When I first started writing about Chromebooks two years ago, any new hardware release was noteworthy, but today that’s no longer the case. There are dozens of Chromebooks now available, running the spectrum from $149 budget ARM-based machines to high-end showpieces like the Google Pixel that cost $999 and up. There’s much less excitement about a new Chromebook release as a general rule, so OEMs need something new and different if they want to create buzz in the consumer market.
Last year, Asus and Dell were successful at this. Both released Chromebooks featuring high quality industrial design and IPS displays: the C100P “Flip” and Chromebook 13, respectively. The Flip featured a hybrid design with an IPS touchscreen display and aluminum body at a very competitive price, while the Dell features high-grade materials like a magnesium alloy case, an etched glass trackpad, a 1080p IPS display, and a backlit keyboard.
Both of these Chromebooks carried substantial excitement to their release into the market, and they’re both excellent and successful products. That said, neither is what I would consider an ideal consumer Chromebook. The Flip is powered by a budget ARM processor, the Rockchip 3288, and while it has decent performance, it isn’t even as fast as older budget Chromebooks like the Acer C720; furthermore, at only 10″ it has a cramped keyboard that isn’t ideal for long-term use. Alternatively, the Dell 13 is a fantastic traditional Chromebook that gives consumers basically everything they want from a performance and build quality perspective, that comes at a cost: $399 and up. That price point is going to be above and beyond what many consumers want to pay for a Chromebook, which many people still consider a secondary or back-up laptop.
The default “best” Chromebook at the $300 price point right now is, in my opinion, the Toshiba Chromebook 2 2015 edition. That Chromebook has a gorgeous 1080p IPS display paired with excellent performance from a 5th generation Intel processor, 4 GB of RAM, a backlit keyboard, and powerful speakers. Unfortunately, it also has mediocre battery life, and is a plastic device that suffers from build quality and longevity concerns. Other options at this price point from HP, Lenovo, Acer, and others present a mix of disappointments: larger units that offer less portability, ARM or Intel Bay Trail processors, TN display panels, budget build materials, or some combination of these.
It is this softness at the $300 price point that makes the Acer Chromebook 14 such an exciting product, as it checks off a critical list of five items that have never been seen in a $300 Chromebook before.
Checklist Item #1: IPS 1080p Display
Historically, Acer’s Chromebooks have been hampered by their poor displays. The Acer Chromebook 15 released last spring showed that Acer could include a quality IPS display panel on a reasonably priced Chromebook, and thankfully this trend continues with the Acer Chromebook 14.
The Chromebook 14 has a 1080p IPS display with fantastic viewing angles and excellent brightness. It feels wonderful to finally say that about an Acer display. The difference between the IPS display used here, and the TN panel from their 2014 Acer Chromebook 13, feels like jumping from a standard definition to a high definition TV. It makes web browsing and content consumption so much more enjoyable.
Checklist Item #2: Design and Build Materials
Chromebooks are generally budget-friendly devices, and as such they are typically made with plastic that does little to conceal their low-cost nature. As noted above, the Asus C100P and Dell Chromebook 13 are two examples of Chromebooks that bucked that trend, but until the Acer Chromebook 14, there hasn’t been a traditional Chromebook in the $250-$350 price range using high-quality build materials.
The Acer Chromebook 14 is encased in aluminum, and goes a step beyond by actually taking inspiration from the classic MacBook Air design including a black hinge and a sloped wedge design, albeit one that is significantly less pronounced than on a MacBook. The net effect here is that this is an impressively attractive laptop, one that at a distance may be mistaken for a MacBook, and which fits in perfectly for business travelers or in a coffee shop.
Checklist Item #3: Decent Performance (preferably via an Intel processor)
Chromebook consumers have often been forced to make a choice between mediocre performance with quality components – such as on the Asus C100P or Samsung Chromebook 2 – or conversely between better performance paired with lesser components, such as the Acer C740.
