Meet Acer’s Chromebook 13

The Google Chromebook has a rather interesting history, starting as an always connected device with all your data stored in the cloud and slowly but steadily transforming into a platform that can function as a full laptop replacement. That’s not to say that everything you might want to do on a modern laptop is possible, but if it can do 95% of what most users need that could very well be enough, and there are clear benefits to Chrome OS as well.

Perhaps the strongest point in favor of Chrome OS is that it is a closed ecosystem. Unless you enable developer features, you’re effectively locked in to a collection of curated apps, all available through the Chrome Web Store. That being the case, viruses and other malware are pretty much a non-issue, at least in my experience, which removes a potentially huge support headache for users and administrators.

Along with the curated ecosystem, you also store most of your files in the cloud on Google’s various services (or in another cloud, e.g. Microsoft’s OneDrive), which means if something really goes south on a Chromebook – i.e. if the hardware malfunctions and can’t be fixed, or if your Chromebook is stolen – all you need to do is get a replacement Chromebook, log in, and outside of files you may have stored locally you can pick up right where you left off. It’s a benefit that can be extremely useful in a variety of other situations as well, like school classrooms where students don’t need a personal Chromebook, or offices where Chromebooks can be shared with no real concern for ownership.

Of course storing files in the cloud is something you can do with any laptop or other electronic device, but Chromebooks are basically purpose built for this sort of use. And there are other great benefits as well, like generally improved battery life relative to similarly equipped Windows laptops, a more responsive user interface given the limited hardware resources, and of course cost. That last point is a bit less of a clear win over Windows laptops these days, as Windows 8.1 with Bing has been able to effectively match the price point of Chromebooks.

Brett recently took a look at the HP Stream 11 for example, which costs $199 (and occasionally less); it’s definitely a $200 laptop, though, with compromises in many key areas. So let’s look at the Acer Chromebook 13 specifications, and we’re primarily going to be interested in seeing how it stacks up against other Chromebooks as well as inexpensive Windows laptops.

Acer Chromebook 13 Specifications
Processor NVIDIA Tegra K1
Quad-core Cortex A15 2.1GHz
192 CUDA core GPU)
Connectivity 1x1 dual-band 802.11ac
Bluetooth 4.0
Memory 2GB DDR3L
Storage 16GB eMMC
Battery 4-cell 15.2V 3220mAh 48Wh
I/O 2 x USB 3.0
HD webcam
headphone/mic jack
SD Card reader
Dimensions 12.9" x 9.0" x 0.71" / 328 x 229 x 18 mm
Display 13.3-inch TN 1920x1080
Weight 3.31 lbs. / 1505g
Price $300 MSRP, $250 Online

The big differentiator with Acer’s Chromebook 13 compared to other options is the use of NVIDIA’s Tegra K1 SoC. It’s a pretty potent SoC in the tablet world, with NVIDIA’s SHIELD still placing near the top of most benchmark charts. But when we switch over to the world of laptops and Chromebooks, TK1 has a very different set of competitors. Intel’s Bay Trail chips are around, sure, but along with a few ARM-based SoCs there’s also one rather interesting competitor: Intel’s Haswell-based Celeron 2955U. That’s actually the chip used in Acer’s previous Chromebook, the C720 variants, and while it’s the lowest end Haswell chip Intel makes, as we’ll see later it can still pack a punch.

So why would Acer switch from the Celeron 2955U to the TK1? Simply put, performance isn’t the only important element with a Chromebook. Battery life is certainly another factor, and while the 2955U isn’t necessarily a power hungry chip, the TK1 definitely wins out in pure power use and thermals. That means two things: better battery life, and possibly more importantly is that the Chromebook 13 is entirely fanless. Cost is likely another contributing factor, and while the C720 sold well, it has now been replaced by an updated 11.6” Chromebook with Intel’s Celeron N2830/N2840 Bay Trail SoC.

Here’s where things get a bit interesting. There are quite a few variants of the Chromebook 13. The lowest end model comes with 2GB RAM and a 1366x768 resolution LCD at $229; there’s a model with the same LCD but 4GB RAM but it’s too expensive. The option we’re reviewing costs $20 more and upgrades the display to a 1920x1080 LCD while staying with 2GB RAM, or if you want both the LCD upgrade and 4GB RAM upgrade plus 32GB of storage, the price ends up being $289 (marked down $91 from MSRP now). The version we received use to be the most sensible option, and at $249 it’s not a bad deal, but $40 to double your RAM and storage is certainly a reasonable price.

