Acer’s Chromebook 14 is a stunning realization of how far affordable electronics have come in recent years. Up there with budget-friendly phones like the OnePlus X and Huawei Honor 5X, the Chromebook 14 is a master at disguising its paltry $299 sticker price with an all-metal build, sharp 1080P screen and capable performance.
It also enters the Chromebook fray at a pivotal moment for the line, with the integration of Android apps soon to come to a host of devices, this one included. Depending on how that implementation is handled, Chromebooks could become the ultimate budget computing machines, and the Chromebook 14 could be the leader of the pack. Or, do to its lack of a touchscreen, it could stand to become an afterthought.
The defining feature of Acer’s most recent Chromebook is its hardware, more specifically, the materials that make up that hardware. It’s hard to imagine a sub-300 dollar laptop made of aluminum, even as the concept of the element being “premium” is deconstructed with each new budget device that hits the market encased in the metal, but that’s precisely what the Chromebook 14 presents.
At first, it feels like a trick. Akin to the LG G5, whose claim of being an “all-metal” phone was met with sincere skepticism, Acer’s Chromebook does not feel like most high-end aluminum devices I’ve held. The company purports it to be encase entirely by aluminum alloy, and while it is certainly not plastic, it is also not the same high-end material Apple’s various Macbooks, or even Google’s own Chromebook Pixel, are made of.
It is light years ahead of any budget laptop I’ve ever handled, however, and a far cry from the rickety plastic that many lower-end computers (i.e. the Dell Inspiron I carried around like a ball and chain during my college years) are constructed of. It is well-made, solid and durable though not without it’s share of nitpicks. The frame does have some flex to it, particularly around the display, and there was an obvious clicking on the lower right hand side where the two pieces of the case don’t quite meet flush. There is also a minute gap when between the top and bottom pieces when the lid is closed, but it’s hardly noticeable unless you are intentionally look for it.
The biggest impression the Chromebook 14 gave me, however, was one of clear intent to ensure this was a well-built machine, a statement not often made about electronics in this price bracket just a few years ago.
It is significantly thicker and heavier than my usual machine, a 13-inch Macbook Air, but that did not surprise me nor do I hold the fact against the Chromebook 14. For one thing, it has a larger screen (14-inches), which, when paired with the 1080p resolution, makes it a great media consumption device. Acer claims the laptop is just 0.7-inches, but that’s hard to believe when handling the computer in person.
It is vastly higher than the Macbook Air when the two sit next to one another and some reviewers have even said it reaches above a 15-inch Macbook Pro. It does taper back-to-front, giving it the visual illusion of slimness, but in truth it is not a svelte computer. Just south of 3.5 pounds, it’s a shade too heavy to be a true “toss-in-your-bag” laptop, but not so cumbersome as to be a complete chore to carry around. Ideally, I’d like my Chromebook to be as travel friendly as possible, and the Chromebook 14 doesn’t offer that. Instead, it works best as a machine for consuming videos at home, rather than getting light work done on the road.
Part of the large footprint is due to the laptop’s substantial bezels, particularly surrounding the screen but also, to a lesser extent, the keyboard. They allow for the large webcam housing, which supports HDR, an interesting inclusion considering the overall quality, despite its 720p resolution, fails to reach any level that would result in a reaction bordering positivity.
Similarly, the trackpad is given ample room to sprawl, and while I appreciate the pad’s large size, it’s performance is lacking. There are times when the Chromebook 14’s trackpad performed well enough that I didn’t miss the Macbook Air’s, but more often than not my fingers failed to easily slide, instead sticking and stuttering, which made multi-finger gestures a grind. Still, for a laptop that only puts you back a few hundred dollars, the trackpad will not make your daily use hellish, but it is an area where the Chromebook 14 shows its price.
The keyboard, on the other hand, is not. I greatly enjoyed typing on the Chromebook 14, the keys are well-spaced and the board’s comfort factor is maximized further with the keys themselves being appropriately sized. Others have flagged the lack of travel as a knock, but as someone who prefers shallow keyboards I had no issue. In fact, I think the Chromebook 14’s keys are a happy medium between ultra-shallow keyboards, like those found on the new Macbook line, and boards with more traditional depth.
Unfortunately, the keyboard is not backlit, a fact that offers little in the way of surprise when the $299 cost is considered. It would have been a fantastic get, but in the end was too much to ask of this inexpensive instrument.
