A step in the right direction for ARM Chromebooks, and one we can actually recommend

I've made it no secret that I'm not a fan of ARM-powered Chromebooks. With their low performance and compromised battery life, ARM Chromebooks from a variety of manufacturers have never lived up to what Intel-powered models can offer. Acer and NVIDIA have teamed up to challenge that preconceived notion with the Chromebook 13 — the fourth distinct Chromebook model from Acer and the first in its class to run the new Tegra K1 processor.

But this machine isn't just about the processor. The Acer Chromebook 13 also offers a sleek design, good trackpad and a few different models with wallet-friendly prices that present a pretty solid value as well. Read along into my full review as I break down the details of the Acer Chromebook 13 and how it fares versus the competition.

Hardware and specs

Acer Chromebook 13

Acer is known for simple and utilitarian laptop designs rather than flashy and extravagant ones, and the Chromebook 13 fits right in that mantra. In contrast to its previous-generation cousin the C720, the Chromebook 13 is flat, thin and rather "basic" looking. While the C720 had various different textures and colors of plastic, the Chromebook 13 is made entirely of hard, semi-glossy white plastic — the only two exceptions being the screen bezel and bottom, which are slightly more textured.

A simple design worthy of a simple laptop, but it looks great.

It's shaped into a thin form factor that really tries to show off how thin it is with an elevated screen hinge and small port surroundings on the sides. This isn't just an illusion though — the Chromebook 13 is quite thin at just 0.7-inches (17.78mm) around the entirety of the device. That's thanks to the Tegra K1 processor not needing a fan system and the array of just a handful of ports around the edges. Speaking of, you're getting the standard Chromebook layout here, with two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, headphone/microphone jack, SDcard slot and power port. One of the USB ports and the HDMI jack are somewhat-awkwardly put on the back edge of the laptop, though, making you reach round the computer to use them. In a clever bit of design, Acer has put two LEDs in the top of the hinge to indicate whether the device is charged and if it's turned on.

Acer Chromebook 13Acer Chromebook 13

For how sleek and thin it is the Chromebook 13 isn't particularly light at 3.31 pounds in total, putting it on the wrong side of the fence of what I consider a "heavy" 13-inch laptop nowadays. It's actually quite dense because of its minimal thickness, which means it feels solid but also a tad heavy compared to other machines with more concentrated weight distribution. It never turned into an issue with me, but I definitely noticed it in my bag more than I do with my MacBook Air.

You can have it in any color, so long as it's white.

I quite like the design, as it doesn't really follow standard cheap Chromebook looks. It looks and feels just a bit more premium than the price, without trying to go overboard with shiny plastic trim, flashy patterns or unnecessary colors. The fact that it only comes in white may be an issue for some, but I didn't mind it at all. After roughly two weeks of use I only noticed a couple small scuffs that showed up on the shiny white exterior as well.

Acer Chromebook 13Acer Chromebook 13

On the inside the standout spec is the processor, as this is the first Chromebook with an NVIDIA Tegra K1 inside. That processor, most recently featured in the Shield Tablet, offers up some serious power that leans more towards traditional laptop processors than those found in many phones and tablets. It's backed up with 2GB or 4GB of RAM and 16GB or 32GB of storage, depending on the model you choose.

Category Features
Display 13.3-inch 1920x1080 or 1366x768 Active Matrix TFT Color LCD (depending on model)
Processor NVIDIA Tegra K1 quad-core at 2.1GHz
Memory 4GB or 2GB DDR3L (depending on model)
Storage 16GB or 32GB (depending on model)
SDcard expandable
Cameras HD webcam
Connectivity 802.11ac Wifi, Bluetooth 4.0
USB 3.0, HDMI, headphone/microphone
Software Chrome OS
Battery 3220mAh 4-cell Lithium Ion
11 hours average use
Dimensions 0.7 x 12.9 x 9 inches
Weight 3.31 pounds

In total, there are four different models of the Chromebook 13 to choose from. At the base level you're looking at $279 for a model with 1366x768 screen resolution, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. Bump to $299 and you get the same specs, but 1920x1080 resolution (the one I'm reviewing here) or 4GB of RAM and the base 1366x768 display. On the highest end, you can spend $379 for 4GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and the 1920x1080 display.

Display and speakers

Acer Chromebook 13

I'd much rather have an IPS display than 1080p resolution.

I sort of sound like a broken record at this point going on and on about Chromebook displays, but again one of the main brickbats I have with the Acer Chromebook 13 is how poor its display is. Once again we're looking at a manufacturer that has put a 1080p display in a laptop to have it on the spec sheet, but has gone with a dramatically inferior TFT panel type. Whether your know the technical differences between TFT and IPS or not, the delta is clear — TFT panels have poor viewing angles, grainy visual clarity at every brightness level and lower contrast.

Using a 13-inch laptop the way most people do, having a full 1920x1080 resolution means nothing if the display's characteristics are otherwise awful. I would much rather see Acer include an IPS display at 1600x900 or even 1366x768 as the top-end model — even if that meant the price of the laptop were bumped by $50 across the board.

Acer Chromebook 13In contrast to the relatively horrendous display, the Chromebook 13's speakers are a high point. They're louder than you'd expect out of a pair of speakers that are on the bottom of a laptop, and only distort at the absolutely highest levels. They're not loud enough to support a dance party, as I like to say, but are more than loud enough for single-person podcast or music listening, or even movie watching with a friend.

