Better than Chromebook? A $250 PC Gets It Done

Better than Chromebook? A $250 PC Gets It Done

Surprisingly good value at the low-end of the market

Thanks to Microsoft's liberal new Windows licensing policies, hardware makers will be unleashing a new generation of inexpensive new PCs and tablets this holiday season. But you don't have to wait for the snow to fall to get a great deal on an inexpensive Windows-based PC: Many fine options are available now. And based on my weeks-long testing of a low-end Acer model, these devices generally provide a better value than a comparably-priced Chromebook.

We live in an age of great choice. But the best thing about today's personal technology choices is that they're not either-or propositions. That is, one might use a Windows-based PC with an iPhone and an Android tablet. You can mix and match.

The problem with this choice, from Microsoft's perspective, is that it could lead to the displacement of its traditional platforms. That is, instead of the scenario noted above, on might instead use an iPhone and an iPad with a Chromebook for occasional typing-based productivity, and not a PC. Microsoft doesn't really factor into that little usage case, unless of course it can then convince such a user to use Office, OneDrive, and its other consumer services. (And that's the "mobile first, cloud first" plan in a nutshell.)

To counter this threat, Microsoft this year began offering much better Windows licensing terms to its hardware partners. Those partners that wish to sell Windows Phones or PCs and devices with small (under 9-inches diagonally) screens can now get a full-featured version of Windows for free. But the firm is also offering this version, called Windows 8.1 with Bing, less expensively for use on all PCs and devices. The result has been very positive: Hardware makers are racing to flood the market with inexpensive new Windows PCs, tablets and phones.

There's just one problem: the market forces that catapulted non-Microsoft smart phones (iPhone, Android), tablets (iPad, Android) and Chromebooks to success in recent years are continuing unabated. And in the case of the PC, the biggest direct threat—assuming you believe, as I do, that PCs still have a place in this new world order and are in fact the best solution, by far, for traditional productivity and content creation scenarios—is Chromebook.

As initially envisioned, Chromebooks was sort of a joke. These laptop-like computers lacked processing power and onboard storage, and required you to be online all the time. But Chromebooks were cheap, as cheap as $200, and in this post-recession world, the short-term benefits of cheap often trump the long-term benefits of more expensive products that represent a better value. To that end, Chromebooks have sold in the millions over the past few years.

More important for this discussion, Chromebooks have improved. They are now available in a range of configurations, from many, many hardware makers. These include choices with modern, powerful processors, different screen sizes and resolutions, more onboard storage, dramatically better offline usage capabilities, better battery life, and more. And the price range on most Chromebooks now varies a bit more, from that low-ball $200 starting point to somewhere around $400, nicely undercutting all but the cheapest PCs.

Through all this, the primary benefits of Chromebook have remained the same. A low cost and perceived high value. The familiarity of the Chrome browser user interface. And—most important, I think—simplicity. Yes, Chromebooks are less "powerful" or versatile than the typical Windows PC. But so is an iPad. The primary benefit of both over a PC is that they're simpler, much simpler. But of course only Chromebook offers a productivity story that (sort of) competes with that of the Windows PC, at least on paper.

I do believe that Chromebooks are a significant threat to Windows and a viable alternative for people—"normal" people—who fit within a very broad range of needs. That is, Chromebooks are not going to displace Ultrabooks or 2-in-1 PCs for road warriors or information workers anytime soon; indeed, they are not good choices for work, period.

But there are millions and millions of people with far more casual computing needs. They browse the web, answer email, and check out Facebook during commercials while watching TV at night. They only occasionally need to hammer out a word processing document or crunch some numbers in a spreadsheet. Maybe they have to print something every once in a while. And maybe their primary computing device is really a smart phone—which they have on them at all times—or a tablet, which is much easier to carry around.

This market needs to be addressed. And the only way to do it is with low-cost Windows PCs—laptops, for the most part, though low-cost tablets are also addressing that part of the market—that can at least meet the Chromebook on price.

Microsoft is addressing the simplicity issue these days primarily by promoting two things. The familiarity of Windows, which is actually quite valuable, though it is likewise undercut by the weirdnesses and differences in Windows 8.x.  And the versatility of Windows, which can now run powerful Windows desktop applications, modern mobile apps and—and I do feel this is crucial—the exact same web apps that are supported by Chromebook. And here's the kicker: Windows can actually run Chrome OS web apps even better than a Chromebook because you can pin anything, not just apps in the Chrome OS web store.

At this moment in time, we stand on the cusp—dare I say the threshold—of a new era in Windows computing. Up until this time, the low-end of the PC market has been marked by large, heavy and bulky PCs because that type of machine is cheaper to build. These PCs don't get great battery life because they don't need to: They're used around the house, not lugged around on cross-country flights or to and from a workplace.

