Netbooks often got a bad rap for their numerous faults but in hindsight, they had a far greater impact on the computing industry than most realize.
The modern-day netbook was introduced by Asus in 2007 with the Eee PC. This new class of computing device arrived on the brink of a global financial crisis and quickly carved out a niche for itself as an affordable alternative to traditional notebooks. At their peak, netbooks accounted for 20 percent of notebook global sales but their success – at least, as Windows machines – would be short-lived.
Manufacturers began churning out sub-$400 netbooks at a rapid pace, loading new systems with incrementally faster hardware in an attempt to address criticism that they were painfully slow. In mid-2009, Google acknowledged the elephant in the room – the fact that netbooks were running a Windows operating system designed for much faster hardware – and vowed to free netbooks with a new, lightweight operating system called Chrome OS.
The first Chrome OS laptops, affectionately dubbed Chromebooks, wouldn’t go on sale until June 2011. By that time, netbooks already had one foot out the door as the arrival of the tablet in 2010 (and to a lesser degree, Apple’s impossibly thin MacBook Air) sent the market in a different direction. Like their netbook ancestors, price – and by proxy, build quality – was a key differentiator of early Chromebooks. In early 2013, Google broke those the rules with the Chromebook Pixel which was essentially a high-end notebook running Chrome OS. Starting at $1,299, the Pixel was deemed by most to be significantly overpriced but more than anything, it set precedent for premium, aesthetically pleasing Chromebooks.
Such is the case with the Acer Chromebook 14, a svelte machine that aims for a perfect blend of style, features and performance. Unlike the Pixel, this laptop comes in at just $300, powered by a quad-core Intel Celeron N3160 processor and Intel HD Graphics 400 alongside 4GB of LPDDR3 RAM and 32GB of flash storage.
The 14-inch, LED-backlit, matte-finish Active Matrix TFT LCD is of the IPS variety with a Full HD resolution. It’s framed by an average-sized bezel, an integrated webcam and dual microphones at the top and Acer’s branding on the bottom. The system measures 0.7” (height) x 13.4” (width) x 9.3” (depth) and tips the scales at 3.42 pounds. Both the lid and chassis are constructed of silver aluminum with the lid featuring a brushed finish like you’d find on a premium laptop. The Chrome branding is printed directly on the lid next to an inset Chrome logo that’s roughly four inches above the raised Acer badge.
Along the right edge of the Chromebook, you’ll find activity and battery LED indicators, a combination headphone / microphone jack and the charging jack. Moving to the left, we find a Kensington lock slot, two USB 3.0 ports and an HDMI port. The front and rear edges are featureless while on the bottom, you’ve got four anti-skid feet, two downward-firing speakers and of course, all of the regulatory information and that sort of thing. I popped off the bottom panel by unscrewing 10 small Philips-head screws but there doesn’t appear to be any expansion options as it relates to RAM or storage.
The chiclet-style keyboard sits in a recessed section of the deck. Acer has replaced the traditional function keys above the number row with handy shortcut keys for frequently used tasks. The board exhibits very little flex, is plenty spacious and features a familiar layout although the key travel is a bit too shallow for my liking.
Just below the keyboard is a massive trackpad with integrated click buttons. I’m typically not a fan of large trackpads as my wrists almost always touch the pad while typing and cause sporadic mouse pointer movement but this is one of those rare exceptions. Even with a significant portion of my wrist resting on the pad, there’s zero unintended mouse movement.
Acer’s Chromebook 14 packs a 3-cell, 3950mAh lithium polymer battery that’s rated to provide up to 12 hours of runtime on a single charge. Recharges come courtesy of a tiny power brick that could be described as “cute” even. In our official battery test which consists of running a 720p rip of the movie Inception on loop at full brightness, the Chromebook 14 lasted seven hours and 28 minutes. This would easily be enough to keep you entertained on a cross-country flight with juice to spare. I can certainly attest to the battery’s longevity as I managed to get several days of casual use out of it before needing to charge it for the first time.