As aforementioned, the display at work here is a definite highlight. Perhaps a tad on the dull side, colors are regularly less vibrant than I would hope for, and the dim side, but otherwise there is little to complain about with the 14-inch, 1080p IPS LCD panel. While it isn’t the brightest of screens, it is also not hopeless. I often work in a room that gets loads of natural light, meaning I have to jack the brightness up on all my devices, and the Chromebook 14 worked just as well as for me in the midday sun as any other laptop I’ve used, even if it doesn’t reach the same level of nits.
In general, the display of the Chromebook 14 makes it a media powerhouse, great for streaming YouTube videos and Netflix, and is undoubtedly one of the areas where Acer, unlike other Chromebook OEMs in the past, did not skimp.
The most confusing hardware decision Acer made is in regard to the speakers. The speakers themselves are actually quite strong, easily outperforming many laptop speakers I’ve used with decent clarity, impressive loudness and little distortion. All that does not matter, however, because Acer chose to place the speakers on the underside of the laptop. Which means that, no matter where you place your Chromebook 14, the sound will be muffled.
Given the small size of the speakers, one could surmise that Acer very easily could have placed them on the keyboard flanks, but chose not to. Listening to anything is a frustrating experience at best, and more often than not I found myself just reaching for headphones.
The Chromebook 14 comes with the usual I/O, including two USB 3.0 ports, a full-sized HDMI output (very handy if you don’t have a Chromecast or any sort of streaming box), headphone jack, security lock and the power input. No SD card slot is a disappointment, especially given the 32GB of, like most Chromebooks, non-upgradeable storage but I imagine most Chrome OS users would be able to skirt around the issue without much hassle.
If you’ve read any review, or ever used a Chromebook yourself, you have an idea of what to expect from Chrome OS. It works best for those who live on the web and in the cloud and can be useful for light work or entertainment. That’s been the story for Chromebooks for a long time, and that’s the story for the Chromebook 14. But that story is about to change.
Later this year, and early in 2017, numerous Chromebooks are going to be able to run Android apps as though they were native to the Chrome OS platform. It has the potential to revamp the entire OS and make it far more useful. Android has a host of apps, including Microsoft’s Office Suite, powerful photo editors and more, that could make a Chromebook a machine capable of replacing a traditional laptop for many people.
How Android apps will be implemented is still uncertain, particularly in regard to how users will move about apps made to work with touchscreens. The Chromebook 14 does not come with a touchscreen option, a fact other reviewers have used against Acer’s device, claiming it is not future-proof, but I find it hard to imagine Android developers wouldn’t figure out an intuitive way to use their apps with a mouse.
The fact remains, however, that the future of the Chromebook 14 is uncertain at this moment. Not until we see more Chromebooks running Android apps will we have an idea how they will work on the laptop’s OS, and until that time comes, the Chromebook 14 is in a state of limbo. It’s a very good machine by traditional Chrome OS standards, but it may not be ready for the future.
Performance on the Chromebook 14 is mostly good, for a $299 laptop. I often have more than a dozen apps open at a given time in Chrome, and the 14 buckled somewhat under loads that heavy, particularly if I was also attempting to stream a video or music. When using a less substantial load, the computer fared very well and, even when it did face a hurdle, it was never egregious enough to make the experience of using Acer’s machine a burden.
For most, the Chromebook 14 offers enough with its Intel Celeron processor and 4GB of RAM to get the job done. If you need more, or are expecting screaming speed with a device roughly the same price as an iPad Mini 2, you’re looking in the wrong place.
Acer claims the 14 will get you 12 hours of battery life, but I never hit that mark. The Chromebook did perform admirably during my time with it however, and lasted long enough that you could feel comfortable leaving your charger at home during a midday excursion to your local coffee shop to get some work done. In general, I got between 8-10 hours of battery life, affected somewhat by when I was using it (if it was during the day, I likely had to max out the screen’s brightness and thus got substantially less battery time).
The Chromebook 14 is a very good Chromebook, potentially great once the addition of the Google Play Store comes later this year. Whether the machine is ready for Android apps is unclear, given its lack of a touchscreen, and if you fall on the same side as others who’ve reviewed this device, you might want to look elsewhere knowing the Play Store is on the horizon. If you simply want a Chromebook with better-than-average hardware, a good screen, solid performance and substantial battery life, Acer’s latest is a great choice.