(Pocket-lint) - Chromebooks are not just for budget buyers anymore. Some cost four figures, are made of aluminium and magnesium, and have as much power as a high-end Windows laptop.
But the best tech-per-pound Chromebooks are still affordable ones like this: the Acer Chromebook Spin 311. It's fine for the basics, just as you'd expect from a laptop at this price point.
Aside from one little build quality issue, there's little to dislike about the Acer Chromebook Spin 311. Its screen is good enough, performance scrapes by happily, and it's surprisingly fab as a little typing machine.
This is no marvel of modern technology, but is just the kind of low-cost laptop many people should consider.
- Dimensions: 296 x 206 x 23.50mm
- Weight: 1.33kg
- Plastic casing
We've learned to expect quite a bit from cheap Chromebooks, but not necessarily good looks. However, parts of the Acer Chromebook Spin 311 are really rather tasteful - more so than a lot of the pricier laptops Acer has made.
Just look at the subtle two-tone keyboard and surrounds. Black on dark grey, with a friendly looking key font, and curves that tiptoe across that line between the serious and accessible: it all just works well.
There's a big caveat, of course: the Acer Chromebook Spin 311 has huge screen surrounds. This is an 11.6-inch laptop with the footprint closer to a 13-inch one. So while we think the bottom half looks good, the top half is either going to come across as dated or cheap given those bezels.
This is the main budget giveaway, because the Acer Chromebook Spin 311 doesn't have the fat raised surrounds of a true old-school laptop. Its screen is covered by a big sheet of Gorilla Glass. If this Chromebook had a 13-inch screen that filled out the top part, it would look fabulous. But then it probably wouldn't cost so little either.
All this praise about the Acer Chromebook Spin 311's look only applies to the inside. The lid is a style-free zone of textured plastic. But does that really matter?
The Spin 311 is a very portable little Chromebook, but may be a little heavier and thicker than you might expect. It weighs 1.33kg and is 23mm thick, similar in weight to a 13-inch ultraportable, but thicker. Acer estimates the weight at 1.5kg on its website, but it is actually substantially lighter based on our scales.
It feels reassuringly strong too, mostly thanks to the ultra-tough band of grey plastic that runs between the base and keyboard plate. These other parts aren't quite as thick and tough, but do offer flex-free typing.
The Acer Chromebook Spin 311 has a 360-degree hinge, one of its main features, and this is also strong. It doesn't wobble if you type with the laptop in your lap, or flip back too easily when you pick it up.
There's only one significant issue with the Spin 311's construction. Lift it up by its side and the touchpad clicker stops clicking, because the flex of the case pushes it in. Dig a little deeper into what causes this and you'll find it's the flex of the underside. While annoying, the clicker doesn't suddenly stop working because you rest your wrist on the top.
Keyboard and Touchpad
- Non-backlit keyboard
- Plastic touchpad
It is no huge surprise that a cheap plastic laptop does not have immaculate build, but the Spin 311 is still a superb little laptop for typing and work. It's got a full-size keyboard; key definition is solid, and there's no sense of feeling cramped when typing - unlike the Microsoft Surface Go 2.
There's none of the fancy stuff, of course: no keyboard backlight, no fingerprint scanner. However, the Spin 311 is a reminder the basics matter most, particularly if we're talking about writing a 3,000 word essay rather than flicking through Netflix for the 3,000th time.
It does have one very neat feature, though. The Chromebook Spin 311 is based on designs originally intended for classrooms. Being able to take abuse is the currency of these laptops. As such, the keyboard has a reservoir that can hold a full can's worth of liquid without any spilling into the important insides. Don't test this with Coke, as sugary, sticky stuff is no friend to keyboards. But you can see where the liquid drains out on the underside.
The touchpad is a similarly practical. It has a plastic surface, not a glass one like those of fancy Chromebooks. But it feels fairly similar to glass, is of a good size, and has a chunky clicker action with zero of the floaty feel we look to avoid when shopping for a work laptop.
Hybrid design and screen
- 11.6-inch IPS LCD display
- Gorilla Glass protection
- 1136 x 768 resolution
- 360-degree hinge
The Acer Chromebook Spin 311 is a hit for typing, but what about the fun stuff? Its 360-degree hinge gives it an edge over some other cheaper Chromebooks. You can fold the display all the way back so the lid meets the base.
This is not a great tablet, but the hinge does make it far better for noodling around when in bed, or for use anywhere you really want an entertainment screen, not a laptop.
The screen is fairly small - at 11.6-inches across - and fairly low-resolution. We'd love it to fill out the screen surround and be higher res. But at this price we can live with what we get here, because it once again provides a good basic level of quality.
This is an IPS LCD, the same kind you might find on a phone or tablet. It doesn't start looking strange or ugly when viewed from the wrong angle - a common trait of much older Chromebooks. You'll still see this in a lot of cheap larger screen laptops with TN (twisted nematic) panels, too. They are the number one thing to avoid if you want a good-looking screen.
