The Acer C720-2800 to be exact.
My Dell laptop has been showing its age the past year or so, and I’ve been sort of going back and forth on what to get to replace it. I considered all my options: all-in-ones, desktops, low to midrange laptops, convertible tablets/laptops, Ultrabooks, Macbooks, and Chromebooks. I ultimately opted for the Chromebook, and so far I am really happy with my choice.
What is a Chromebook?
Chromebook runs Google’s Chrome OS, which is an operating system that consists of a Chrome browser and a file manager. Just like the Chrome browser on Windows and Macs, the Chrome browser on a Chromebook has access to the Chrome Web Store, where you can download various web apps that work within the Chrome browser. Some apps are essentially a shortcut to a site and some are specially designed for Chrome. Some even provide offline access. Once added to Chrome, these apps can be found on an app list and also pinned to an app launcher, which can go at the bottom, left, or right side of the display. The Chrome Web Store is not as varied as the app stores found on Android and iOS, but it isn’t a bad selection and it is growing. It goes without saying that the vast majority of Chrome Web Apps require an internet connection to work.
Chrome OS vs. Windows and OS X
Depending on one’s needs, a Chromebook can be a great device. But Chromebooks differ from Windows and Macs in several important ways. First, Chromebooks are designed to use the cloud and rely heavily on having an active internet connect. Some apps do have offline capabilities; most notably to me is Google Drive, where you can view and edit Documents, Presentations, and Drawings with no connection. But for anyone who has tried to edit a spreadsheet in Drive while on a wifi-less plane (I have), it can be very frustrating to discover that a connection is required. This is less of a problem with wifi in more places now, but it is something to consider. For me, 99.9% of the time I will either have a wifi connection or be able to work on something offline, so this wasn’t a huge issue notwithstanding my frustrating flight experience. [UPDATE 12/11/13: Google updated Sheets to include offline editing.]
The second major difference is that you can’t install programs on a Chromebook. That means no iTunes. No Office (though there is a web-based version of Office). No Adobe Photoshop. This can be a dealbreaker for some. The lack of iTunes is an issue for me, and if my Windows laptop died I probably would have needed something with iTunes instead of or in addition to my Chromebook. Most of my music needs can be satisfied with Apple TV, my phone, and Google Play Music, so I can get by with just an occasional iPod sync with iTunes on my old laptop.
Advantages of Chromebook
Despite this, there are many solid reasons to buy a Chromebook. First and foremost is price. My Chromebook has an 11.6” display, weighs less than 3 pounds, and has 4 GB of RAM, 16 GB solid state storage, and a Haswell-based Celeron processor (which is more than adequate to power the lightweight Chrome OS). It cost $250. There is also a $200 Acer C7 Chromebook that is identical to mine except that it has 2 GB of RAM. All my research says that 4 GB is worth the extra $50. All Chromebooks so far have been in the $200 to $300 price range, except the high-end Chromebook Pixel. Most lightweight Windows PCs and Macbooks cost several times the price of a Chromebook.
In addition to price, Chromebooks also come with other benefits: automatic updates, built-in virus protection, no eventual slow-down than often plagues Windows PCs, battery and resource efficiency, and a boot-up time of less than 10 seconds. Google also throws in a bunch of freebies, including 2 years of 100 GB Google Drive storage (a $120 value) and 12 gogo in-flight passes. The Drive space makes using a Chromebook much easier, and while I have enough storage on other cloud services to satisfy my needs, Drive integrates nicely with the file manager and has some great productivity tools. Another cool feature of a Chromebook is that, because everything is in the cloud and because Chrome OS is exactly the same on all Chromebooks, the experience on one Chromebook is identical to the experience on another, which makes traveling and sharing devices much easier.
Choosing a Chromebook
There are several Chromebooks on the market. Their operating systems are identical to one another, and the real differentiator is hardware. Acer is being aggressive with its C7 line. I went with the Acer C720-2800 because it received great performance reviews (here, here, and here) in terms of speed, power, and battery life. In fact, it was universally considered the best-performing Chromebook to date (except Chromebook Pixel, below). The Acer C720-2848 for $50 less and with 2 GB of RAM instead of the 4 GB found in the C720-2800 was also in the picture, but I decided the extra RAM was worth the cost. Neither of Acer’s C7 Chromebooks are works of art from a design perspective, but I would much rather a computer that performs well than one that looks good but is frustrating to use. [UPDATE 11/26/13: Acer just announced a $300 version of the C7 that features a touchscreen display, 2 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of solid state storage - double the 16 GB found in the other two models of the C7. While the touchscreen is tempting me to return my Chromebook, I think at the end of the day 4 GB of RAM will have a greater impact on performance when multitasking and dealing with media-heavy websites, and therefore make the device more enjoyable to use, than having a touchscreen. Still, that's a great price for a touchscreen laptop.]
Google has put its weight behind the HP Chromebook 11, which a Google design team helped create. The Chromebook 11 is a similar size to the Acer C7, comes in various colors, and can charge with the same micro USB charger that many phones use (although charging via this method can be very slow). While the HP Chromebook 11 won on style, reviewers found its performance to be slow. Plus it is currently not being sold after reports of overheating chargers. There is also an HP Chromebook 14 with a 14” screen rather than my 11.6” screen. With that extra screen real estate, the HP Chromebook 14 is 4 pounds; 1.25 pounds heavier than the Acer C7 Another Chromebook that received a lot of press is the Chromebook Pixel, designed by Google with the highest resolution display of any laptop. At $1,299, it is really a device for enthusiasts and it probably makes more sense to get a nice Ultrabook or Macbook and run the Chrome browser on it at that price point. There are other Chromebooks out there, but the Acer C7, HP Chromebook 11, and HP Chromebook 14 seem to be the three devices that are leading the pack.
So far I love my Chromebook, and think it is a great device for me. I have used so many Google services on a regular basis before buying it, and using Google services and limited other services on a Chromebook is a breeze. That being said, many people – particularly non-tech savvy people – have their idea of what a computer is ingrained in their minds, and for those people to enjoy a Chromebook they’d really have to be open to changing their way of thinking, and using Google Docs instead of Word, Google Play Music instead of iTunes, and the cloud. For those people, a Chromebook would still be a nice secondary device for email and web browsing. For me, it will do almost everything I need it to do in my daily work and social life, and the lighter design, lower price, longer battery life, and Google integration made the Chromebook a smart purchase for my primary computer.