Who needs a $999 MacBook Air? I’ve got a $199 Chromebook

I’ve long wanted to own a Mac. As a graphic designer, I saw firsthand how intuitively and simply they worked. They were fast, powerful and efficient. Then I bought an iPhone in 2010 (a 3GS), and since then the piece of tech I truly wanted with all my heart to pair with it was a MacBook Air.

Until I bought a Chromebook in January.

My Acer C720 erased a MacBook Air from my wishlist before the week was up. Shocking? Yes. Impossible? No.

In order to understand why I think a Chromebook beats a MacBook Air hands-down for me, let me first explain what I love about the MBA: Apple’s premier ultrabook is thin, light, fast and powerful with awesome battery life built around an operating system that is simple to understand and effective to use. But it also starts at $999, which explains why it was always on my wishlist instead of in my hands. That’s a large chunk of change to spend on my computing needs.

I wanted a MacBook Air to surf the Web, monitor social media, access email, edit photos, listen to music, watch videos, and even write the occasional well-organized article about tech. I wanted a MacBook Air because its solid state drive promised a fluid experience with nearly instant-on startup and enough storage for my needs. I wanted a MacBook Air because it had a responsive trackpad with gesture support and a speedy processor that also allowed for excellent battery life.

And then I learned I didn’t need to shell out $999 to own a machine that featured all of these qualities. My $199 Acer C720 Chromebook can do it all for $800 less! It surfs the Web like a champ. I’m constantly monitoring Google+ (and, increasingly less frequently, Facebook), I can check all my email accounts, and I can enjoy my music while typing up my latest insightful article. My Acer C720’s SSD allows it to boot in 7 seconds and wake instantly from sleep. And between the SSD’s 16GB and 100GB of free Google Drive cloud storage for two years, my storage capacity rivals the MacBook Air’s base configuration of 128GB. My Chromebook’s trackpad is smooth, responsive and features two-fingered scrolling, two-fingered swiping through a tab’s history, three-fingered horizontal swiping to navigate between tabs and a three-fingered swipe down that gives me a Mission Control-like view of all my open tabs and windows.

And my Acer C720 boasts a 1.4 GHz Intel Celeron processor with Haswell micro-architecture that keeps it zipping along for up to 8.5 hours. That compares pretty favorably to the MacBook Air’s 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 and up to 9 hours of battery life.

But surely you’re thinking that the MacBook Air has some superior hardware specs? It’s thin and light, measuring 11.8 inches wide, 7.56 inches deep, just 0.68 inches at its tallest point and only 2.38 pounds. My Acer C720’s measurements are 11.34 x 8.03 x 0.75 inches, and it weighs just 2.76 pounds. The MacBook Air has a colorful, 11.6-inch anti-glare screen with 1366 x 768 resolution. So does the Chromebook. The MacBook Air sports Intel HD graphics. So does the Chromebook. The MBA has USB 3.0 ports. So does the Chromebook, along with USB 2.0. The MacBook Air uses Bluetooth 4.0, and so does the Chromebook. The MacBook Air has a 720p HD video camera. So does the Chromebook.

Now, if you’re a Mac enthusiast, I bet you’re getting frustrated with me at this point. You’re echoing Apple’s company line that specs aren’t everything; that it’s the experience that counts. And at its core, that experience is wrapped around a computer’s operating system and integrated software.

And that’s where a MacBook Air really shines. OS X brings software and hardware together for an integrated and intuitive experience. As Apple’s own website says, “It’s easy to find, share, and do just about everything. … The Dock makes it easy to open your favorite apps. Launchpad gives you quick access to your full library of apps. The Finder lets you browse and organize your files with ease. Spotlight search makes locating the file you’re looking for effortless. You can even have your apps and the operating system software update automatically.”

Well, that certainly sounds fantastic. And also familiar. Google’s Chrome OS powers the heart of every Chromebook and is also dead-simple to navigate and operate. It features a customizable app shelf  with your favorite apps and an app launcher that holds your full library of apps. The Files app gives you quick and easy access to your files. A dedicated search key makes locating the file or app you’re looking for a simple exercise. And Chrome OS updates automatically and frequently, adding improvements and functionality all the time.

Now that I’ve mentioned that a Chromebook has apps, I can hear you snorting and saying, “Yeah, but a Chromebook’s apps aren’t real apps; they’re just web apps or bookmarks.” Does that matter? Shouldn’t the functionality be more important than whether an app is a native app or web app? And the Chromebook does have native apps as well as apps with offline capabilities. And more are coming.

Web app or native app, it just needs to work, which is often the argument in favor of Apple’s products: They just work. The same is true on a Chromebook. Everything just works. The MacBook Air’s FaceTime is a fantastic app for making video calls. I’ve got Google’s own Hangouts app that handles the task seamlessly on my Chromebook.  The MBA has Messages, allowing you to send unlimited messages to anyone on a Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. Hangouts allows me to send messages from my Chromebook to anyone with the Hangouts app — on nearly any device running nearly any operating system, not just iOS and OS X.

The MacBook Air has iTunes. The Chromebook has the Google Play store. An app store with powerful, varied apps and an ever-expanding collection of titles and capabilities? Check. Cloud storage and document- and tab-syncing? Check, check, check. Strong protection against viruses and malware? Yep.  

So, despite not being seen in the wider world as a real computer, my $199 Acer C720 Chromebook stacks up pretty nicely with a $999 MacBook Air, going toe-to-toe on specs, dimensions, functionality and ease of use. Simply put: My Chromebook just works, and it does so for $800 less.

About Chris Cox

I love technology, but I could do without the tinkering. I'm a firm believer in technology that just works. If it's intuitive, that leads to greater adoption, which leads to more advances, and that benefits us all. That said, a little tinkering on the front end that helps you every day is worth the effort. I'm all for simple solutions that keep me -- and you -- from reinventing the wheel every day.