This review is both less and more than a typical review. It is less because there’s little analysis of hardware components or comparison with other leading Chromebooks. It is more because I explore the key question:
What makes for a good netbook?
I’ve thought a lot about netbooks over the years and have experienced various expressions of the concept with an EEE PC, an iPad, and most recently an Acer c720 Chromebook. In this post, I draw on this experience to lay out criteria for a good netbook. I then explain why the EEE PC did not satisfy these criteria, while the Acer c720 satisfies these criteria quite well.
In short: with the Acer c720 Chromebook, we finally have a good netbook.
What is a netbook?
Wikipedia has a nice entry on the definition and history of netbooks. Here’s my simplified summary:
In the beginning, computers were large mainframes that were too big for offices or homes. Dumb terminals (also known as “thin clients”) were used to access mainframes. A thin client was little more than a keyboard, display, and network hardware to allow a connection to the mainframe. In the early 1980’s, computers became smaller and less expensive. This drove a move towards desktop computers and eventually laptops which contained everything a user needed on the computer itself (known as “thick clients”).
The advantage of desktop computers is the enormous flexibility to run a wide variety of powerful software. The disadvantage is the added complexity of set up, operation, and maintenance. I have often wondered if added complexity was the main reason for the productivity paradox, the observation that computer and information technology do not appear to result in increased productivity in the economy as a whole despite significant investment since the mid-1970s.
With the rise of the Internet in the 1990’s, there started to be talk of a “network appliance.” The hope was for a low cost computing device as simple to setup and operate as a toaster oven. This could be accomplished if data and applications resided in the cloud, accessed via the Internet. In other words, perhaps it was time for the return of the thin client, but Internet-style.
No compelling thin clients for the Internet emerged until Asus came out with the first version of its EEE PC in 2007. The term netbook became well known and very rapidly claimed over 20% share of notebook sales thanks to lower prices, less weight, and longer battery life.
The success was short-lived. The advent of the iPad and other tablet products displaced most demand for netbooks as they proved to be more portable and easier to use for consuming content. Meanwhile, as costs for regular notebook computers continued to drop, netbooks became regarded as slightly cheaper notebooks with trade-offs.
What makes for a good netbook?
The problem with the Asus EEE PC and various competitors that followed was that the emphasis was more on optimizing hardware for low cost than optimizing software for a great user experience. Having used an EEE PC, an iPad, and a Chromebook, I think I’m now able to articulate what makes a good netbook, and why, in retrospect, the EEE PC wasn’t all that good.
A netbook does not need to be a general purpose computer capable of doing everything. It needs to be a low cost, simple, speedy device that is able to do a few simple things easily and quickly. “Simple things” includes communicating, socializing, following news, planning trips, viewing images, watching videos, and finding answers to obscure questions, all things that can be done within a browser. A netbook can serve as a primary system for those with these simple needs, or a secondary system that floats around the house for those who use a more expensive, general purpose system for more complex needs. In detail:
Price: $200USD seems to be the price at which netbooks become popular.
Simplicity: A netbook must be easy to set up, easy to use, and easy to maintain. Like a toaster over, this system should not require significant training, frequent dialog boxes, frequent battery recharges, or any form of user-initiated installations, upgrades, or updates.
Speed: Turn it on and it works. No waiting half a minute or longer to boot or come back from sleep. No waiting a minute for a browser to load or a web page to load. In the time it takes to put a piece of toast into a toaster oven, you should be able to grab a closed netbook and get to the web page you were last using.
Adequate hardware: The input method (usually a keyboard and trackpad) and display must be usable for the intended purpose and nothing more, because more almost always means higher cost.
Why my EEE PC 1000h ultimately failed as a netbook
I actually loved my EEE PC at first but it eventually fell into disuse. Using the above four criteria, here’s how my EEE PC rated:
Price: I purchased a Windows XP version of an EEE PC 1000h netbook for $449 in September 2008, after a $100 price drop. For a secondary system, this was too expensive. To be fair, reasonably outfitted models became available a few years later. By 2011, price was fine. Prior to 2011, netbooks at the $200 price point had too many trade-offs.
