Over the past few months I've had the opportunity to review two laptops. Both of them being… rather beefy: the Chromebook Pixel and the Dell M3800. These two machines are powerhouses – sporting extremely high-resolution screens and high-end processors – with price tags to match. But then, this past week, the delivery man dropped off an entirely different category of laptop: the Acer Chromebook 15.
The model I have here is the CB5-571-C09S, sporting a 15.6-inch display (with a 1080p resolution), an Intel Celeron CPU (at 1.6GHz), 4GB of RAM, and a 32GB SSD. All of which costs $350 retail.
I'm going to come right out and say it – I've had a difficult time figuring out exactly how I feel about this laptop.
On the one hand, it has a huge display, the biggest of any Chromebook ever made. It may not come even close to the resolution of Google's Pixel, which rocks 2560x1700, but the Acer's 15.6-inch screen makes the Pixel's sub-13-inch screen look tiny by comparison. This is a big freaking laptop screen.
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The screen quality, it should be noted, is pretty nice. The viewing angles aren't quite as good as the Pixel (or the Dell M3800's 4K display), but it's not bad either. And, considering the massive price difference between the Acer and those other laptops ($350 for the Acer vs. over $2,000 for the Dell and over $1,000 for the Pixel), that reduction in quality is actually not as dramatic as you might expect.
The guts of the machine (CPU, RAM, and hard drive) are all excellent… for a $350 machine. If you sit down and compare the specs of this relatively gargantuan-sized Chromebook against a Pixel, you will be disappointed. But when you remember that you can buy three of these Acer laptops for the cost of a single Pixel, things start to look (a lot) more interesting.
Is the Acer Chromebook 15 a speed demon? No. It isn't exactly decked out with the latest and greatest i7 processor. But it's no slouch, either. In fact, I very rarely experienced any sluggishness with this machine. Even with a large number of tabs open and Google Play Music streaming some tunes in the background, the entire system was peppy and responsive.
And, let's be honest, in a Chromebook that's really what you care about: lots of Chrome tabs, background audio, and playing either a YouTube or Netflix HD video clip. This little Acer (did I just call this mega-sized laptop "little"?) can handle all of that without slowing down in the slightest.
The battery life is pretty solid as well. Acer claims around nine hours of battery life. I drained the battery (from completely charged down to nothing) in around eight hours. But that was fairly heavy usage with music playing in the background the majority of the time (one does want to rock out while reviewing hardware, after all). Eight hours of battery life on a gigantic 15.6-inch screen seems really solid to me.
So, what's the problem? It sounds like I've just described a pretty doggone great laptop at a super low price. If I stopped right there, purchasing this Chromebook is a no-brainer.
But, instead of stopping there, let's talk about the build quality for a minute.
When I first unpacked the box, and pulled out this large white laptop, I was struck by something… profound.
This machine is… profoundly plastic.
The model I have here is white. Solid white. With a subtle crisscross embossing patterning covering the entire outside.
The plastic isn't the fancy kind of plastic, either. It's the kind of plastic that many of my toys from the 1980's were made with. The kind where, when you tap on it with your fingernail, it makes that distinct "just tapped on a plastic toy" sound. In other words: it feels cheap.
When you open the lid and look at the keyboard, the initial impression is a positive one. The keyboard is certainly full laptop-sized. Typing on the keys feels good… for the most part. Typing aggressively on the keyboard – which I tend to do – results in a sound not unlike banging on a small plastic drum. Or, if you had an original Nintendo Entertainment System, the sound when you knocked on the top of it. That "hollow plastic shell" sound. That's the sound that banging on this keyboard makes. It's not loud, and it's not obnoxious, by any means. But it sounds cheap.
That's a weird thing to say in a laptop review, I know. "It sounds cheap when you tap on it." But it's true. And it's noteworthy. And it begins to make me realize why this laptop is available at such a cheap price.
Also… the screen bends. A significant amount. And rather easily. If you open the laptop (lift the screen up) and put just a small amount of pressure on the bottom of the bezel around the screen, it bends noticeably. This issue seems to pertain mostly to the display half. The keyboard half feels far sturdier and doesn't seem to suffer from any bending or rigidity issues.
Interestingly, there are two things that do not feel quite as "cheap." The trackpad (which has a good feel and a distinctive "click" to it when pressed) and the speakers (which are large, with visible plastic grating covering them, that produce quite decent sound for this price range of a laptop). Two components that, often, even expensive laptops don't do well. So big high-five to the Acer crew there.
So, to sum up: on the one hand, this laptop sports the largest screen on any Chromebook and packs enough muscle to stand toe-to-toe with most other Chromebooks. But, on the other hand, the build quality reminds you that you only paid a fraction of the price that you would for a "premium laptop."
Would I recommend this laptop to someone? You know what… yes. Yes, I would.
If you want a Linux-powered Chromebook with a big freaking screen… this is the Chromebook for you. I can literally put a Chromebook Pixel in front of the Acer's screen and it doesn't even come close to blocking the view.
It's also an incredibly good deal. For $350, I could lug this laptop around with me and not worry too much about banging it up. I could break one and buy an identical replacement, and still have save several hundred dollars over buying a Pixel.
So, yes. The Acer Chromebook 15 is a good machine with an interesting place in the market. I'm glad Acer is making it and I can think of some people who would truly enjoy using it for the price.
But what would really interest me is if Acer were to come out with a premium version of this Chromebook. Made with metal instead of plastic. With a beefier processor and more storage. But still, of course, keeping a huge (for a laptop) 15.6-inch screen, I could see that machine really turning some heads (including mine). Even if it cost two to three times as much.
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