You might have thought it impossible to make a cheaper Chromebook than the Samsung Chromebook Series 3, but you’d be wrong. With the new C7 Chromebook, Acer has constructed a slim-and-light laptop running Chrome OS that can be sold for a ludicrously low £199.
What’s more, it’s constructed one that in some ways outmatches the Samsung. It has a clearer, brighter and higher-contrast 11.6in screen, a more notebook-like 1.1GHz Intel Celeron 847 processor instead of the Samsung’s ARM-based Exynos 5 CPU, and more onboard storage. It even has, on the whole, better connectivity. Why then, would we prefer the Samsung of the two?
Partly, it comes down to look and feel. With its Chromebook, Samsung came up with what was effectively a bargain-basement Ultrabook; lightweight and a little cheap and plasticky, but reasonably robust and very practical. The Acer has a smaller desktop footprint at 285 x 202mm against the Samsung’s 290 x 204mm, but it’s thicker at 25mm to the Samsung’s slimline 17.5mm, and also heavier at 1.4kg to the Samsung’s 1.1kg. The result is a machine that feels closer to a netbook than an Ultrabook, albeit a larger than average one with a screen and keyboard to match. It also feels creakier in places than the Samsung, with more bounce under the keyboard and more flex in the chassis underneath. With its two-tone black and grey-metallic casing the C7 looks smart, but like the Samsung, it feels cheaper than it looks. I’d still happily throw one in a backpack, but I’d be happier carrying the Samsung day-to-day.
There’s also the lesser question of noise. One of the good things about the new Samsung Chromebook is that, thanks to the kind of ARM-based processor normally found in tablets and smartphones it runs completely silent. With its more conventional Intel processor, the C7 doesn’t, and you’ll hear the fans kicking in quite a bit as soon as the CPU has a little work to do. It’s a surprisingly irritating buzz, and not helped by the fact that while the Samsung uses solid-state storage, the C7 uses a standard laptop hard disk. As a result, you’ll hear that clicking away from time to time.
Connectivity is one area where the C7 improves on the Samsung Chromebook Series 3. It might not have the Samsung’s USB 3.0 port, but makes up for it with three USB 2.0 ports to the Samsung’s one, plus HDMI, VGA and headphone outputs.
There’s also an SD memory card slot at the front and an Ethernet port on the left-hand side; one thing which the WiFi-only Samsung couldn’t boast. USB 3.0 is still most useful for connecting external storage, so on a device designed to work with cloud-based services its omission isn’t a fatal flaw. Overall, the C7 provides a better balance of ports and sockets.
Unfortunately, the C7’s smaller desktop footprint comes at a cost. Where the Samsung Chromebook has a relatively luxurious keyboard with generously sized keys, not to mention a surprisingly big touchpad, the Acer has to manage with only slightly smaller keys, but a more cramped layout. The Chrome OS-specific function keys in the top row are tiny, while the cursor keys are ridiculously minute. The hash key is actually jammed against the return key, and ditto for the backslash key and the left-shift.
However, It’s not all bad news. The trackpad might be smaller, but it feels marginally more responsive than the one on the Samsung, particularly when it comes to two-finger gestures for scrolling or right-clicking. Meanwhile what’s become a Power button on Samsung’s Chromebooks, here returns to its original role: Delete. While I prefer the crisper typing action on the Samsung, I wouldn’t call the C7’s keyboard a disaster by any means. In fact, I’m using it to write this review right now, and barely missing a keystroke.
Screen and sound
The screen on the C7 is better than the screen on the Samsung Chromebook. It’s brighter, there’s more contrast, and whites look genuinely white and not slightly yellow. While it’s a TN screen with all the narrow viewing angles that implies, it still beats most netbook screens and even many budget laptops stone dead. The 11.6in size and 1,366 x 768 resolution match the Samsung, and the only advantage the latter is left with is that the matt surface will fare better in more lighting conditions than the Acer’s glossy coating.
When you’re looking at photos or watching video, the C7 delivers stronger pictures and better colours every time. When it comes to sound, the C7 is a little less impressive. It’s hard to get a beefy output out of a laptop this size, and even harder when you’re doing so on such a tight budget. The Acer’s audio is weak, tinny and lacking bass and clarity. If you want to stream music or watch a film you’d better plug some headphones in.
