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Acer's Chromebook 11 N7: Tough and economical

Acer's Chromebook 11 N7: Tough and economical

This rugged laptop can handle the slings and arrows of a typical work day.

Do you need a rugged laptop that can stand up to being dropped, shaken and doused with water -- but you can't afford the price tag? Acer's answer is its touchscreen Chromebook 11 N7 (C731T), a hardened system that meets many (although not all) of the Army's rigorous MI-STD 810G requirements. And at $280 -- one-tenth what even a typical Windows 10 rugged tablet costs -- it's a tough bargain to beat.

At 0.9 x 11.7 x 8.2 in. and 2.7 lbs., the dark gray Chromebook 11 deviates from conventional rugged notebook design with an internal plastic frame that's covered with a textured acrylic butyl styrene (ABS) plastic skin. It weighs the same as Asus's rugged Chromebook C202SA, but is half the weight of more traditional rugged systems like Panasonic's Windows-based ToughBook 54.

It's been designed for knocked-over cups as well -- liquids spilled on the keyboard safely drain through two holes in the bottom of the case. According to Acer, up to 11 oz. of water can be safely poured onto the keyboard. However, I didn't find it as comfortable to type on as other notebooks I've tested -- its 19mm keys have only 1mm of depth.

The system is powered by a dual-core Celeron N3060 processor that runs between 1.6GHz and 2.5GHz; it comes with 4GB of RAM and 16GB of solid state storage; a model with 32GB of storage is expected later in the year. The 11.6-in., 1366 x 768 display uses Intel's HD Graphics 400 processor and delivers 235 candelas per square meter of brightness, an excellent result.

A microphone is above the screen, while the stereo speakers are located underneath the system. Despite that, whether it was a voice call or music, the system sounded crisp and loud, although it could be helped by a little midrange boost.

The system comes with a pair of USB 3.0 ports (unlike many of the newer devices, it doesn't use USB-C), an HDMI port, an audio jack and an SD card slot. The chink in the Chromebook 11's armor is that these ports are open to the elements, so a sudden rainstorm might damage the system. The system does without a fan but still keeps its cool.

The laptop can connect wirelessly with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. You can run a videoconference with the system's 1280 x 720 webcam. For the security minded, the Chromebook 11 has a Trusted Platform Module that can protect remote log-ins. On the other hand, it lacks a fingerprint scanner.

The review unit shipped with version 56 of the Chrome OS; it felt nimble, loaded web pages quickly and worked well with Chrome's offline apps. Unlike other Chromebook designs, like the Samsung Chromebook Pro and the Asus Chromebook Flip, the Chromebook 11 can't run Android apps. Acer is working on the enabling software and hopes to have an update by summer.

Test results

The Chomebook 11 passed a modified version of Computerworld's test for ruggedized devices (the test we used on a group of three Windows 10 tablets). It survived three drops onto concrete from a 29-in. height and three from a 48-in. height; had 4 oz. of water spilled on its keyboard; and was shaken for five minutes in a bed of sand. Afterwards, the laptop had a few scratches but was otherwise unscarred and in perfect working order.

A midrange performer, the unit scored 8,232 on the Octane 2.0 JavaScript benchmarks, which is reasonable for a Celeron-based system, but doesn't approach higher-end systems such as the Samsung Chromebook Pro.

The 4,090mAh battery ran for 10 hours and 30 minutes of continuously displaying videos, so it should last for well over a day's worth of normal usage.

Bottom line

Acer's new Chromebook 11 N7 can deliver the performance, battery life and hardiness needed to get workers through the day. It's available online for $280 (vendor price) -- or $230 (vendor price) with a non-touch screen. Overall, it is a rugged system that isn't priced like one.

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