Switching to a Chromebook – The Acer CB3-431

Goodbye Mac OS

Earlier this summer I decided that my MacBook Pro needed to go as my main computer.  The thermals were bad, Mac OS had become stale and I knew after a decade the time had come for me to move on.  I built my epic 28 core/56 thread Xeon workstation for my main workstation but have been considering what to do for a laptop?  I needed something to take to university for my new life as a student but it had to be not only cheap but effective.

I wanted something that would boot quickly, not weigh a lot, run all day, do everything I need and only cost me a couple of hundred quid.  Quite the task considering I’d come from a world of laptops quite literally costing more than ten times that budget with almost the same demands.  There were a few pre-requisites in any machine that I wanted.

  1. SSD – I couldn’t ever go back to using a hard disk again as my number one priority now
  2. Long battery life – I needed to get through a full day without charging as I hate having the weight of a charger in my bag
  3. Ability to run pretty much anything other than development tools on the laptop and an ability to remote desktop to my main machine for anything else
  4. Shiny – I don’t want a plastic kids toys but something that’s pleasing to look at, after all I’ll be sat in front of it for weeks on end

After much consternation I eventually decided to go with a Chromebook.  Windows or Chrome OS?  This was a question for many days until I eventually decided that I should embrace the inner geek and go with something quirkier than just a cheap Windows laptop.  I’ve used Linux, Windows and Mac OS on my laptops in the past so it was time for something a little different

 

The Acer CB3-431

Not the catchiest name in the world but nonetheless the Acer CB3-431 won my choice of next laptop.  Once I’d decided to go with Chrome OS I decided I wanted at least a 13” screen, it had to be metal-enclosed rather than plastic and with a built-in 32GB SSD and 4GB RAM so that if I chose to install Linux on it there would be slightly more power there.  This limited my selection somewhat (considering the Google Pixel Chromebook was insanely over-budget) and really only gave me the Acer.  Thankfully I found a supplier and it turned up only a day after I started my new life as a hipster student (note: not actually a hipster).

Unboxing this thing reminded me so much of the MacBook Air – the entire device has been cloned from it but that isn’t a bad thing.  I loved my MacBook Airs and any device paying homage to them is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.  True it doesn’t feel quite as nice but it was five times cheaper.  The CB3-431 has a nice metallic enclosure, the keyboard and trackpad don’t annoy me even after daily use it.  The keyboard isn’t backlit but for my use cases that’s not a problem.

Chrome OS itself is a lot better than I thought.  I’ve got pretty much everything I need with it.  Dropbox is synced with the laptop, I have Evernote for taking notes in lectures, a remote desktop client to connect home when I need to use Matlab or develop environments and text and photo editing Chrome applications for anything else I need.  I just wish the Office 365 application suite worked offline so that I had a good offline office suite.  Saying that I haven’t yet been in a situation where I’ve needed to use it offline.

I can easily get a full day at university out of this laptop with the screen on almost maximum brightness and wireless connectivity being used continuously.  I regularly have a dozen tabs and a couple of applications open and it doesn’t struggle remotely.  It can boot up in under 7 seconds and so far I’ve found apps for anything I’ve wanted to do.

The screen is, however, awful.  Maybe it isn’t awful, maybe it’s just my perception – but for a “HD” display this thing is laughable.  It’s like going back 15 years to some of the worst TFT displays I’ve ever used.  The viewing angle is atrocious, the colours look washed out and I feel a little like my entire desktop has had a Gaussian blur applied.  I’m being a little harsh coming from top-end monitors at home and a past world of Apple “Retina” displays – but I genuinely feel the screen lets this device down.  I’d have rather spent an extra £50 to round this laptop off and placed it between the cheapest Chromebooks and the Pixel.

 

Conclusion

Does Chrome OS do everything I want from it?  Yes.  Is this laptop worth £250?  Yes.  Am I happy with it for what I paid?  Absolutely.  Would I buy a Chromebook again?  I’m not sure.  Considering everything I’ve written that might seem weird – there is nothing wrong with the hardware or software.  But what’s right about it?  Nothing has wowed me with it – then again maybe that’s a good thing.  I miss it when Apple hardware and software “just worked” and in reality that’s what Chrome OS is here – it just works for what it is supposed to do.

I haven’t tried any sub-£300 Windows 10 laptops so I’d be curious to compare.  I’m hoping to try some out for comparison but I suspect I could find one on a par with this Chromebook.  Initially I thought the CPU architecture would be the biggest difference – giving me a massive battery life – but in reality this thing is still a Celeron so it’s unlikely that alone has made a big difference.

I plan to install a Linux environment on the Chromebook in the future – when I do it will be interesting to see what happens to battery life.  If there’s a massive difference, I’ll praise Chrome OS’s ingenuity – if not then I still don’t know what I’d do next time.  I guess one thing I do like is the Chrome OS logo says “geek” and with that in mind perhaps I should have bought a Pi Top?  That’s a laptop for a real geek…

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