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Acer Chromebook 13 review

Big promises, not big execution

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The best Chromebooks all have one thing in common: they’re small. The most popular Chromebooks have small, low-resolution 11.6-inch displays. They may offer a low price, stellar battery life, and fast performance — but sometimes you just want a bigger computer.

Acer’s new Chromebook 13 appears to be just that computer, at least on paper. It’s got a 13.3-inch display, same size as the 13-inch MacBook Air, with an optional 1080p resolution. The $299 1080p Chromebook 13 is both bigger and more pixel-dense than Dell’s Chromebook 11 or Acer’s own C720, while still being a low-cost computer. The larger size display gives Acer room for a full-size keyboard and a larger trackpad, things we never complain about being bigger.

Not only does the Chromebook 13 have a larger, better display than almost every other Chromebook out there (the $1,300 Chromebook Pixel excepted), it’s also the first Chromebook to use an Nvidia Tegra K1 processor. The Tegra K1 lets the Chromebook 13 drop the fan and keep a slim profile, while promising performance on par with or better than the Intel processors in other Chromebooks. It also lets Acer boast of up to 13 hours of battery life (11 hours with the 1080p display), more than any other Chromebook on the market.

There have been a lot of promises in the Chromebook world, but few laptops have been able to follow through. Acer (and by extension, Nvidia) is basically saying it’s done away with the usual compromises you get with a Chromebook. I’ve been putting it through its paces for the past couple of weeks to see if those promises have weight or if the Chromebook 13 is just full of hot air.

Acer Chromebook 13

First, the good news: the Chromebook 13 is the nicest designed Chromebook Acer has ever made. It’s even fair to say that it’s the nicest designed Chromebook this side of the ridiculously expensive Chromebook Pixel. It’s a slim, svelte design — 0.71-inches thick and 3.31 pounds — that’s both attractive and well put together. It’s still plastic in every place, but it’s not the cheap-feeling plastic that Acer uses on the C720 and other Chromebooks. It’s as well built as the Dell Chromebook 11, but slimmer and not as stumpy looking. The all-white finish is striking and doesn’t pick up dirt and smudges as easily as I would have expected it to.

Alongside the Chromebook 13’s sides are the standard ports: USB (2 USB 3.0 ports, one on the left, one on the rear), HDMI, headphone, and power. There’s also a built-in SD card reader on the left edge. The full-size keyboard is a joy to type on: it’s more spacious and much nicer feeling than the C720’s clacky, cramped keyboard. The only thing it’s missing is a backlight for typing in the dark, but I’ve yet to see an inexpensive Chromebook that offers that.

The Chromebook 13 has the best design this side of the Pixel

Similarly, the Chromebook 13’s trackpad is smooth and spacious, with accurate tracking and quick response. It’s not the same as using a MacBook’s glass trackpad, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one on another laptop in this price range. The Chromebook 13’s bottom mounted speakers are louder than I expected, but they tend to break up and distort when pushed to maximum volume.

But despite the nice design, roomy, comfortable keyboard, and good trackpad, the Chromebook 13’s display is what matters here. The 1080p option is only $20 more than the standard 720p screen, and it’s the only one you should consider. Having a higher-resolution display really changes the utility of a Chromebook: I can easily put two windows side-by-side to browse the web and keep an eye on my Tweetdeck stream at the same time, something that’s difficult to do with a 1366 x 768 display. On the flip side of that coin, everything is smaller on the 1080p screen, since Chrome OS doesn’t scale its user interface to accommodate the higher resolution. Perhaps this is my age showing, but I found text difficult to read in many places and ended up zooming in on websites often. (My default is to increase the zoom to 120 percent as soon as I visit a webpage, which makes the site easier to see, but still leaves Chrome OS’ user interface a bit too tiny.)

Though the Chromebook 13’s display has more pixels, it’s not really any better in quality than the screens on Acer’s other Chromebooks. Viewing angles are terrible, colors are a bit washed, and the screen is just harsh to look at after a while. That’s something I’ve more or less come to expect from a cheap Chromebook, but HP has been able to incorporate bright IPS displays in some of its models, so I wish other manufacturers would follow suit. (And it looks like they are, Toshiba just announced a 13-inch, 1080p Chromebook with an IPS screen this week.)

Acer Chromebook 13

While Acer got the exterior design of the Chromebook 13 mostly right, I’m not so sure the Nvidia Tegra K1 processor was the right move on the inside. Nvidia has a long history in making graphics cards and powerful gaming computers, and it’s quick to boast about the Tegra K1’s many cores (it has five in the main processor) and beefy graphics chip (which has 192 cores of its own).

All of those cores are supposed to give the Chromebook 13 more power than we’ve come to expect from Chromebooks and enable better gaming and deeper, 3D web experiences. But in practice, the Chromebook 13 doesn’t feel any faster or more responsive than the Intel-powered models I’ve used. In fact, it feels a beat or two behind most of the time, and it doesn’t handle multitasking nearly as well as I hoped it would.

The Chromebook 13 isn't any faster than an Intel-powered model

That could be due to the 2GB of RAM in my review unit (a 4GB model is available for an $80 premium), but I don’t think more RAM would solve all of the performance hiccups I saw. Like we’ve seen with Samsung’s Chromebook 2, trying to do more than one thing at a time wasn’t easy on the Chromebook 13, and even simple things like browsing a few sites while streaming music proved to be difficult. Streaming music shouldn’t stutter every time you open a new tab or launch a Chrome app, but it does on the Chromebook 13. Other times, the Chromebook 13 would inexplicably freeze up for a few seconds at a time, interrupting my workflow and driving me mad. Switching back to Acer’s C720 with an Intel Core i3 processor felt like cutting the parachute off of a drag racing car and stepping on the gas.

The K1 does have its benefits, however. The Chromebook 13’s fanless design means it’s always dead silent all of the time and it never gets hot on my lap. And Acer’s promise of long battery life proves to be true: the Chromebook 13 lasted a stunning 11 hours and 50 minutes on our rundown test and easily coasted through a full day of work without needing to be plugged in.

Acer Chromebook 13

The Chromebook world is becoming an increasingly crowded space, and the best options keep it simple with good performance and good battery life. The Chromebook 13 only hits one of those marks.

The hardware is great and I’m a big fan of the keyboard and trackpad. The high-res display is an nice thing to have too, though it definitely could still be improved in terms of color and viewing angles.

But I’m greatly let down by the Chromebook 13’s weak performance, despite the promises made by Nvidia and Acer. Like we said in our review of the Samsung Chromebook 2, it is possible to get a lot of work done on a Chromebook, but not if it can’t keep up with you. Unfortunately, despite its great battery life, the Chromebook 13 falls short on the most important promise of all: providing the best web browsing experience you can get on a Chromebook.