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Review: 6 business-class Chromebooks test their mettle

Woody Leonhard | Dec. 11, 2014
I've spent the last three weeks taking six business-oriented Chromebooks through their paces. I started out as a skeptical Windows-rules-them-all kind of guy: I've been using Windows since the early days, and I've rarely strayed from the ghosts of my Windows masters. By the end of my Chromebook experiment, however, my old biases were shaken.

I tested all of the machines with Google's Octane 2.0 JavaScript speed test. I tested battery life by running a continuous-loop YouTube video over Wi-Fi, using with the screen set at 80 percent brightness (three steps below maximum, using the shortcut keys) and volume set at 50 percent.

Now let's step through the six machines and see where they differ.

Acer Chromebook 13 CB5-311-T9B0

Excellent battery life and a superb keyboard compensate for a so-so screen and occasional Chrome app compatibility issues.

Acer has been making Chromebooks since the beginning of Chrometime, but the latest rounds of Chromebook 11 and 13 offerings, released in August, break with the past. Acer has moved to the Nvidia Tegra K1 chip in a big way. In theory, the K1 offers CPU performance that rivals Intel's latest-generation Celeron processors, while delivering superior video performance and requiring less power. In practice, however, the Chromebook 13 CB5-311-T9B0 proved only marginally better than the Celerons in my testing.

The Google Octane 2.0 score of 7,400 puts the Acer solidly in the middle of the machines in this roundup in terms of JavaScript performance. The only performance problems I encountered happened when I was speed typing with multiple tabs open. The Chromebook 13 had trouble keeping up. Relaunching the browser and limiting the number of tabs solved the problem.

I mention typing speed for a very specific reason: Of all the Chromebooks in this review (with the exception of the Chromebook Pixel), the Acer Chromebook 13 is the only machine I would consider using for long typing sessions. The keyboard has very good resistance, long throw, and noticeable feedback. While the Dell Chromebook 11 also has a good keyboard, its 11-inch screen cramps my working style.

Of course, you can always pack a keyboard. I inevitably throw my Das Keyboard 4 in the suitcase when I expect to pound away incessantly. But if you plan to touch-type on the go, the Acer Chromebook 13 makes a big difference.

The unit measures 12.87 by 8.96 by 0.71 inches deep and weighs 3.31 pounds — about what you'd expect from a 13-inch machine.

K1 chips are not without their problems. I've seen reports of Chrome game extensions that work fine with Intel chips, but refuse to run on Nvidia chips, throwing up "The page uses a Native Client app that doesn't work on your computer." Google's Native Client technology is supposed to run on ARM devices such as the K1, but there are holdouts.

The biggest letdown with this machine: Its lackluster 1,920-by-1,080, LED-backlit TN (Twisted Nematic) screen, which is both grainy and constrained by a very narrow viewing angle. I found it difficult to use the machine on my lap because the screen would fade in and out, in spite of the advertised Comfy View technology.


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