Acer's new Chromebook is a compact, speedy work machine, but its limited operating system and small screen might hold it back. The Acer Chromebook C720 does have a few key features that help it stand out from the pack, though. For starters, it's one of the few Chromebooks to come with a zippy Intel Core i3 processor. And its $349 price tag makes it significantly cheaper than many Windows notebooks with comparable power. But can an 11.6-inch, Chrome OS-powered laptop handle your daily productivity tasks?
The new Core i3-powered C720 looks identical to the original C720, which launched last year. It sports a dark gray, brushed-aluminum lid that's clean and attractive, if a bit plain. Meanwhile, the build quality feels sturdy and solid. Overall, the C720's compact design is reminiscent of the miniature netbooks that rose to popularity in the late 2010s. Among competing devices, Toshiba's Chromebook 2 has a more premium look.
It's not the lightest Chromebook, but the C720 is still a pretty lightweight device at 2.76 lbs. That makes it a bit lighter than Dell's Chromebook 11 (2.8 lbs.) and the Toshiba Chromebook 2 (3.3 lbs.) In other words, it's a notebook that won't weigh you down on your daily commute, and it's extremely easy to pick up and carry around the office.
Keyboard and touchpad
For all-day typing, the C720's keyboard might not cut it. Its keys are slightly shallower than the average notebook keyboard, meaning that they travel a shorter distance when depressed. The C720's travel measured about 1.27 mm, compared with 1.5 to 2 mm for the category average. As a result, I found myself occasionally missing keys while typing at a quick pace.
On the other hand, the keys are quite responsive, which helps balance out the keyboard's shallow design. Overall, the C720 keyboard delivers pretty good performance for hammering out URLs and email replies, but other notebooks are better for extended typing sessions.
The C720's excellent touchpad, meanwhile, feels good and offers tight, responsive control. It has built-in support for a number of handy, productivity-boosting gestures, too. For example, you can swipe left or right with two fingers to move forward and backward in your browser window, or swipe with three fingers to quickly navigate between tabs. Finally, swiping up or down with two fingers lets you scroll.
But it's software, not hardware, that will make the C720 a hard sell for many business users. Like other Chromebooks, it's powered by Chrome OS, a lightweight operating system centered on Google's Chrome Web browser. When you boot up the computer and sign into your Google account, you're sent to a desktop that's reminiscent of Windows.
But, of course, you can't run Windows or Mac software on a Chromebook. Instead, you're limited to Chrome apps, which you can pin to a Windows-style taskbar at the bottom edge of the screen. Most apps launch as Web pages inside the Chrome browser, though some launch inside their own application window. A button at the bottom left corner of the screen lets you browse all your apps and perform searches, much like the Start menu inside of Windows. Finally, a utility tray at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen gives you quick access to volume, Wi-Fi settings, battery life and more.
Chrome OS is a no-frills platform, and that's its greatest strength and biggest weakness. It's lightweight, so it boots up incredibly quickly, usually in less than 6 seconds. Booting is so fast that turning on your Chromebook feels a bit like turning on an iPad or Android tablet.
Chrome OS is also incredibly easy to use. If you know your way around a Web browser, then everything here should be familiar to you. You don't have a learning curve to master, and there are no deep settings to fiddle with. And since updates perform automatically in the background, you never have to reboot your device and wait around for updates to install. It all adds up to fewer distractions and more time spent working.
The biggest barrier to adopting Chrome OS can be summed up in one word: apps.
Chromebooks can't run desktop software, but is that really such a big deal? It depends on your needs. The Chromebook C720 is an excellent tool for browsing the Web and running Chrome Apps, which are basically like the apps on Android or iOS. Before you turn your nose up, take a look at the Chrome Store's app library and see if it has what you need.
Google Docs, Sheets and Slides are a good stand-in for Microsoft Office, and if you want that software, the free Web versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint are also available as Chrome Apps. Evernote is a great tool for saving notes and collaborating on projects. Wave Accounting is a full-featured accounting app, Hangouts is great for videoconferencing, and Yet Another Meeting is good for sharing agendas and calendars. On the other hand, Chrome OS doesn't support the full desktop version of Microsoft Office or desktop-class software like Photoshop. But unless you need to run a specific piece of desktop software, you can probably find something to suit your needs in the Chrome library.
