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Acer Chromebook 13 review: Acer Chromebook 13 brings Nvidia to the Chrome OS party

This Toshiba Chromebook has a 13-inch 1080p display and a new Nvidia CPU for added graphics muscle.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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7 min read

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.

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Acer Chromebook 13

The Good

The Acer Chromebook has a slim design, a high-res 13-inch screen, and a fast Nvidia K1 processor for a graphics and battery boost over other Chromebooks.

The Bad

Like other Chromebooks, offline functionality is extremely limited. The large screen lacks touch input, and the ARM processor presents some compatibility issues, even with online Chrome apps.

The Bottom Line

One of the nicer-looking and better-performing Chrome OS systems, the 13-inch Acer Chromebook adds some zip by ditching Intel for an Nvidia processor, but also hits a few issues with popular Chrome apps.

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET 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.

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Acer Chromebook 13 Lenovo Yoga 11e Chromebook HP Pavilion Chromebook 14
Price as reviewed $299 $459 $1,099
Display size/resolution 13-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen 11-inch, 1,366x768 touchscreen 14-inch 1,366x768 screen
PC CPU 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
Networking 802.11ac 802.11ac 802.11a/b/g/n
Operating system Chrome OS Chrome OS Chrome OS

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET 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."

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Sarah Tew/CNET 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.

To be fair, this behavior only affected a handful of apps, and other Chrome-friendly games, from Flow to Plants vs. Zombies to the ever-popular Angry Birds, all worked fine. Nvidia further suggested a few links to graphically intensive web apps that showed off the power of the K1 chip, which is to be expected, as Nvidia is known best as a PC graphics company.

Those examples, including a 3D-rendered motorcycle and a 3D model of the human body, were both impressively easy to manipulate in real-time, and certainly not the type of performance one would expect from a $300 Chromebook.

In other app tests, the usual suspects, from Netflix to Amazon Instant Video to Hulu all worked fine, and in particular Google Drive and its office applications felt especially zippy, which is not something one can always say about $500 low-power Windows 8 hybrids.

Google's office apps also benefit from the move to a 13-inch screen, which in turn leads to a larger, more usable keyboard when compared to more common 11-inch Chromebooks. Acer pairs a full-size island-style keyboard with a large buttonless touchpad. Important keys, such as Enter, Shift, and Ctrl are generously sized, and the solid body allows for virtually zero flex, even under heavy typing.

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Sarah Tew/CNET Note that the Chrome OS keyboard layout -- as dictated by Google -- has some subtle differences you'll need to adjust to if you're new to Chrome. The caps lock key is replaced by a search key, and the top row of function keys has a Chrome OS slate of commands, including page forward and back, and fullscreen mode. Another Chrome OS oddity, while Windows and Mac keyboards almost always have uppercase letters stamped on them, Chrome OS keyboards use lowercase letters.

The 13.3-inch 1,920x1,080 display is excellent for a $300 computer. It's not a touch screen, but that's rare in Chromebooks (you can find that feature in Acer's own C720p and the new Lenovo Yoga 11e Chromebook). Off-axis viewing was very good, but less so when tilting the screen vertically. A 1,366x768 version is also available, but the $20 price difference is so small, you might as well get the full-HD screen.

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Acer Chromebook 13

Video HDMI out
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery

As a Chromebook on the larger end of the scale, you might expect a few more ports and connections than an 11-inch model. The included HDMI output is welcome, but other than that, it's just a pair of USB 3.0 ports and an SD card reader. Including 802.11ac Wi-Fi is also a plus, especially considering the online nature of Chrome OS.

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Sarah Tew/CNET In a series of online benchmark tests, different from the traditional installed apps we use to test Windows and OS X systems, the Nvidia Tegra K1 processor matched up well against Intel-based Chromebooks, specifically one older model from HP and one newer one from Lenovo. In a more graphically challenging Web GL test, the Acer Chromebook 13 far outperformed the competition, showing the advantage you get in graphics performance from having a major graphics card company build your hardware platform.

This Nvidia-powered Chromebook felt a bit more robust than other models we've tried, but not outrageously so in most tasks. For the handful of graphically intense experiences available now for Chrome OS, it's an obvious advantage, and there's a wide-open future now for game development, although that requires developers to create game content for Chrome OS and Chromebooks, which largely has not happened yet.

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Sarah Tew/CNET Battery life gets a nice boost over other Chromebooks, running for an excellent 8:03 on an online streaming video test. That test differs from our Windows, Mac, and Android battery tests in that it requires a live internet connection and cloud-based HD video stream, which makes it more challenging in some ways.

Conclusion

The Acer Chromebook 13 is the first Nvidia-powered Chrome OS device we've seen, but it won't be the last. HP and others have similar designs coming soon, and with the growth of popularity in Chromebooks overall, there's a chance this won't always be an Intel-dominated category.

This particular configuration makes a compelling case, with a decent design, high-resolution screen, acceptable performance, and long battery life, all for $300. A handful of software incompatibility issues are annoying, and shows how early in the game this model is. Chromebooks with Nvidia processors perhaps need a little more time to work out all the kinks, but this is an excellent first step.

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Futuremark Peacekeeper test

1293

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

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Sunspider test

574

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance

Find more shopping tips in our Laptop Buying Guide.

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Acer Chromebook 13

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 9Battery 8