Thursday, June 19, 2014

Computer review: Acer C720 Chromebook

I'd been hanging on to my Windows XP laptop for far too long.  The hard drive was finally starting to die, and with XP support going by the wayside, it was time to bite the bullet and purchase a new laptop.  But I didn't have a lot of money to spend, so my options were limited to lower-end Windows 7 or 8 laptops or refurbished laptops.  Or so I thought.

While browsing through laptops on, I came across a few Chromebooks.  I'd heard of Chromebooks before, when they first came out, and thought it was a neat idea but had never used one.  I'd never really considered buying one, until I saw the Acer C720 Chromebook.  The C720 caught my attention right away.

The Acer C720 has impressive features, especially for a laptop that's under $300.  It comes with a wireless adapter that can handle up to Wireless-N speeds, an anti-glare screen, a solid state (SSD) hard drive, an HDMI port, built-in Bluetooth, a webcam, and the coup de grace for me -- a battery that lasts up to 8.5 hours.

I've never had a laptop with a battery that lasted much over an hour, so 8.5 hours immediately got my attention.  After shopping around a little bit more, I made my decision and bought the C720 for $199.

I've had this laptop for about eight months or so now, and I am still very much impressed with it.  It's not everything I thought it would be, but it's still pretty darned good.  The battery did indeed last 8.5 hours -- until I charged it the first time, and since then I've been getting from about 5 to 8 hours out of it in between charges.  It's not the 8.5 hours promised, but even 5 hours is still incredible and I have no complaints about that.  It's a nice feeling when you see the battery meter showing red for critical battery life, and when you look at the details you see that you still have 43 minutes left.

For such a small laptop, it's very durable.  It fell from about five feet onto a hard tile floor and no parts were damaged.  On my old Gateway laptop, a plastic corner chipped off just from normal use, and yet this Chromebook suffered no damage at all after smashing into the floor.

Being a Chromebook, the C720 uses the Chrome OS rather than the more traditional Windows, Mac OS, or Linux operating systems.  Chrome OS is geared more toward getting online (and playing and working there) than other systems.  For the most part, everything runs through the Chrome web browser.

If you're not used to Chrome OS (like me) this shift can take some getting used to.  But it is a well-designed operating system, and it certainly has less glitches than Windows.  In the month I've been using the C720, it has only hung up once, requiring a reboot.  My old Windows laptop, even before it started having hard drive problems, was having a good week if it only crashed once.

The file management system in Chrome is vastly different from the Windows file system.  There is no real "desktop" to speak of, for example, but there is a task bar at the bottom of the screen.  A Chromebook isn't designed for working on files stored locally, so getting around on the hard drive can be a little cumbersome -- definitely not as user-friendly as it is in Windows.  But Chrome OS gives you the ability to work off of documents and files that you store on Google Drive, in the cloud -- and the C720 comes with two years of free storage space on Google Drive, up to 100GB.

The C720 is small, which is great for portability.  If you're used to a bigger laptop, the C720 will be quite an adjustment.  The screen is only 11.6" and there is no number keypad.  I much prefer a bigger screen, but I've gotten used to the smaller screen since I've been using it.  It is a high-quality screen -- it's viewable from many angles, and it does a good job of eliminating glare.

One of the nicer features of Chrome OS is how lightweight and simple the operating system is.  It doesn't require a lot of system resources, so the processor and RAM can devote themselves to running your applications.  When you turn the C720 on, from being completely off, it's booted up in a matter of seconds.  Having been a Windows user for years, I immediately scoffed at that claim, but it is completely true.  Less than 10 seconds from opening the C720's lid, I can be online and working.

Chrome OS does a lot behind the scenes.  It automatically downloads updates, which are applied the next time you reboot, and it controls the anti-virus and anti-malware features on its own.  You can use Google Docs to open many different kinds of files.

As far as hardware is concerned, the C720 is heavily-loaded for a $199 price tag.  It has a 16GB SSD, 2GB of DDR3L SDRAM, an Intel Celeron 2955U processor (which is more than adequate for what Chrome OS needs), Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, a webcam, an HDMI port, two USB ports, an SD card slot, and two internal speakers.

Some things you won't find on the C720 that you might miss include a CD/DVD drive, multiple USB 2.0 ports, and some of the keys that you may have grown accustomed to on a Windows keyboard.  There is no Windows key (obviously) but there is also no Page Up, Page Down, Print Screen, Home, End, or Delete keys.  However, there are some new keys, including Refresh, two brightness keys, volume keys, a full-screen key, and more.  It takes some getting used to, but you can get by without Page Up and Page Down -- holding down the Alt key while using the up or down arrows will do the same thing.

The keys on the keyboard are flatter than on a traditional laptop keyboard.  The lack of texture makes typing by feel a little harder (until you get used to it) but it also means the keys don't pop off like they sometimes do on other laptops.

If you do a lot of printing, that may be one area of concern with upgrading to a Chromebook.  The Chromebook doesn't use print drivers like a Windows or Mac computer would use -- instead you have to use Google's Cloud Print capability (or another app) to manage printing.  For some older printers, you may only be able to print to them from the C720 "through" another computer.  Setting up Cloud Print can be interesting if you've never done it before, but it isn't bad once you get familiar with it.

The C720 uses USB devices just like a Windows PC does.  In fact, I've noticed that the C720 recognizes my USB mouse a lot quicker than my Windows laptop ever did.  With my Windows laptop, it used to take almost 10 seconds (sometimes more) before the computer recognized the mouse.  The C720 recognizes it within just a second or two.

If you're used to Microsoft Office programs, Google Docs is a little different.  It's a nice word processing program, but sometimes when you copy text from Google Docs to a web page in Chrome, some of the formatting is lost.  Bold text doesn't copy over in bold, for example, and sometimes text will copy as double-spaced, even if it wasn't double-spaced originally.  Also, Chrome OS doesn't come with a native text editor like Notepad.  (Google Docs can open and read .TXT files, but it can't edit them.)

All in all, I am very happy with the C720 and would absolutely recommend it.  For the money I spent, it is an amazing buy -- the battery life alone is worth it.  Check it out for yourself -- the C720 listing on Amazon gives a lot of description about what you get with this Chromebook.  Even against other Chromebooks the C720 compares favorably.  It is less expensive than almost all Chromebooks listed on Amazon -- even some of the used ones.

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