July 19, 2011

973 words 5 mins read

Hands on with the Acer AC700 Chromebook

Last week, I got my hands on one of the brand spanking new Acer AC700 Chromebooks. I purchased this one over the Samsung Series 5 because the Acer has HDMI out instead of the Samsung’s VGA-via-dongle (it’s not portable if I have to remember 300 doohickeys to attach). My first impression with the unit is a good one. It’s sleek, well designed, and light. In fact, until you open the unit up (and see the keyboard) you wouldn’t even know it was a Chromebook. Last time I played with the Cr-48, I had started to fall a little out of love with the idea of a chromebook. The AC700 doesn’t change that much. It’s nice, but not great.

Since this hardware is specially designed for ChromeOS (cros), I’m going to be crossing back and forth between hardware and software when I talk about my likes and dislikes. As is my policy, I’ve used this device for a little time and typed the review up entirely on the hardware in question. Thankfully, the Chromebook has a real keyboard making this review much easier to type up than the Xoom’s review. So let’s get reviewing.

First is the hardware itself. The Acer is light and sleek. There isn’t much in the way of external labels except for a single Acer logo. As I mentioned above, there are no Google logos or any indication that it is different from another computer until you get to the keyboard. That, by the way, is a rather nice affair. The keys aren’t chiclet, but they aren’t completely normal either. Though the keys don’t have much more travel than chiclets, I like the keyboard for the most part. The one odd part is that the keyboard lacks Page Up, Page Down, Home, and End. Some may say that you don’t need this with a touchpad, but I like having those keys especially when writing. The touchpad has no visible buttons, but does click if you push it (you can tap to click too, or use 2 fingers to right click). Unfortunately, like most machines running Linux, I do not like how the touchpad behaves.

One thing to note about the hardware itself, the case is VERY easy to scratch. I flipped over one of the machines for just a moment, when I righted it — the top case had several decent (and noticeable) scratches. Since these are for traveling, I expect them to get scuffed up with time and don’t mind a little wear. Even still, the machine took way too much damage for being out of the box for less than 5 minutes. If you want your Chromebook to stay in good condition? Apply a skin to it the instant you take it out of the box.

When you first power on the unit, it comes up really fast. We timed it somewhere in the range of 5-6 seconds. To my knowledge, they’ve made some improvements to the first boot process which include a tutorial on how to master the touchpad. The unit also does a software update the first time you turn it on, before it lets you in. The one “major” change I noticed to the start up procedure is that ChromeOS now allows you to pick an avatar icon (a la Windows & OSX) for yourself, rather than forcing you to take a picture.

One of the major problems that I noticed very quickly is the WiFi. There are two major issues that annoy the hell out of me. The first is the fact that the WiFi password prompt is asterisked over and there is no way to show the password. At one point this was acceptable, but WiFi isn’t “secret” anymore. Hell, the default in Windows 7 is show password, hide only if checked (which BTW, I love). The second issue, and the more pressing… ChromeOS forgets ALL wireless networks you used except for the last. What does this mean? Say you setup your Chromebook on the work WiFi, then take it home. On your commute you program it to use your MiFi. Then at home you program it to use your home wireless. If this was Windows, OSX, Linux, iOS, Android, or any other OS, you’d be set! Automatic wireless no matter where you go… with Chrome, it has already forgotten your MiFi and your Work settings. Every time you go to work, you need to reenter your key. Every time you use your MiFi, you need to reenter that key. Every time you go home… you guessed it… you need to reenter your home key.

I will say this though, the support for external devices is decent. I took the Chromebook off to one of the conference rooms and plugged it into a 60” LCD with HDMI — worked flawlessly. The TV reported receiving a 1080 signal, but I can’t actually verify if it was 1080 or 720 (though it was an nice mirror of the internal screen). I also plugged in the dongle for my wireless Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard & Mouse — worked perfectly. With those two items, I could easily have used the Chromebook as a “desktop replacement”, how ever silly that would have been.

In the end, I like the Chromebook… but not that much. It is a handy device and a really cool concept… but the apps aren’t there yet. Like all new platforms, it is about the applications that you can run on it that will end up selling you. Chrome just doesn’t have the collection of cloud apps to fully replace a desktop. Sure, if you want a device that JUST surfs the web and chats on GTalk, you’re set (and it’s cheap!). Otherwise, if you have even the slightest modicum of needs beyond web… I suggest you get a real netbook (or, hell, a MacBook Air)