(There may be ongoing edits to this as I play with the machine)
I purchased an Acer C720 the other day for $179 (the one with the Haswell 2955U), mostly to get a feel for Chrome as a development platform, as Chromebooks are becoming really popular in the educational community.
I had used one of the first CR-48s way back in the day, but was put off by the fact that it couldn’t keep up with my typing, so gave it up at that point. What a difference the right hardware can make! I won’t bother with photographs because the Acer has been reviewed to death, but, fundamentally, it is a nice, fast machine in day-to-day usage.
The keyboard is awesome. I use a Macbook Pro day-to-day and I can type away on this keyboard at full speed. They’ve avoided the tragic keyboard mistakes that some manufacturers at this form factor make (for example, trying to stick the arrow keys on the same row as the shift — no matter where you put it it’s not going to work — the Asus 100T, otherwise a really nice piece of hardware, suffers from this toxic layout)
The trackpad is, ummm, just okayish. The trackpads on the Macs are state-of-the-art, of course, but even so, this trackpad seems a little fidgety. The HP 14 Chromebook apparently has a much better trackpad.
The screen is a typical TN screen. I hate TN screens, but they work okay for this form factor. I don’t mind it too much as long as I stay within that 20-degree range between decent contrast and psychedelic color shifts.
Boot up and shut down are incredibly fast — under 10 seconds. Actually, it’s almost difficult to tell the difference between cold boot and warm start, they are both so fast.
Some random keys that are handy:
Ctrl+Alt+T brings up a terminal window.
Ctrl+Alt+Right will bring you to a full screen crosh window.
Ctrl+Alt+/ will bring up a keyboard overlay that allows you to see all the special key commands available.
It is perhaps true that I am an anxious person.
I am prey to some small level of battery anxiety when my phone is under 70%, and with a Chromebook now I have two things to worry about: memory and disk. I am very conscious of the fact that I have only 2GB of memory and 16GB of disk space.
With 3.1G taken up after installing chromebrew + crouton, I have about 6.3G left on the drive. Well, that’s a little tight, although I can supplement with a USB drive as necessary. There is the possibility of getting rid of the swap for a few more gigabytes, but 2GB is a bit tight already.
A 4GB + 32GB SSD chromebook would be just about right, although those configurations are harder to find. That said I haven’t run into any issues with memory or disk space yet… but there’s always that lingering fear. The drive is replaceable on the C720, but the RAM is soldered in.
Of course, in the 21st century local storage is supposed to be passe, since you have Google Drive (and a deal for 100GB of Google Drive space for a year with every Chromebook). Google Drive is neat, and I was excited when I could put files into it even when offline. I was less excited, though, when ChromeOS decided to try and do a sync (even though wifi was turned off), and as a result locked the new files in Google Drive and made them inaccessible. There are, perhaps, kinks still to be worked out.
Thankfully, though, battery life is quite good. Based on my usage I could easily see getting 8+ hours of use out of this computer, given standard usage.
Accessing Windows shares. Actually, you just can’t do it unless you use a different OS entirely; ChromeOS doesn’t come with the necessary modules. Fuse is available, though, so if you have a handy server you can always sshfs mount the network drives. Still, not ideal.
Printing. You need a printer that is compatible with Google’s cloud print solution, or a Windows/Mac computer that is connected to some printer that can sit around and receive print requests.
Using the C720 as a writing machine is very appealing — for some reason the design of the C720 lends itself to focusing on a single task — so I wanted to get git onto it. You have a couple of options to get a more complete environment in the crosh shell, either dev_install or chromebrew.
I used chromebrew; it installs about a gig of stuff, and you end up getting a modern Python + Ruby + git + build-essentials.
But, sadly, it hasn’t got a lot of packages yet, and specifically (and tragically), no Emacs. Which means…
Crouton is a nice clean way of getting a version of Ubuntu into a chroot on your machine. With 14.04 + emacs + git + xfce, it takes about 1.7G of space on my device, and then you have access to the full array of Ubuntu packages.
Crouton is nicely designed, and makes it easy to have multiple chroots available if you want to play around with different options / operating systems / whatnot. I was experimenting with a full Unity install from a mounted USB drive but it didn’t seem worth it – XFCE is good enough and Unity takes significantly more memory.
It’s nice to be able to do some light editing in ChromeOS proper, so:
ChrEmacs or Caret are both decent editors that can sit in their own standalone Chrome window..
Secure Shell is a nice terminal emulator (although I’ve been using just crosh + ssh, and that works okay as well).
Crosh Window for a full-screen crosh window in the graphical environment.
Chrome Development Environment is a nice little environment for
tools built into Chrome, you have something that’s good enough. I used
it to play around with an HTML5 game that I had written a while ago,
treats query params as significant — so my cache busted
a.png?cb=whatever didn’t load in the environment. I worked around it
by just doing a
python -mSimpleHTTPServer instead. It’s nice but it
won’t replace Emacs for me.
Really nice machine for the price.
I find myself using it for browsing the web where I would have used the iPad before. The keyboard is convenient, of course, but the display is much much worse. The C720 feels quite a bit faster than the iPad, though, so overall it just makes it a better browsing machine.
But, I really wish there was a slightly nicer machine. I’ll take the C720’s keyboard no problem, but I would love an IPS screen (even if it wasn’t higher resolution, although higher resolution would be nice), a better trackpad and at least 4GB memory and 32GB SSD.
I admit that this may be a limited market, given that Chromebooks are popular because of their low price point. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the economics work out; once you add a good screen and enough memory to the machine you’re probably at the point where the price for the machine comes perilously close to “real” laptops, so maybe it’s just economically not feasible to have a “nice” Chromebook.
But, I see the appeal — I see why schools love Chromebooks — and I can see giving a Chromebook to an inexperienced person. If nothing else it would save me spending endless hours trying to remove viruses from a family member’s Windows machine.
It is nice to bring a machine on vacation that is eminently capable but costs less than one night at many hotels.
Comments are moderated whenever I remember that I have a blog.