By pairing the excellent design and component choices noted above with an Intel N3160 processor, Acer has managed to provide the Chromebook 14 with decent performance while still keeping the cost reasonable. The N3160 isn’t going to light the world on fire – despite being a current-generation quad-core Intel processor, Octane benchmarks of 8,000-8,200 are all this processor is capable of – but it offers better performance than the N2830 and N2840 Bay Trail processors or ARM Rockchip 3288. This is true both in Chrome OS, where it doesn’t bog down significantly while rendering complex and ad-laden pages, and in Crouton, which benefits from it being a quad-core processor with newer Intel HD graphics. In all respects it is about the same performance you’d find in Acer’s R11 hybrid Chromebook, which I reviewed here in detail; the N3160 offers slightly higher turbo clock speeds than the N3150 in the R11.
Checklist Item #4: 4GB RAM and 32GB Local Storage
A more recent trend among Chrome OS devices is the inclusion of 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, instead of the 2GB/16GB which has been the standard for most of the life of the platform. For a lot of users, the local storage limitation isn’t a big deal, as without much in the way of applications, local storage isn’t that critical on a Chromebook, outside of local files or saved videos.
However, for people who like to locally store music, photos, and movies, or who intend to install Crouton – or even those who are looking ahead to the possibility of Android apps on Chrome OS – the additional local storage affords some degree of future-proofing. More critical for most consumers, the extra RAM is great for everyone in the here and now, as it makes this device more capable of running many tabs, or handling higher demand tasks like streaming content, without tabs crashing out or caching/reloading.
Checklist Item #5: $299
The Acer Chromebook 14 not only checks the boxes that make up a “Chromebook most wanted” list, it hits them at a price point of $299. While that isn’t quite the “impulse buy” threshold that the $199 Acer C720 hit back in late 2013 / early 2014, it still makes this a uniquely positioned device at this price point. There’s no comparable Chromebook or PC that has this level of build quality, performance, and feature set. That uniqueness accounts for a lot of the buzz surrounding this device, buzz that is fairly well deserved in this case.
A Few Missing Features
While there’s a whole lot to love with this Chromebook, there are also a few missing features that need to be discussed.
First, let’s look at the full specifications:
- 1.6 GHz quad-core Intel N3160 “Braswell” Celeron processor with turbo boost to 2.24 GHz and Intel HD Graphics 400
- 4 GB of DDR3 RAM
- 32 GB eMMC flash for local storage (comes with 100GB Google Drive)
- 14.0″ 1920×1080 IPS display
- 2x USB 3.1 ports
- HDMI out for external display
- Combo headphone/microphone jack
- “HD” webcam
- 802.11ac 2×2 dual-band WiFi
- Bluetooth 4.2
- 3.42 Pounds
- “14 hours” Quoted Battery Life
- Kensington Lock
The first two considerations are omitted features: an SD/Micro-SD card slot, and a touchscreen option. Not everyone uses SD cards, so this may not be an issue for everyone, but you’ll need a USB 3.0 card reader to transfer files to and from the Acer Chromebook 14 from an SD or Micro-SD card. There is also no available touchscreen version of this model, which again for many people isn’t a concern, as touch isn’t that deeply implemented within Chrome OS. It is, however, a possible future consideration if Google is really moving forward with a “convergence” of some sort wherein Chrome OS will have access to the Android Google Play Store. Personally I would pay an additional charge now to add this as an option, if I were able to do so.
It is awesome to see two USB 3.1 ports here, but there is no USB Type C port, which I don’t really expect at this price point to be honest. Similarly the eMMC flash storage is likely a necessary evil in order to keep the price point down. Again, in regular Chrome OS, this isn’t likely to matter all that much, but for Crouton users it does mean there’s a slower local storage solution here than on some other Chromebooks, notable competition like the Dell Chromebook 13 and Toshiba Chromebook 2 2015, both of which use removable M.2 SSDs which can be upgraded by the end user. As is typically the case, the eMMC flash storage here is soldered on board.
The battery life of the Acer Chromebook 14 is quite good, though I’m not sure I believe Acer’s quoted 14 hours; I’d say closer to 9-10 hours in mixed use at 70% brightness is more realistic.