But in the very near future, we will have an astonishing range of choices in the sub-$400 range that are in fact small, light and get great battery life. They will be attractive devices, and not the same dull black plastic beasts from which we can currently choose.

The question I had over the summer was whether I should wait for this new generation or plow ahead with one of the current—bigger, heavier—low-end PCs. But then Microsoft made my decision easy: The firm offered a $250 PC—the terribly-named Acer Aspire E 15 ES1-511-C590 Signature Edition Laptop—for just $200, $50 off the normal price. So I bought it immediately. (I had to, it was a one-day sale.)

I originally expected to review this machine formally. I've been using it at night, writing articles and books, browsing the web, and generally doing everything I normally do on my much more expensive and powerful Ultrabook. But the thing is, this machine is review-proof. No argument I make would convince anyone to buy such a PC. You either need this kind of PC—because it's so cheap—or you don't.

But here's the good news. If all you can afford is $250, you have great choices now. And this Acer in particular, isn't just "usable," it's actually pretty great. I know I'm going to hear from people who want specific benchmarks measured, who will want me to stress test it with Visual Studio or whatever. But that's missing the point. This Acer and other machines like it are the working class of the PC world. They're the value part of the market. The Corolla, not the BMW M3. This is about actually working, not attracting attention.

And it does work. Outfitted with 4 GB of RAM, a surprisingly OK Celeron N2830 processor, and an actual hard drive—i.e. not solid state storage—the Acer has handled everything I've thrown at it. 600+ page Word documents. PowerPoint presentations (about the viability of the PC, ironically). Photoshop (well, Photoshop Elements; close enough). Desktop applications. Web applications. Modern mobile apps. Everything works fine, though I do see that weird PC "pause" issue every once in a while where the device's relatively humble resources are overwhelmed and it has to page out to disk. But again, for "normal" people with normal needs? No problems.

You may find this a bit odd, but I love the screen. It's that wrong combination of size (large) and resolution (low) that most people would scoff at: It's a 15.6-inch panel running at just 1366 x 768. But you know what? It's crisp and clear. And maybe it's just my eyes getting old, but I think it looks great. It doesn't have that weird scaled look that today's super-high-res screens have in Windows 8.1. It reminds me that 100 percent scaling still looks best in Windows.

Some will want me to replace the HDD with an SSD and see what difference, if any, that makes. I get that, and of course I'm tempted. But this PC works just fine as-is, and no one "normal"—sorry, I can't think of a better way to say this—would ever consider such an upgrade, let alone understand it. (That said, it would be a great upgrade a year or two in to prolong the PC's useful lifetime.)

The keyboard is serviceable, right in the middle between superb and passable. The trackpad is surprisingly accurate and usable, and I have a long-standing disdain of such pointing devices. The whole PC is covered in a plastic that most will find utilitarian.

I happened to get this PC for an incredibly low price, but it's a bargain at $250 as well. Looking at the crop of Chromebooks that come in at this or a lower price, I actually don't see anything comparable, either. These devices are often smaller and lighter, but they also typically have smaller, harder-to-see screens too. And I'd argue that ultra-mobility isn't really an advantage for a device that will be almost certainly used around the house exclusively anyway. And the limits of Chromebook are ever present.

Ultimately, Microsoft's argument about versatility rings most true here. Even if you buy completely into the Chromebook vision and mostly run web apps, a low-end Windows PC makes more sense. With such a machine, you simply have more options. You could use it if the Internet connections goes down. You could use Windows applications, or Modern web apps, in addition to web apps. You could always print. You could use different web browsers. You could play many more games. The list of if's, maybe's, and you-never-know's goes on and on. And you're not spending any more money.

The complexity of the PC is not a myth. And I doubt Microsoft can truly fix that even in Windows 9. But let's get real. That complexity is also well-understood. It's familiar. And consumers have long shown that they'll put up with a bit of complexity if the value is there.  And when you can get a perfectly serviceable PC for the same price as a Chromebook, the central advantage of the Chromebook disappears.

Things change. Chromebook will improve. So will Windows. Today, a low-cost Windows PC like the Acer I own—and will continue to use around the house—is a great value, and a better value than comparable Chromebooks. Check that, comparably-priced Chromebooks. For now at least, Chromebooks are fine, basic personal computing devices. But they just don't compare to a real Windows PC. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

If you are going to get a low-cost PC, be sure to check out the Microsoft Store if possible. The firm's Signature PC series dispenses with the crapware, a huge advantage to both the overall user experience and the performance of the PC. And they're always having sales.

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