The Chromebook’s stellar battery life partially comes at the expense of the display. The matte-finish all but eliminates glare associated with glossy screens and sharpness is spot on at 1080p resolution. Color accuracy is also very acceptable but brightness is arguably the Chromebook 14’s chief shortcoming. Even at its brightness setting, the display is a bit dimmer than I would normally use indoors. As a result, using the system outdoors on a sunny day is futile.
I can certainly attest to the battery’s longevity as I managed to get several days of casual use out of it before needing to charge it for the first time.
Conversely, the Chromebook 14’s audio system may be the best I’ve ever heard on a notebook. I was able to play through my Rhapsody playlist at maximum volume with zero distortion. Audio was rich and vibrant with very distinctive highs. The downward-firing stereo speakers are best experienced on a hard surface like a desk where audio can bounce off of. At one point, I even sat the Chromebook on a cloth-lined cat tree and still got great results. Acer really knocked it out of the park here.
Intel’s Celeron line of processors likely conjures one of two responses from users: an overclocking monster from the earlier days of computing or a lackluster chip found in budget-minded PCs. The Celeron N3160 found in this Chromebook is a 64-bit quad-core chip with 2MB of L2 cache that’s clocked at 1.6GHz (Burst to 2.24GHz). It’s built on a 14-nanometer process and has a TDP of just six watts which makes it incredibly energy efficient – so much so, that it is passively cooled. The system never got remotely warm during operation, even when stressing it to the max. With most laptops, it’s easy to detect where the processor is positioned inside the system – just feel around for the warm spot. On the Chromebook 14, there simply is no warm spot which makes locating the CPU – at least, based on heat – impossible.
If you value a truly silent computer as I do, you’ll no doubt appreciate the fanless approach. A fanless system also requires less maintenance as there’s no active cooler sucking dust into the machine (and no fan to replace years down the road).
What’s really surprising here is that it doesn’t feel as though you’re working with a Celeron processor and just 4GB of RAM. The system cold-boots to the “enter password” screen in just 10 seconds and wakes up from sleep mode the instant the lid is opened.
Browsing the web, the overwhelming majority of sites I encountered ran incredibly smooth. I’d occasionally stumble onto a site with a lot going on – like Zillow, for example – where the limitations of the hardware briefly surfaced in the form of stuttering or hesitation while scrolling.
In the handful of games I tried including Free Rider HD, Swerve and Roulette, gameplay was silky smooth with no slowdowns or jitters. Benchmark testing with Google Octane 2.0 and Mozilla Kraken 1.1 puts the performance of the Celeron processor somewhere in the neighborhood of a current or last-generation flagship smartphone. That may sound underwhelming for a notebook but again, given its purpose-built operating system and the fact that it runs web apps, it’s plenty fast for most applications.
All things considered, I was really impressed with the performance of the Chromebook 14. I was expecting an experience akin to a sub-$300 Windows laptop but that most definitely wasn’t the case.
Connectivity-wise, the Chromebook 14 leaves little to be desired. In lieu of a physical Ethernet jack, you get 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi as well as Bluetooth, an HDMI port, a headphone jack and two USB 3.0 ports. Despite its excellent trackpad, I still prefer to use a wireless mouse like my old Logitech Performance MX if I’m going to be working for any length of time. This of course consumes one of the USB ports, leaving the other free for a USB flash drive, external hard drive or charging cable for my smartphone.
The learning curve with Chrome OS is minimal. Anyone that uses Google’s Chrome browser or is invested in Google’s ecosystem should feel like a seasoned veteran on a Chromebook. They’re incredibly intuitive and easy to set up; if you have an older relative that’s new to computing -- something that’s becoming less common -- a Chromebook would serve as an excellent introduction.
But of course, if you're coming from Windows not everything works exactly like you might be used to right off the bat. For example, storage management is not Chrome OS’ strong suite, at least not in its current iteration. As it sits today, managing content stored both locally and in the cloud on Google Drive is handled through the Files app, which is crude at best. Just last week, however, it was revealed that Google is testing a Chrome OS storage manager that looks to greatly improve on this shortcoming.
