Before kicking off the review proper, I want to provide some background on Acer’s Chromebook offerings the past few years and look at how and where the C740 fits into their product line. I’d also like to note that I have a video review up as well, see the bottom of this review for the link if interested.
The Acer C720 is, for many people, the archetypal Chromebook. It pairs a very low cost – starting at $199.99 – with reasonable build quality for the budget category, and snappy performance courtesy of a Haswell-based 2955U processor and 16 GB SSD. Performance at this level was unheard of at the sub-$200 price point before this device launched in late 2013, and even today, Acer is the leading OEM in the Chromebook space largely on the back of this versatile little device.
Full disclosure here: I own a C720 and it was my first Chromebook, so I am very fond of it. You can see how it compares to some low-end Windows devices here: Budget Laptop Battle
On a less positive note, the C720 is also the poster child for the lower quality matte-coated TN panels that ship on many Chromebooks. While they do a good job of handling the glare students might face in a school setting, consumers have become used to significantly better screens due to advances in displays in the tablet computing and smartphone space.Acer has released a number of Chromebooks subsequent to the release of the C720, including the CB3 – Chromebook 11 which has a less powerful Bay Trail Celeron N2830, and the CB5 – Chromebook 13, which is ARM-based and has the NVIDIA Tegra K1 processor and can be paired with a Full HD screen. Sadly, it is still a relatively low-quality matte TN panel.
Note that the Octane scores for both of these processors are about 30-40% lower than that of the 2955U processor powering the base-level C720. The Tegra K1 at least offers powerful graphics capabilities, which unfortunately can’t really be utilized that effectively in native Chrome OS. [If you’re interested in the performance of the Bay Trail Celeron and Tegra K1 SoC, you can find my thoughts here.] In addition, both are consumer-focused products with education applications, rather than being specifically created and marketed to the education segment.
Neither of these Chromebooks can be considered a true successor to the C720, which is now available in all manner of configurations including upgrades to 4 GB of RAM, a 32 GB SSD, a touchscreen, or a core i3 processor.
When Acer announced the upcoming release of the C740, another 11.6” Chromebook, most people assumed this would be the mass market follow-up to the C720, but Acer has said this is not the case. Instead, the C740 is an education-focused device featuring enhancements to durability and, at entry level, an upgraded 3205U Broadwell-based processor at 1.5 GHz and featuring Intel’s upgraded HD Graphics.
Like the C720 before it, devices with this processor will prove to be a solid choice for those looking to have access to Linux; unfortunately, we do have to wait for things to be optimized.
Unlike the C720’s low-end price, though, you’re paying a premium for the more rugged design; the C740 runs $259.99 for 2 GB of RAM, and $279.99 for 4 GB of RAM. At launch you can only get it with a 16 GB SSD, which is unfortunate, and it remains to be seen whether the drive is user upgradeable, as it was in the C720.
With all that said, let’s get down to reviewing the device itself.
The Acer C740, launched in late February 2015, is the first Chromebook available with the brand new 5th-generation Broadwell-based 3205U processor, running at 1.5 GHz. Improvements in power management should result in an increase in battery life as compared to the previous 4th-generation Haswell processor. Acer has noted an expected 9 hour run time for the C740, a modest improvement over the 8 hours claimed for the C720.
For now, only the Celeron is available, but in the future Acer has suggested a core i3 version will be available, and it is likely a subsequent touchscreen upgrade will also be available at some point.
Intel has also improved the performance of their integrated GPU solution, still just called Intel HD Graphics on the 3205U. With this processor performance is expected to be similar to the Intel HD 4000 integrated solution available in the “core” chipsets in 2012 into 2013; this is the same integrated GPU from the first-generation Surface Pro, for example. This should, in theory, result in improved performance in graphics-intensive web applications as well as in native gaming when using a full Linux distro on the device.
Paired with this new processor, you can opt for either 2 GB or 4 GB of RAM as the only options available at launch. Both have a 16 GB SSD, and a 1366×768 matte TN panel. By default you get 802.11ac wireless, which is great for a budget device, as well as Bluetooth 4.0.
As with the C720, this device has one USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0 port, a full-size HDMI out to connect to a monitor or HDTV, and a full-size SD card slot. Like the C720 before it, the SD card slot here is not spring-loaded and the card will only insert about 50% into the system.
The C740 is a more rugged design as compared to previous Acer releases, related to its education focus. The corners are resistant to breaking by drops, and the hinge is metal reinforced so that the device can be picked up by the screen and in theory, it will not break.
