Chromebooks fit into that category of devices whose time has almost come. Taking aside some of the more excessive outliers (I’m looking at you, Google Pixel) a Chromebook is a very inexpensive way of getting hold of a laptop on which one can do some everyday office tasks. Coming in at a shade over £200 (as reviewed) the Acer Chromebook 11 N7 ticks a lot of boxes.
The little Acer is not going to set the world alight on the hardware front, packing a 1.6 Ghz Intel Celeron, 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage inside the sturdy little frame. Intel HD 400 graphics ensure you won’t be playing the latest 3D blockbuster games any time soon, although arguably that is not the point of this machine and the chipset is more than enough to power the bright 1366 x 768 11.6″ screen. Connectivity comes in the form of 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2, while two USB 3.0 ports, one full size HDMI and a SD card reader are provided for those wanting more cables in their lives.
Military (First) Grade Computing
Weighing in at just over 1.3kg, the Acer is slightly heavier than its diminutive size would suggest, but this belies the party trick of this laptop – it is built like a tank and meets the STD810G US Military standard. In civilian-speak, this is one tough little machine, which is handy considering many are likely to find their way into the hands of school children.
The rubberised shell of the laptop can take up to 60kg of weight on the top cover and withstand a drop from a height of 1.2m. So being pushed off a desk and then stepped on will likely be a survivable event in the classroom or kitchen. The keyboard is resistant to spills and should take the contents of a can of cola before the gutter system under the keyboard and touchpad is overwhelmed and the internal circuitry is at risk. The display will also fold flat (alas, this is not a 360-degree screen) to allow the little darlings to gather around and share a screen.
Starting with the hardware, the keyboard is a delight to use, with plenty of travel and a feeling of toughness that gives one confidence that bashing the keys won’t break anything – important for the target child market. Unfortunately, there is no backlight and Acer have dropped some keys in order to ensure that what remains is large enough for little fingers to find. The Chromebook function key strip remains, giving hardware navigation and search buttons amongst others. While there was no touchscreen on the review model (which does present a problem with some of the apps in the Google Play Store) the trackpad follows the trend of high quality seen on other recent Acer models and is an accurate pointing device.
As this is a Chromebook, most of the user’s time will be spent in the Chrome browser and ideally online. The low-end Intel CPU struggled a little when multiple tabs where open, particularly when viewing multiple streaming videos, but for office work with either Google Docs or the online Microsoft Office tools, the Acer coped admirably.
The final card the Acer has to play is the recently added access to the Google Play Store, which dramatically increases the number of applications above and beyond those available for the Chrome browser. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, since while it expands the Acer’s capabilities it also painfully highlights the low-end nature of the CPU and lack of touchscreen on the review model. In my testing I tried the Microsoft Office applications, which worked admirably although (being mobile apps) were less full featured than their online brethren, and Spotify. While the Spotify app worked as expected, when running it slowed down the rest of the system to the point where I couldn’t imagine a user working on an office document while listening to music – the laptop began to stutter and pause during typing. Not good. As such, I must conclude access to the Play Store is perhaps a bit of a novelty at this point and possibly only really of use if there is an app in the store which is simply essential.
Chrome OS sips power in the way that Windows 10 does not, and Acer estimate a 12-hour battery life for the N7. Running Netflix through the browser constantly saw the laptop turn itself off after 8.5 hours, which is impressive. I used the laptop as a daily device and got to a third day before needing to recharge, so 12 hours of constant office use seems very plausible. Certainly, in a classroom setting, the little Chromebook would have no problems getting through a school day or more.
There are a couple of Apple-shaped elephants in the room here, in the form of the iPad and iPad Pro, which do a similar job in being a locked-down device suitable for students. Certainly, the array of applications available for the Apple devices trumps the slightly clunky Play Store support just introduced on the Acer. However, the Acer comes out of the box built to survive whatever the classroom can throw at it and features a ‘proper’ keyboard and trackpad. It will be interesting to see where Microsoft goes with Windows 10 S and their upcoming ARM-based devices, but in the meantime, if you are in the market for an inexpensive and robust laptop and spend most of your time in browser based applications, you could do a lot worse than the Acer 11 N7.