Acer Chromebook: Does it compute? (San Diego Transcript)

Imagine a slim, lightweight notebook computer with a capable 11.6-inch screen and full-size keyboard, complete with a Microsoft Office-like apps suite for $249, a fraction of what you would pay for a PC or Mac notebook. It’s the Acer C720/ZHN Chromebook.

What’s the catch? Chromebook uses the Chrome OS, a computer platform invented by Google that’s built around the Chrome browser as its interface. Chrome OS is designed to take full advantage of the cloud, while keeping hardware features to a minimum. It doesn’t need a fast processor or a hard drive. It comes with 100GB of online storage called Google Drive, 16GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM. A Google Drive with 100GB of storage costs $60 a year beginning in the third year.

Not having a complex OS or advanced hardware, the Acer is light at 2¾ pounds, yet fast and responsive. Startup times are quick: about 15 seconds from off and instantly from standby. The notebook uses an Intel 1.4 GHz Intel Celeron chip, a perfect match because of its low power consumption.

The catch, however, is you need a wireless connection to do most of the things you now do on your standard notebook. Relying on wireless means that when you lose connectivity, you lose access to most of your files, your email inbox and office apps, although there are few simple apps that let you write email and docs while offline.

Ironically as I write this column, my Time Warner Internet went down and, even though the company identified the problem as theirs, they can’t send a technician to the area for three days.

You can download additional apps from the Chrome Web Store, but it’s slim pickings — mainly games, utilities and productivity software. Some of these apps are simply links to a Web client such as Evernote and AutoCAD, again requiring a wireless connection.

While you can use applications that work through the Web, such as GoToMeeting, UberConference, OpenTable, Southwest, etc., you will not be able to run those apps that require downloaded software, such as Skype, scanner software, SugarSync, etc. And note that even though Chrome OS is created by Google, it’s a different OS than with Android, so Android apps will not work.

The Acer Chromebook is easy for a novice to use. There’s no OS to learn, no updates to slow you down, just a simple browser window with several icons at the bottom of the screen. One of the icons opens a small settings menu and another opens a small popup window with 24 built-in Google apps, including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Docs, a file manager, music player, camera and photo manager.

Battery life is rated at 8.5 hours and in my use with WiFi on and the display at full brightness, I got almost 7 hours, very good performance for a notebook. The 11.6-inch display with a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels and matte finish can’t compare with a top-of-the-line notebook, but it’s generally good enough.

The keyboard is full size and average compared to other notebooks. It’s not as good as a MacBook or ThinkPad, but it’s easy to type quickly and accurately.

When Google invented this new platform, it chose to make changes to the keyboard, mostly all positive. There’s no caps lock, something that should have been eliminated years ago. That’s the key often struck by mistake leading to A STRING OF ALL CAPS THAT NEEDS TO BE RETYPED. In its place is a Google search key.

There’s a large clickable trackpad below the keyboard, arranged much like a MacBook. Function keys are replaced by a row of useful action keys including forward and back page, reload, full screen, brightness and volume settings.

Another limitation is that you can’t print directly to a printer. You need to set up your printer to use Google Cloud Print, which prints via the cloud and requires a printer with built-in WiFi.

For those who spend lots of time online browsing, doing email, and writing, you may find a Chromebook to be perfectly suitable as a second computer or a first, if you’re on a tight budget.

Overall, I liked the Acer C720 for its simplicity of use, and particularly for eliminating the need to pamper an expensive notebook. Since most of the software and files are on the Web, you need not worry about losing or dropping the computer, upgrading its software or backing it up. That also makes security less of an issue — assuming you trust Google. But that’s a subject for another day.