Review: Acer R11 Chromebook—Average Chromebook, awesome emulation laptop

After installing the XFCE desktop environment, the Acer R11 Chromebook becomes a surprisingly usable Linux laptop—passable performance and good battery life

acer chromebook r11
Credit: Acer

I'm not much of a ChromeOS user these days. Almost every aspect of Google's services has been removed from my life (Google Search, GMail, etc.), and, well, I just don't have much need for a system centered entirely around Google at this point.

But I had the chance to use the Acer Chromebook R11 (the CB5-132T-C9KK model), so I decided to see just how useful it could be for someone like me—someone who really doesn't use Google other than for YouTube and the occasional Hangouts video chat (for the friends I can't seem to persuade to use anything else).

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To start with, this is a fairly cheap laptop. Retail price is $299, and it seems like it can be picked up for a little less than that here and there. 

The screen (which is a touchscreen) is 11.6 inches with a resolution of 1366x768. It has a Quad core, 1.6GHz Celeron processor, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, 32GB flash storage, and Intel HD 400 GPU. All of which weighs roughly 2.7 lbs. 

Build quality-wise, it's ... OK. Honestly, considering the price, it feels pretty good. It's highly plastic-y but fairly sturdy feeling. The screen (which can flip all the way over to turn the system into a "tablet" of sorts) is connected by two hinges and doesn't have much "wobble" or "bendiness" to it. The keyboard is a pretty typical, chicklet style keyboard—not bad to write on, but not amazing. Honestly, I've used worse keyboards on far more expensive laptops.

The battery life is claimed to be 10 hours likely due in part to the Celeron CPU, which isn't exactly a crazy speed demon (though, interestingly, isn't too shabby either). 

Also this is one of the Chromebook models that has the full Google Play store and support for installing (many) Android applications. I briefly tested a few applications installed from the Google Play store, and most seemed to work reasonably well. However, many games and apps seemed to not be available—such as Minecraft.

But, like I said, I'm not really a Google services guy. So, I quickly installed F-Droid, a free software Android application store. I was able to go to the website, download the .apk file and install it by simply double-clicking on it. Easy peasy. And now I have a full Android "app store" disconnected from Google. 

For those wondering about the usability of Android applications, which were mostly designed for touch input, on a laptop, no real usability issues there. The mouse works just fine. Plus, this laptop has a touchscreen if you feel you absolutely must put your fingers on an application. 

A cheap laptop with the Chrome web browser and a reasonable assortment of Android applications. Neat. But not terribly useful for me.

Running a Linux system within ChromeOS

Enter Crouton.

For those unfamiliar, Crouton is a method for installing a full Linux-based system within ChromeOS. Install Debian, Ubuntu, etc., and you can then use any software from that distribution’s repositories. LibreOffice, Gimp, Firefox—the sky's the limit.

I ended up installing it with the XFCE desktop environment—lightweight and functional. Considering the Celeron CPU in this laptop, light and fast seemed like the way to go.

The end result is a surprisingly usable Linux laptop. Performance with the critical applications I use the most (LibreOffice for my word processing and Gimp for my graphics work) was absolutely, without a doubt ... passable. Speed demon? Not on your life. But not bad, either. Applications launched quickly (far faster than my Atom-powered Lenovo Thinkpad 11e). 

On a whim, I installed kdenlive (a video editor) and attempted to render a very simple, 720p project. The render time was lengthy—incredibly lengthy. So much so that I simply aborted the process. Video editing on this laptop is just not going to be a super fun experience.

At this point, I decided to do a test. If I launched my Crouton/Linux Desktop, loaded LibreOffice and Gimp and a Super Nintendo emulator (just for kicks) and left them running, how much battery life would I get? The screen was set to roughly 70 percent brightness, and the laptop was connected to Wi-Fi.

The result: just a hair over seven hours. 

Not too shabby, especially for such a low-cost laptop. It gets enough battery life that I could, in theory, use this almost all day without charging it.

Granted, if I attempted to play more demanding games (or use more demanding applications), the battery life would likely be nowhere near as good. Luckily, this machine isn't fast enough to warrant using such demanding software. Double-edged sword, there.

So, what would I use the Acer R11 Chromebook for? How would it make my life better? 

I wouldn’t use it as a ChromeOS machine. I just don't need that. I wouldn’t use it as a mobile, all powerful workstation. It's simply not beefy enough. So many other laptops (for only a bit more money) would meet those needs much more effectively.

But as a "bring it with me and write on it all day" machine, it's actually not too darn shabby. The battery life is really the key feature of this machine.

Using the Acer R11 Chromebook to emulate old computers 

Another thought hit me: This would make a fantastic retro-computer emulation machine. So, I tested that scenario out as well.

I closed all ChromeOS browser windows. Closed all Linux applications other than a single computer emulator. Then I loaded a single application/game within the emulator and let the laptop run.

With DOSBox (a DOS emulator) running, I got around nine hours of battery life. With GSPlus (an Apple IIgs emulator), I got around seven and a half hours. Perhaps a bit goofy—and not something most people will need/want—but for those who like to have dedicated machines to emulate older systems, the Acer R11 is actually pretty fantastic! 

I also attempted to remove ChromeOS entirely and directly boot a traditional Linux distribution. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get sound to work on any version of Linux I tried (Debian, elementary, openSUSE). So, at least for the time being, running Linux via Crouton seems to be the way to go. 

So, there you have it. Is the Acer R11 Chromebook worth buying for $299? You know what? It kinda is—assuming you need to be out and about all day while emulating old computers.

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