Acer Chromebook 13 review

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It is hard to come by a laptop at a low price that does not sacrifice quality hardware. There are trade-offs to be made. Even laptops running Windows are not alone in this. When Google launched Chrome OS in 2011, the hardware was pretty bad. It was not until very recently that hardware manufacturers started to build respectable Chromebooks. In time for the holidays, Acer released the Chromebook 13. It combines a simple design with specifications that you would find in a high-end tablet, such as the NVIDIA Tegra K1 processor, which might make it the most powerful Chromebook ever.

Everything looks good on paper, so how does the Chromebook 13 perform in real life? Hit the break to get started.

DESIGN

The Chromebook 13 is not going to win any design awards, but it doesn’t have to. Unlike other Chromebooks, the Chromebook 13 does not look cheap. The entire device is smooth to touch and is composed of a white plastic. It is no fingerprint magnet and I have not noticed any discoloration in the few weeks of use.

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Coming from a Dell laptop dating back to the days before Ultrabooks were a thing, the Chromebook 13 seems like a feather. It is thin and light. Acer managed to translate 3.31 lbs into a 0.7-inch thick body. The Chromebook 13 is as portable as a Chromebook should be. I had no problem getting it into my bag full of textbooks before heading off to class for the day.

The keyboard and trackpad work very well. This is a Chromebook, so the keyboard is just a tad different than what you would see elsewhere. The Caps lock key is dropped in favor of an in-device Search key. The top row has Back, Forward, Reload, Immersive mode, Overview mode, Brightness, Sound, and Power keys. All of these keys are useful. The size of the keyboard is fine and requires little travel. For some it could be tight, but I enjoy not having to move my fingers much. The trackpad is set closer to the user and away from the keyboard. At first, I thought my trackpad was faulty as the right side was slightly recessed. It turns out that this is because it clicks for when you have to ‘click and drag’ an item.

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There are a few manufacturing hiccups to be found, though, at least with my unit. There were raised minuscule specks all over the place. At first, I thought perhaps I was a little messy while eating lunch and using the device. That was not the case because they did not move when attempting to wipe them away. Another minor defect was found at the top of the display. The lining of the bezel that meets the panel had a chipped-like look. It was only noticeable when using the device in direct sunlight and I completely forgot about it other times. Despite these very small oddities, the Chromebook 13 is well-made. It feels solid even though it is light. There is no creakiness or flexing when handling it.

HARDWARE

Acer went the extra mile with the Chromebook 13 and ensured that there is one suitable for everyone. It features a 1366×768 or 1920×1080 (Full HD) display behind a 13.3-inch TN panel, a NVIDIA Tegra K1 processor, 2GB or 4GB of RAM, HD webcam, 16GB or 32GB of storage, SD card slot, two USB 3.0 ports, and one HDMI port.

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There are multiple configurations and, as you can tell, choices are to be made on display resolution, RAM, and storage. Pricing starts at $279 and climbs up to $379 when going with the Full HD display, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage. The Chromebook 13 is one of the few Chromebooks available in configurations that allow buyers to really get what they need.

The model I have here is the CB5-311-T9B0 which includes the Full HD display, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage.

PERFORMANCE

The Chromebook 13’s display is… questionable. There are areas in which it shines and others it disappoints. But that is sort of expected when a TN panel is used rather than an IPS. The display is not made of a shiny glass. It is soft. The benefit of the TN panel here is that there is nearly no glare when sitting in front of light. When being used outdoors, you retain an identical viewing experience to indoors. The brightness gets pretty high if necessary. Unfortunately, even for the Full HD display, things just don’t feel very sharp. Streaming video in 1080p from YouTube looks great, but it just doesn’t present the same quality as an IPS display. The colors are not as vibrant as desired. There is no dullness, but you definitely want more.

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Again, the star of the show is the Tegra K1 processor. This is a departure from the usual Intel and Samsung processors featured in all other Chromebooks preceding this one. NVIDIA touts the Tegra K1 for having 192 graphics cores. There is no fan here and it is not necessary as the Chromebook 13 does not run anywhere near as hot to require a cooling mechanism. The only potential warmth that can be located is the space above the keyboard. That is presumably where the action is, so it makes sense.

