A few years ago, ASUS showed the industry that there was a market for small, basic and, most importantly, inexpensive computers, otherwise known as netbooks. The netbook turned out to be very popular, and while only a few still exist in the Australian market today, Google continues to be a proponent for simple laptops. Google calls them Chromebooks and as far as size, weight and price are concerned, they pick up right where netbooks left off. The Chromebook, however, is primarily designed to be used with Web-based Google apps and an Internet connection. It's not like a typical Windows or Mac OS laptop.
A Chromebook offers a completely different user experience to those laptops due to its Chrome operating system, which is a platform that runs Web-based apps in a Chrome Web browser interface. It takes a little getting used to, and it's primarily useful if you're a heavy user of Google Drive, Docs, Gmail and other Google services.
All of these services, in addition to the Chrome Web browser itself, an app drawer and a search icon, are present on the Chromebook's Launcher as shortcuts so you don't have to go hunting for anything. For all intents and purposes, a Chromebook requires minimal time to set up, it's usable the instant you lift the lid, and you don't have to install any software before you start working with it.
To use almost all of the apps (which also include Maps and YouTube), you'll need an Internet connection. Only Google Docs can be used in offline mode, which syncs data online once you've reconnected to the Internet. You can also use Chromebooks to listen to music, watch videos, look at photos and communicate through Google's social networking apps (G+, Hangouts, Gchat). (Of course, you can also use Facebook and the Web in general.)
If this type of inexpensive laptop sounds like it could be for you, then you might want to decide between two models that have just been made available in Australia: Acer's C710 (Q1VZC) and Samsung's XE303C12. Both models are 11.6in laptops that are easy to type on and they offer decent speed under the hood for typical Web tasks, be it browsing Web sites or watching streaming video clips. But the two models do differ and you should know what these differences are before you hit the stores.
The most obvious difference between the Acer and Samsung Chromebooks can be seen at a glance. The Acer model has a few more ports along its edges, which allow for up to three USB devices to be plugged in. It also has a VGA port and an Ethernet port. These are features that any IT manager might want to look for, or any user who may have a need to plug in an older projector or monitor, for example. Acer says it is hoping to entice the education sector with its Chromebook, and these extra ports give the unit good versatility for such an environment.
Both Chromebooks have HDMI, a headphone/microphone combo port, and an SD card slot. The Samsung has an advantage over the Acer due to it being able to support USB 3.0.
For wireless connectivity, both Chromebooks ship with 802.11n Wi-Fi modules that can work with 2.4GHz or 5GHz wireless networks. The Acer showed a little more signal strength than the Samsung when we used the 5GHz band on our networks, but they both reported the same strength when using the 2.4GHz band. Wireless connectivity is one area where the Samsung has an advantage: it also comes with Bluetooth. Unfortunately though, we were unable to use it. While it was enabled and attempted to search for devices, it could not find any.
It's worth noting that our Optus mobile broadband USB dongle wasn't recognised by either laptop (though the USB stick itself was recognised as a removable device). As the Chrome OS continually gets updated, we expect this issue to be resolved. The Samsung model we saw came with a SIM card slot that is not enabled on the Australian model just yet. Acer said that 3G would be coming to its model in 3-6 months.
Specifications and performance
Both Chromebooks have 2GB of RAM but they use different platforms. While the Acer is built around a 1.1GHz Intel Celeron processor, the Samsung runs the company's own ARM-based, 1.7GHz Exynos 5 Dual system on chip (SoC). Acer says it chose to run the Celeron because it found it to be a better match for the Chromebook than the Intel Atom CPU it had used previously. Samsung used both Intel Atom and Celeron CPUs in its previous Chromebook models.
The good performance in the benchmarks was carried over to our real-world tests, in which the Acer noticeably handled video playback and, in particular, high-quality streaming video from the Web, a little smoother than the Samsung.
We used NBA LeaguePass to gauge Internet streaming at 1600Kbps and the Acer provided a much smoother experience in this area over the Samsung. The Samsung exhibited sluggish frame rates, even though it was still watchable. Both Chromebooks were better at this streaming task than the Windows 8 system with an Intel Atom CPU.
But while the Acer Chromebook has a little more pace than the Samsung, it comes at a cost to battery life. In a rundown test in which we looped an MP4 file while the unit was connected to a Wi-Fi network and the screen brightness was full, the Acer lasted only 1hr 44min. This is a poor result that's vastly overshadowed by the 4hr 14min of the Samsung Chromebook. What plays a part in this better battery life is a seemingly more efficient ARM platform in the Samsung, the use of only solid state storage (the Acer has a conventional hard drive), and an integrated design for the battery (the Acer's battery is removable).
