While Acer sent across its brand new Chromebook 11 for me to try out, here’s what I decided: I was going to use this baby as my primary computer for at least a few weeks. I would use it to write, research, play music, check email, and a bunch of other things.
A Chromebook, if you haven’t been keeping up, is a laptop that runs Google’s Chrome OS. If you’ve ever used Chrome — the browser — on Windows or a Mac, Chrome OS will be familiar territory. On a Chromebook, the browser is the operating system, and any applications you install are essentially Chrome browser extensions that runs in chrome tabs when you launch them. It’s a radical simplification of the computing experience, which makes the web your exclusive playground to achieve anything that you’ve used a traditional laptop for. The downside of being web-first is that a Chromebook is actually useless if you don’t have a constant internet connection.
Over time, Google has evolved Chrome OS to work better offline. And the application library is vastly better than what it was just a couple of years ago. You can now run the VLC media player, Dropbox, and OneDrive on a Chromebook. You can even run Chrome-based versions of heavy-duty apps like Photoshop and Microsoft Word.
However can a Chromebook be your daily driver?
Thus what was it like to virtually use this thing? One word: Limiting. The Chromebook’s productivity is restricted to apps like Google Docs and whatever else can run in a browser. If you have any major desktop apps that you rely on, you’re going to have to look for web-based alternatives.
Some things like word processing isn’t an issue. Google Docs and Microsoft Office on the web are really powerful, letting you create, edit, and share documents, spreadsheets, and presentations easily. If that’s all that you need — and you have reliable internet access —a Chromebook would be perfect for you. Schools and colleges whose needs are limited to these tools, in particular, would benefit immensely.
Entertainment wasn’t really a strong suit of Chrome OS before, but Google has made significant strides in this area. You can store media on the laptop’s internal storage and play back anything using the Chrome OS version of VLC. At that, Google gives you a bunch of movies for free on Google Play, but you’ll need to stream them using WiFi.
The only drawback that I found was that Google Play Music isn’t officially available in India, which means that if you have a large music collection, you’ll need to upload it to Google Drive where it will eat up precious storage space. This is less than idea, because you’ll be stuck with a boring file system-style menu of your music library and won’t have the great album art and the slick experience that Google Play Music users in other countries get.
The Chrome Web Store also has a limited selection of fairly basic games — think Angry Birds — that you can download and play, and you can also download any books you’ve bought from the Play Store to read them offline.
Almost all the apps available on Chrome can be accessed through the browser on other computers, however Chromebooks can only run software either available on the Chrome Web Store or a website. Regular desktops apps can’t be installed.
Setting up the Acer was easy enough. It booted incredible fast — under 10 seconds — but then asked me to connect to a WiFi network. This was mandatory — and a bit of a letdown — because it means that unless you’re online, you’re not going anywhere with it. Once I connected, I was required to login with a Google account. That was it.
Here’s what Chrome OS looks like. The tray on the bottom right lets you control WiFi, check on the battery, and fiddle around with settings, where you can change that wallpaper and switch the bluetooth on or off. On the left is an app launcher, which is like the Start Menu on Windows, and gives you access to apps you download from the Chrome Web Store.
The Chromebook’s offline capabilities include playing games, using to-do list apps like Wunderlist, Offline Gmail, Calendar, and Google Docs. I could use all these apps without an internet connection and any changes I made offline would sync up when the Chromebook was connected to the internet — handy if you’re WiFi is acting up or if you’re on a flight.
So what’s the verdict? At the beginning of this review, I said that I planned to use the Chromebook as my primary laptop for a few weeks. I wasn’t able to get even close to it. I tried it for a couple of days but ended up finding the always-connected-to-the-internet requirement a bit restrictive. And the lack of any expandable storage made the Acer 11 a bit of a non-starter. Battery life averaged at around 6 hours with medium usage — not bad, but not great.
Can the Acer Chromebook 11 replace your laptop? At around Rs. 17,000, I would say almost. It’s thin, light, and portable. However Chrome OS, in its current avatar, is still too limiting, and I’d be more comfortable recommending this as a secondary device to do lightweight tasks on.