Chromebooks are an oddity of the modern computing world: neither tablet nor laptop, and eschewing the concept of apps in the way an iOS or Android user might know them. A Chromebook is a Web browser-centric device that looks at first glance like a Netbook, but actually does far less.
Of course, the "far less" that a Chromebook does is arguably of better quality and reliability than what older Netbooks did. Google's Chrome OS is a clean, fast, fluid type of browser-based operating system, but it's still more browser than anything else. And it requires living completely under the thumb of a Google ID, which handles all cloud-syncing concerns. (Then again, iOS and Android work in a similar way -- and even Windows 8 for the most part.)
Chromebooks have, as of late, been better-functioning, and more fluid. But they've also been too expensive...until Samsung's $249 Chromebook finally moved the price down to sub-Netbook level, where it should have been all along. The Acer C7 Chromebook brings the price even lower, to $199. Is this the holiday bargain supreme?
Hold your horses a little bit. Yes, the Acer C7 packs a 320GB hard drive, Wi-Fi, an SD card slot, HDMI, and all your other basic ports into a very portable gadget that can surf the Web. Yes, it could be your on-the-go way to work online, check your e-mail, Skype, and even play some games and edit some documents.
But, so could most tablets. The Acer C7's advantages are a physical keyboard and touch pad, that larger hard drive, and the price.
The disadvantages? Seriously short battery life, and Chrome's very odd, streamlined operating system.
You'll have to ask yourself: do you want a Netbook for Web browsing only? If so, the Acer C7 might be perfect. Otherwise, consider something from the ever-more-affordable world of tablets, or invest a bit more to get a regular Windows laptop.
Design: A Netbook by any other name
Pick up the Acer C7 and you'd swear you're holding a Netbook. Acer's clearly taken a Netbook body and shoehorned Chrome OS in. That's okay, but the Acer C7 isn't as thin or as clean-looking as Samsung's recent Chromebook offering. At 3 pounds and a little under 1 inch thick, it's still easy to tuck in any small bag, and the AC charger plug is pretty small, too.
The plastic body feels undeniably "budget," without the often more premium touches of many tablets. A somewhat flexible plastic top lid, glossy plastic screen bezel, and thicker-than-you'd-expect sides with ugly vent grilles complete the portrait of a product that defies any desire to show it off.
Its 11.6-inch display has a standard-for-a-laptop 1,366x768-pixel resolution, with adequate but not impressive brightness, color richness, and off-axis viewing angles. It's good enough for Web browsing and basic apps, but pictures and movies won't look that impressive.
Like all Chromebooks, the Acer C7 lacks a touch screen. You'll be interacting solely with the keyboard and touch pad, which are fair and subpar respectively. The keyboard's raised, island-style "chiclet" keys have the same travel and shape as found in many ultrabooks, but no backlighting. Typing feels comfortable enough, with no unnecessary columns of keys on the sides. You do have to get used to the Chromebook keyboard conventions, which are subtly different: a search key marked with a magnifying glass icon is installed between the Alt and Fn keys, but the function buttons all work directly to raise and lower volume or change screen brightness, a nice plus. The keyboard feels nearly full-size.
The clickable touch pad, well, that's another story. It works reasonably well enough for basic one-finger navigation around Chrome OS, but for two-finger scrolling or any of Chrome's limited multifinger gestures, it feels horrible. There's no inertial scrolling, so Web page browsing becomes herky-jerky. Tap-and-drag moves were also hard to pull off consistently. It's a far cry from the smooth feel of better-made laptops or the touch screen on any tablet.
Which brings me to the real question, once again: why Chrome OS? Why not a tablet, or a laptop? To me, Chromebooks still haven't answered this question; they've just become more affordable. A price of $199 doesn't seem nearly as egregious as the $500 that the last Chromebook I reviewed cost, but it's not chump change. You can get a Nexus 7 tablet for that money, or put it toward a better laptop or another tablet.