For a laptop like this, battery life is key and the Acer's life is way too short, even compared to most 13.3in Ultrabooks, which average about 3.5 hours when running similar rundown tests. As such, go for the Samsung if you favour battery life, go for the Acer if you want the best possible CPU performance.
Both Chromebooks employ a bright screen that has a native resolution of 1366x768. Both screens have relatively narrow vertical and horizontal viewing angles, but both look quite good from directly in front. However, the Acer's screen looks more vibrant due to it having a glossy finish. Even with the glossiness, reflections weren't a problem during our tests.
You can adjust the brightness of the screen on both models extensively until the screen is almost dark, which is great when working at night, and the Samsung also has an ambient light sensor, which worked well in our tests.
Both Chromebooks can be plugged in to a TV or bigger monitor using HDMI, and you have the option of extending the screen or duplicating it.
Keyboard and touchpad
Samsung's keyboard is placed a little closer to the screen than Acer's, which gives it a little more palm rest area and therefore makes it feel a little more luxurious to type on. It also looks more modern. But it has fewer keys than the Acer and even goes as far as turning the Caps Lock key into a Search key (you'll have to press the Search key in combination with the Alt key if you want to type in caps).
The lack of Page Up, Page Down, Home and End keys on the Samsung gives the arrow keys some breathing room, but we found ourselves wanting to hit the Page keys while browsing some Web sites. The Acer includes a Fn key and has F numbers written on its Chrome-specific function keys, but as far as we can tell, Chrome OS doesn't use Fn+F-key combinations like Windows does. The Chrome OS-specific function keys include brightness and volume control, page refresh, forward and back keys, a window sizing key (for maximising and restoring window size), and a screen capture key.
The Acer adds a dedicated Wi-Fi toggle (which rests on the F11 key but has a Wi-Fi symbol on it), and the F12 key is blank (it brings up the Developer Tools in a Web page). The Wi-Fi toggle is a myth though. When you press it, it just toggles full-screen mode.
We wish Acer spent some time refining this board a little more, but we still have to give the keyboard advantage to Acer here. It's nice to have the Page and Home keys included, and even though it has more keys than the Samsung, the overall typing experience is still good because the keys are the same size. We do like Samsung's attempt to modernise the layout though.
As far as the touchpads are concerned, we had more joy using the one on the Acer than we did the one on the Samsung. The Samsung's touchpad sometimes tracked a little awkwardly, which we put down to weird capacitive issues. The Acer was much more accurate. Both pads lack left- and right-click buttons, and there is only a left-click operation available to use when you click the pad. If you want to perform a right-click operation, you'll need to double-tap your fingers on the pad.
The Acer's touchpad is 91x51mm while the Samsung's is 99x56mm. The slightly larger area of the Samsung's palm rest enables the larger pad. Still, we liked the Acer's pad better.
Here's where things get a little tricky. Chromebooks are meant to live online and are not meant to be looked as traditional laptops. That means that all the documents and files you need to work with should also be able to live on the Internet and, specifically, in Google Drive. However, it is nice to be able to store lots of large files on the unit itself, be it videos, tons of music and anything else you may want to store. The Acer includes a 320GB hard drive for this task, which we think is just overkill for a device like this.
We much prefer the 16GB of flash storage that the Samsung provides, especially since Chrome OS doesn't take up much room at all. This capacity is fine for storing a few movies and a library of music, and you can always plug in USB sticks and hard drives to access more content. The solid state storage in the Samsung gives it more advantages such as a lighter weight, cooler running, silent operation, and a faster boot time.
Advantage: Samsung (unless you really want the hundreds of gigabytes that that the Acer offers).
Both of these Chromebooks are interesting (albeit niche) devices and we grew to like them the more we used them. However, we make heavy use of Google Docs, Drive and Gmail, and for these tasks a Chromebook is perfect.
Both the Acer and Samsung models have their pros and cons, the Acer's major con being its battery life, and its major pros being performance, the number of ports it houses and its input devices. The screen also looks more vibrant thanks to its glossy finish.
The Samsung, on the other hand, has much better battery life, it feels lighter (it's 1.1kg compared to 1.4kg), it looks more modern, and it comes with Bluetooth (although we couldn't get this to work in our tests). But its performance is a little more sluggish and its touchpad didn't always perform as expected during our tests. At $349, the Samsung costs a little more than the Acer, perhaps due to it having solid state storage and a more integrated design.
Our pick: We would go for the $299 Acer, despite its poor battery life, mainly because we enjoyed the slightly better performance, which suited our usage pattern. Its touchpad was also more enjoyable to use and its screen looked more vibrant.
Do you like the concept of the Chromebook? Would you buy one of these models? Let us know in the comments below.