The Acer AC700 Chromebook, as laptops running the Google Chrome OS are being dubbed, is an 11.6” screen laptop that sells for an affordable price of $349 via Amazon.com right now. The Acer AC700 and Chromebooks in general are unique in the fact that they have very little storage space and everything you do runs in the Google Chrome browser. The Chrome OS is a very lightweight OS and all of the works and apps you use are hosted online, not on the computer itself. For those people who mostly use a laptop only to get online and nothing else, it’s possible a device like the AC700 could serve as a fulltime laptop. However, for a majority of people the AC700 is better used as a device that can easily be carried around, turned on extremely fast and used for Internet access while on the go. This review will cover what the Chrome OS and Acer AC700 are and are not good for and whether it makes sense as a cheap student laptop for on campus needs while the main computer is left at home.
Acer AC700 Specs and Pricing
The specs for the Acer AC700 are entirely uninspiring, but that’s not the point. The Google Chrome OS is lightweight and doesn’t need a 2.9GHz quad core processor and 8GB of RAM to run smoothly. Simplicity and ease of getting online are the focus with the Acer AC700.
- Processor: Intel Atom N570 1.66GHz dual core
- Screen: 11.6” 1366 x 768 resolution
- Memory: 2GB RAM
- Storage: 16GB SSD
- OS: Google Chrome OS
- Wireless: 802.11 a/b/g/n
- Web-cam: 1.3 Megapixel built-in camera
- Ports: 2 USB ports, 1-HDMI, 1-microphone, 1-headphone, media card reader slot
- Dimensions: 8.06” x 11.24” x 1” (Depth x Width x Thickness)
- Weight: 3lbs
- Price: $349 at Amazon.com
If you saw these specs on a Windows or Mac OS X machine you’d run a way knowing it would crawl, this is not so with Chrome OS so no need to worry. The Acer AC700 under review was purchased from Amazon.com for $349, a pre-order was placed the week before release and it arrived a day earlier than quoted. I love Amazon!
Acer AC700 Packaging and Unboxing
The Acer AC700 packaging was nice and clean, again the word minimalistic can be used. Since there’s no optical drive and no need to install software, no disks were included. The full user manual is simply online, there’s just a getting started guide included to help you get through initial setup – which is easy.
Acer AC700 Design and Build Quality
The AC700 is very utilitarian looking, it’s not flashy but rather professional looking and would fit in any environment: office, school or home. It has smooth rounded corners, but not so rounded it looks bubbly, just rounded enough to prevent any sharp corners. The color finish is a dark business suit gray with blue accented indicator lighting on the front and a black keyboard inside. The AC700 is 1-inch thin and weighs almost exactly 3lbs so it’s very easy to carry by simply palming it with one hand, making it easy to quickly place in your bag. With the charger the total travel weight comes to 3lbs 6 ounces.
The lid is held in place by the hinges, there are no latches, it’s easy to quickly open the lid but you do have to hold down on the laptop base with one hand while lifting the lid with another hand, my attempt to open the laptop one handed resulted in simply lifting the entire laptop as the hinges are quite rigid. Rigid and tight hinges are a good thing of course as this prevents any screen wobble while you are typing.
The laptop case is made of all plastic, which is what you expect when spending $349. The AC700 build quality still feels good though, there is very little flex to be found on the body except for a couple of spots on the keyboard, but even that is not bad, you have to apply firm pressure to produce any type of bending of the case.
Overall, I like the design and finish of the AC700, it’s simple yet appealing and the build quality is slightly above what you’d expect to get at this price point but of course not on par with an aluminum constructed laptop.
Chrome OS (or, how does a laptop without Windows work?)
This is my first time using a laptop (excuse me, Chromebook) with Chrome OS installed and even though people says it’s as simple as a computer with just a browser on it, it’s hard to imagine how that works in practice. So for those like me who might like the gaps filled in, here’s a step by step explanation of how things work after turn on the Acer AC700 Chromebook for the first time.
- Push the power button and you get a screen asking you to select your language and then a network that the Chromebook detects:
- After inputting those details you accept an agreement and the Chromebook then checks for any Chrome OS or system updates available and downloads them.
- Then it installs them:
- Then there’s a login screen in which if you have a Google account (an @gmail.com email address) you login, if you don’t have one you can create one or login as a guest (a cool feature I’ll touch on later), and you then associate a picture icon for your account:
- After that you’re done and the Chrome browser opens with a tutorial on how to use the Touchpad:
- If you open a new browser tab you can see icon links to some pre-installed apps and online Google applications you’re probably used to using such as Gmail, Google docs and Google Talk:
And that’s really all there is to getting started with the AC700, or any Chromebook for that matter. That’s right, there are no alarming pop ups warning you to purchase anti-virus software immediately before your 30-day trial expires otherwise your computer will be infected with all kinds of hideous malware.
