Last week was a great week for low-cost computing, as both HP and Acer announced Chromebook laptops for under $300.
Although the browser-based Chrome OS is no replacement for a Windows PC or Mac that can run a full array of software, Chromebooks are great for light work or Internet research. And at $280 for HP’s Chromebook 11 and $250 for Acer’s C720 Chromebook, they’re practically impulse buys if you just need a secondary laptop for around the house.
How do you choose between the two? I’ve been spending some time with both laptops this week, so here are some quick impressions.
The Chromebook 11 (pictured here in white) has a more comfortable and attractive design, while the Acer C720 (pictured in black) offers better performance and battery life. I suspected this much before trying either one, but if anything, the differences are even more drastic than I thought they’d be.
Acer’s Chromebook is the epitome of a cheap laptop. It’s loaded with vents on the bottom and back edge, and comes with the tacky and resilient “Intel inside” sticker next to the trackpad. Although the Acer and HP Chromebooks are both clad in plastic, Acer uses different shades and textures of plastic on almost every surface, as if trying to be ugly. And Acer was crazy enough to put a blinking LED on the front edge to tell you when it’s in standby. Laptop makers: Never do this.
HP’s Chromebook 11 has the advantage of being fanless, so it doesn’t need vents, and there’s a sense of continuity between the shiny white plastic on every surface. A gentle curve at the front edge of the laptop is easier on the wrists than the Acer C720’s sharp edges. And while the HP Chromebook is only lighter by 0.46 pounds, it feels much airier. The fact that it’s about a half-inch shorter from back to front may be a factor.
The 11.6-inch, 1366-by-768 display on Acer’s Chromebook is also consistent with most low-cost laptops. Although it’s the same size and resolution as HP’s Chromebook, viewing angles are much worse, and everything has a blueish hue. The only advantage for the Acer C720 is that the matte screen is easier to read in sunlight, but unless you’re outside all the time, the HP Chromebook’s gorgeous IPS display is the clear winner.
As for the keyboard and trackpad, HP’s Chromebook 11 gets the edge here as well. The keys have more travel and are less mushy, and the trackpad is larger and feels more accurate.
The speakers on the HP Chromebook 11 also deserve a mention. They’re mounted underneath the keyboard, and while they won’t give your music much bass, they handle voice crisply and are louder than Acer’s bottom-mounted speakers.
So far, things don’t sound too good for Acer, but its Chromebook has a few advantages. Battery life seems much better, as I’m seeing 50% charge remaining after about four hours of use. I haven’t done rigorous testing, but Acer’s claim of 8.5 hours on a charge seems to be holding up. With the HP Chromebook 11, I was getting a little over five hours. Being able to charge the HP Chromebook via micro-USB cable is cool in theory, but the cable itself is about four feet shorter than Acer’s, so you’ll need to be really close to an outlet to use and charge at the same time. (If you try to use a different cable, the HP Chromebook 11 warns you that you might need the official cable to charge up while the laptop is on.)
Acer’s C720 is also more powerful, thanks to its Intel Celeron processor and 4 GB of RAM, and doesn’t skip a beat even if you’re editing large Google Drive documents or moving between lots of tabs. Whether you’ll actually notice the difference depends on what you’re doing; I experienced some slowdown on the Chromebook 11 during my work routine, but haven’t always been able to duplicate it. The one use case where Acer’s Chromebook has a significant edge is in conjunction with Chromecast. HP’s laptop simply can’t handle beaming videos to the television, while Acer’s laptop hummed along at 480p resolution.
Finally, I should note that the Acer C720 has a full-sized SD card slot and HDMI output, neither of which are present on HP’s Chromebook 11, and Acer’s webcam is of higher quality.
Despite those advantages, and the $30 cost savings of the Acer, if I had to recommend one of these laptops, it’d still be the HP Chromebook 11. It is lighter and more comfortable to use, has a much better display and is prettier to look at. The superior performance and battery of the Acer C720 might appeal to a small number of users, but might not matter much if you’re just using the Chromebook as an around-the-house laptop, rather than an all-day work machine. Just be sure to charge the Chromebook 11 every night, because having to keep it tethered so close to an outlet could be frustrating. If HP just included a longer cable, it’d be pretty close to Chromebook perfection.