With the exception of the processor, these specs are fairly typical of lower-end 11.6” and 13.3” Chromebooks from competitors like Asus and HP. If you choose this device over the C720, you’re paying a premium for three things:
· 5th Generation Broadwell-based 3205U Celeron processor
· 4 GB of RAM (for $279.99)
· Rugged and reinforced design
This pricing compares somewhat favorably to the Dell Chromebook 11, which launched at $299.99 for a device with similar features save for the processor, which was the older 2955U.
The C740 definitely does not hide the fact that it is an education-focused device.
The first thing I noticed when unboxing the device is that the lid has a more premium look and feel; it is cool to the touch and is meant to approximate metal. Hopefully this ends up being more scratch-resistant than the lid cover on the C720. The tradeoff is that it does collect fingerprints.
The C740 is thicker than the C720 due to the different lid:
Presumably, some of the additional weight is to allow for the drop-resistant corners and sturdier lid and hinges. The keys feel like they have a little bit of additional travel as compared to the C720 or even the Toshiba Chromebook 2, and they’re just a little bit stiffer as well, which I like. This keyboard doesn’t feel “mushy” as some other budget laptop keyboards do, and for a budget 11.6” keyboard, it is pretty good. Obviously it is not backlit and it has the default Chrome OS layout.
As noted above, the screen is yet another matte TN panel with 1366×768 resolution. You will have the same issues with side angles and vertical color inversion as with any other TN display. I think it is slightly brighter and ever so slightly clearer than the C720 screen, but really, it is more of the same.
The screen also has metallic reinforced hinges, designed to prevent the device from breaking if picked up by the screen. Opening and closing the lid has a good “feel” to it; you get a sense that this is in fact just slightly a less budget device than some others on the market.
One possibly significant issue is related to the track pad. Generally speaking, I’ve liked Acer’s track pads. Despite their relatively low cost, both the C720 and Acer CB5 Chromebook 13 have track pads that are useable for single and multi-gesture control. When I first started using this device, I found that the track pad did not respond unless supplied with more pressure than I’m used to, and this made it almost impossible to use multi-touch gestures.
In addition, even when applying consistent pressure, the track pad responded intermittently. I initially assumed I had a defective track pad and opened up an RMA to return it for another. As it turns out, this is actually a Chrome OS issue related to the device and not a hardware issue. As of 3/6/15 it is confirmed that a fix will be coming via an OS update. For the time being, be aware that you’ll need to use a mouse. EDIT: This issue was resolved via a software update and is no longer a concern.
The power brick is not the same flat, thin design from the C720, which I actually liked a lot because it fit more easily for travel. The C740’s, while not large, is bigger than the Toshiba Chromebook 2 but similar in appearance.
As this is a Chromebook, setup could not be easier. Simply log in with your Google account and connect to a wireless network, and the device will automatically sync to any other Chrome OS devices you have and will also pull in your extensions
It took me longer just to figure out why my Windows ID wasn’t working right with my HP Stream 11 than it did to have this device 100% completely set-up.
Being a Chromebook, there is no bloatware to remove and no anti-virus to worry about.
I expected the C740 to be fast. Having used a first-generation HP14 with 4 GB of RAM, I know how fast Chrome OS can be even on lower-end processors. Still, I wasn’t prepared for how great the new 3205U and 4 GB of RAM would feel.
This device boots in four seconds, maybe five seconds if you count quickly. It barely has time to display the Google booting animation! It makes my 2014 Moto X and NVIDIA Shield tablet feel Jurassic by comparison. Any faster than this and we’ll be in “instant on” territory
The sense of speed absolutely carries over to the web browsing experience. Even complex websites like Google+ and The Verge render quickly and scroll smoothly, and typing in search and address bars shows no lag. That’s with Chrome set in all its default settings including address bar prediction, so you may be able to make it even faster
I had no issues at all watching video through Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon – or even all three at once, which is amazing considering that the Toshiba CB2, with its 1080p display and Bay Trail Celeron processor, stutters and hangs sometimes when launching just a single video stream.
Octane scores confirmed that the Broadwell chip is giving a significant boost in performance. In three separate tests, my scores all ranged in the mid 13000s, with the median being 13439:
This is about a 15-20% increase over the scores of the 2955U, which itself is about 40% faster than the 2830N Bay Trail or the NVIDIA Tegra K1.
