Looking for a big-screen work machine at a budget price? Acer's new Chromebook 15 might fit the bill, if you can deal with the inherent limitations of Google's Chrome OS operating system.
The Chromebook 15 is targeted at home and student use, but that doesn't mean business users can't benefit from the notebook's big 15.6-inch display, speedy performance and long battery life. You also get a comfy keyboard and a roomy touchpad, starting at just $250. And while Chrome OS isn't as robust as Microsoft's Windows or Apple's OS X, the Google operating system is still a low-maintenance, easy-to-use platform for basic productivity.
Don't expect to lug this one on your daily commute; the Chromebook 15 is a big, honking 15.6-inch laptop. In fact, it's the biggest Chromebook we've seen, and the first with a screen bigger than 14 inches.
My review unit came in a bold, white color; it also comes in black. I'd recommend the latter, since the white version has a somewhat toylike appearance and shows every speck of dirt. Over time, I would be shocked if the matte-plastic exterior didn't show some serious discoloration.
On the bright side, I like the textured surface, which helped me get a good grip on the machine whenever I had to move it. Plus, the whole package feels sturdy and well built.
You probably won't want to move the Chromebook 15 from your desk very often. At 0.95-inches thick, with a footprint measuring 15.1 x 9.7 inches, the Chromebook 15 is much larger than HP's 14-inch Chromebook 14 (13.56 x 9.44 x 0.81 inches) and Samsung's 13-inch Chromebook 2 (12.72 x 8.80 x 0.65 inches), though both those notebooks have smaller displays than the Acer. The Chromebook 15's dimensions are actually pretty typical for an affordable 15 incher; the Windows 8-powered Toshiba Tecra C50, for example, is about the same size, at 14.9 x 10.2 x 0.95 inches.
At 4.4 lbs., the Chromebook 15 is heavier than other Chromebooks, but light for a 15-inch system. The Samsung Chromebook 2 weighs just 3 lbs., but the Tecra C50 weighs 5 lbs. The bottom line is that the Acer Chromebook 15 is a relatively bulky machine, but it's still easier to carry around than the average notebook this size.
Acer offers two display options for the Chromebook 15. The baseline model comes with a 1,366 x 768-pixel panel for $250, while the upgraded model includes a full-HD display with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 for $350.
My review unit came with a sharper screen, which is absolutely fine for a screen this size. Compared to competing Chromebooks, the supersize Chromebook 15 certainly gives you more space to work. In particular, I noticed that split-screen multitasking felt very comfortable, with plenty of room for two windows positioned side by side. That should help boost your productivity, especially since Chrome OS lets you drag a window to one side or the other to automatically "snap" it into place over one half of the screen, just like in Windows.
I wouldn't recommend the 1,366 x 768-pixel model for most business users. I didn't get a chance to test it for myself, but my recent experience reviewing the Toshiba Tecra C50, which sports a similar low-res screen, convinced me that the resolution feels cramped for serious productivity, even on a large screen. On the other hand, this resolution is acceptable for basic computing tasks like composing documents and responding to email, so it's worth a look if you want to save that $100.
Although the Chromebook 15's screen is plenty large, it's still a bit underwhelming. In particular, colors aren't very vibrant, thanks to an anti-glare coating on the display. On the bright side, the coating does a good job of preventing glare from overhead office lights.
The Chromebook 15 offers decent hardware at a great price, but its operating system will make this device a hard sell for many business users. Like all other Chromebooks, it runs on Chrome OS, a lightweight platform based on Google's Chrome Web browser.
As soon as you boot up the machine, you're asked to sign in to your Google account, then kicked to a desktop that looks like the Windows desktop environment. But this isn't Windows. In fact, you can't install any Windows (or Mac) software on a Chromebook. Instead, you get Chrome apps, which is a fancy term for browser extensions.
Chrome apps can be pinned to the Windows-stylus taskbar at the bottom of the screen. A button in the bottom left corner functions a lot like the Windows Start menu, letting you view all your applications and perform searches. Finally, icons in the bottom right hand corner provide quick access to utilities like Wi-Fi and battery settings. All in all, it should be a familiar experience for PC users.
Chrome OS may seem limited compared to other platforms, but its barebones construction is also its strength. For starters, it launches in mere seconds, so turning on your Chromebook feels a lot like waking your smartphone or tablet. There's no real learning curve, since advanced settings are minimal, and OS updates are installed in the background with no restarts required. That means you can get to work immediately and keep working without interruptions.
Let's cut to the chase: If you depend on a particular piece of Windows or Mac software to do your job, Chromebooks aren't for you, period. But if your workday is limited to more basic tasks like checking email, browsing the Web, and composing documents and spreadsheets, then you can probably get by with a Chromebook.
After all, most PC programs have a suitable online alternative. For example, Microsoft's own Office Online apps (including Web-based versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint) are surprisingly powerful, and Google's own Docs, Sheets and Slides provide another good alternative.
