To love a Chromebook, you have to understand that the idea of a "laptop" is changing. We're somewhere between tablet and PC now, phone-style speed computing and an older, more old-fashioned computer. Chrome OS -- Google's browser-based, all-cloud operating system -- tries to bridge the gap, and you get a laptop-style device that's really just a fully-featured super-browser with a keyboard, storage and Webcam attached.
But for some of you, that may well be enough -- especially if you're splitting time between a Chromebook and another device (a PC, a tablet, or a smartphone).
Chromebooks have limitations, but they also have advantages: speed, easy cloud set-up, and -- hopefully -- price. That's the key point with the Acer Chromebook C720P: it's $299, and comes with all the extras you'd hope for: USB, HDMI, 32GB of onboard storage (with an SD slot for additional expansion), and even a touch screen -- something that only exists elsewhere in the Chromebook universe in the $1,300 Chromebook Pixel.
Compared with the HP Chromebook 11 -- which I already liked -- and the Toshiba Chromebook, this Acer's a feature-packed bargain. It may be the best Chromebook I've ever seen. That doesn't change what it is: a touch-enabled update to the Acer Chromebook C720 that's been around for a few months. But battery improvements, Chrome OS improvements, and a combination of extra storage and a touch screen make this Chromebook package a lot more palatable than its predecessors: the mid-2013 C710 and 2012 C7 Acer Chromebooks.
I still don't know if I'd clamor for a Chromebook, but if you're looking for one, you'd best start here.
Multiple models: C720 vs. C720P
Before we dive into the details of this model, let's shine the light of clarity on Acer's somewhat confusing naming scheme.
The company's current Chromebook, reviewed here, is available in touch-screen (C720P) and non-touch-screen (C720) configurations, at varying price points:
Acer Chromebook C720-2848 ($199): 16GB, silver/gray
Acer Chromebook C720-2420 ($249): 32GB, silver/gray
Acer Chromebook C720P-2666 ($299): Touch-screen, 32GB, silver/gray
Acer Chromebook C720P-2600 ($299): Touch-screen, 32GB, white (reviewed model)
Except for those differences in color, storage capacity, and touch screen (or not), this generation of Acer Chromebooks is otherwise identical, and should offer identical performance, thanks to using the same Intel CPU, battery, and screen.
Just be sure to steer clear of those older, similarly named Acer Chromebooks mentioned above, the C7 and C710.
With that out of the way, here's what makes the C720/C720P is a nice step up from its predecessors.
Budget style that actually works
The Acer C720P is plastic. It's a bit bulkier than the HP Chromebook 11. But it has a similar design philosophy: take that plastic design and make it even more plastic, somehow, in a solid, somewhat kid-friendly way. It all feels rigid and reliable, and less flexy even than the sleeker HP Chromebook 11.
The switch to white plastic on my review unit seemed like a positive step (it's also available in matte gray), even though this really isn't all that different from the Netbook-like design seen on previous Acer Chromebooks. I guess I'm softening a little on the utility of the Chromebook-as-Web device.
It's a fine package in terms of typing comfort: nothing fancy, but it gets the job done. A full-size keyboard has matte plastic keys with no backlighting but decent key travel. Everything's where it should be, and I wrote this review comfortably on it.
Below that, a medium-size clickpad feels pretty responsive, with a smooth surface, a crisp clicking mechanism and enough space for multi-finger gestures. If this Chromebook only had this keyboard and touch pad as the sole inputs, I'd be satisfied.
But no, the C720P goes a step further: the 11.6-inch 1,366x768-pixel display is touch-enabled. Tapping, dragging, pinching, and any other multi-finger gesture you can imagine works, and works well. Chromebooks have been experimenting with touch, but touch isn't an essential feature. In fact, unlike Windows 8, the Chrome UI is riddled with small icons like a standard PC desktop, and doesn't feel like a clear fit for touch. Because of this, I kept forgetting to touch the C720P's screen at all.
No, you don't need a touch Chromebook. But in this case, you get touch at a reasonable premium -- just $20 more than the HP Chromebook 11, which features the same size screen. For certain apps, like Google Maps or app-based Chrome games, touch can be useful in the same way it is while browsing on a tablet or on a Windows touch laptop. It can't hurt to have, but if you feel you'll never use it, you can always save a few bucks and go for the no-touch C720 model. That said, the LCD display on the C720P has decent enough brightness without feeling like the touch addition has compromised viewing quality in any way. It's not a great display, but it's adequate, and movies like "There Will Be Blood" are very acceptable when streamed via Netflix. But, even at slight angles, you can see a washed-out look that makes colors seem paler and text less sharp.
What you can (and can't) do on a Chromebook
Chrome OS has a lot of limitations, but if you consider the Web as your computing world and live mostly in the cloud, it could be a perfect solution for a quick-use computer. You can use the Web like you can on any browser, opening tabs and interacting with touch pad, keyboard, and touch screen.