Simplicity: The Windows XP version of the EEE PC failed from the get go. The several minute Windows XP setup process is not bad but using the trackpad caused the cursor to jump around at first. After a bit of research I downloaded an updated driver and changed some settings in order to get the trackpad working reasonably. Because this was Windows, I had to install and pay for anti-virus software. It took a little effort to find and remove bloatware included with the system, though thankfully not nearly as much as required with some other vendors at the time.
It was simple to operate because I was already very familiar with Windows, but for a brand new Windows user, learning would have been required (even more for the Linux version). The battery lasted just 3 or 4 hours with a bright screen setting, so I recharged it frequently or sometimes dimmed the display to extend the battery life. Worst of all was the usual hassle to keep a Windows computer current with software and operating system updates.
Speed: At first it seemed adequately fast, at least after the 30 second bootup. But as time wore on, the system become slower and slower, with booting taking over 2 minutes and user lag ever more noticeable. I quit using it after it became unbearably slow. Yes I know I could have reinstalled Windows XP, or perhaps switched to Linux. But I wasn’t particular keen to spend this kind of time on what was supposed to be a simple device to be used for just a few hours a week.
Adequate Hardware: The keyboard, trackpad, and display were more than adequate. The display was bright and clear and the keyboard was outstanding, including a useful extra row of keys for frequent actions (brightness, sound, etc.). The trackpad worked very well once I obtained an updated driver and tweaked settings. My only complaint was how slow it was. A fast processor might not have been necessary if the underlying operating system were simpler. Note that a Linux version was available but it required more learning to use and maintain than Windows XP.
Bottom line: Nice hardware but ultimately the operating system and software did not do enough to hide complexity from the user and keep the system speedy over time. It couldn’t because it was using an OS and software that was based on the model for general purpose computing. It was also too expensive prior to 2011.
It’s easy to see why iPads displaced netbook sales. They’re simpler and faster with a wonderful display. The main shortcomings are lack of keyboard (for writing more than a few sentences), getting slower over time with each upgrade, and the high price. While price is not an issue for Android-based tablets, upgrades and keyboards are.
How the Acer c720 Chromebook succeeds as a netbook
Wonderfully! Using the above four criteria, here’s how the Acer c720 Chromebook rates:
Price: I acquired the c720 in April 2014 from Best Buy using a special end-of-XP deal to trade in my EEE PC for a $100 credit. This knocked the price down to $100. The normal price would have been $200 plus tax. So price was fine. There are many other $150 – $350 Chromebook models available.
Simplicity: Credit goes to Google for creating Chrome OS, the operating system that powers Chromebooks and Chromeboxes. Chromebooks in general and this one in specific are simple devices to setup, use, and maintain. To be fair, there are two ways a Chromebook is not as simple as a toaster oven to operate:
- You have a setup process to go through that takes a few minutes, followed by another few minutes of tutorial showing how to use it.
- You must set up a Google account if you don’t already have one, and you must enter the password for this account each time you reboot the device. You also have to enter passwords at other times such as when connecting to a new WiFi router.
After going through the setup, and connecting to your home WiFi router, that’s it. If you routinely leave this device in sleep mode by shutting the lid, you don’t need to re-enter your user name and password. Just open the lid and you’re in. Instantly. (Do remember to fully shutdown if you won’t be using your c720 for a few days, so as not to run the battery down. Just hold down the power key in the upper right corner for a few seconds.)
Your interface is the Chrome browser. The browser updates itself with no input from you. You may not even notice these updates. WiFi connects automatically and quickly (though you will need to enter a password for new, password-protected WiFi locations). The only irritation I recall experiencing is using the vouchers for free access to WiFi on airplanes. Connecting to the in-flight GoGo service was neither simple nor fast.