As previously mentioned, most apps launch right inside your browser, but there's an easy way to make Chrome apps feel more like desktop programs. Just right click on any app and uncheck "Open in a tab" to make it automatically open inside a separate application window. I like this setup better since it gives me better control over my apps. Browser tabs get cluttered in a hurry, and they're too easy to close accidentally. I also appreciated the ability to drag windows to the left or right side of the desktop to "snap" them in place over half the screen, which makes multitasking easier.
One big downside to Chrome Apps is that many can't run without an Internet connection. For example, I was disappointed to realize that Microsoft Word Online won't load unless I'm online. On the bright side, many apps do offer offline functionality. For example, you can load Google Docs, Sheets or Slides and work all day, regardless of your Internet status. The next time you connect to the Web, any changes will be synced across all your devices. Google has also promised better offline functionality for more apps in the future.
The main difference between the 2014 version of the Acer C720 and last year's model is its faster processor. Our review unit runs on an Intel Core i3 processor with 2GB of RAM, making it one of the speediest Chromebooks you can buy. Apps opened and closed quickly, and switching between apps was very smooth. I never noticed much slowdown, if any, even when I deliberately tried to tax the machine by streaming multiple YouTube videos, checking my email and listening to songs in Google Play Music all at once.
Even though the C720 offers relatively powerful hardware, you're still going to get good performance from most recent Chromebooks, since the operating system is so lightweight. For example, even though the C720 boots up in an amazing 6 seconds, less powerful Chromebooks like the Dell Chromebook 11 started in 7 seconds.
For me, a 13-inch laptop screen strikes just about the perfect balance between portability and productivity. So is it possible to be productive on the C720's 11.6-inch display? Sure it is, but depending on your needs, things can start to feel a bit cramped. Composing a document in Google Docs on the C720 felt comfortable, but working on a spreadsheet can feel slightly claustrophobic. And things get really crowded when you're viewing two windows side by side.
The Chromebook C720 display has a resolution of 1,366 x 768 pixels, which is nothing to get excited about, especially since plenty of Android tablets offer resolutions of 1,920 × 1,080 pixels or higher. High resolution is important, since it lets you view more information at once, especially on a screen with small physical dimensions. On the other hand, text at the default setting is sharp and readable on the C720, and images are clear and colorful. The display is also quite bright, so it's easy to see outdoors.
The C720's numerous ports are one perk for business users. It has one USB 3.0 port and one USB 2.0 port, for connecting accessories like a mouse or external hard drive. The C720's HDMI slot will come in handy if you want to hook your notebook up to a larger monitor. Also included are a full-size SD Card slot and a standard lock slot.
Its webcam leaves plenty to be desired, though. Images from the front-facing camera were fuzzy, with a good amount of noise. It's adequate for basic video conferencing, however. Audio from the machine's tiny speakers is loud and clear.
The updated C720 also lasts longer than last year's model, running for 7 hours and 37 minutes in our battery test. That's about an hour longer than the original C720 (6:25) and a half hour longer than the Dell Chromebook 11 (7:02), but shorter than the Toshiba Chromebook (8:02) and the average for ultraportable notebooks (8:11). Regardless, the C720 provides good longevity to get you through the end of the workday.
The baseline model for the Acer Chromebook C720 sells for $349 and comes with an Intel Core i3 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 32GB hard drive. You can upgrade to a model with 4GB of RAM for $379.
The Acer Chromebook C720 is an impressive machine, with plenty of power, a lightweight design and long battery life. Whether or not it makes a good work machine depends on two factors. First, you must be able to deal with the limitations of Chrome OS, which can't run desktop applications. Second, you'll have to be satisfied with its small, 11.6-inch screen, which can feel cramped for some productivity tasks. If you need more room to work, the 13-inch display on Toshiba's Chromebook 2 is a better bet.