Microsoft’s push back against Google’s Chrome OS platform, and Chromebooks in particular, continues in 2015 with the release of Acer’s Cloudbook series of budget Windows laptops.
The first one available, the Acer Cloudbook 11.6″ model – officially the Aspire One AO1-131-C9PM – is notable for several reasons. It has Intel’s new “Braswell” Celeron N3050 processor, comes with Windows 10 preinstalled, and has an MSRP of only $189.99 which includes a one-year Office 365 subscription.
Acer is the current market leader in Chromebooks, offering a variety of models and feature sets that are mostly well-regarded. Have they been able to apply that winning formula to the Cloudbook, or is this another low-end Windows laptop that has too many compromises? Will this suffice for a student, or for someone looking to play Minecraft?
Read on to find out!
The Acer Cloudbook comes in two versions, an 11.6″ model that is launching in September 2015, and a 14.0″ model due to follow soon after. The 11.6″ Cloudbook launches at $189.99 with 32 GB of storage, while the 14.0″ is coming for $199.99 with 32 GB of storage and slightly reduced battery run time. Apparently a 64 GB version of the 14.0″ is coming later, as well. All versions include a one year Office 365 subscription and 1 TB of OneDrive storage.
Beyond these differences, the two machines are identical, and feature the following specs:
- Intel Celeron N3050 “Braswell” dual-core processor at 1.6 GHz with burst to 2.16 GHz
- 2 GB of DDR3 RAM
- 32 GB of eMMC flash memory for local storage (comes with 1 TB OneDrive storage)
- 11.6″ or 14.0″ 1366×768 Display – TN Panel
- 1x USB 3.0 port, 1x USB 2.0 Port
- HDMI Out
- SD card slot
- Combo headphone/microphone jack
- “HD” webcam (640×480)
- 802.11 dual-band AC Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 4.1
The Acer Cloudbook is in direct competition with similar models from late 2014 and early 2015, such as the HP Stream 11, Asus X205TA, and Lenovo S21e, which launched at $199.99 but are now available in the $150-$180 range from most retailers. As such, I want to focus on what makes this Cloudbook different than those laptops.
The two most notable differences are the Operating System and the processor.
All those PCs just mentioned ship with Windows 8.1 installed. While Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users can upgrade to Windows 10 for free, you as the end-user still need to go through the upgrade process. On most PCs this is relatively painless, but on those with very cramped storage solutions, where there isn’t enough local storage space to house the Windows 10 upgrade file, it can be more time consuming.
The Acer Cloudbook ships with Windows 10 installed, which is both a pro and con. Dodging the install process is great, and Windows 10 itself is a solid upgrade over Windows 8.1, presenting a much more user-friendly version of 8’s best features with the traditional GUI of Windows 7.
However, it is also brand new and still has its fair share of bugs to work out. This means that you’ll likely be receiving quite a few Windows updates over the next six months or so as the finishing touches are put on the Windows 10 experience, worth noting in that it has caused some problems for people with limited data caps from their ISP. It also has me concerned that the initial launch size of the OS may not accurately reflect its size after it has gone through a year’s worth of updates.
The other key difference is that the Cloudbook features a “Braswell” class Celeron rather than the “Bay Trail” N2840 Celeron or 3735F Atom one would find in sub-$200 Windows 8.1 laptops. While the performance should be relatively similar in most applications, the integrated GPU – “Intel HD Graphics” – in the Braswell generation is significantly improved over that of Bay Trail, with Intel suggesting double the performance.
I’d also note that USB 3.0 is very welcome here, as is the full-size HDMI and SD Card slot; it is not uncommon to see low-cost laptops and Chromebooks shipping with only USB 2.0, or with Mini- or Micro-HDMI and SD card slots.
Build Quality and Design
The Cloudbook is more or less what you should expect of a sub-$200 laptop at this point: plastic everywhere, but still generally appealing. It has a more modern look and feel to it than Acer’s 2013 or 2014 Chromebooks, with a patterned and slightly textured lid, and a slight wedge design. This laptop comes in at 2.5 pounds, heavier than the Intel Atom-powered X205TA, but lighter than the HP Stream 11 or Acer C720.
The power brick is very small, which is expected given the N3050’s very low power requirements.
Opening up the Cloudbook and booting it up, you’ll find the typical Acer matte TN panel with a resolution of 1366×768. Out of the box it is cool-tinted and being a TN panel, it has generally poor viewing angles. The matte coating gives it anti-glare but also makes the display somewhat muted, though it has decent max brightness. In terms of ranking I’d put it a hair above the Stream 11’s display, but definitely below the Asus X205TA.