Working with documents on the Chromebook isn’t as seamless of an experience as you’d get on a Windows PC, either. For example, in the Files app, I see my Google Drive storage where I have a “Getting started” PDF – a handy guide if you’re new to Google Drive. Clicking it brings up a prompt telling me that the file type isn’t supported and suggests I head to the Chrome Web Store to remedy the matter. As an average user might do, I follow the prompt and install a PDF viewer, head back to try the file again and strike out yet again. Only when I visit my Google Drive via the web am I actually able to open the PDF. It is little things like this that may frustrate some non-tech savvy users.
Speaking of Google Drive, the Chromebook 14 is eligible for a two-year subscription that offers 100GB of cloud storage space. If you do a lot of work on a desktop or another platform, you may already know how valuable a service like Google Drive can be as it makes it incredibly convenient to access content from all of your devices.
For most casual non-gaming tasks, you’ll find that Chrome OS is quite sufficient. Even offline, you’ve got a plenty capable system in which productivity tasks like Google Docs function albeit on a limited basis. For example, you can still type up a paper and save it locally although you don’t get the benefit of spell check until you reconnect to the web.
In another instance, when I attempted to load an old .wmv video file from a web server, I learned that this was a proprietary format owned by Microsoft that typically doesn’t play well on non-Windows devices. This of course wouldn’t have been an issue with a standard Windows notebook.
How deeply you dig into the Chrome Web Store for apps and extensions will depend directly on what all you do with the system. One of the first apps I picked up was VLC and although I was disappointed to not find an app for Rhapsody (and thus, had to listen via the website), an app for the more popular Spotify is readily available. Some will no doubt gravitate towards social media apps that facilitate access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like although those aren’t really for me. If you collaborate with co-workers, the Trello app will no doubt come in handy while a password manager like 1Password or LastPass will of course be a necessity. In lieu of my detailed monthly financial spreadsheets, an app like Mint would serve as a solid – and let’s be honest, a much more thorough – stand-in to my manually-updated Excel spreadsheets.
The Chrome Web Store is Google’s online store for free and paid web apps for Chrome OS. Think of it as Google Play for web apps but on a much smaller scale. The Chrome Web Store has been criticized as one of the weak points of Chrome OS due to its limited offerings. It also doesn’t help that you’ll need an active Internet connection to use some apps although if you’ve been keeping up with news as of late, you already know that Google is working on adding the ability to use the Google Play Store and Android apps on a range of Chromebooks, Chromeboxes and Chromebases.
Google says the Acer Chromebook 14 should be able to run Android apps later this year or sometime in 2017, at which time it’ll become a far more capable machine.
Above all else, the one takeaway with Chrome OS that you should know is that it’s simply not Windows. It doesn’t have the vast developer support that Microsoft’s OS enjoys but in the same respect, it’s not nearly as bloated as Windows, either, which allows it to run so smoothly on what would be unsuitable hardware for a full-blown copy of Windows. There are apps that support many of today’s most popular services but you won’t be able to do everything on it like you can a traditional PC. As long as you keep your expectations in check, you’ll be fine.
Acer’s Chromebook 14 is an all-around tremendous value at just $299. Short of Google’s own Chromebook Pixel which commands an astronomical $1,299, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that offers this level of fit and finish, especially in this price range. Although dim, the display is of great quality, the audio system and touchpad are outstanding and the machine is dead silent thanks to the passive cooling system that virtually eliminates heat. The keyboard is well-built but the key travel is a little shallow for my liking. Performance from the Celeron processor is more than acceptable and rarely shows its limitations.
If you were burned by netbooks or are looking for an excellent second computing device, I’d recommend giving Chromebooks a chance – you may be just as pleasantly surprised as I was. With firmly planted roots, a waning PC market and support for Android apps on the horizon, the Chromebook’s future looks bright. Given its price, it’s hard to go wrong with the Acer Chromebook 14.
Pros: Excellent build quality. Superb trackpad. Top-notch audio system. High-resolution matte display. Good value.
Cons: Dimly lit screen. Shallow key travel.