Acer Chromebook C720P review: King of the budget Chromebooks

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.

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You can also run a variety of HTML 5-based Chrome Web Store apps, which launch in little browser windows and are essentially Web-based, but sometimes feel like regular applications. Some download locally and work offline, but others just seem to be cached for temporary use. There are games, photo-editing solutions, and all of the basic online services you'd largely expect because, heck, Chrome OS is basically a super-charged Chrome Web browser.

Chromebooks are compatible with Chromecast, too, so videos can be streamed to a TV, or what you're seeing on the Chromebook can be mirrored to the TV. A Chromecast only costs $35, so it's an appealing package, even if Chromecast isn't as robust as many set-top streaming boxes like Apple TV and Roku.

Videos, music, photos and other files can be played and stored on local storage or an SD card, so not everything needs to be exclusively online. You could even plug in a hard drive.

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And the Chrome OS continues to surprise: You can even run enterprise Windows applications via VMWare, thanks to a recent deal.

What you still can't do is load any Android apps, or do any sort of truly significant offline work the way you could on a tablet or phone. Yes, you can set up Google Drive or other apps to work offline, and they do work, but none of the experience feels as reliable or "normal" as you'd expect for a computer or tablet.

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Hardware: ports galore, and a newer Celeron processor
If you're looking for ports on a Chromebook, look no further: the C720P throws in USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, full-size HDMI, and even an SD card slot. The 32GB of onboard storage -- twice what you usually see on budget Chromebooks -- can be doubled in a flash by popping an SD card in. Really, the only other thing you could possibly ask for is Ethernet (no, it's not on here). There's also Bluetooth 4.0.

The Acer C720P has a Celeron processor, but it's a newer one than its predecessors: a 1.4 GHz Intel Celeron 2955U, part of the spectrum of Haswell-generation processors that offers up much better battery life for similar performance. While boot-up is instant-on fast and Web browsing feels zippy enough over 802.11n Wi-Fi (there's a/b/g/n, but no 802.11ac, nor any LTE options, like the aforementioned HP Chromebook 11), more taxing tasks are bound to struggle. Web game apps like Spelunky were fine, but I wouldn't go throwing out my Windows gaming PC (or even my budget Windows laptop). The C720P also comes with 2GB of DDR3 RAM, but it's hard on a Chromebook to even find a way to appreciate or experience what extra RAM (or even a faster processor) really offers. If you own a Chromebook, you'll mostly be Web browsing, streaming, or doing light Google Docs-style office work.

There is a performance advantage, from what can be seen on SunSpider tests: the Chromebook C720P ran the SunSpider Javascript Benchmark 0.9.1 in 541.6 milliseconds. Last year's HP Chromebook 11 did the same test in 668 ms. But, the HP Chromebook 14 ran the test a little faster.

Google includes 100GB of free Google Drive storage for two years with this Chromebook, as it does with most Chromebooks. That's helpful, but not an epic amount of storage. Google Drive has gotten pretty good at offering near-seamless integration between cloud and local storage, however, so it really does feel like an extension of your Chromebook. There's also a 60-day trial to Google Music All-Play.

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Hey: a Chromebook with good battery life!
In 2012, Chromebooks I reviewed only lasted three hours on a charge. Thanks to that improved, more efficient processor, the Acer C720P lasted 352 minutes while streaming a video on Hulu. That's 5 hours and 52 minutes, in case you didn't do the math, with the Wi-Fi turned on: a number that's not perfect, but finally approaches what you'd expect in an everyday laptop. Last year's HP Chromebook 11 only lasted 275 minutes (4 hours, 35 minutes). An extra hour-plus? I'll take it. Sure, laptops and tablets routinely hit 8 hours (or even 10) with ease nowadays, but Chromebooks have had such comparatively poor battery performance among the few we've seen that this type of progress is welcome.

Conclusion: A new high mark for budget Chromebooks. And yet...
Chromebooks are not the only game in the "cheap computer" world. There are inexpensive, and very good, Windows laptops, ones that can be tablets, too: ask yourself whether the Asus Transformer Book T100 would be a better match. Or, would an iPad, for that matter? Chrome OS has a lot of competition to deal with. But, for what they are, Chromebooks are getting better. And judging on recent sales numbers, they don't seem to be going away anytime soon.

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For $299, I can accept the Chromebook C720P. In fact, I can actually love it for being a low-maintenance, fast-starting little everyday "laptop lite" for your home... a true "netbook" the way the word "netbook" should have been intended. I like working on Chromebooks. They're easy to grab and go with. But, I could never shake the feeling that both the software and hardware felt subpar compared with any iPad, Android tablet, and most laptops. It's a compromise. But it's better than before, and if I was in a pinch to quickly do something Web-specific -- and I had a laptop, tablet, and Chromebook sitting in front of me -- I'd grab the Chromebook.

Just don't expect a full laptop.

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