The next question many (like myself) may ask is “ok, we’re up and running, how do I see the desktop? Where’s the file system?”. The browser is the desktop and place where you’ll always start, so don’t look any further. There is a kind of file system called the “File Shelf” where downloaded documents get stored or screenshots you take are stored. For the average user it’s most important to know that if you plugin a USB stick or place an SD card in the media card reader YES, there is a way to access those files and manipulate them, especially if they’re images or video. Below is a screenshot of what the files on an SD card look like when you plug it in, a new browser tab opens in which you can simply browse the files and if it’s an image upload it to Picasa online:
You can also go to Gmail and if you want to attach a file select it from the USB stick or SD card and attach it to your online email.
Another thing I was quite curious about was how easy it would be to plugin my Logitech M05 Wireless mouse and use it with the Acer AC700, I assumed this could be a headache and simply might not work as the product description for this Logitech mouse says “works with your Windows PC or Mac”, no mention of Chrome OS. But it was in fact far easier than installing and using with a Windows machine. There were no annoying pop ups saying “new hardware detected”, or “installing USB device”. No sir, it just started working immediately, amazing.
As alluded to before, a very nice thing about Chrome OS is that there is no need for anti-virus software and the OS updates itself behind the scenes. There is no annoying prompt to shut down so updates can be installed and there is no need for a $50/year anti-virus software subscription.
For those that are very concerned about privacy and being tracked on the Internet, one very nice feature of the AC700 and Chrome OS is that you can login as a Guest and no files or cookies will be saved to the PC, your browsing is anonymous. Once you logout of the guest account your entire history of sites visited is erased.
Although printing is something we wish we could avoid, the reality is a time will come where you simply need to print something. So what can you do when all of those printers out on the market have drives designed for Windows and Mac OS X and not Chrome? You’re not completely out of luck, you can print using a beta service from Google called Cloud Print. It involves either connecting a “classic” printer to a Windows or Mac device and installing software to print via these machines or a newer “cloud ready” printer such as the HP ePrint equipped printers that allow you to email documents to your printer for printing.
So I have mentioned a lot of positives about Chrome OS, but you must understand that right now there are limitations. Since the Chromebook is designed to be used online, it has fairly limited usage offline. This is especially true due to the fact that currently Google Docs does not work offline, so even if you want to work on a paper while disconnected you cannot. Google promises to bring offline functionality to Google Docs later this summer using HTML 5 technology, but until that time you’re out of luck. Same with Gmail, Google Gears that can support offline Gmail access is (ironically) not available for Chrome. I won’t say a Chromebook is totally useless when offline, but it’s certainly highly limited.
The biggest issue most will have if your plan was to jump to using a Chromebook and ditching any other type of computer is that there’s inevitably some program you used to use that can’t run in a browser but needs to be installed. I’m a programmer and have a computer science background so have several installed applications I rely on to or learn do work. Integrated Development Environment (IDE) software, photo editing, FTP software, remote desktop connection software — the list goes on but you get the point. As much as I do live on the web, there are times where a browser just won’t cut it for my productivity needs.
So for most people I think a Chromebook is best used as a companion device for getting on the Internet fast. If a tablet just isn’t your cup of tea because you want a physical keyboard or don’t want to spend the $500+ a tablet costs, then this Acer AC700 that costs $349 might be more your style. It gets on the Internet fast and is simple to use, which are both major propositions for using a tablet such as an iPad. People that are not computer savvy might also find a Chromebook easier to use than a Windows or Mac machine, you can set it up for your tech challenged parents and all they have to do is login and, bam, the browser is open and they can send you annoying emails, check their bank account, Facebook feed and read their favorite paper online.
Acer AC700 Performance
Discussing the AC700 performance is pretty simple. The highlight is the fact this thing boots up in 6 – 8 seconds from a powered off state and to a login screen and then after you type your password and hit enter it takes 4 – 5 seconds for the browser to be open and working. Shutting down by holding in the power button takes 3 – 4 seconds. This is all faster than putting a Windows laptop into sleep mode or coming out of it, the speed of bootup and shut down is one of the major appeals of the AC700. You go from being powered off to on the web and surfing in under 20 seconds.