Google's Chrome OS is good for Web browsing, working with Flash and other Web technologies, and all that entails. It feels smooth, syncs well with Google's cloud services, and is excellent with Google Docs and Gmail. If that's your essential set of tools, then a Chromebook may be up your alley. But for anyone who enjoys the power and versatility of standalone apps, Chrome OS is bound to disappoint. I did find myself working well on the Acer C7 at a coffee shop, writing this review, employing my standard routine of Web research, Gmail, Google Docs, and my online CNET content management system. It was fun to use that way, even with the wonky touch pad. But I didn't have to edit any photos or do any other tasks laptop users often do when not stuck in Web browsers.
The Chrome Web Store sells apps, but they're really Web apps, glorified browser pages that can do offline caching for some functions; it's a very different experience from using real, downloaded offline software. Games are available, but they run so choppily that you wouldn't want to play them.
The Acer C7 has vastly larger internal storage than other Chromebooks, thanks to a 320GB hard drive of the old-fashioned kind. No solid-state drive (SSD) here, but that means you have more than the measly 16GB of space on previous Chromebooks. There's still an SD card slot for additional storage flexibility, as well as two USB ports.
Files that get downloaded or sideloaded onto the Chromebook show up in a Files directory, but it's minimal. Pictures, movies, and documents can be browsed and shared, but that's it.
Speakers convey fair-enough volume and the Webcam is good enough for basic Google Hangouts and video chat, which is easy to initiate from within Gmail.
You get a pretty laptop-like selection of ports on the Acer C7: three USB 2.0, HDMI, SD card slot, a physical Ethernet jack, and even VGA. Bluetooth, however, isn't included.
The 320GB hard drive is the Acer's real advantage over a Samsung Chromebook, especially if you're the type to load up a bunch of movies for offline viewing. A whole music and video collection could easily reside on here with plenty of room to spare. Actually, that's the one oddity: on a Chromebook that's so cloud-based and app-minimal, 320GB is almost too much space. It's hard to figure out what to do with it.
Even though having a physical hard drive rather than an SSD should make this Chromebook feel slower, on Chrome OS there are so few physical applications to run -- everything's Web-based, really -- that it doesn't seem to slow down effective performance at all. The C7 wakes from sleep in a second or two, and boots more quickly than a laptop. It's fast enough.
The dual-core Intel Celeron processor and 2GB of RAM in the Acer C7 are fine for this Chromebook's basic functions, but I did notice that videos didn't always have silky-smooth playback, and games such as Angry Birds and Bastion that are cached for semioffline play feel a lot choppier than their iPad app counterparts.
The biggest drawback to the Acer C7 is its battery life. In two video playback battery drains, adapted for Chrome from our usual Windows/OS X laptop battery test, we averaged 2 hours and 39 minutes while playing a continuous video stream on YouTube. That's not an exact match for our regular video file playback test (which requires software that Chome can't run), and it's arguably more intense, making use of the system's Wi-Fi connection for video streaming. But, hey, at least the AC charger is small.
Over a day's use out and about, the battery life lasted longer than that for document editing and Web browsing. Even so, the Acer C7's battery ran down more quickly than I'd have liked over a typical day of solid use. It's not an ideal device to take on a long plane trip. Considering the long battery life (5-plus hours) of most ultraportables, tablets, and Netbooks, this is a disappointing outcome.
The Acer C7 can be ordered directly from Google's online Play store. It comes with a two-year subscription to 100GB of Google Drive storage and 12 free passes for Gogo Inflight Internet, nice perks for a $199 product. They help subsidize the C7 even more, in a way.
Many will ask what the difference is between the $199 Acer C7 and the $249 Samsung Chromebook. The Samsung model has Bluetooth connectivity, USB 3.0, better battery life, and a smaller 16GB SSD. The Acer C7 has only USB 2.0 ports, doesn't have Bluetooth, has a larger 320GB standard hard drive, and costs $50 less. Both have SD card slots. The differences are minor. The Samsung model is slimmer, and with its better battery life, most will prefer that option. I probably would go for that one, too.
Either way, I'd have second and third thoughts about buying any Chromebook, including the Acer C7. The limitations of the total package may not be ideal for some. However, if you consider the Acer C7 a true Netbook -- as in, a device solely made for getting on the Internet and getting things done there -- then you might find this Chromebook a perfectly affordable and useful tool. I'm willing to accept the logic of a Chromebook at this price, but I'd still prefer a cheap tablet instead.