The perfect Chromebook has long been a pipe dream. All Google needed to do was release a model with great battery life and speedy performance for a price that well undercuts a typical Windows laptop. But that’s apparently easier said than done. We’ve seen a variety of Chromebooks come and go over the years, but none have ever truly satisfied those three criteria. The beautiful Chromebook Pixel has a tremendous display, great build quality, and snappy performance, but its middling battery life and stratospheric price tag keep it firmly in the luxury camp. More recently, Google made a big fuss about the HP Chromebook 11, and while it has an attractive price and some novel features, its performance and battery life left quite a bit to be desired.
Enter Acer’s Chromebook C720. An update to last year’s pretty terrible C7, the C720 is sleeker, lighter, and faster than before. And most importantly, it promises more than double the battery life of the previous model while still improving performance. Acer is offering all of this for a mere $249, which is $50 more than the C7 but still $30 less than the HP Chromebook 11, and well below what competing Windows 8 or 8.1 laptops sell for. Is this the Chromebook I’ve been dreaming of since Google launched the initial CR-48 prototype Chromebook in 2010? Has Acer finally hit the right combination of price, performance, and battery life to make the ideal Chromebook?
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The C720 is strikingly mundane, pedestrian, and downright boring compared to the fun coloring and slick design of the HP Chromebook 11. It’s dark-gray-matte plastic everywhere, save for matte-black plastic on the bottom. It comes in gray, and only gray. The only bit of gloss is found in the bezel surrounding the 11.6-inch display, and sure enough, it’s a fingerprint magnet. But the lid of the C720 doesn’t show any fingerprints, which is in stark contrast to the fingerprint-magnet Chromebook 11. While the HP brings back fond memories of the plastic MacBook, the Acer pretty much looks like any other small laptop. The Chromebook 11 might be the fashionista of this year’s Chromebook lineup, but the C720 is very much the workhorse, and I prefer its utilitarianism.
Aside from being obviously plastic, the build of the C720 is surprisingly solid. Compare it to the lousy build of the C7, and it’s hard to believe the same company actually made both laptops. The hinge is appropriately stiff, the chassis doesn’t have any noticeable flex, and all of the seams are nice and tight. The C720 doesn’t have the CR-48’s matte rubber, but it doesn’t feel offensively cheap either.
It's not pretty, but it's BETTER THAN THE C7
The C720 doesn’t have the HP’s incredibly novel and useful Micro USB charging, but it does have an assortment of traditional laptop ports (HDMI, SD card slot, USB 3.0), all of which are missing from the HP. The 3.5 mm headphone jack is the only problem I have with the C720’s build; it’s stiff and hard to pull your headphones out of it. I was concerned on more than one occasion that I might break the jack on my $200 headphones when I tried to pull them out of the C720.
The Acer doesn’t have the HP’s cool underneath-the-keyboard speakers (audio fires downward out of the bottom), but it still gets sufficiently loud. The sound isn’t great per se — it’s pretty tinny and there’s next to zero bass reproduction — but the speakers do at least handle max volume without distortion. The C720 is a cheap laptop with cheap speakers to match.
Typing on the C720’s chiclet keyboard is, if nothing else, easy enough. The key travel is shallow, the keys are clacky and noisy, there’s no backlighting anywhere, and it will never give my MacBook Air a run for its money, but none of the keys stick and I was able to quickly get up to speed typing on it. It’s not great but it gets the job done, and for a $250 laptop that’s fine.
The trackpad below the keyboard is small, but its smooth finish and responsiveness put it leagues ahead of the sticky and frustrating trackpad on the Chromebook 11. It’s not glass (it’s plastic) and doesn’t feel as luxurious as the Pixel’s or a MacBook’s, but it works and doesn’t get in your way, which could not be said about last year’s C7 or this year’s Chromebook 11.
Trackpads are a seemingly simple thing, but time and again they are a pain point on many laptops, so it’s refreshing to see Acer get this right. Two-finger scrolling and other multi-finger gestures work fine, and I didn’t experience any jumpiness or random cursor movements. It continues to blow my mind that the majority of Windows laptops on the market still can’t master the trackpad, while the lowly C720 gets it mostly right. The only issue I came across was using the two-finger click to perform right-clicks: I had to comically stretch my fingers apart as wide as I could for the C720 to recognize it as a right-click. The C720’s low cost also rears its head in the echoey sound the trackpad makes when you depress it.
The 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display on the C720 is the same size as the HP’s screen, and unlike last year’s C7, it has a matte finish, which eliminates virtually all reflections and glare. But like any screen with a matte finish, it’s not nearly as bright, vibrant, or nice to look at as the HP’s, and its viewing angles aren’t nearly as wide. It’s perfectly passable, and frankly better than I expect to get on a $250 laptop — it just demonstrates how good the Chromebook 11’s display is. The C720 doesn’t have a touchscreen — so far that’s been reserved for the pricey Pixel — but if you’re going to make a compromise for price, the touchscreen is a good place to do it.
Part of a Chromebook’s appeal is in being light and thin, sliding easily into a bag or backpack, and the C720’s 2.42-pound, 0.7-inch-thick body fall right in line. It’s not as thin or light as an iPad, but then again, an iPad doesn’t offer you a full keyboard, usable trackpad, and an SD card slot — and it’s not $250. It’s not machined as well as a MacBook Air or an Aspire S7, but it’s plenty good for the price.
