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Acer C720 Chromebook: A little faster than its rivals, and cheap, cheap, cheap

Chromebooks are simple, web-centric cheap laptops that do basically everything in "the cloud" through Google's Chrome browser. Don't try it if you need Windows -- it's missing -- or want to run traditional software; there are lots of user reviews from disappointed buyers who didn't understand that going in.

Instead, you'll need to rely on a growing number of apps accessible via a mobile-device-like Chrome App Store. Categories such as business, education, entertainment, games, productivity, social and more are well represented. What that means, experts say, is if your computing needs are light and you use a laptop mainly for activities such as browsing the web, reading and sending email, watching movies on services like Netflix, keeping up with your friends on Facebook and some casual gaming -- yes, Angry Birds is available -- a basic Chromebook could be all you need.

The use of a Haswell-based Intel processor makes the Acer C720 (Est. $200 and up) the zippiest Chromebook yet. "Thanks to its Haswell-powered CPU, the $249 Acer C720 Chromebook offers better performance than its predecessor and its low-cost competition," says Laptop Magazine's Lisa Eadicicco. Battery life is also notably improved, with PCMag.com calling it "the battery champion in its category."

The C720 comes in a multitude of configurations. The base version includes a 1.4 GHz Intel Celeron 2955U processor with Haswell technology, a 16 GB SSD and 2 GB of memory. Step-up configurations increase memory and hard drive capacity, with top-end models swapping the standard 11.6-inch 1,366 by 768 display for a multitouch one. Connectivity is excellent for its class, including a USB 2.0 port, USB 3.0 port, SD card reader and an HDMI output. A webcam is also built in.

Like all Chromebooks, the Acer C720 relies heavily on Google's cloud-based ecosystem. Lose your (Wi-Fi-only) Internet connection and you can use only a limited number of apps. Although Dan Seifert at TheVerge.com says Google is "clearly making an effort" to improve usability offline, things aren't "quite polished enough for extended use just yet." ComputerShopper.com agrees, adding that there's a learning curve to mastering how to work offline with a Chromebook that may frustrate first-time users. "It certainly flummoxed us," says John Burek.

Still, there are some upsides to a Chrome-based operating system. When you sign in to the Chrome browser, you'll find all your bookmarks there if you use Chrome on other PCs. Gmail and Google Calendar sync up nicely, too. Google also offers 100 GB of free Google Drive cloud-based storage for two years to Chromebook buyers, which helps ease the pain of the base C720's scant 16 GB of flash memory.

At this price, there's obviously some corner-cutting. "A $250 laptop always makes compromises, but the C720 makes the right ones," Seifert says. Aesthetics are one shortcoming, with critics using words like "bland" and "uninspired." Laptop Magazine says, "The Acer C720 looks and feels like a budget notebook, but we noticed some improvements from the company's previous Chromebooks." Among those is the keyboard, which Eadicicco calls "sturdier" than the one used by its predecessor but is really only "decent enough for quick emails or entering URLs." Shortfalls include limited key travel, a complaint echoed by ComputerShopper.com.

HP Chromebook 14 (Est. $300 and up) is the second Chromebook to sport a Haswell-based Intel CPU. With color options of peach coral, snow white and ocean turquoise, the HP Chromebook 14 is certainly a showier device than the Acers C720, at least until fingerprints inevitably smudge the colored plastic housing. The keyboard is better liked than that on the C720, although the display is not. Despite its larger size, it offers the same resolution as the C720's display, and that disappoints so much that David Pierce at TheVerge.com calls it a "deal breaker." Melissa Riofrio at PCWorld is a little kinder, but still says the display is "nothing special."

Performance-wise, the HP Chromebook 14 has a similar component lineup as the base C720, including an Intel Celeron 2955U, 16 GB SSD and 2 GB of memory. It's just as speedy compared to older Chromebooks, and just as conservative when it comes to battery life. An LTE version (Est. $350) is also available. Data is via T-Mobile and includes 200 MB of free data per month.

Few reviewers have evaluated the HP Chromebook 14 -- ignore reviews for the earlier HP Pavilion Chromebook 14, which has almost nothing in common with the newest model -- and fewer still compare it to the C720. Of those who have, TheVerge.com gives a clear edge to the cheaper Acer Chromebook, saying HP cut corners in the wrong places to hit a price point. "With a better screen, more RAM, and a larger hard drive, the Chromebook 14 would be one of the best $399 or $449 laptops on the market, one that I would happily recommend," says Pierce. "But as is, you're better off spending $50 less and buying Acer's C720, which can't touch the Chromebook 14's look but offers a virtually identical experience in a smaller, lighter, cheaper body."

Older Chromebooks such as the Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (XE303C12) (Est. $250 and up) and HP Chromebook 11 (Est. $280) remain available. Both offer better design aesthetics than the Acer C720, but still feature ARM processors that lag behind in terms of performance and battery life, making them tough to recommend. The HP Chromebook 11 was pulled off sale in late 2013 due to issues with its charger, but it is again being offered.

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Acer C720 Chromebook (11.6-Inch, 2GB)
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HP Chromebook 14 (Snow White)
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Samsung Galaxy S4 i9505 16GB /LTE 800/850/900/1800/2100/2600 Unlocked International Version Black
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HP Chromebook 11-1101 (White/Blue)
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