With Android apps coming to Chromebook this summer, I thought it was time to upgrade from the aging Toshiba model I’d been using. And while I’d love to have a Chromebook Pixel, the $1300 asking price was just a bit too high. So I’ve purchased the next best thing, a new Acer Chromebook 14.
Available now from Amazon.com for a reasonable $300, the Acer cuts a dashing figure with an aluminum alloy case, a 14-inch 1080p screen, and a reported 12 hours of battery life. It is, unlike the other Chromebooks I’ve owned, a high quality device, and not something I’d be embarrassed bringing on a business trip. Well, if it weren’t for that Chrome logo.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I call “good enough” computing, and while it’s fair to say that mainstream (non-Pixel) Chromebooks have been skittering along the lower edge of this world for quite some time, recent additions to the platform—not the least of which is that coming Android app and Google Play Store compatibility—are making Chrome OS less laughable and, more important, more of an actual threat to Windows.
Which is to say, Chromebooks are moving from the “toy” category—suitable only for students, say—to become actual tools. Actual PCs, just like Windows PCs and Macs.
Good hardware helps. The Chromebook 14 is powered by a quad core 1.6 GHzCeleron N3160 processor, part of the Braswell series of processors. That doesn’t sound too powerful, but one of the benefits of Chrome OS is that it’s quite lightweight compared to macOS and, especially, Windows 10. So this is perfectly reasonable processing power for the job at hand.
RAM and storage are exactly where they need to be as well: 4 GB on the RAM end, more than what we see on low-end Windows PCs, and 32 GB of eMMC storage. And while we’re on the topic, expansion is light from a Windows PC perspective, but on message for Chrome OS: We see two USB 3.0 ports and one full-sized HDMI port for video-out. And that’s it. (There’s no microSD card reader, which I find to be a curious omission. But there is a poor quality web cam for those Google Hangouts we all engage in.)
The aluminum body feel cool to the touch—and it stays cool over hours of usage—and the 3.4 pound curb weight isn’t terrible, given the pricing and the quality of the design. One expects objects of quality to weigh a bit more, and this has that feel.
Open up the Chromebook 14 and you’ll find a decent but not stellar 14-inch IPS display running at Full HD (1920 x 1080p) resolution. Since my previous Chromebooks all provided lower resolution screens, this change affords the system a more professional look, though I’ve been screwing around with the font size and page zoom settings to find the right scaling. Sadly, these changes do not apply to the desktop UI, so the taskbar and its icons remain the same small size no matter what you do. This is just one of many small areas where Windows’ copious customization capabilities exceeds what’s possible in Chrome OS.
Another is multi-touch, though to be fair some Chromebooks do include this functionality, and that may prove useful for some Android apps. But this screen is touch-free, which some may actually prefer.
Like the screen, the keyboard is decent, not great, with a very short “throw” that stops just short of ruining the typing experience. So it’s not new MacBook bad, but rather just something you have to adapt to. I can actually type on it just fine, but I wonder what it would be like to spend a week of daily work on this thing. (Not enough to actually try it.) But I will remind myself and you that daily typing sessions are not necessarily the point of Chromebook, which I see as the device that mainstream users turn to only when they have specific productivity tasks to complete. There’s no backlight, which in inexcusable in 2016.
The touchpad, by comparison, is pretty great. I don’t believe it’s glass, but it affords a smooth scrolling functionality that I really like, and the solid feel of the clicks—single click for both left and right mouse, plus double-click for right mouse—is highly usable and accurate.
To test the performance, I loaded up the Chrome web browser with multiple tabs, and ran several web apps—Google Inbox, Google Calendar, Google Photos, Pocket, Google Play Videos, and others—in standalone (non-browser-looking) windows. I suffered from no obvious lagging, even when playing videos using either Google Play Videos (for Store-purchased content) or the built-in video player, for a 1080p video I copied to local storage.
Where I did see some issues was with Google Cast, using the Chrome browser extension. This is true when I use this with Chrome on a Windows PC as well, but it sort of breaks the “all-wireless” goal of the platform when something so core to the experience just doesn’t work well. And of course, when you cast your browser window, the built-in screen continues to duplicate play the content, unlike when you cast from a mobile app. I find that distracting and annoying.
I didn’t have a chance to test the battery life and, frankly, I’ll probably never do so since there’s no real way for me to use this device all day long in real-world conditions. That said, the Chrome OS app situation is probably a bit better than some may believe, and many key apps—like Google Docs—actually do run fine while the device is offline. Someone less reliant on certain applications and work methods would likely have little issue getting real work done on this device.
There is of course a wider discussion to have around the various capabilities of Chrome OS and how they stack up against what we can do in Windows. I’ll save that for a later article, since I want to focus mostly on the hardware here.
With the understanding that I’m not exactly Chrome OS’s biggest fan, this is a solid laptop-like device with high quality construction and fit and finish, excellent performance overall, and what I assume is great battery life. Plus, you can’t beat the price: When you look at Windows PCs in the $300 range, you see some tiny tablets and smallish 2-in-1s and traditional laptops. What you don’t see is 14-inch screens, high-quality aluminum construction or 1080p screens.
That said, it’s still a basic device in many ways. I’d prefer multi-touch capabilities and keyboard backlighting, not to mention a slightly better typing experience. But overall, the Acer Chromebook 14 looks like a solid addition to a growing lineup of Windows competitors. You know, if you’re into that kind of thing.