Keyboard and trackpad

Acer Chromebook 13

The keyboard reminds you you're using a cheap laptop, but the trackpad is top-notch.

Acer has equipped the Chromebook 13 with the same basic keyboard as the C720, with black textured keys in a standard Chrome OS layout. The keys have good travel and response, and I was able to type very comfortably even for long periods of time. The keyboard did feel a bit on the cheaper side in contrast to the rest of the machine, though, as a few of the keys are loose and misaligned just slightly, reminding you that you spent just $299 on the Chromebook 13. The smooth black stickers indicating key functions clearly stand out from the textured keys (something you can't un-see once you notice), again reiterating the price point.

The trackpad is one of the best I've used on a Chromebook. Acer really hit the perfect amount of smoothness and drag that make single and double-finger gestures easy to perform, while still offering great palm and extra finger rejection when you're working. The trackpad is just average in size — nowhere near something like the 13-inch MacBook Air — but I found it to offer more than enough room even for my large hands. The entire trackpad is clickable, and I never found it took just the right amount of pressure to make selections.

Battery life

Acer Chromebook 13

Unlike previous members of the ARM Chromebook family, the Chromebook 13 actually lives up to its lofty battery life expectations. Acer quotes 11 hours of life (13 hours on the 1366x768 models) out of this machine, and I found it's not hard to actually push to that number. Taking the Chromebook 13 off the charger and opening up with some light work I will easily see the estimated battery life show 11 or 12 hours. Higher screen brightness hit battery life noticeably, but that's something you'll have to balance depending on how long you'll be away from the power cord.

Acer Chromebook 13 and chargerWith heavier use, including roughly 10 open tabs, streaming Google Play Music and 50 percent screen brightness, I could get somewhere between eight and nine hours of real use out of the Chromebook 13. That's a full day of work for most people, and it was more than enough to get me through a long session of my typical work day (including researching for and writing this review) without being worried about power.

That heftily beats the battery life I experienced on the BayTrail-powered Asus C300, while at the same time offering comparable or better performance than that model. In my couple of weeks using the Chromebook 13 I rarely ever opened it up to see how much battery was left before leaving the house for the afternoon. I didn't once bring the power cord in my laptop bag with me, even when leaving for an overnight trip or a weekend where my computing demands weren't that heavy. This is the first Chromebook I've used that has never had me worrying about battery life, and that's seriously impressive.

Battery life is on par with or better than BayTrail Chromebooks.

The power cord, for when you do need it, is about as standard as they come. It's white plastic, just like the laptop, and has a standard big cord + power brick + slim cord layout. It's not nearly as sleek as the ASUS or HP wall chargers, but I managed. The prong that sticks into the laptop is a bit on the small side and is somewhat loose inside the port, but thankfully you won't need to be using the laptop with the charger plugged in often.

Performance and real world use

Acer Chromebook 13

The Tegra K1 processor has shown its ability to drive Android tablets and single-board computers, but a full-fledged laptop running Chrome OS is a higher level of power demand entirely. As I alluded to above in the battery life section, the Chromebook 13 offers performance on par or slightly above what I get out of baseline Intel BayTrail Chromebooks with the same about of RAM. Considering that both processors are (relatively) low-powered and operate without fans, the comparable performance seems appropriate.

It isn't setting any records, but multitasking and single-tab performance are above average.

Chromecasting tabs to my TV worked without a hitch, including full-screen streaming video, as did multitasking while listening to streaming music. That's pretty impressive for what would normally be considered a mobile device processor, and is basically unheard of when it comes to ARM-powered Chromebooks. Single tab performance with no background tasks was of course right where you want it to be.

The one place where I found the Tegra K1 to be more powerful is in multi-tab browsing with several different functions going on, as I rarely saw tabs crash or lock up entirely like I did on the ASUS C300 Chromebook (again with 2GB of RAM in both machines). While reloading or opening several tabs at once definitely slowed the machine down, it never got to the point of freezing specific tabs — the Chromebook 13 just chugged along and got the process done.

If I had my choice of Chromebook 13 models to buy I'd probably go with one that has 4GB of RAM in an effort to give the processor some room to breathe in multitasking situations. But even bumping up the memory can't bring this Tegra K1-powered Chromebook up to par with the higher-powered Intel Haswell Celeron and Core i3 models out there. The performance on offer in the Chromebook 13 does, for once, have me hopeful that ARM chips are on the right path toward being powerful enough for even the most demanding of applications in Chromebooks of the future. But right now it's still a bit of a compromise — at least you're getting great battery life as a tradeoff this time around.

Bottom line

Acer Chromebook 13

Acer has done what I didn't think was possible — make a Chromebook with an ARM processor in it that I would actually want to use on a regular basis. That's quite a feat considering the heavy workload I expect to put my Chromebook through, and the Acer Chromebook 13 actually does it while providing solid battery life at the same time. Even though it's on the wrong side of 3 lbs and has a subpar screen, the hardware experience as a whole is worthy of praise as well for a laptop that could set you back as little as $279.

I can say that the Acer Chromebook 13 has been pushed up towards the top of the pile when it comes to Chromebooks with larger screens, provided you're okay with the slightly slower processor and heavier weight than some of the competitors out there. If you're going to be bothered by the screen you should probably hold off on buying a Chromebook altogether until something with IPS comes out, but if you're willing to take on the Chromebook 13 knowing its flaws from the start, it's going to be a great choice for a good number of people out there.