Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Entering the World of Chrome OS: My review of the Acer Chromebook C720

Chrome OS is certainly an anomaly among the OS's out there. The concept of being connected all the time and using the Chrome browser to do everything sounds ridiculous. However, after working with the Acer Chromebook C720, I found myself really enjoying it.

First, let's look at the hardware. At first glance, you might mistake the Chromebook for a netbook or ultra portable laptop. With a width of 11.3", a depth of 8", a thickness of .75", and weight just under three pounds, the C720 is extremely lightweight and easy enough to fit into any bags or cases for netbooks. The C720 has an 11.6" 1366 x 768 resolution screen, which is pretty standard for a netbook if it were one. I do find the screen to be a little washed out with whites, but most other colors come through bright and vibrant. The screen has good brightness and even 50% brightness is acceptable for most people.

The C720 is powered by an Intel Celeron 2955U dual core processor at 1.4 GHz with 2 GB of DDR3L RAM and Intel HD Graphics with 128 MB dedicated RAM. The storage on the C720 is a paltry 16 GB solid state drive, but it can supplemented with a portable hard drive or flash drive on either the USB 2.0 or 3.0 ports. In addition to that, it has a 3.5 mm headset jack, a HDMI out port, an SD card slot, your standard locking port, and a 1.3 MP webcam. Internally, the C720 has Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi running all the standard channels. However, there is no ethernet port. 

So how does it perform? To my surprise, phenomenally. Without all the overhead of other OS's like Windows, the C720 is able to process whatever commands you give it lightning fast. While the RAM runs at twice the bandwidth of my Nexus 5, I would still be leery about loading too many web pages. Still, for its cost, it can't be beat. 

Looking at the keyboard is a different experience altogether. While it's arranged in a Qwerty fashion, there are certain differences compared to what you would normally see on a Windows or Mac computer keyboard. The big difference I saw was with top keys and the lack of a delete key. The top keys correspond to different functions for the Chrome OS like expanding the window full screen to remove the bottom bar or changing the volume. Since this isn't Windows there's no Function key, but most people don't even use those keys so it isn't a great loss. The lack of Delete key perturbed me a little, but you can still use Backspace so it isn't the end of the world. The only thing I did wish for was media control buttons like my regular laptop, but that may be asking a bit much considering the stripped down nature of the hardware. I will say that the keyboard has excellent tactile feedback and is very comfortable to use.

The trackpad for the C720 is smooth and has good clicking action. However, there is no normal way to disable the trackpad if you wish to do so. You can disable it if you want to enter the Crosh, the developer's shell by pressing Ctrl + Alt + T, then enter the command tpcontrol set 131 0. Still, I wish there was an easier way to do this. Maybe Google will provide an update to accommodate customers later. While they can't be seen, there are stereo speakers in the laptop hidden beneath the keyboard. They are very loud, but lack bass so you're better off using the headphone jack or Bluetooth speaker for music. 

The Chrome OS initially looks and feels a lot like Windows 7 in some ways. It has the "Start" menu on the lower left with the bar beneath and on the right a clock with battery meter, Wifi signal, and a tiny picture of which user is on the computer currently. Yes, Chrome OS comes with support for multiple users and upon start-up, you're prompted to enter your Google login information. 

This is where the Chromebook could fall apart for some people. I'm personally heavily invested in Google services from Play Music, Play Store, Drive, Docs, etc. So as soon as I log in, I have access to everything I set-up long before buying this Chromebook. In addition, it already sets up my bookmarks and history from my laptop. For someone new to Google services, you may feel underwhelmed. 

Although the bottom bar and "Start" menu have icons for things like Gmail and the like, clicking them opens up a window for the address on the Chrome browser. In many ways, the Chrome OS is crippled without internet access to the Google services, but many things have been made available offline like Docs. This way you could go somewhere and create a document, then when you regain internet access, the document will sync with Google's servers for later safekeeping. 

So how does it actually fare in use for me? Pretty good for the basics. I've put it through the test for some of its claims. I use it mostly for dictation at my friend's house, but I sometimes use it when I want a lightweight large screen to read from. Would it replace my regular laptop? No, not yet. There's still a heavy reliance on the cloud and interaction with the Chrome browser, plus there aren't very many web based versions of high end programs like Photoshop. However, for basic use like web browsing or reading, it's very good. 

Battery life on the C720 is rated at 8.5 hours with a 7 second boot-up time. Both of these are true, but the battery life is dependent on how you use the Chromebook. If you crank everything to max and stream videos all day, I doubt you will make it that time. However, if you just do basic browsing with the brightness set at around 50%, there's no question you could get this claimed battery, perhaps even more. The boot-up time is actually even faster than claimed. It's practically instantaneous.

A few things I tested and researched were stuff like whether you could use a mouse with the Chromebook or how external storage would work. I bought a cheap wired mouse and hooked it up and it worked flawlessly without any need for installing drivers and whatnot. External storage was a bit trickier. I struggled a bit to get the flash drive to work, but eventually I managed to get it to copy over information onto the internal storage. The file browser, coincidentally, is one of the only things you don't interact with through the Chrome browser. There are three options in it: Google Drive, downloads, and external storage.

While the Chrome OS claims to have built-in security, this is a dangerous notion. It's still possible to find a way to infect the browser or OS so the claim is only valid as long as nothing happens to it. Still, it has all of the standard things like anti-phishing and you can download AdBlockers just like on Windows. Without a registry or large sections of system to infect, I will say that it should be difficult. Just be careful with your information like you would on your regular computer.

One nice feature is automatic updates. Unlike the annoying Windows Update feature that eventually forces you to restart (often against your will), Chrome OS only updates on a restart of the system when you choose to.

In the end, Chrome OS is something to be interested in if you just need basic access to the web or need a simple computer to come with you when you go somewhere. At $200, the hardware here is amazing, but any higher (as there are several different versions of this model and Chromebooks from other manufacturers) and you might consider a full-fledged laptop, tablet (particularly the Surface, iPad, or Nexus 7), or if you're willing to sacrifice performance, a good old netbook for your secondary computer needs.

As a parting note, the entirety of this post was done on the Chromebook with no trouble at all. I was able to research it, type it up, find any images I needed, and post it.

The Good: Fast performance, excellent battery life, keyboard feels excellent, low priced, fairly well made, good feature set for cost. 

The Bad: Requires internet for most functionality, no standard way to disable trackpad, Chrome OS limits you to web applications and Google services.

Final Grade: A- (for myself), C+ (for non-Google service users)   


  1. Your method for disabling the touchpad worked great. Thanks for that. Now, how can it be enabled when needed?

    1. Sorry for the delay. Just input to tpcontrol set 131 1. Basically, it's just the binary equivalent of yes/no.