebook (Core i3-4005U, 4GB RAM) 289ms
14,530
2,113ms
Acer C720 Chromebook (Celeron 2955U, 2GB RAM) 342ms
11,502
2,614ms
Dell Chromebook 11 (Celeron 2955U, 4GB RAM) 340ms
11,533
2,622ms
Toshiba Chromebook (Celeron 2955U, 2GB RAM) 324ms
11,307
2,626ms

NVIDIA, for its part, doesn't deny the less-than-impressive JavaScript results, though it's quick to suggest some WebGL tests instead that are more likely to showcase Tegra's graphics muscle. Indeed, in an animated Gangnam Style video (don't ask), Acer Chromebook 13 runs between 50 and 60 fps, while the Lenovo N20p's Bay Trail processor could barely crack 24 fps. (I used Google Chrome's built-in frame-rate counter.) In the benchmark Oort Online, the Chromebook 13 scored an average of 4,007, compared with 1,300 for the N20p.

In this 3D Earth model, Acer peaked in the high 50s, with frame rates mostly hovering in the 30s and 40s; with the N20p, frame rates stayed in the 20s and 30s, depending on how fast I spun the globe around. Finally, in NVIDIA's own multitasking test, which involves running a Google Sheets macro with music streaming in a different tab, I saw a 21 percent improvement in speed on the Acer Chromebook 13: 46 seconds, down from 58 on the Lenovo N20p.


BATTERY LIFE
Acer Chromebook 13 10:07
ASUS C200 11:19
Dell Chromebook 11 8:37
Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch) 8:22
Toshiba Chromebook 8:15
Acer C720 Chromebook (Intel Core i3) 7:53
Acer C720 Chromebook (Intel Celeron) 7:49
Samsung Chromebook (2012) 6:33
HP Chromebook 11 5:08
Chromebook Pixel 4:08 (WiFi)/3:34 (LTE)
HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook 3:35
Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550 3:23
Acer C7 Chromebook 3:16

Samsung and Acer won't be the only ones selling full HD Chromebooks. Toshiba, for one, is about to ship its own Chromebook 2, which will start at $250 ($330 if you want the 1080p resolution). That will include an Intel Bay Trail chip, which means performance is likely to be slightly better than Acer's or Samsung's offerings, but battery life could be shorter (or not -- we'll see). It looks promising, but I haven't tested this one, so I unfortunately can't confirm how well it performs.

If performance is a concern -- meaning, you're worried an ARM chip won't cut it -- all roads lead back to Acer. The company's C720 Chromebook is one of our favorites. For one thing, it's among the only ones offered with a Core i3 chip, which delivers noticeable (albeit fairly modest) performance gains. At the same time, it's one of the best-value machines we've seen: For $199, you can get it with an Intel Haswell-series Celeron CPU that still delivers decent performance. The only thing to keep in mind with either model is that the battery life will be several hours shorter than on the Chromebook 13. So, it depends a lot on what your priorities are: maximum performance or top-notch battery life? 
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