Once on the web you can have several browser tabs open without bogging down performance of the AC700. I was able to run 720p HD video on YouTube.com and have it play back in a smooth manner, however the 1080p video did not play well and stuttered a lot. Being able to watch 720p online content is probably the most anyone is going to ask of such a machine, you can’t notice a difference between 1080p and 720p on the Acer AC700 screen due to its resolution so there’s no point.
There’s no way to run standard benchmarks on the AC700 such as PCMark Vantage and report back the scores because, well, you can’t install programs on the SSD and this isn’t a Windows laptop. Suffice to say, perceived performance for browsing the web is fast and your Internet experience is going to depend more on how well the websites you visit perform.
Acer AC700 Keyboard and TouchPad
The Acer AC700 keyboard is a bit of a letdown. I’ll admit to being picky with keyboards, so others might not be as bothered, but I couldn’t get used to the generally cheap feel of the keys and flex in the keyboard. It simply is not a solid keyboard to type on, the key travel is short, the feel is spongy and the raised keys veritably beg for dirt and dust to collect under them. Although this Chromebook is new now and the keyboard is clean, it’s easy to see that dust and dirt will quickly collect in the gaps and space between the keys.
Some good things I can say about the keyboard are that the keys are a decent size and I like the fact there are no Functions keys (F1 – F12) but rather just media keys in the top row for things such as turning volume up and down or refreshing the browser. Some people complain about the fact there is no Caps Lock on the keyboard of Chromebooks, it’s replaced by a Search button. Anything used to reduce the amount of SHOUTING online is a good thing!
The AC700 touchpad is generously sized, it has no buttons but you can register a click anywhere by pushing down on the touchpad. Pushing down with one finger registers as a left click and pushing down with two fingers as a right click. There’s a tutorial online that shows how to use the touchpad of Chrome OS based devices, this same tutorial shows up when you first startup a Chromebook. Overall I found the touchpad comfortable and easy to use, it’s certainly better than the keyboard.
Acer AC700 Screen
I was pleasantly surprised by the screen on the Acer AC700. While it is a glossy screen, it’s not extremely reflective so you still get the nice color pop and contrast that a glossy screen provides but it is not a mirror in brightly lit rooms.
There’s no way to adjust or calibrate colors on the screen like with a Windows PC or Mac, but I found the colors to be very true and no adjustment needed anyway. Watching online videos was a pleasure, I especially enjoyed watching the latest episode from freddiew, Medal of Honor Cat….
Acer AC700 Speakers
The speakers are located on the front underside of the AC700 and as you would expect they’re not exactly bass thumping. Rather, they serve well for spoken audio and music in which bass is not essential. The volume is adequate so you’ll be able to listen to online movies without having to strain to hear.
Acer AC700 Battery Life
The AC700 has a quoted battery life of 6-hours. With the screen on medium brightness this is about right, dim the screen down all the way and you can probably eek out over 6-hours, if you turn brightness all the way up and watch 720p online video non-stop the battery life will be significantly worse. Yes, even when you’re just using a browser it depends a lot on what you’re doing in the browser as to what the battery life will be. Lots of Flash based websites and ads will cause more processor demand than basic HTML sites. This is one of the reasons Steve Jobs refused to allow Flash on any iOS devices, it can really kill battery life if run excessively on a mobile device.
Acer AC700 Review Conclusion
I’m most impressed by the Acer AC700 and in turn the Chrome OS for its ability to startup in under 10 seconds, general ease of use and freedom from worry of about viruses and constantly having to install updates and patches for security threats. The AC700 hardware itself is appealing due to its lightweight, thin profile and attractive design. That all said, for the average user the Chromebook isn’t ready to completely replace a laptop or desktop computer. There are just too many programs out there that need to be installed to work and no online tool can replace. And when you’re offline, which of course happens, the Acer AC700 becomes quite useless as a productivity tool. But if you’re a student that’s on a campus with a wireless cloud the Acer AC700 could be a great option to carry around campus, take notes in Google docs and use for general web access. The AC700 is also handy around the home when you just want to pick up a device to quickly get on the web and do something without waiting an eternity for the device to boot. Yes, many have Smartphones for quick web access, but sometimes a larger screen and keyboard are needed.
I do think the Chrome OS approach of doing more and more online and in the browser is the future we’ll move towards, for some that may already be the case, but for many it’s still too early. Plus, with all the security scares we’ve had of late in which companies have had servers hacked and data stolen, it might scare some people to move literally everything they do to the cloud and store all of their information online. But if you’re just interested in the Acer AC700 as a cheap companion device to your larger sized computers, I think it’s a great buy and also just plain neat for those that are interested in new technologies and approaches to computing.