So how does the $200 PC stack up? I'll know more soon, but for now I can say that the Acer Aspire E 15 isn't completely horrible. And for even its normal street price, this PC and others like it make a strong case for sticking with Windows and foregoing a simpler but less capable Chromebook.
I wasn't expecting Apple quality with this low-cost Acer, and I certainly didn't get it. From the bare bones packaging—which, to be fair, is common to the PC industry—to the inexpensive plastics to the big and heavy form factor, the Aspire E 15—model E51-511-C590 to be exact—delivers on my reduced expectations. But ... it's $200. Normally $250. And at that price, I'm willing to put up with a lot.
You can buy the identical Acer Acer Aspire ES1-511-C59V from Amazon.com for $249.99. Or, check out my article Today's $300 PCs Already Compete with Chromebook for some comparable alternatives.
The hardware isn't horrible.
The device itself is large and heavy, and quite a bit thicker than the 15-inch Ultrabook I've been using for two years now. On that note, I actually like the size, and while 1366 x 768 is hardly ideal for such a large screen, I actually prefer lower-res ("non-Retina") displays. But while 1600 x 900 or 1920 x 1080 would be better, the display is crisp and clear and bright.
So far, the trackpad hasn't triggered any unintended swipes, which is an issue with my Ultrabook. And the expansion is decent: USB 2.0 and SD on the left, and USB 2.0, USB 3.0, HDMI (full-sized) and Ethernet on the back. (The slide-out and thus replaceable battery is on the right.)
The keyboard is fine, nothing special, with slightly mushy keys but definitely usable. Here, again, the size works to the favor of the machine, with a full-sized keyboard and a good layout. The function keys work normally, too, which is increasingly rare: If you want to access special keys, you have to press and hold the FN key too. This is how I prefer it.
The out of box experience is slow but doesn't differ from the normal Windows 8.1 Setup. After signing in to my Microsoft account and staring at the "almost done" screen for about 8 minutes, I was finally in.
Thanks to Microsoft's Signature experience, the PC is at least devoid of crapware, though Microsoft did add two apps to the normal Windows 8.1 with Bing mix: Fresh Paint and an Office installer (which requires that you already own, or wish to buy, Office). It boots to the desktop, which makes sense for this non-touch device—and Microsoft has pinned a Windows Defender button the taskbar in addition to the standard IE, File Explorer and Windows Store buttons.
What they didn't do was install the latest updates: The Acer had dozens of updates waiting to install, a full 650 MB worth, including Windows 8.1 Update 2. It took a while to get through it all.
What didn't take overly long, in my opinion, was installing Office 2013 over the web via Office 365. That took just 7 minutes from beginning to end, a bit longer than usual, I guess, but quite quick.
In some quick usage in Chrome and Word 2013—which I've used to write this overview—performance has been mostly acceptable. I've seen a few instances in Word in which the machine seems to pause for a moment—a right-click on a word, for example—but for the most part everything works as expected. I'll install more applications—including some heavy-hitters like Photoshop and see how they tax the PC, with its low-end Celeron processor, 4 GB of RAM, and slow HDD storage.
Having spent a lot of time with the HP Chromebook 11 this year, I can say that I prefer the Acer's bigger screen and keyboard, and while I'll need to test this, I suspect the Acer handily outperforms the Chromebook too. (That said, I've got a $400 Acer Chromebook 13 coming soon, and that should be a fairer fight.) It's possible that Microsoft's Signature experience will help overcome some small percentage of the problems a "normal" PC might have in comparison with a Chromebook. But whatever: In the $200-$250 range, this is competitive with any Chromebook, and on a number of levels.
Like a Chromebook, the Acer would likely be used mostly in a home by an average, non-technical user, and never more than a few feet from a power outlet. Which is good since the expected battery life is only in the 4.5 hour range. I'll test that, of course.
So far, so good: For $200 to $250, the Acer and, probably, PCs like it are in many ways the Lumia 520 of the PC world: Cheaper, yes, but also a great value for the money. If Chromebooks really are all about price, the Acer is already making a compelling case to stick with Windows.