One aspect of this Chromebook that needs to be acknowledged is its size; I don’t mean the thickness, as this is a slim laptop, but rather that 14.0″ screen and the total footprint of the device. Compared to an 11.6″ Chromebook, this device is rather large, and it weighs nearly double the Asus C201; it may look like a MacBook Air, but this is not a particularly light device. Here’s a MacBook Air 11 compared to the Acer Chromebook 14:
Finally, while the build materials here are exemplary, the actual build quality isn’t comparable to a true high-end machine, or even to the Dell Chromebook 13. There is a slightly hollow feeling when clicking on the trackpad that reminds you this isn’t an aluminum unibody design like an actual MacBook. The keyboard is similar to that of the Acer Chromebook 15, which is to say adequate but unexceptional, and it is not back-lit. Similarly the trackpad has the usual excellent responsiveness we find on Chromebooks, but lacks the quality feel of a high-end etched glass trackpad.
Comparisons to the Competition
Let’s start with the Dell Chromebook 13. The Dell is slightly smaller, but thicker Chromebook with similar weight. It also has a 1080p IPS display, and I should note that both the Dell Celeron and Dell i3 I’ve owned have had some backlight bleed, while the Acer has none at all. The Dell has a superior backlit keyboard, and a nicer trackpad, and is also made from premium materials; I think the Acer looks a bit better in photos and has a more modern design, but the actual quality of construction and overall package of materials and build is most definitely better in the Dell.
Where there’s a big difference in these machines is in the performance and the cost. The lowest-end Dell Chromebook 13 with an Intel Broadwell Celeron 3205U processor offers faster performance in browsing by a fairly substantial margin; it is also much faster in Crouton and the upgradeable SSD is a very attractive point for Crouton users.
However, cost is certainly a factor here; there’s at least a $100 gap in these machines, and that gap widens as you step up to higher end models of the Dell. Even $400 is likely beyond the maximum cost threshold for a Chromebook for the majority of consumers. I still believe that the Dell Chromebook 13 is the best Chromebook on the market – ignoring the Pixel, of course – but a $400 Chromebook isn’t the right choice for a lot of folks, and I acknowledge that readily.
What about the Toshiba Chromebook 2 2015? The Toshiba again has better performance, and also has an M.2 SSD rather than eMMC flash storage, but it has far less impressive build quality and even less impressive materials; it does offer a backlit keyboard and does have a ridiculously eye-popping display and loud, crisp speakers.
Still, I’d suggest the Acer Chromebook 14 over the Toshiba Chromebook 2 at this point in time, for most consumers. It dodges the annoying fan noise of the Toshiba, offers a far more pleasing form factor, and Toshiba’s exiting the majority of the world’s consumer PC market makes you wonder what type of support and manufacturer’s warranty response is going to be available.
Given that the Toshiba Chromebook 2 2015 was my suggested best Chromebook for most consumers in my last buyer’s guide, does that mean we have a new champ on our hands?
Yes, we do – but with a few caveats.
I believe that 13.3″ laptops are generally preferable for most people rather than 14.0″ and 15.6″ laptops, due to the former’s combination of full-size keyboard and better portability. Definitely check out a 14.0″ laptop or Chromebook at the store before you commit to this one if you’re moving from a smaller device, as the size increase is noticeable.
Also be aware that this Chromebook is significantly less future-proof than I’d like in several ways. It has no touchscreen, the hard drive can’t be upgraded, and most critically, the performance is just on the right side of adequate as of this writing; as a point of comparison, my aging Acer C720 Celeron with 2GB of RAM feels faster in basic browsing than this Chromebook. For me, that’s the main concern I have, and is the reason I typed this review on my Dell instead of the Acer; I’m willing to pay a little extra for a faster machine with a better keyboard and trackpad.
That said, I can’t stress enough what an impressive job Acer has done here, first in excising their legacy of poor screen quality and boring design on their Chromebooks, and then again on keeping the price down to $299 while nailing so many of the most critical consumer features. There’s no way Acer could’ve hit that price point without making some tradeoffs, and I think for the most part, they’ve made all winning trades here.
The Acer Chromebook 14 is the first Chromebook below $300 that has a fantastic appearance, solid performance in Chrome OS and Crouton, and a quality 1080p IPS display. If you’re considering a Chromebook purchase, you probably need to start with this one first and only move elsewhere if it doesn’t meet your needs.
Buy the Acer Chromebook 14 from Amazon.com
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