One surprise was the quality of the trackpad, which has been universally poor on low-end Windows laptops. The Cloudbook sports a very responsive trackpad that is a pleasure to use. It has great response to basic input, tap-to-click, and multi-finger gestures like two-finger scrolling and three-finger swipes to show all open windows. This is easily the best budget Windows trackpad I’ve used to date.
It is a disappointment, then, that Acer chose to pair it with a cramped keyboard that is more akin to the Asus X205TA than Acer’s C720 or C740 Chromebooks. I got used to it relatively quickly, but wouldn’t say it was enjoyable. I’d call it functional. The keys themselves feel fairly good to type on, having a good amount of travel, so it is a shame that the layout feels so cramped.
In terms of ports, as not all budget laptops include one, it is beneficial to find a USB 3.0 port here, as well as full-size HDMI out and full-size SD card slot. I’m unhappy, though, that Acer continues to include SD card slots that don’t allow full insertion of the card into the device.
This is especially irksome on a laptop like this where users are very likely to want to have additional external storage; it is ideal to purchase an SD card and leave it in the device, but with this type of card slot, you can’t do this as with the card inserted the laptop can’t be placed in a laptop bag or sleeve.
Finally, the speakers are down-facing but reasonably loud, albeit thin and missing any low-end.
The Intel N3050 Celeron powering the Cloudbook 11 is a new “Braswell” generation chip that is supposed to be more power efficient than its predecessor, “Bay Trail”, while offering significantly improved graphics performance. On paper, this sounds like a great bargain. In practice, things are a little less impressive.
This dual-core processor has a base clock speed of 1.6 GHz, with boost up to 2.16 GHz. The dual-core N2840 Celeron in the HP Stream 11 has a base speed of 2.16 GHz with boost up to 2.58 GHz. These speeds alone don’t really explain everything in terms of performance comparison, but it does seem that in many tasks, the N3050 is actually slower than the chipset it is replacing.
To give you an idea of how this processor performs, consider that in “balanced” power mode, in Google Chrome, I got an Octane 2.0 benchmark score of 5901, which is one of the lowest I’ve come across on a laptop over the past two years. My aging Nexus 10 tablet, with a 2012 mobile processor, scores a similar score on the same benchmark test.
Switching the Cloudbook to “Performance” mode via the Power settings in Control Panel as well as in the Intel Graphics application, that score increased to the 6900-7200 range. While much more respectable, that score is still more or less in line with Rockchip 3288 SoC-powered Chromebooks, and about 10% lower than the HP Stream 11.
Having said that, I’ve stated before that benchmarks don’t always tell the full story of a device’s performance. Then again, sometimes they do, and in the case of this device, the web browsing performance is in fact relatively sluggish. While Octane scores were higher in Chrome than in the Edge browser, the Edge browser felt faster to load pages and faster in multi-tasking; however, it also currently lacks plug-in functionality that users of Chrome and Firefox are likely used to at this point.
Page rendering takes longer than I expected on this device, and not unlike the Stream 11 and X205TA, beyond a few open tabs, performance drops dramatically. For casual web browsing this device is fine, but power users looking to have many tabs open at once will want to look elsewhere.
Beyond web browsing, I was reasonably happy with how the Cloudbook performed once it was set to “Performance” in power settings. The Windows 10 UI in general felt snappier and quicker to respond on the Cloudbook than Windows 8.1 did on the Stream 11 or X205TA, though how much of this is improvements in Windows 10 and how much is the processor, I’m not sure.
Video streaming from a variety of sources including Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu was fine, and once videos loaded there weren’t issues with buffering, frame drops, or freezing. The Windows 10 Netflix app worked very well.
Keep in mind that the “Performance” power setting will impact battery life; I’d expect more like 5 hours in real-world mixed use with this setting, as compared to 7 hours of real-world use in “balanced” mode. Gaming or watching videos will run down the device much faster than other uses. Via power-saving mode, low screen brightness, turning off wi-fi when not in use, etc. you could hit the 8 hours claimed by Acer.
Office applications – and remember, you get a full year of Office 365 for free with this device – opened quickly and ran smoothly for basic functions. This wouldn’t be an ideal device for high-powered Excel spreadsheets, RAM-intensive Word templates or multi-media packed PowerPoint presentations, but for basic functions it is capable of handling each Office application.
These programs all worked best when multi-tasking was kept to a minimum.
With the release of Windows 10, I now need to break this section into two components: traditional Minecraft and the Windows 10 Beta.
For those who don’t know, if you own Minecraft, you are eligible for a free beta copy of the Windows 10 version of Minecraft available in the Microsoft Store. This version is based on the Pocket Edition of Minecraft, and as such is somewhat stripped down by design, but also by nature of being many updates behind the PC and console builds as well. These updates are supposed to be coming in the near future.
The benefit is that it has jettisoned Java, and therefore has dramatic performance improvements over traditional PC Minecraft, along with full integrated Xbox controller support.
