So after a few weeks I eventually had to stop doing all my work on the iPad Air. Unfortunately, all the will in the world isn’t enough to stop Safari crashing an average of 8 times a day. It became unbearable. I lost orders and forms and all sorts because without warning, Safari (or any web browser because they are all still Safari) would just force close. It was infuriating. That was the only problem I had with it. Other than that I managed to do everything else just fine and I enjoyed it. Alas, the Safari bug was a showstopper.
So instead I now have a Chromebook. Specifically an Acer C720 and I’ve been using it for the last few days and I must say, I am rather enjoying it. I’ve used Chromebooks in the past, of course, and the Samsung 3 series and the Pixel have represented both ends of the scale. I was troubled by the Series 3’s build quality and was impressed by the Pixels. I didn’t keep the Pixel because it was surplus to requirements at the time.
The hardware is quite well made. It’s plastic, obviously but there’s no flex or give in the construction. I’ve had laptops at more than twice the price that haven’t been this well made. It feels light as well. It’s a little heavier than an 11 inch Macbook air but the difference is less than half a pound.
The screen is matte, which is good for usage in sunlight, the resolution is 1366×768 which is pretty standard on cheap laptops. There is an option to go up to 1536×854 but this was a little too blurry for my eyes. In terms of quality it feels a little washed out but only a little. I don’t get the impression of “crap screen” when looking at it.
They aren’t as tinny as I was expecting but they aren’t great either. Music is muddy but loud enough. I watched an episode of Top Gear on it last night and had no trouble hearing the dialogue etc. I find laptop, phone and tablet speakers are all much of a muchness anyway. They generally come into one of two categories. “Crap” & “Usable”. These are in the latter.
The keyboard is a chiclet style which I’m glad of as I find it hard to use anything else on a Laptop these days. There are some minor changes from a standard keyboard though. The function keys have Chrome OS specific functions such as Back & Forward, full screen, brightness, volume and power. I found myself using these a lot when in fullscreen browsing mode as they were handier than invoking the toolbar each and every time.
The caps lock button is a search button which may irk some people but I’ve really taken to it. It’s a good way of not only searching the web but for launching apps and bookmarks as well.
In terms of typing I’ve had no issues at all. Travel is good and I’d put it at the better end of the scale for keyboards I have used. It doesn’t beat the keyboards on a Macbook though, which are best in class.
It’s a bit on the small side but not overly so. It’s one single piece which I like and it feels smooth and responsive. I’ve had no issues with it at all. Trackpads on non-macs have a reputation for being poor but this avoids the usual pitfalls. I can’t find anything to complain about.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Everything is done in a browser. It is possible to run apps so they actually look native and they certainly behave that way. I’m typing this in Google docs in a seperate, full screen window and it doesn’t feel any different from Pages or Word. Having everything saved in the cloud is also a nice benefit.
The Chrome browser is just as you’d expect it to be if you’ve used it on any platform. There are a few minor differences. You can’t install plugins for example which means no Silverlight, so in my case I can’t watch Sky Go anymore. Silverlight is going away though so hopefully Sky move to a supported method soon.
The browser feels fast and fluid. Scrolling is smooth. I’ve had no trouble with pages reloading like I did on the Samsung Series 3. I usually have about 5-10 tabs open at most so I may not be the most hardcore browser. I did open about 20 tabs including an HD Youtube video and a movie on Netflix and noticed some slowdown but the Chromebook was still usable. I doubt anyone is going to be watching 2 videos at once anyway.
In terms of using it for non-browsing activities I haven’t found anything I can’t do yet besides Skype. I’ll need to find a way around that for Cultivate. I write in Google docs but there are a few writing apps on the Chrome store that work quite well. I can stream music from Spotify and Google Play Music without issues.
I’ve transferred a few 720p MKV’s from my NAS and they played back without any problems in a dedicated player. It’s simple, so don’t expect the fine grain control you get with something like VLC but it’s more than good enough to use on a plane or train.
I like the notifications too. They all go to a single place with a counter in the bottom right hand corner. I find this better than OS X Notification Centre.
Hangout chats are handled well also. They appear as your contacts avatar next to the notification counter and pop up over whatever window you are in when clicked. It’s a brilliant implementation in my book.
I should also note that I haven’t heard the fan once and it’s ran cool the entire time.
Battery life is great. I got 8 hours of solid use out of it yesterday which comprised of browsing, listening to christmas songs, writing my Console choice piece, streaming tweets through Tweetdeck, regular email, a Google hangouts session and a 90 minute episode of Top Gear.
I’ve given this it’s own section because I know people come looking for them.
I wish the ‘shelf’ wasn’t as tall as it is. It takes up too much space when it’s on the bottom for me so I have to set it to authohide.
When you press the mute button it doesn’t actually mute the sound, it just sets the volume at 0. You have to turn the volume back up to the level you were at which makes quickly muting to hear something a pain.
Some of the UI controls in maximised mode cover UI elements. For example, the button to expand the toolbar in Google docs is covered by the minimise button.
Battery percentage or time left in the shelf would be handy. You can see this by clicking the icon but this type of info should be glanceable.
I miss being able to Airplay to the TV. I might have to buy a Chromecast if they are ever released in the UK!
Overall I am really impressed. I was gutted when I had to take my iPad back and thought I’d at least give the Chromebook a try. At £199 I’d say this is a bargain. It might not have the looks of the Pixel or the Chromebook 11 (nor does it have a overheating charger) but it also doesn’t feel anywhere near as cheap and badly put together as the Samsung Series 3. It’s obviously not as good as a Macbook but it’s only a 5th of the price.
I’ve got up to 14 days where I can take the machine back without issue but I think I’m going to keep it. It does almost everything I need, fits in a smallish bag and has awesome battery life. All for under £200. I’d recommend this to anyone who spends the majority of their time on a computer browsing the web or streaming iPlayer, Netflix etc. Throw in 100gb of Google drive for 2 years and 60 days of Google Play Music and it’s a bit of a bargain.
I hope Chrome stays commited to Chrome OS and continues to flesh it out. I can already notice differences in the OS from 6 months ago and I’m looking forward to seeing where Google takes it in the future. My advice would be not to count these little machines out just yet.
If I can truly do everything I want to on this Chromebook then I may never have to buy another expensive computer again. That is an exciting proposition. Even in a situation where one can afford a Macbook and an iPhone, it’s interesting to me that there are products out there now that can do the vast majority of the functionality for the fraction of the price. Only time will tell how sustainable that is both for businesses and for consumers.