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Chromebooks are largely cut from the same cloth. Small, lower-resolution screens, minimal onboard storage, low-end Intel CPUs, and modest plastic bodies. A few exceptions pop up now and then, such as Lenovo's new touchscreen hybrid-style Yoga 11e, but for $200 to $400, it's hard to expect more.
Acer is among the first to take a step toward upscaling the processing power of the Chromebook platform, first with a model featuring an Intel Core i3 processor, and now with the first Chromebook to use Nvidia's Tegra-based K1 processor.
The simply named Acer Chromebook 13 drops the common x86 CPU for the ARM-based K1, similar to what one might find in an Android device. The Chromebook 13 gets a few other upscale-feeling tweaks as well, including a decently slim, angular body, a 13.3-inch full-HD 1,920x1,080 display, and excellent battery life. I'd be concerned if these new features were an excuse to drive up prices, but this model, with a very Chromebook-like 2GB of RAM and a 16GB SSD, costs $300 (£220 in the UK, with no Australian availability announced yet) putting it firmly in the middle of the mainstream Chromebook market.
As a Chrome OS device is designed work almost exclusively through Google's Chrome browser and various cloud-based services, the on-board specs become less important, including who made the processor inside.
It's a fine theory, but in practice, we ran into a few hiccups, perhaps indicative of the the work non-Intel (or non-x86) Chromebooks have ahead of them to be truly transparent to the end user. Some popular Chrome OS apps, found through Google's Chrome app store, refused to run on the Acer Chromebook 13 because of a software incompatibility between the ARM and x86 processors used by different Chromebook manufacturers. This issue is explored in more depth below.
Aside from a few apps that would not run, the Acer Chromebook 13 offered a mostly upscaled Chrome OS experience, compared to other Chromebooks. The 13-inch HD display is a big step up, and the body, while plastic, didn't feel like it was about to fall apart under heavy typing. Most important, the efficient K1 platform ran for a bit more than eight hours on our battery test, which is much more than most other Chromebooks, including the 13-inch Toshiba Chromebook and and 14-inch HP Chromebook 14, neither of which offers a full-HD display.
My initial impression is that for $300, you're getting a lot of cloud-based computer. But the platform incompatibility issues are something to keep an eye on as more Chromebooks ditch Intel for the K1.
Acer Chromebook 13
Lenovo Yoga 11e Chromebook
HP Pavilion Chromebook 14
Price as reviewed
13-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen
11-inch, 1,366x768 touchscreen
14-inch 1,366x768 screen
Nvidia Tegra K1 (armV7)
1.83GHz Intel Celeron N2930
1.10GHz Intel Celeron 847
PC Memory/Internal storage
2GB RAM/16GB SSD
4GB RAM/16GB SSD
4GB RAM/16GB SSD
Design and features
Part of the advantage of moving to Nvidia's Tegra K1 platform is the ability to create a robust 13-inch laptop that's 0.71 inches thick and 3.3 pounds, and fanless, allowing it to run cool and quiet. Intel is promising much the same thing from its upcoming Core M processors, but we won't see those devices until late in 2014, and they'll certainly cost more.
The Acer Chromebook 13 is a plastic laptop, to be sure, but it feels very solidly built, and its matte white design comes off as more minimalist and sophisticated than budget. You won't mistake this for a $1,000 laptop, but it won't get you laughed out of the coffee shop, either.
You had just better hope that coffee shop has robust wifi. As with all Chromebooks, the Acer is designed to work primarily online, using web-based services, from Gmail to Netflix to online shopping sites such as Amazon. Pretty much any website you'd visit from a Windows or Mac PC via a Web browser will work largely similarly on a Chromebook.
Google's online "app store" offers a wide variety of apps, such as Pixlr for editing photos, but they're generally web-based tools that simply take you to cloud-based services. For the most part this process works well, but we did run into a few compatibility issues with this Nvidia-powered Chromebook that we did not with Intel versions.
When we tried to run games such as Bastion or Spelunky -- both frequently cited as examples of Web-based games that show off the entertainment chops of Chrome OS, they refused to run. In the case of Bastion, a popular multi-platform action RPG game, the app/page popped up a message that read, "The page uses a Native Client app that doesn't work on your computer."
What that means is that the version of Native Client, a technology that allows complex software to run in a Web browser, used in this case is only compatible with Intel (or AMD) CPUs. Nvidia tells us this is a "known behavior," but that programmers can now use the same technology to create versions of their apps that run seamlessly on both x86 or ARM platforms.
The problem is that this requires the creators of these apps to actually go and retrofit their software for this purpose. And with only a single Nvidia K1 Chromebook on the market right now (and a couple more coming later this year), there may not be a huge incentive to do so in the immediate future.