Acer’s C720p Chromebook looks to deliver a strong performance bang-for-buck whilst still maintaining the de-facto Chromebook standard of a low price point, thin footprint and lightweight design. Acer achieves ‘most’ of this with the C720p. Let’s dive in for more detail. This is the full Acer C720p review.
The Acer C720p is a touchscreen Chromebook with a relatively thin design and enough grunt under the hood to get most jobs done. All the pros and cons of this device must be taken with the caveat “…for a Chromebook” as it has to be remembered that there are limitations to this platform. We’ve spent some time with the Acer C720p Chromebook and overall we’re happy with the device. Some aspects of the device are brilliant in comparison with our only other Chromebook experience, the Samsung XE303, and some are disappointing.
Hardware & Design
Acer are no strangers to the Chromebook market. Acer, along with Samsung were the first manufacturers to deliver Chromebooks outside of Google’s reference design back in 2011. Acer’s AC700 was a strong 1st generation product in a market sector that was still very much a proof of concept at the time. The AC700 delivered an Atom N570 CPU, 2/4GB RAM options, a WXGA screen resolution of 1366 x 768 and delivered up top 6 hours battery life. It also weighed in at around 1.5 KG.
Fast forward to November 2013, and Acer announced the C720p would be their first touchscreen enabled Chromebook, bringing iterative improvements to the platform, rather than sweeping changes.
Acer continues to deploy Intel chips in its devices and this time opts for an Intel Celeron 2995U CPU for the C720p. Our particular unit is a 2GB model, with 16GB SSD, 11.6″ 1366 x 768 display with touch capabilities, a 3950 mAh battery capable of up to 8.5 hours of use and weighs 1.4KG.
So, overall, other than the Intel chip, consumers could be forgiven for thinking that not much has actually changed. They’d be wrong however. The Acer C720p manages to deliver better performance than almost any similarly sized Chromebook in its release schedule and improves on many areas of its predecessors and peers.
The overall performance of Intel’s Celeron 2955U chip is not too far aware from their lower end Core i3 CPUs, which gives the Chromebook a significant boost in this area. The chip itself is also on par with the aforementioned chips in terms of power efficiency also, so heat output is kept to a minimum.
Elsewhere the 2GB RAM (other variations are available) gives adequate multi-tasking ability on the Chromebook. ChromeOS is known to be heavy on RAM once extensions and applications are added, and the 2GB included on this model seemed to cope well with little or no discernible issues when traversing background applications.
The device comes bundled with the usual array of Wireless connectivity with this particular model being a WiFi only device capable of 802.11 b/g/n protocols. Bluetooth 4.0 is also available for pairing with peripherals and the inclusion of a headset jack (combo Audio/Microphone) is welcome.
As with most portable devices however, there are two other main key indicators that inform consumer choice. Battery life and screen clarity. The Acer C720p performs in one, and is only adequate in another.
The battery life on the Acer C720p is very good. We’ve managed to get 8 hours life out of this device during moderate to heavy use, and well over a week of ‘hibernation’ time (lid shut) on a small amount of charge. Whilst this isn’t industry leading in terms of general portable devices, it’s more than adequate for general consumers, the demographic that this device is squarely aimed at.
The screen however is, sadly, another story. As the specification list shows, the Acer C720p utilised a screen with a resolution of just 1366 x 768; the same resolution as deployed on their first Chromebook offering over 2 years prior. It’s not all bad however. The clarity on the screen is acceptable in Chrome and text content creation applications such as Google Docs and social network extensions, and in direct sunlight, whilst it struggles, it is usable. It’s a shame that Acer didn’t push the boat out on this particular specification, but at the cost that this device comes in at, we can see why that corner was cut, and we’re happy with their decision.
The device’s design straddles that particular budget-conscious mindset very well also. It utilises a mixture of grippy plastic on the edges and underside of the device, with a sleek glossy plastic finish on the lid. It won’t win any style awards but it’s by no means ugly. The device is thin enough to be considered an ultra-portable device, and as can be seen from the Smartphone profile shot, it’s still more than acceptable given the connectivity/expansion capabilities bundled with this device.
It certain feels a little hefty on first use however when compared against similarly sized tablets and an attached keyboard/docking station, the weight difference is negligible and is still very portable. Whilst the weight does give a sturdy feel on whichever surface it’s placed, we’d have liked to have seen a slightly lighter device. Again, we must always use the price point as a grounding metric here and with that particular pair of tinted glasses on, we’re happy enough.
The inclusion of a HDMI port for external devices, and two USB ports (1 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0) is very nice to see here, as is the SD card reader. These little touches give the device a very mainstream “laptop” feel which is something that has been missing from all but the most premium Chromebook models, such as Google’s Chromebook Pixel.
Moving on to the keyboard shows some significant changes from standard laptop keyboards. On the left of the keyboard, where there would normally be a Caps Lock key, is instead a Search key denoted by a magnifying glass icon. With no F-keys in sight, the top row is reserved for browser navigation buttons, full screen toggle, task switcher, brightness and volume controls. On the right of the keyboard is the one change that caused us here at MobileTechTalk the most pain. On many laptops and ultra-books alike, the top left key is reserved for the DEL key. This key, along with the backspace key, is used often by content creators and professionals alike. The DEL key is missing entirely here and is instead replaced with a shutdown/power button. It can be gotten used to, but it took us a considerable amount of time and it WILL significantly impact speed typing performance to begin with.