We’d also be remiss at this stage to not point out the updates that have been made to Acer’s Chromebook line in the past month. Acer has now announced the Chromebook 15 along with the C740 and C910 education models. All of those feature Intel’s new Broadwell-U processors, so they should be even faster than the C720, and the Chromebook 15 is available with a 1080p IPS display

Acer Chromebook 13: Subjective Evaluation
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  • jhoff80 - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Personally, I really think that Windows 10 should come with a sort of "RT mode" that doesn't let a user run anything that doesn't come from the Windows Store to protect from this sort of thing. Make it a switch that only the admin can modify, and that'd help a lot. I actually was considering a Surface 2 for my parents for a while because of this very reason (and they only need Office and IE anyway).
  • jimbo2779 - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    That's actually a really good idea. It would be really useful for the people that have to"admin" for a computer owned by a family member or friend.
  • nils_ - Sunday, January 25, 2015 - link

    This is what apple does on OS X as well, at least the Yosemite I use for work. You can set in the security settings that things downloaded from the Internet can't be run without overriding it in the security settings.
  • jabber - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    You don't get viruses etc. from porn sites. That's turn of the century thinking. You get malware from legitimate download sites. I guess you haven't read the articles from HowToGeek where they found that all the main download sites are stuffing the software with junk.

    Thats why folks and family get infected all the while due to them downloading innocent software encrusted with malware laden installers.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Okay, yes, you can get malware infections from non-porn activities, but looking for porn is also still a major source of problems. Particularly if someone looks for free stuff. But the toolbars and other addons are certainly bad as well.
  • sonicmerlin - Sunday, January 25, 2015 - link

    Maybe Microsoft should release windows RT laptops.
  • coder543 - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    You talk about those laptops like they're actually good. I wouldn't touch one of those 5400RPM hard drives with a 10-foot pole. The perceived performance of one of these chromebooks would absolutely crush all of those laptops you mentioned, just because of how glacially slow the hard drives would make them feel.

    The first laptop, where you replaced the hard drive with an SSD, is now at a total price of $400, which is roughly double the price of these Chromebooks. Of course, for more money, you can get a laptop with higher performance specs. This is how economies work. However, those are both 15.6" laptops as well, and 15 inch laptops are painfully large and bulky. 14" is as high as I could ever see myself purchasing, but 13.3" is a much more realistic "high end" for me in terms of size.

    My Acer C720P also has no problems with productivity sans an active cloud connection. Google Drive / Docs can be used without an internet connection, and it most definitely has both USB 3.0 and a full HDMI port -- so I'm not sure what you're talking about there. The battery life on my C720P almost certainly stomps whatever cheap Windows laptops you bought as well.

    To recap, Chromebooks are good because:
    - They are significantly less expensive than any Windows laptop worth having (the Stream 11 and X205TA are the first *real* competitors to Chromebooks, because they have SSDs at Chromebook price points)
    - They do have all of the connectivity you talked about, such as USB and HDMI
    - You're able to do productive things without an internet connection thanks to HTML5's notion of offline web applications, plus Google's Native Client (NaCL) initiative that allows you to run near-native code on Chromebooks in a fully sandboxed environment, including some rather intense games (though not very many)
    - Userproof: no malware, no crashing, no problems.
    - Compact, portable form factor, with build quality that far exceeds the chintzy feel of sub $400 15.6" Windows laptops which literally feel like they're 95% air, and 5% plastic that's about to break.

    I would *strongly* recommend buying a solid Chromebook (like the C720) and giving that a whirl. Your notions seem to be based on misconceptions and on the experiences gleaned from 10-seconds of clicking buttons on them at Best Buy while sneering at the Chromebooks.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Hey coder543, what "rather intense games" do you run on Chromebooks in a sandboxed environment? Serious question -- I'd love to have something a bit more demanding to test than WebGL portals! And if I can get something with a freaking benchmark in it, I'd be ecstatic. :-)
  • jabber - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    I took my little 11" Samsung Chromebook on my three week vacation to Canada a few months ago. I just charged it up and didnt take the charger with me as I reckoned it would last. Well I used it most days for checking upon stuff, was no hassle to carry around and it lasted the whole vacation...with an hour to spare on the battery. No cheap nasty $300 Windows laptop would have done that.
  • zodiacfml - Friday, January 23, 2015 - link

    Plenty laptops these days with a slow but big Intel CPU around $200. It might be pretty bad in terms of battery life but the speed will be appreciated all the time. I'm typing on an Asus with a Celeron 1000M which is snappy for web browsing.

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