Acer Review: $250 Chromebook In; Microsoft Windows Out

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Pundits left and right make fun of Google's (GOOG) Chromebook laptops, claiming they are toys that can't compete with Microsoft (MSFT) and Apple (AAPL). They are "not real computers," we are told -- not worthy, a fad -- sort of like the temporary netbook craze from early 2009.

Half of these deniers have never used a Chromebook for even a full day. They tend to be the same people who dismissed the iPhone in 2007 before even trying one. Perhaps they are also the same people who dismissed Tesla's ( TSLA) car in 2012 without having driven one.

The computer snobs who make snarky comments about Chromebooks from the peanut gallery are as addicted to going to the Apple store for chronic Genius Bar troubleshooting as they are to their two daily large $4 lattes. If you can't edit Avatar on your laptop, or you can't play some juvenile computer game on it, it just isn't a real computer and therefore people don't want it.

Well, Acer is betting otherwise.

Acer has seen that a Chromebook has been the number one laptop seller on Amazon for, from what I can tell, 52 weeks in a row. It's gone from zero a short while ago to being in 22% of U.S. school districts now -- over 5,000 schools.

Google is taking the Vladimir Lenin strategy of attacking the incumbents: "Give me four years to teach the children, and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted," he said. The kids will graduate from schools hooked on Google's cloud services -- from Gmail to Google Docs. By that time, it will be too late for Microsoft and Apple.

With almost 500 million Gmail users and 80% world-wide smartphone market share, Google has already overwhelmed Microsoft and Apple in key services in short order. The remaining shoe to drop on the battlefield is the traditional PC.

Not wanting to get caught on the wrong side of the eventual ecosystem peace treaty, Acer is now moving aggressively to be part of the next generation of the PC. I'm typing this review on Acer's new $250 Google-based laptop, aka Chromebook.

This isn't just any Chromebook. It's the first Chromebook based on Intel's ( INTC) latest Haswell CPU. It's also the first Chromebook with a relatively massive 8.5-hour rated battery life. Those metrics are typically found only on much more expensive laptops -- certainly not $250 ones.

If you were following the news last week, you are going to ask how this 11.6-inch Acer Chromebook compares to the $29 more expensive 11.6-inch Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) Chromeboook I reviewed.

Let's compare the two, line by line:

1. Display: The HP is better. It's brighter and doesn't have the grainy coating of the Acer. It is possible that the relatively matte Acer display may behave a little better in sunlight, but overall the HP is the clear winner here.

2. Keyboard: The Acer keyboard is perfectly fine. It's one of the better in the market. However, the HP's keyboard may be the very best I have ever used.

3. Trackpad: It's a draw. Both are among the better but an Apple MacBook will beat them slightly.

4. Body/quality/design: The Acer is very conventional plastic. Some would say boring. However, the build quality appears very solid. The HP has a very unique design and feels great. I give a modest edge to HP. The Acer weighs 2.76 lbs vs the HP's radically light 2.3 lbs.

5. CPU: This is the Acer's major advantage by far. No contest here. The Acer smokes the HP's performance by a mile. The Acer's Intel Haswell processor eats the HP's Samsung CPU for breakfast. Now, the HP performs adequately for light usage, such as what most consumers (grandmas) do most of the time. However, the Acer operates much faster on complex Web sites and can handle more tabs before it croaks.

6. Battery life: My testing hasn't yet run its full course, but early indications are the Acer outperforms the HP: 8.5 hours vs. 6.0 hours in a best-case scenario. In my "real world" of always using 100% display brightness, I would shave at least 20% off both of those numbers.

7. Fan, noise and heat: While the HP is a fanless, quiet and zero-failure design, the Acer has a conventional fan. This is a big selling point for this HP.

8. Charging: Acer has a conventional (proprietary) laptop charger. The HP uses MicroUSB, which you can also use for all non-Apple smartphones and many tablets. Big win for HP.

9. Ports: Acer offers USB 3.0 (instead of 2.0) and a MicroSD slot. It's also possible to physically lock the Acer with one of those laptop chains. I don't think USB 3.0 and a MicroSD slot appeals much to a Chromebook user, but for what it's worth, Acer easily wins this round.

10. Price and value: $250 and $279, respectively. Seriously, who cares? For the price, it's like asking if you want Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra to perform at your party for next to nothing.

The bottom line is this: The biggest single constraint is whether you need the Acer's massively superior CPU power, thanks to the Intel Haswell chip. Some want and need this; others don't. With it, you also get better battery life.

If you don't need or appreciate this CPU horsepower, the HP gives you a better display, slightly better keyboard, a silent fanless design that will run cold in your lap, as well as the brilliant idea of using a cell phone charger for the laptop.

In my case, I give the edge to the Acer simply because I think I need the additional CPU horsepower as I navigate lots of complex browser tabs. In an ideal world, I would like to combine this one Acer advantage with all the other supremely attractive traits of the HP Chromebook.

We will soon see larger (14-inch display, plus or minus) Chromebooks with embedded LTE. Google's assault on Microsoft's and Apple's PC dominance has just gotten started, but the non-reviewers in the peanut gallery aren't seeing it yet. If a PC can't run Photoshop or play some absurd childish game, it can be dismissed, in their view.

Acer got a bit burned on the netbook craze in early 2009. It wouldn't jump into the Chromebook world with this aggressive $250 Haswell-based offer if the company wasn't certain Chromebooks were winning against Microsoft and Apple in the marketplace.

This $250 Acer Chromebook isn't perfect. The display isn't the very best. It's not fanless, like the HP. It's got a proprietary laptop charger. However, it's got Intel Haswell horsepower, and it's a solid laptop all-around otherwise. For $250, it's a superb value that I highly recommend.

Every Chromebook or two sold, realistically, means one fewer Microsoft Windows or Apple laptop sold. Good luck to you if you don't see that.

At the time of publication the author was long GOOG and AAPL.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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