As I noted up above, the integrated GPU in the Broadwell family has been significantly upgraded, and this extends to down to the 3205U. Again just called Intel HD Graphics, this version supposedly offers performance in the neighborhood of the Intel HD 4000. I own a Surface Pro 1st Generation, which has a core i5, 4 GB of RAM, and an Intel HD4000 integrated GPU, and that device can run Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, The Darkness 2, and Civ V; admittedly not at maximum settings, but regardless, they’re playable – meaning 720p and 30 FPS.
With many of these games now available on Ubuntu – thank you, Steam OS! – that should mean this is a fantastic little gaming laptop… except that it ships with only 9 GB of free space after accounting for Chrome OS, and has only 6 GB of free space after installation of Ubuntu 14.04 with Steam and Minecraft, meaning you have no room for larger games locally on the SSD.
Having said that, the smaller indie games I tested absolutely ran great on this machine, including Risk of Rain, which held a nice 60 FPS until the screen was flooded with enemies, and Minecraft, which performed well even with some of the more taxing graphical options enabled. See below under Crouton for more details. Torchlight 2 was playable with the graphics settings turned down/off as appropriate. I suspect that as things are optimized for this processor, performance will be even better.
The alternative is to install Crouton on external media, which I did, but you get some performance hit by using a USB 3.0 Flash Drive instead of the local installed drive, so hopefully we’ll see models with a larger SSD. Note that I did not open this device to confirm whether it is an actual SSD or eMMC flash storage, but will note here which it is and whether users can upgrade the storage once that information becomes known.
As probably should be expected, Crouton does not run perfectly on this device out of the gate. It isn’t awful by any means, but it also isn’t the same experience yet that you’d get on a Bay Trail or Haswell device. Developer mode itself has a graphical glitch when booting up, which isn’t a great sign.
I installed 14.04 Unity, and experienced a number of issues:
- When first entering Ubuntu, the mouse cursor has a box-shaped graphical error around it
- Changing back to Chrome OS results in a totally disabled track pad
- Switching back to Ubuntu again resolves the cursor issue and things function more or less as expected
- Minecraft in-game performance was very good, but I had issues in the menus where there was tremendous lag for some reason
I also installed 14.04 XFCE and had more or less the same problems, so it isn’t just related to Unity. 3D graphic performance was not what I expected. This is related to issues with the graphics drivers, which can be resolved for devices running Broadwell Core i5 and i7 processors but has not yet been resolved (as of June 2015) for the Broadwell Celeron processor.
The issue with the track pad working fine in Ubuntu is why I’m confident the track pad problems in Chrome OS are software related and will be resolved by an OS update.
I can’t really recommend you buy this Chromebook specifically for Crouton yet, despite the tremendous processor performance, but I have no doubt that in 60 days or so it’ll make a fantastic device for Ubuntu.
The Acer C740 offers a great product to the market it is designed for, but it may not be an ideal device for average consumers.
As the first commercially available Chromebook to feature the 5th generation Broadwell 3205U processor, the C740 is an exciting product. This processor is noticeably faster in regular use than the already fast 2955U that powered the C720. While you’ll notice an increase coming from that processor, anyone coming to it from devices using the 2830N or 2840N will be blown away by the performance improvement.
If you’re looking for a device for students – whether you’re an educator or simply have a student at home – I would definitely recommend this over the other 11.6” Chromebooks including the CB3, C720, HP11, Asus C200, and original or new Dell 11. The performance, especially the improved graphics capability, future-proofs the device and the reinforcements to the hinges and corners will help protect against damage.
For regular consumers, the picture is a lot murkier. Certainly other consumer-focused devices should be coming out later in the year featuring this processor, and they may be cheaper (by not having those education-focused fortifications) and will likely present additional options. At launch with this device, you’re limited to only a 1366×768 TN panel and have no choice or processor or storage upgrade, nor a touchscreen.
I’d also be remiss if I did not note that the touch pad issue is serious and as of 3/6/15 has not been fixed, though a fix is coming – kudos to Google for that. EDIT: This issue was resolved by a software update and is no longer a concern.
Finally, for more advanced users looking to use this as a Linux machine, you’re going to have to be patient while some of the bugs get worked out. I have no doubt that in the near future this will be a superb device for Crouton, but at the moment there are some odd and irrigating issues. Again, I will update this review if and when that is no longer the case.
In summation, buy this over the C720 if you’re looking for a very fast device in Chrome OS and will get value out of the damage resistance. Otherwise my advice is to wait until the track pad issues are resolved – and the Crouton issues, if that’s one of your end goals.
One thing is certain: this year’s Chromebook releases are going to be very exciting with these 5th generation processors under the hood.
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