This Chromebook can handle what you throw at it, even with 2GB of RAM. Of course, spending the extra money for 4GB is nice; however, many people will do just fine with the base amount. Performance was smooth across the board with multiple tabs running simultaneously. I did find some sluggishness when typing in a new area though. That usually corrects itself and catches up within 2-3 seconds. Continuously loading webpages and having music streaming in one tab was seamless.

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People are bound to groan when they see 16GB/32GB of storage. To them, I say calm down and understand how a Chromebook works. What do you do when the storage runs out? Look to the cloud. The Chromebook 13 comes with 100GB of Google Drive storage free for two years. That is more than enough storage for many people. Store documents, photographs, and other files up there. Then you can take it with you everywhere you go. For the people that prefer physical storage, pop a USB stick into one of the two USB 3.0 ports and start filling up there. As a bonus, there is an SD card slot to further your storage options (mainly for photos). A hardcore productivity user, in my opinion, can be easily accommodated to use a Chromebook.

BATTERY

The size of the battery here is 3220mAh, the same as the Galaxy Note 4. Yes, the Chromebook 13’s battery is the same size as a flagship smartphone’s. That is fine because Chrome OS does not perform demanding tasks that require more energy. Also, that Tegra K1 processor is very good at managing power consumption. Acer lists the maximum battery life of the Chromebook 13 to be 11.5 hours. It makes sense depending upon how you use the device. I have basically replaced my Windows laptop with this Chromebook; therefore, my use is heavy during the week between schoolwork and posts for TalkAndroid. During these kind of days, I can stretch the Chromebook 13’s battery to go two days or so without a charge. On a Friday, if fully charged, I can make it safely to Monday.

Your mileage may vary, but the battery will suffice no matter what.

SOFTWARE

First and foremost, let me say that this is the first ever Chrome OS device I have used. The Chromebook 13 is a brand new experience for me on both the hardware and software side. I have a Windows 8.1 laptop and an iMac running OS X Yosemite, but Chrome OS is by far the simplest. It is stripped down and supplies the essentials. Then, there is the Chrome Web Store to fulfill individual wants. In fact, PC users can get a feel for Chrome OS by using the Chrome browser in Windows 8 mode. Even for frequent Mac users, you can get a pretty good idea of Chrome OS by using the Chrome browser alone.

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Almost everything will launch as a tab in the browser. Luckily, there is a button to launch it as a separate window and this gives it a more substantial feeling. You no longer feel like your running webpages. I did this with Tweetdeck because it just seemed out of place running in the browser.

The biggest issue I have with Chrome OS is scaling. Everything is tiny. Tiny to the point where it is rather difficult for my eyes to see what something says without squinting. I am not a fan of changing a system’s font size, so dealing with it is the way to go. However, at least for Chrome, I elected to set all webpages to be magnified 125% instead of the standard 100%. It makes everything somewhat better. Google still has a lot of work to do in this department. The 13.3-inch display is no problem, but how Chrome OS handles it is.

CLOSING

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Acer has easily put itself ahead of others with the Chromebook 13. The company delivers what consumers want in an affordable device. The Chromebook 13 is well-made and has configurations delivering specifications for a wide audience. It can be an entry-level device for basic tasks while checking email and browsing the web. It can also be a endurable machine with extra wiggle room when 4GB of RAM is added. No matter what, it has Tegra K1 inside and that makes is very powerful. Throw in a 1080p display and the Chromebook 13 is quite the value. There are a few things I would like to see — an IPS panel and manufacturing kinks worked out. Those things aren’t going to change all that much anyways. As is, the Chromebook 13 is bound to be a wise purchase because no other Chromebook can offer similar performance at the same price.


About the Author: Justin Herrick

Born and raised in New Jersey, Justin is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University where he studied marketing with a focus on digital marketing. He's very talkative and enjoys discussing anything from technology and sports to video games and television. As for Justin's current device rotation, he carries around the Google Pixel and Nexus 9. In the rare case that his phone or tablet is not in his hand, he is either flicking through cards on his Moto 360 (2015) or typing away on the Microsoft Surface Book. Justin is patiently waiting for the day that Google replicates the Galaxy Nexus with modern day specifications.