I did just mention a few irritations but that was all of them. No dialog boxes, no learning required (assuming you’ve used a browser before), no installations or upgrades. About the only way you could make the experience simpler would be to make WiFi available without passwords wherever you go.
Keeping connected to WiFi is vital, as your data and apps reside on the Internet. You can use a Chromebook without a WiFi connection for many tasks, but that makes it more complicated to use. I only use of the c720 without WiFi to read long PDF files that I’ve saved to Google Drive. Staying connect to the Internet is not a problem since my family switched to an inexpensive T-mobile plan that offers unlimited data. This enables me to use my iPhone’s T-mobile personal hotspot if I’m not near a trustworthy WiFi router, at no additional cost.
Speed: Booting up takes about 7 seconds, while typing in your password and getting to work within the Chrome browser takes another few seconds, depending mostly on how long you take to type in your password. Waking up from sleep is nearly instantaneous. This is despite a CPU (Celeron 2955U 1.4Ghz Haswell) which is about as fast as a mid-range CPU from 2009 (but 5 times as fast as the pokey Atom CPU that powered my former EEE PC 1000h). It makes you realize how much speed is reduced on Windows or Mac OS X computers due to the demands of a general purpose, graphical operating system. Reduce it to nothing more than a browser and you approach toaster oven-like speed. After 10 months of ownership, the c720 speed seems, if anything, a little faster than the day I got it.
Adequate Hardware: The hardware is adequate. Given how I use it, I don’t ever think about the fact that it only has 2GB of RAM and a 16GB flash hard drive (though there’s an SD slot if I ever need more). I would not want to use this slightly-cramped keyboard to write a novel, or even a long blog post. But it is fine for email, browsing, etc. And that is what I use it for. The keyboard does have a layer of convenient Chrome OS shortcut keys for common operations such as back, forward, brighter, dimmer, louder, softer, etc.
The 1366 x 768 matte display is bright, clear, crisp, and free of glare. It is therefore adequate. The display turns off after a few minutes of nonuse to preserve battery. The display does not have wide viewing angles, high definition resolution, or 100% faithful color reproduction but such features are unnecessary and would drive the price higher than $200.
The trackpad works well, but differently. There are no buttons to click, so a regular mouse click is a one finger tap, while opposite click is a 2 finger tap. The 2 finger tap took me more than a few minutes to master and remember. The benefit of this trackpad setup was that it worked perfectly from day one. This is no small accomplishment, as trackpads on more expensive notebooks are often frustratingly difficult to use, sometimes requiring a bit of experimentation with settings to make usable.
The battery lasts over 10 hours for my typical light office and home use. When not traveling, I use it a few hours per week, so I charge it once every few weeks. When using it more on trips I tend to charge it once every 2-3 days.
Bottom Line: At a $200 price point, it’s not reasonable to expect premium hardware, so a device will be as good as the sacrifices that were chosen. I believe Acer made great choices with the c720. The result is a Chrome OS device that is fast and light with a lengthy battery life, that continues to sell well 14 months after release. In the world of computers, that’s saying something.
This version is still available at Amazon at the same price:
A newer, more expensive version with more memory and greater speed is also available:
I never use my c720 to print anything. I don’t edit videos, create large spreadsheets, or even write long blog posts. I have more expensive, general purpose Windows 7 systems for doing these things. So I can’t say how well this or any other Chromebook would do at such tasks. But for the simple things I referred to above, the things you want a netbook to do, the Acer c720 excels. Using Chrome OS to power a netbook works more simply and requires much less costly hardware than using Windows or Mac OS X.
The only room for debate is whether a tablet or a Chrome OS powered device such as the c720 is best for netbooks. Personally, I think there’s room for both, and it will depend on how you expect to use your device:
For primarily content consumption purposes, hand held tablets with beautiful displays are going to shine. But for light to moderate content creation in addition, a device with a built-in keyboard is more appropriate. And that is where netbooks, such as the Acer c720 Chromebook, make their mark.