Acer C720 Chromebook Review

I’ve been lusting after the Acer C720 for some time now. I obtained one the day after Thanksgiving - $150, shipped, from Amazon - and have a chance to reflect on how I use it now.

For context, I have a home built desktop assembled in May 2014 and a nice Thinkpad-X220-T which was purchased in July 2011. I run Linux full time on all my machines - currently, Xubuntu 14.10.

The Thinkpad has served me well, and I have come to appreciate the fantastic keyboard and trackpoint mouse that it comes with. However, after building my desktop, I use the Thinkpad much less - really, only for taking the occasional note in class, reading documents, and sending email.

For that, the Thinkpad is much heavier than necessary. It also has only mediocre battery life (about 4 hours at 50% brightness, with an old battery) and throws off more heat and noise than I’d like. It also represents more of an investment than I care to travel with - I took my ThinkPad to Finland for Frozen Rails 2014, and always had to be conscious of where I left it in the hostel, on the bus, etc, as replacing it would cost on the order of a thousand dollars.

The chromebook addresses all of these issues, though with significant trade-offs. The C720 has an 11.6" screen (only marginally smaller than the X220T’s 12.5" screen), about 8 hours of battery life with Linux installed and at normal brightness, and only cost me $150, making it much less stressful to travel with. On the other hand, it has a tiny 16GB hard drive, just 2GB of RAM, and limited ports.

I’m happy to report that getting Xubuntu set up on the Chromebook was reasonably easy. I haven’t removed the write-protect screw to make it boot into Linux full time, yet, as it is still under Acer’s warranty, but I haven’t been bothered by having to hit Ctrl+L at boot to tell Chrome to ignore the other operating system. The only catch was that getting the trackpad to work required upgrading to Kernel 3.17 - have a mouse on hand when you’re setting it up.

In terms of day to day use, working on the chromebook required some adjustments, but after adjusting, has been a peasant experience.

The major complaint is that the keyboard is very poor, especially when adjusting from a ThinkPad or a mechanical desktop keyboard. The keys have very little travel, little resistance, and as with all chiclet keyboards, require bottoming out to register a key press. Not only are the function keys not labeled as such, but there are missing ones; only F1 through F10 are available (with the wrong labels), and making them wider means that they aren’t in the locations you expect - when trying to hit F4 I consistently hit F3, when trying to hit F7 I hit F5, and it’s impossible to hit F11 and F12 as they’re missing entirely.

This might not be an issue for you, but it has required some adjustments and some changes to my work flow and keyboard shortcut sets.

The lack of hard drive space. I haven’t had an issue with hard drive space yet - but I have kept my installed programs to a bare minimum. I have Xubuntu, but have removed the office suite tools. I installed Chrome, but removed several other programs I rarely use. I don’t keep my entire development directory on this machine - just one project, with one ruby, and a minimal set of gems, and a handful of documents.

I did try using nitrous.io, but found it to be far too slow and clunky for my needs. It’s a great product - I wish them the best - but if all I’m going to use it for is a box with vim + ruby in the cloud, I’ll just set it up myself.

As such, I use SSH a lot. I keep my home desktop running nearly 24/7, with dynamic DNS set up, so I can access it from the classroom, the library, the bus, or an airport lounge. I run tmux with vim and a handful of other command line tools, so latency is barely an issue. And hard drive space and RAM are the last of my issues on the desktop box. I scp files to a temporary folder as I need them to get access to large documents I only need occasionally.

The only other change that I’ve had to make is keeping fewer tabs open. Instead of 10+ tabs on each of four workspaces on my desktop, I run one workspace, with one browser, usually with just two or three tabs. This has yet to prove to be an issue for me. I think it might even be beneficial as it makes it harder to become distracted - opening reddit either requires admitting defeat and closing my productive tabs, or risking running out of RAM and the machine becoming unresponsive.

Perhaps what is most frustrating is just how tantalizingly close this machine is to the perfect machine, along with the knowledge that I’ll probably never get what I want. Extend the battery life to 12 hours, put in a good keyboard, and add a built-in 3G/LTE modem, and this laptop would be exactly what I’ve always wanted. Sad, then, to realize that keyboards are getting worse and that I haven’t seen a LTE modem in a laptop in years.

Final verdict: Great purchase, though I can’t tell you if Chrome OS is any good.