For traditional Minecraft, I tested it both with and without the Optifine plug-in. As a reference point, both the X205TA and HP Stream 11 could run Minecraft without Optifine, but it was a very bad experience; with Optifine installed, they both offered nice, playable Minecraft performance.
I was therefore surprised to find that with or without Optifine, traditional PC Minecraft was completely unplayable on this device. I’m not sure if it has to do with Windows 10, or with the current version of Minecraft (1.88) as compared to the one I was playing last year, but given the improved graphics performance I can’t really explain this problem. I’m assuming it has to do with drivers. When I say unplayable, I’m talking about under 10 FPS and even the menu exhibited lag.
Fortunately, the Windows 10 Minecraft Beta performed really well on this device, and was very responsive with an Xbox 360 controller. With all the graphics options turned on and draw-in set to 3 (out of 6, with 6 being the farthest), everything was quite smooth, even when flying around in Creative mode.
Let’s get this out of the way first: please do not buy this laptop if your primary concern is gaming. While the graphics performance of the Braswell Celeron is supposedly a nice upgrade over the previous generation, this is still a low-powered and budget device that cannot handle modern AAA games. You’ll find yourself hampered both by the processor and the absence of local storage as well.
That being said, one of the inherent advantages of a Cloudbook over a Chromebook is that you actually can install Steam, Minecraft, GOG Galaxy, Origin, and so on without any issues, and there is a tremendous catalog of older games and indie games that will run on the Acer Cloudbook.
Indie games such as Super Meat Boy, Duck Game, and Towerfall: Ascension all ran fine on the Cloudbook. Graduating to Source engine games, Half Life 2 ran reasonably well with graphics settings turned down, while Portal 2 required all graphics settings on low and 720p resolution in order to hit around 30 FPS. Still, I was impressed to see that this was even possible. Here again it makes the Minecraft issues all the more shocking.
When I got ambitious and tried Rocket League, the Cloudbook hit a wall. Even with all settings on Low or Off and 720p resolution, Rocket League was a slideshow with unplayable FPS.
Finally, I tested Hearthstone. The intro movie had some stuttering, which is never a good sign, but once I dropped it into “Low” settings, it ran very smoothly. Hearthstone on low at native resolution is completely playable on the Cloudbook.
The Acer Cloudbook gets a lot of things right. For the price, it offers nice build quality compared to its peers, a nice selection of ports including USB 3.0 and full-size HDMI, solid battery life, high-speed 802.11ac wi-fi, and much better graphics performance than the previous generation processors.
The inclusion of a year of Office 365 and 1 TB of OneDrive storage is also notable, as is the fact that the laptop ships with Windows 10 installed. And I was stunned to find a really nice, responsive trackpad on the Cloudbook.
All that being said, there are also some compromises here, the most important being that the web browsing experience on the Cloudbook is somewhat disappointing. It isn’t impossibly bad by any stretch, and many casual computer users may not notice, but if you’re used to high-end computers or the faster web browsing experience available on Chromebooks, this device will definitely feel slow and at times sluggish.
While I got used to it, the keyboard layout is somewhat cramped. The display is Acer’s typical matte TN panel, which is to say not particularly good. There are limited options here, and 32 GB of storage is cramped, and 2 GB of RAM is going to be insufficient in the very near future. Lastly, the SD card slot not allowing full insertion of the card into the laptop is highly disappointing.
So who is the Cloudbook for, exactly?
Casual computer users looking for a cheap, versatile laptop will likely be satisfied with this device considering the cost. It includes that Office 365 subscription and does a solid job running the Office applications, and it can play some of the most popular games like Minecraft for Windows 10 and Hearthstone. It does a nice job with streaming video, and having Windows 10 already installed dramatically reduces the work needed to get this laptop up and running.
I’ll be posting a video review next week showing what the web browsing experience is like, for those who want to get a better idea of how this laptop works.
For those that are looking to have the best web browsing experience possible for their money, I’d strongly suggest considering a Chromebook like the Asus C201 instead, which has a better screen, better keyboard, better battery life, and much faster performance on the web despite similar Octane benchmarks. Of course, you can’t run local apps like full Office, Hearthstone, Minecraft, iTunes, and so on with that Chromebook. If you’re curious, click here for more info.
The Cloudbook isn’t a home run for Acer or Microsoft, and it certainly isn’t a “Chromebook killer” in any way, shape, or form, but it is a mostly competent budget laptop that offers a lot of value for its asking price. I’m confident that a $189 laptop that lets family members do homework online and via MS Office, can play Hearthstone, and stream music and video is a machine quite a lot of people will want to buy… but I also hope that Acer is able to improve the web browsing and traditional Minecraft experience, which as of right now is are somewhat serious detractions in an otherwise nice package.
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