Review: Acer Chromebook 13 with Nvidia chip is a solid, full HD contender

Over the past 18 months, Acer has grown its Chromebook sales in spectacular fashion with a clever strategy, offering multiple models at various price points. Now the company has a new twist on the Chrome OS laptop: It’s the first to use Nvidia’s Tegra K1 chip to power its Chromebook 13. This too comes in various models, ranging from $279 to $379.

I’ve been using a $299 version of the [company]Acer[/company] Chromebook 13 for the past week. As with any device, there are some appealing attributes and some that leave me wanting more.

The best designed Acer Chromebook yet

I definitely prefer the overall design of this Chromebook to Acer’s prior models. Where I felt those were a bit flimsy, the Chromebook 13 feels solid. Like its predecessors, it’s made from plastic, but it doesn’t look cheap. Most textures are smooth and there’s a nice recessed area around the keyboard to help the non-backlit keys stand out a little more.

Acer Chromebook 13 front

Overall, this laptop is relatively thin, measuring 0.7 inches from top to bottom with the screen closed. It has a slightly large footprint for a device with 13.3-inch display, though: 12.9 inches wide and 9 inches deep. Although it’s a completely different device class, my 13-inch MacBook Pro is smaller in every dimension. Part of this observation comes from the display bezel: It’s at least 1.25 inches below the display and 0.75 inches around the top and sizes. It seems like wasted space that makes the Chromebook 13 larger and heavier than it needs to be at 3.31 pounds.

Of course, that means the keyboard and trackpad are generously roomy. There’s plenty of key travel and the plastic trackpad works well for navigation; it’s also a giant clickpad that supports multi-finger gestures in [company]Google[/company] Chrome OS.

About that 1080p display and Chrome OS

Input, then, is fine. So what about output? For an extra $20 over the base model, this Chromebook 13 has a 1920 x 1080 display as opposed to 1366 x 768 resolution on the $279 version. It’s not a higher-quality IPS panel but still has reasonably good viewing angles from left to right. Pull the display down toward you, though, and you’ll see a negative image of what’s on the screen. Overall, the 1080p matte display is good but not great.

Acer Chromebook 13 keyboard

One issue with 1080p on a Chromebook isn’t Acer’s fault at all. Google’s Chrome OS interface doesn’t scale. By that I mean you can zoom in and out on web pages to adjust the size with no problem, but the taskbar icons are fairly small due to the high resolution. All of my Chrome bookmarks and title bars in tabs are also small and don’t adjust with the zoom setting. It’s a minor annoyance that I hope Google addresses soon as more 1080p Chromebooks hit the market.

In terms of ports, radios and other bits, Acer’s Chromebook 13 has all the ones you’d expect: A pair of USB 3.0 (one on the side and one on the back), rear HDMI out, front webcam, SD card reader, headphones, stereo speakers underneath the chassis, Bluetooth 4.0 and fast 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

Is Nvidia’s chip up to the challenge?

That’s all fairly standard on a Chromebook. Nvidia’s Tegra K1 is not, however, and it’s nice to see a new chip option available. Up to now, only Samsung’s ARM-based processor and various Intel chips have powered most Chromebooks.

After using the Chromebook 13 extensively, I found performance to be acceptable for most tasks. Since Nvidia’s chip is relatively new, it provides a little more overall horsepower than the original [company]Samsung[/company] Chromebook and [company]HP[/company] Chromebook 11, but I still prefer the extra oomph provided by Intel-powered systems.

I often experienced a slight lag or delay, for example when switching to an input field on a web page and typing: It would take the Chromebook a second to start showing what I typed. This behavior was occasional but noticeable. When interacting with Google+, I was often a step or two head of the computer as I waited for it to catch up. I also waited for some complex or content-heavy web pages to load from time to time but this may have more to do with the 2 GB of memory in the test device. All in all, I wasn’t blown away by performance; I was left wanting more.

Acer Chromebook 13 Octane

For those interested in benchmarks as opposed to or in addition to real-world experiences, I ran both the SunSpider and Octane tests in Guest mode on the Chromebook 13; both measure JavaScript performance. In SunSpider, where a smaller number is better, the best device result after multiple runs was 628.3 milliseconds. The top Octane score turned in was 7104. These numbers, along with my experience, suggest that when it comes to performance of what most users will do on a Chromebook, the new Acer isn’t a standout; instead, it’s comparable to other devices with similar chips.

The real benefit to the [company]Nvidia[/company] Tegra K1 is the chip’s 192 graphics cores. These are great for graphic-intensive web apps that make use of WebGL, for example. The issue I see is that there aren’t yet many such apps. Instead, Chromebooks are more likely used for browsing typical web pages, checking email, watching videos and updating social networks. So in some sense, the big benefit of those graphics cores is more of a promise for future activities.

Battery life and conclusion

Regardless of that, the chip seems power-efficient. Acer claims this Full HD model can run for up to 11 hours. It’s definitely an all-day device, although in my typical usage as a full-time work device, I was seeing between 9.5 and 10 hours of run-time. While that may fall short of the claim, it’s great to work away from an outlet all day long.

Acer CB 13

Again, for $299, you can buy the model I tested, which comes with 2 GB of memory and 16 GB of internal storage. Drop down $20 and the only differences are the 1366 x 768 display plus a 13-hour battery life claim. For $379, Acer upgrades the tested model to 4 GB of memory and 32 GB of storage.

Since I like to work full-time on a Chromebook and need a little more responsiveness, the Chromebook 13 isn’t for me. I’d rather spend a similar amount of money and gain some performance, even if it means I give up a little battery life and a 1080p screen. Typical mainstream consumers looking for general web activity and all-day battery life, however, ought to be happy with the new Acer.