Review: Acer Chromebook 13

While many Chromebooks don’t transcend their low-end pricing, Acer stands out for trying to push performance closer to traditional PC standards. The company previously found success with a Chromebook that used a processor—Intel’s Core i3—more commonly found in full-fledged laptops. Its new Chromebook 13 instead tries on the top-tier tablet brains of Nvidia’s Tegra K1, which promises to pair solid performance with stellar battery life.

Despite coming in white plastic, the Chromebook 13 somehow ends up looking sleek and minimalist rather than just cheap. This is also one of the more solid Chromebooks I’ve tested; the frame is stiff with almost no flex to it, and its slim and light design can feel more like an ultrabook than a cheap Chromebook.

It sports what’s become a pretty standard array of Chromebook ports—a USB 3.0 port and an SD card reader—located on the left side of the device, and a headphone/microphone combo jack on the right. The Acer deviates from the norm by putting a second USB 3 port and HDMI port in the back of the device, an unusual placement that’s also annoyingly inconvenient.

Open the Chromebook 13 up, and you’re met with a lovely 1080p display, a really nice keyboard, and a slim and light design. The keyboard is plenty roomy, thanks to the real estate afforded by the 13-inch model. The Acer keys are lightly textured and sit quite high, which takes a little getting used to. The touchpad is likewise nice and big and responsive, including during multi-touch gestures like pinch-to-zoom.

What really sets the Chromebook 13 apart from other Chromebooks, though, is that Tegra K1 processor. It allows Acer to run quietly—it doesn’t need a fan—and to last longer between charges than its competition, all without sacrificing performance compared to the more widely used Intel Celeron processor. That’s the theory, anyway.

The reality, unfortunately, differs considerably. Common tasks like opening a new tab in Chrome should not hesitate for a half second or so. Likewise, streaming music while editing in Google Docs should not cause periodic stuttering of sound. These weren’t occasional occurrences in my time with the Chromebook 13 either; they happened consistently no matter how solid the network connection.

The performance is disappointing in part because everything else about this Chromebook delivers on its promise. The fanless design means it’s always silent, and the Tegra K1 certainly sips power. I routinely got over ten hours out of the battery with no screen dimming or other power-conserving tricks at all. And even without a fan, the Chromebook 13 barely gets warm to the touch.

I have seen some users mention that a few games in the Chrome Store aren’t compatible with the Chromebook 13 because of its Tegra brains. The only game I ran into that issue with was Bastion, but be aware that apps which haven’t updated recently may have some problems with the non-Intel chip.

It’s tempting to imagine an alternate universe, one where Acer opted for the more traditional Intel i3 rather than the mobile-first Tegra K1 chip. That Chromebook sounds like it could have been perfect. But of course it would have worse battery life, and need a noisy fan to avoid overheating. Once again the compromises necessary in the world of Chromebooks means you end up with a really nice laptop that just doesn’t live up to the hype.

If your priorities are battery life and the serenity of fanless silence, this makes a great Chromebook. If you plan to be multitasking, gaming, or pushing the performance limits look elsewhere. Above all, though, if you’re not totally sold on the minimally-powered, cloud-based, Google-centric world of Chromebooks, the Acer won’t be the machine that wins you over.

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