Chromebooks -- laptops running on Google's Chrome operating system -- are more known for being small and cheap than for stylish design. The majority of them have 11.6- or 13.3-inch screens and are plastic, which keeps the prices low. That's what makes the Acer Chromebook 14 all the more remarkable: Not only does it have a 14-inch screen, but it's thin and clad in aluminum and sells for less than $300.
The Acer Chromebook 14 has a starting price of $280 (£250, AU$450) with different configurations featuring:
Standard for all configurations are:
Reviewed here is the CB3-431-C5FM, a $300 configuration with a full HD IPS display, Intel Celeron N3160 quad-core processor, 4GB of memory and 32GB of storage. (Note: Pricing and configuration availability varies by region and this particular configuration was not available in the UK or Australia.) These aren't powerful components, but it's enough for the Chrome OS and web apps. It should also be enough to run Android apps when support is added later this year, but I won't know for sure until then.
Under what I would consider a normal load -- six to 10 open tabs while streaming music or video -- the Chromebook 14 was reasonably quick and responsive. Pushing it beyond this by working in more than a dozen tabs and leaving a couple web apps running in the background while streaming music from Spotify caused the music to frequently stutter or there'd be some lag when switching and loading tabs.
Basically, power users will need more power, which Acer does offer with its Chromebook 14 for Work that has Core i-series processors, better graphics and more memory as well as a sturdier case and spill-resistant keyboard.
Acer claims a battery life up to 12 hours for this configuration (14 hours for versions with an HD screen). We hit 9.5 hours with our streaming video test, which is in line with what Acer told us to expect using wireless to rundown the battery. Playing video on the laptop, you should be able get to that 12-hour mark, but it's safe to say you'll get about 10 hours with mixed use.
And really, this Chromebook is perfect for all types of uses thanks to the larger-than-usual screen and its portability. The 14-inch size is enough to comfortably work with two windows side-by-side, but it's not so big that you can't use it on a plane or train. The matte finish helps with keep glare to a minimum and it's an IPS panel, too, giving you good off-angle views so gathering people around for a Google Hangout call or to watch a movie is very doable. Even its down-firing stereo speakers sound pretty decent for a budget laptop.
The thin aluminum body looks and feels good. The metal body and size no doubt add some weight compared to smaller, plastic Chromebooks, but at just under 3.5 pounds it's still light enough for a daily commute or hauling around campus. Plus, the rounded edges make it easier to slide in and out of a bag.
Perhaps because it is so thin, though, the keyboard's keys don't have much travel. If you tend to hammer on your keyboard when typing, it might be an issue. The keyboard also isn't backlit, which is more of an issue for me than the shallow key travel.
The touchpad is large and responsive and showed no signs of jumpiness. It works well with Chrome's multitouch commands like two-finger swipes to the left or right for moving back and forth through Web pages or swiping three fingers up to see all of your open windows.
The biggest design disappointment for me is the lack of an SD or microSD card reader. True, you can connect an external reader to one of its USB 3.0 ports. But being able to slide in a high-capacity SD card and leave it there is an easy way to add to the laptop's 32GB of internal storage.
Design matters to a lot people when they go to buy a laptop including myself, even for an inexpensive Chromebook. The Acer Chromebook 14 certainly is a standout in the category. I really liked having the extra screen real estate, too. If you can live with not having the best performance for its less than $300 price, put it on your short list.