Other highlights in the Chrome OS app library include Evernote for taking and saving notes, Wave Accounting for balancing your books, Hangouts for videoconferencing, and Yet Another Meeting for sharing agendas and calendars.
One downside is that some of those apps store your data in the cloud, so you may not be able to use them when you're away from the office. On the other hand, many Chrome apps offer excellent offline support. For example, Google Docs lets you create new documents and spreadsheets offline, and they'll be synced to the cloud the next time you connect to the Internet.
Keyboard and touchpad
While most 15-inch notebooks make good use of all that space with a full 10-key number pad, the Chromebook 15 lamentably leaves that feature out. That's unfortunate for business users, especially if crunching numbers is part of your job. It's understandable, though, since the notebook is targeted at casual users, not professionals.
Like other Chromebooks, this one also lacks a Delete key, which is a drag for anyone who wants to use the machine to do a lot of typing. Chromebooks put the machine's power/sleep button in the spot where the Delete key resides on Windows and Mac computers. However, Chrome OS does let you set up custom keyboard shortcuts. I used Alt + Backspace for Delete while I wrote this review, but this took some getting used to.
Overall, the typing experience on the Chromebook 15 is decent. Keys offer an acceptable amount of feedback, but a bit less travel than I'd like, with a depth of just 1.3 mm. That's a bit shy of the laptop average (1.5 mm), but deeper than the Toshiba Chromebook 2 (1.2 mm) and Samsung Chromebook 2 (1.1 mm). Greater key travel usually means a more comfortable, desktoplike typing experience.
Meanwhile, the Chromebook 15's roomy 4.2 x 3-inch touchpad feels nice and responsive. Mousing around feels accurate, and gestures like two-finger scrolling are responsive.
Specs and performance
The Chromebook 15 isn't just bigger than competing machines; it's faster, too. Acer sells the notebook in two basic hardware configurations, with the baseline model offering a dual-core Intel Celeron 3205U processor with 2GB of memory, a 16GB solid-state drive (SSD) and a 1,366 x 768-pixel display, all for $250. For an extra $100, you can upgrade the RAM to 4GB, the storage to 32GB and the display to full HD.
Do you need that much power in a Chromebook, though? Probably not. Based on my experience with similarly specced machines, the lower-end model's 2GB of RAM should be plenty for the kinds of everyday tasks you'll be doing on the Chromebook 15. On the other hand, the higher-end model's sharper display and larger SSD are still compelling reasons to upgrade.
Ports and connectivity
The Chromebook 15 offers a healthy number of ports, including one USB 3.0 port and one USB 2.0 port for connecting accessories like a mouse or external hard drive, an HDMI port for linking to a larger desktop monitor or a projector for showing presentations, an SD card slot for expanding the internal storage, and a Kensington lock slot to keep your notebook chained to your desk as an extra security measure.
The Chromebook 15's front-facing camera produces predictably grainy images, with a fair amount of visual noise. That's the case with most laptop cameras, though, and this one is perfectly adequate for basic videoconferencing. Plus, the big speakers located on either side of the keyboard provide loud audio, so you'll have no trouble hearing a client or colleague on the other end of a video call.
Even though you're likely to leave this king-size laptop plugged in at your desk, its battery is beefy enough to last the whole workday if you need it to. The Chromebook 15 ran for an impressive 9 hours and 1 minute on our battery life test, which simulates continuous Web browsing via Wi-Fi with the screen set to 100 nits of brightness. That's a lot longer than the average for mainstream notebooks (6:12), and longer than the Chromebooks from Toshiba (7:49) and HP (7:57). Samsung's Chromebook 2 is the battery-life king, though, lasting 9 hours and 34 minutes.
The biggest competitors to the Chromebook 15 ($250) are other Chromebooks, as well as inexpensive Windows notebooks.
Toshiba's Chromebook 2 ($250) has a smaller, 13-inch screen and a bit less power, though it's also more portable, and has a more vibrant screen.
Samsung's Chromebook 2 ($250) also has a 13-inch display, as well as a sleeker design, but it doesn't last as long on a charge as the Chromebook 15.
HP's Chromebook 14 offers a sharp, 14-inch display, but starting at $299, it's more expensive than Acer's Chromebook 15.
HP's Stream 13 is a solid Windows 8 notebook that can run all PC apps for just $217, but it has much shorter battery life than the Chromebook 15, and its colorful design might make it a hard sell for business users.
Acer's Chromebook 15 is an impressive value. It's bigger and faster than its rivals, and lasts longer on a charge than most of them. Plus, it starts at a bargain price: just $250, making it an enticing option for business users on a budget. It's bulky, though, so Toshiba's Chromebook 2 is a better pick if you need something more portable.
The most important question to ask yourself, though, is whether or not a Chromebook can meet your needs in the first place. If you absolutely depend on a specific Windows or Mac app to do your job, then Chromebooks aren't even an option. For everyone else, these machines offer a surprising amount of power and flexibility at a bargain price.