Having only just covered Chrome OS in the Samsung review, we won’t go overboard on it here. The important thing is that Google’s cloud-based OS is now ready for primetime. It has apps to cover most needs and scenarios, it supports a more conventional Windows-like UI with multiple windows, and the old complaint that a Chromebook is useless without an Internet connection no longer holds water. You can work on documents, spreadsheets and presentations offline and sync changes when you next connect, and you can also read and answer emails. The built-in file handlers for video, photos and PDFs offer more features and are easier to use, and file management as a whole is no longer a disaster.
I still wouldn’t want to use a Chromebook to do heavy-duty photo or video-editing, or even use one as my main PC, but as a cheap, highly mobile, secondary computer it’s perfectly adequate for everyday use. There’s zero maintenance, and it doesn’t waste your time. What’s more, the way Chrome OS works, with everything tied into your Google account and your desktop and app selection changing to match, makes a Chromebook perfect for sharing with a family, an office or a class. There’s not much of a learning curve when it comes to using it, and the more I use Chrome OS, the more I like it. Understand the limitations of working across an Internet connection - particularly in low-bandwidth situations - and you’ll probably feel the same.
There’s good news and semi-bad news when it comes to performance. Acer’s decision to go with a 320GB conventional hard disk instead of an SSD probably makes sense from an economic standpoint - the C7 is clearly a re-purposed Windows laptop - but it means this Chromebook starts up slightly slower than the Samsung, taking roughly 19 seconds. This isn’t a massive issue, and the C7 doesn’t feel at all sluggish in everyday use, but it is peculiar. After all, it’s not like the cloud-centric Chrome OS is really built to capitalise on a larger drive.
On the good news front, the Celeron-powered C7 performs slightly better on intensive tasks than the ARM-powered Samsung. Where HD video streams stuttered every few seconds on the Samsung, they run reasonably smoothly on the Acer, and games like Bastion are just about playable. The C7’s SunSpider benchmark score is faster than the Samsung’s, at 523.1 to 758.2, and the WebGL Aquarium demo runs at a smooth 60fps to the Samsung’s 36 to 45fps. If you want to play 3D games then you’re barking up the wrong tree with a Chromebook, but you might want to watch films, and in this respect the Acer has the Samsung beat - though we hope to see software updates improve the performance from the Samsung’s perfectly capable Exynos SoC.
Sadly, we’re back in netbook territory when it comes to battery life. Acer and Google claim up to four hours, but that really is best-case scenario. While working with the Chromebook we’ve seen around three and a half hours of mixed use with screen brightness at acceptable, near-maximum levels, and a lot of video will drag that down to the three hour mark. This isn’t a problem if your Chromebook will stay rooted to a table or a desk, but a device like this is built for action anytime, anywhere both in and out of the house. The Samsung Series 5, with a life of around six and a half hours, could handle that role with ease, but here the battery life of the C7 is a real limitation.
In a whole lot of ways, the Acer C7 Chromebook is a good ultra low-budget laptop. It has a surprisingly decent screen, a usable keyboard and trackpad and enough performance to run a wide range of applications. It’s streets ahead of any netbook you could purchase at this price (and might make the basis of an interesting Linux laptop). As a Chromebook, however, it’s just not as compelling a prospect as the Samsung Chromebook Series 3. Though it has the edge on screen quality, performance and connectivity, it’s heavier, noisier and not as strong in the keyboard department as the Samsung Chromebook Series 3, while the woeful battery life is a serious flaw. Converting an existing Windows laptop to Chrome OS might keep costs down, but the hard disk affects boot times and battery life while offering no real advantages to compensate. This is Acer’s most tempting Chromebook yet, but if you want Chrome OS then the Samsung is still the one to buy.
Manufacturer and Product
Acer C7 Chromebook
1.1GHz Intel Celeron 847
320GB 5400rpm HDD
SD Memory Card
11.6in 1,366 x 768 TFT
3x USB 2.0, HDMI, VGA, Gigabit Ethernet, headphone
Size and weight
285 x 202 x 25mm, 1.4kg