Acer’s not the first to package a Chromebook in a small, light chassis. But neither HP nor Samsung have been able to also fit into that chassis the performance I get using Chrome on a cheap Windows laptop — Acer pulled it off. Save for the Pixel, which is still the Chromebook speed champ, the C720 is hands down the fastest and most responsive Chromebook I’ve ever used. While most Chromebooks stutter while scrolling, choke up when working with more than a handful of tabs, and drop frames in videos left and right, the C720’s new Intel Celeron processor (part of the current-gen Haswell line) and 4GB of RAM quietly and efficiently get the job done.
The C720 ditches the C7’s antiquated spinning 320GB hard drive for a Chromebook-proper 16GB SSD that powers the computer on much faster and certainly aids in its responsiveness. You give up a lot of storage, but you gain a lot of speed, and with Chrome OS you’re supposed to be living in the cloud anyways. Acer also improved the C720’s fan; it still kicks on when you start to do intensive tasks, but it’s far quieter and cooler than the C7’s. For the most part, I didn’t notice it unless I was specifically testing to see if the fan was on or not.
Where most Chromebooks fall apart, the C720 keeps up
My typical work day consists of opening and closing dozens of tabs and leaving 15 to 20 open all of the time, which brings most any Chromebook to its knees. But the C720 is able to keep up with my demanding workflow. Though I can’t say it’s as fast as my MacBook Air, it doesn’t make me want to throw my hands up in frustration — and more importantly it doesn’t get in the way of getting my work done. I’ve always felt constrained when using a Chromebook, like a runner getting an asthma attack in the middle of a race, but that didn’t happen at all with the C720.
All of that speed and power means little if your laptop’s battery dies after only a few hours, and fortunately the C720 is an endurance champ. Google and Acer claim up to 8.5 hours of use on the battery, and in our rundown test, the C720 went for a staggering 9 hours and 41 minutes. In day-to-day use, I was easily able to get over seven hours out of the battery, making the C720 perfect for blasting through email on a cross-country flight. (The 12 free Gogo passes you get with every Chromebook help, too.) Though the C720 can’t charge over USB like the HP, it does charge remarkably quickly (Acer says it can go from 10 percent to full in just 1 hour and 37 minutes), and you won’t have to charge it often anyway. I’ve always loved how quickly my iPhone charges compared to other smartphones, and having that in a laptop is fantastic.
Chrome OS on the C720 is the same as Chrome OS on the HP Chromebook 11 is the same as Chrome OS on the Chromebook Pixel is the same as Chrome OS on the Samsung Chromebook. It’s still very much just a browser, but the latest versions of Chrome OS with proper windowing, packaged apps, and much better offline support take it a long way towards competing with a full desktop platform. Chrome OS has its weak points — editing photos and video and playing games are still tasks best left to a Mac or PC — but as our computing habits get increasingly more web-focused, it offers most of what the average person needs.
Chrome OS is more and more capable of replacing a desktop operating system
Some might lament the changes Google has made to Chrome OS lately as ruining the focused, modal experience it used to offer (especially for writing), but features like a proper notification system and windowed apps make it a much more mature platform, and more familiar to the vast majority of computer users out there.
You can be incredibly productive with the web versions of Microsoft’s and Google’s apps (I’ve gotten all of my work done on the C720 for the past week), and there are plenty of web apps available to manage tasks, jot down notes, and track your time. Despite its lower price tag, Google is offering all of the promotional goodies you get on the Chromebook 11 with the C720: there’s 100GB of Drive storage for free for two years (that alone is worth nearly half the cost of the C720 at Google’s current rates), plus 60 days of Google Play Music All Access and those dozen Gogo passes.
A $250 laptop always makes compromises, but the C720 makes the right ones
Chromebooks have typically been looked at as secondary or even tertiary computers. Often ghettoized as “the computer for my living room couch,” most Chromebooks have not been able to replace a Windows PC or Mac. They’re just cheap, and Google and its partners hope we’ll forgive their performance, battery, and feature set flaws in the name of frugality. They’re popular for the ultra price-conscious, but not the serious computer shopper.
The $249 C720 bucks that trend. It’s perfectly capable of taking the place of a Mac or Windows PC in most people’s lives, and it comes at a price that’s hard to beat. The Chromebook Pixel did a lot for legitimizing Chrome OS as a serious platform and the HP Chromebook 11 brought its style downstream. Now the C720 is bringing the Pixel’s performance to the mass market, and even improving on the Pixel’s primary flaw: battery life.
Despite its bargain-bin price and mostly uninspired design, the C720 doesn’t deserve to be relegated to the couch or thought of as a single-purpose word processor. There are lot of things that you can forgive on a cheap computer, but if it doesn’t work well or work for very long, it doesn’t matter. Fortunately, despite its cheap display and basic design, the C720 just works, and works all day.
You still have to buy in to Google’s ecosystem to get the most out of Chrome OS, but for the millions of people that already use the Chrome browser, it’s a pretty natural transition. There are better computers on the market than the C720, but not for under $250, which ultimately seals the deal.
Google may be calling the HP Chromebook 11 the “Chromebook for everyone,” but the C720 is the Chromebook for me, and probably you too.
More times than not, the Verge score is based on the average of the subscores below. However, since this is a non-weighted average, we reserve the right to tweak the overall score if we feel it doesn't reflect our overall assessment and price of the product. Read more about how we test and rate products.
- Design 6
- Keyboard 7
- Touchpad 7
- Display 6
- Performance 8
- Heat / noise 9
- Battery life 9
- Software 7