Digital Life


Hands on: Acer C710 Chromebook

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Brimming with potential and priced to sell, Acer's stripped-down Chromebook is the perfect travel companion. 

We're still finding our way in the post-PC era and so far gadget-makers have produced a few duds along the way. Apple's slick iPad still sets the standard when it comes to striking a good balance between portability and usability, but Acer's AU$299 C710 Q1V2C Chromebook proves that the traditional notebook form factor has plenty of life left in it.

The Chromebook runs Google's Chrome OS, which is basically a stripped-down version of Linux designed to do little more than run the Chrome web browser. That's not as inconvenient as you might think in this age of web apps and cloud services.

Meanwhile Acer's $299 hardware is surprisingly impressive considering the budget price tag. The 11.6-inch, 1366x768 LED screen is bright and crisp, while the keyboard is firm and well-spaced. The notebook weighs in at only 1.38 kg and comfortably slips in a travel bag, while you'll squeeze three to four hours from the battery. In terms of connectivity you've got three USB 2.0 ports, an SD card slot, Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, webcam, headphone/mic jack and 802.11b/g/n wi-fi (supporting 2.4 and 5 GHz networks).

Overall the Chromebook puts every budget Windows netbook I've tested to shame. In the last few years I've seen Windows netbooks and notebooks which cost much more, offered much less and were far less pleasant to use. To be fair, this isn't the only Chromebook to reach our shores. We've also recently seen the launch of the $349 Samsung 11.6-inch Series 3 Chromebook in Australia. The $399 HP 14-inch Pavilion 14 Chromebook is also coming, so if you're sold on the Chromebook concept you'll want to weigh up the Acer's hardware against these alternatives.

Acer's Chromebook boots up in around 20 seconds, including the time taken to log into your Google account, and it revives from slumber in 1 second when you lift the lid. The Intel Celeron 1.1 GHz dual-core processor accompanied by 2 GB of RAM isn't exactly a powerhouse, but remember this is Linux -- not Windows -- and it's more than enough to support day-to-day tasks. The Chromebook certainly handles multi-tasking, complex websites and Flash-intensive games better than the AMD-powered HP Pavilion DM1-4108AU running Windows 7 which I bought last year to take to New York, but we'll get back to that in a minute. Even with the improved performance running Chrome OS, it's still worth considering Flash and script blockers to ease the load on the Chromebook (Flash really hammers the battery).

Of course the Chromebook's key selling point is not the hardware but rather the "just works" convenience of using Chrome OS. I must confess that my opinion of the Chromebook is influenced by the fact that I've long been a keen user of Google applications and services such as Chrome, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Reader (R.I.P.) and Google Docs. When it comes to hardware I learn towards Apple's iGadgets and MacBooks, but I'm much more comfortable with Google's platform-agnostic services than locking myself into Apple's tight but limited ecosystem.

The fact that I'm already a keen Google user made the transition to the Chromebook smooth and painless. Once it synced my extensions, bookmarks, browsing history and search history from Chrome on my MacBook Pro, this little Acer instantly felt like it was my computer. As a productivity tool I've taken to it faster than any other post-PC device I've tested, and I'd also put it ahead of many awkward netbooks and Ultrabooks with hideous keyboards and trackpads. If money was no object then the exquisite but expensive 11.6-inch MacBook Air would be the pick up the bunch, but spending more than $1000 on a secondary travel companion is more than some people can justify.


I know the fact I live in the Google ecosystem makes the Chromebook more attractive to me, but of course the inclusion of the full Chrome browser means you can just as easily tap into other cloud services such as Microsoft's impressive SkyDrive and Office Web Apps. Yet if you're a newcomer to the cloud and still wedded to a range of desktop software then the transition to the Chromebook might be more pain than you're willing to bear.

Foregoing desktop applications such as iTunes, Skype, Outlook, Word, Excel, Photoshop, Premiere and Audacity might seem like an instant deal-breaker and that's understandable. I certainly wouldn't trade in my collection of Macs and PCs in favour of Chromebooks.

Acer's Chromebook features a 320 GB hard drive, which seems excessive for a supposedly cloud-focuses device but it means you can load the hard drive with your multimedia library -- copied from USB stick, SD card or downloaded from the web. Chrome OS features a basic built-in media player which should meet your needs. Of course you can store any file on the Chromebook, but if you want to edit Office files you'll need to upload them to the cloud -- something which doesn't bother me but will naturally frustrate some people.

But at $299 the Acer Chromebook is pitched more as your secondary computer and a perhaps travel companion rather than your everyday workhorse. Your reliance on internet access might seem like another deal-breaker, but Chrome will happily cache Gmail, Google Docs and Google Calendar for offline editing and then sync them up to the cloud when you get back online. You can also store an extensive multimedia library on the 320 GB hard drive rather than constantly rely on the internet for entertainment. With these safeguards, I'd be more than happy to trust the Chromebook to serve me well on the road whether I was a student or an information worker.

The cheap yet rather useful Chromebook might also suit less-tech savvy users looking for easy-to-use alternatives to the iPad. People who currently perform all their consumer-oriented tasks in the browser should find moving to the Chromebook should be fairly painless, while reducing the headaches of software updates and malicious software. Of course they need to appreciate what they're sacrificing in return.

The Chromebook is not for everyone. Like all post-PC devices you need to go in understanding its limitations or else risk serious disappointment. Last year I weighed up all my options when looking for an international travel companion and decided that the $399 HP Pavilion running Windows 7 was the best fit for my needs. If I was forced to make that decision today I believe it would lose out to the $299 Acer Chromebook. Your mileage may vary but, short of spending more than $1000 on a Macbook Air, I'd say the Acer C710 Chromebook is the best fit for my travel bag.