The front-facing webcam with its 720p capable video recording is adequate in video calls, but nothing more. A nice addition however and further helps consumers to see this as a viable alternative to the market leading laptop-operating system combinations.
The unique selling point of the Acer C720p device is the touch-screen. Most consumers will now be used to touch-screen devices with nearly all available smartphones utilising a touch-screen display of some description, and Microsoft Windows 8.1 enabled laptops/ultra-books increasingly deploying touch-screens to help get the most from the ModernUI/tile interface. On those form factors, where keyboard space is at a premium (smartphones/tablets) or where there is sufficient application requirement for touch-screen to be advantageous, it makes sense. With ChromeOS in its current guise however, touch-screen capability, whilst a nice feature to have and use in Acers’ marketing, is less a requirement and more of a gimmick.
There is little requirement for touch gestures here above and beyond simplistic pinch-to-zoom interactions on webpages and games, and many of the gestures can be completed with as much ease on the touchpad. Nice to have, but we find ourselves using it infrequently. We look forward to more applications and utility being deployed before we can really start to suggest touch-screens on Chromebooks are a must.
Software & User Experience
The ChromeOS experience has been constantly refined since its inception. For those not familiar, ChromeOS is Google’s answer to Apple’s MACOS and Microsoft’s Windows operating systems and is deployed exclusively on Chromebooks. For those who have used the Chrome browser on either of the above platforms previously, there will be a significant element of familiarity. Where ChromeOS differs however is that by design all of the applications and user data reside within the Cloud, and only a minimal amount of files are stored on the device itself, hence the requirement for such a small 16GB SSD.
Here, we find ChromeOS in full pomp, displaying it’s speed thanks to the Intel chip, versatility and dare we say it, simplistic advantages over its competitors. Multi-tasking is a keypress away thanks to the keyboard layout, and navigating through pages is pain-free thanks to the gestures available via the touchpad/touch-screen.
ChromeOS has a Web Store packed with applications, games, extensions and more to improve the functionality of the device. As an example, here at MobileTechTalk we utilised the following applications on this device with ease, to help us get through a day’s work:
- Google applications such as
- Google Maps
- Microsoft Office Online
- Glyffy (Visio alternative)
Many of the above applications are available online from websites in other mediums and this is precisely what ChromeOS is currently. For most, ChromeOS is an aggregator of Online software and a deployment platform for extensions. Whether it aspires to be anymore in the near future remains to be seen.
It still manages to hide that interwoven software complexity under a simplistic shell with an intuitive user interface consisting of gestures and tried and tested mouse clicks. It really is refined enough for general consumption now and the Student market is a growth area for Chromebooks.
Multi-tasking in the conventional sense is a breeze, however there is also enough variation in the window sizing to allow running applications side by side, even on this small screen. We frequently run a word processing application alongside a twitter application.
There are applications however that have fixed sizing such as System (an application to display System specifications) which makes it more difficult to keep a clean desktop experience. Thankfully however these offerings are few and far between with most developers delivering a similar experience.
Chrome offers so many features that it would be impossible to go through them all in this article, and anyone who simply users Chrome Browser can testify to how often that is updated and how many little under-the-hood titbits it has.
One argument that has long been used to combat Chromebook adoption is that whilst nice and speedy, they suffer from one major flaw; their connectivity requirement. Where most of the portable computing industry started offline, and have graduated to more and more Online or Cloud functionality, ChromeOS is different. ChromeOS was born of that Cloud computing era, and as such, has hit the market from the reverse standpoint; that Cloud is King. ChromeOS has included some elements of offline interaction however.
One feature we most utilised during our time with the C720p was the Offline modes in various applications. The device has a 16GB SSD, and we very much wanted to utilise that speed for something above and beyond quick booting. Gmail is one such application, which puts it firmly alongside Microsoft’s Outlook in this regard. The ability to read, manage and compose new emails all whilst without connectivity is something that many professionals will be thankful for. Other applications that have offline functionality and that we have used personally are Glyffy, Sketchpad, Mind Mapr, Google Calendar and finally, Pocket. There are many more in the WebStore.
As long as that balance is not shifted too much and the onus is still very much on delivering the best connected functionality, we welcome a little Offline ability along with it.
The Acer C720p is the strongest Chromebook in its price range. Period. It has a design that is at worst inoffensive, a hardware specifications list which is firmly at the top table of Chromebooks (bar the Pixel) and is also aligned to entry-level laptops. The C720p also delivers functionality in its ChromeOS software that is improving at a rate of knots and can handle all but the most specialist requirements.
ChromeOS continues to have to fight for its viability as a platform based on simplicity, with the majority of the mobile device market saturating with either MAC or Microsoft based Operating Systems. Google continues to massage its Operating System and manages to deliver just the right amount of familiarisation to the platform whilst still keeping a unique and fresh feeling around the UI. Those that give it a chance will no doubt be happy with it.
The form factor might also be a stumbling block for some due to its petite 11.6″ screen and the resolution is not a patch on any of its non-Chromebook competitors out there.
The performance of the Intel based chipset and the inclusion of regular laptop ports and connectivity means that it really can be seen as a potential competitor to some of the lower end laptops/ultra-books out there, and it might jut have the package and the price point to beat them.