We also tried using the Spin 311 outside in the sun to see how it managed, as cheap laptops are rarely that bright. You won't want to use this Chromebook out in the park to watch a movie, but we could easily see this review-in-progress while sat on the grass as the pins and needles started working up our legs. That you'll have to worry about your personal comfort more than this laptop's screen when working outdoors is a good result.
The Acer Chromebook Spin 311 has a touchscreen, an essential for any hybrid. But there's no smart stylus here.
- AMD A4-9120C CPU, 4GB RAM
- Radeon R4 graphics
The best part of the Acer Chromebook Spin 311's performance is how quick and easy it is to use. Head back to using it the day after starting a document and it comes out of sleep just about as quickly as an Android phone. There's none of that lag you get with a Windows laptop that has gone into a power-saving hibernation after being left doing nothing for a while.
Basic performance is solid too - again better than you'd see from a Windows laptop with the same processor. Chrome OS is a pretty thin operating system, so there's less to slow down a low-powered computer when just pottering about doing simple stuff.
Websites load quickly as long as your internet connection is fast and there's no lag when you do something simple like write a document.
Want more? Chromebooks can run Android apps, making every single one a (potential) great little entertainment machine. However, the Acer Chromebook Spin 311's performance is more patchy than an equivalent priced Android phone trying to run the same apps.
This isn't just because the laptop has a fairly weak CPU. Android apps are run using a wrapper in Chrome OS, and don't always work all that well, regardless of the power on tap.
We tried out a whole bunch of the most popular apps and games to see how the Acer Chromebook Spin 311 holds up. Results were mixed.
Hits include Gameloft's excellent racer Asphalt 8, Bloons TD 6, Dead Trigger 2, Alto's Adventure and Super Monkey Ball. They all work well, aside from some occasional slow-down in Bloons and Asphalt.
Some others either don't work at all, or are too slow. Asphalt 9 often looks like a slide show, PUBG crashes constantly, Call of Duty: Mobile and ARK: Survival don't get past the logo screens before crashing, and Minecraft isn't even available on the Chrome OS Google Play store. These are the kinds of games many want to play, and there's also no version of Fortnite for Chrome OS either.
What's the main difference between these winners and losers? If a game uses the kind of graphical techniques adopted in the last few years, there's a good chance it won't work well, or perhaps at all, on this Chromebook (or another Chromebook for that matter).
However, the games that really struggle don't work particularly well on any Chromebook, price irrelevant. In the end, Chrome OS's patchy Android app support highlights why cheaper Chromebook's like this are a less problematic buy than the more expensive options. Their specs match Chrome OS's limits.
We also tried some N64 and PS1 emulation on the Chromebook. Both work beautifully, with no obvious slow-down in the titles tried.
What are the specs? The Acer Chromebook Spin 311 has an AMD A4-9120C CPU, 4GB RAM and 32GB storage. It could do with more storage space, as we had to uninstall a bunch of games during testing, but 32GB is still the norm at the price.
The AMD chipset is designed to use very little power, and is roughly the equivalent of an Intel Celeron N4000, which Acer used in the last version of the Spin 311. It has very little power, and would be a very compromised fit for a Windows laptop. However, it performs just fine in Chrome OS.
AMD has a real benefit over the cheap Intel Celeron CPUs at the level too: the Radeon R4 graphics chipset is a lot more powerful than the UHD 600 rival from Intel. Both are total weaklings, of course, but the difference still means you can play more games more comfortably.
The Acer Chromebook Spin 311's speakers are fair for a cheap Chromebook too, in that they are at least not a complete embarrassment. Two downward-facing drivers sit on the bottom. They provide next to zero bass and only conservative max volume, but do not distort in an ugly way at maximum volume or cause parts of the case to rattle. They'll do the trick for occasional YouTube and Netflix streaming.
- Up to 10 hour battery life
- USB-C charging
- 4200mAh battery
Acer says the Chromebook Spin 311 lasts 10 hours between charges. Laptop battery claims are usually works of fiction, but this one is at least not too far from the truth.
Streaming YouTube at half brightness, the Spin 311 lasts eight hours and 20 minutes. You probably won't want to drop the brightness much lower than what we used for this test, but the battery should last slightly longer if you simply need to write documents. But who does that for eight hours straight?
This laptop has USB-C charging, a neat modern twist that lets you recharge the laptop (slowly) with phone chargers.
There's good news for those who will mostly use the Spin 311 at home too. While it does not have an HDMI port, you can hook up a monitor or TV over USB-C via the DisplayPort standard.
You get plenty of connections: two USB-Cs, two oldie USB 3.0 ports, a microSD and headphone jack.
You have to wonder who some Chromebooks are designed for. Who really needs a hugely expensive Chrome OS laptop like the Google PixelBook, which looks and feels nice but can barely do anything with the power it has.
No such head-scratching is required with the Acer Chromebook Spin 311. This is a great buy for someone who needs a laptop but can't stretch to the asking price of an entry-level Intel Core i3 Windows laptop, let alone a four-figures or beyond for a high-end one.
The 311 has a very good keyboard, the IPS screen looks pleasant enough (even with big borders and low resolution), and the flexi-hinge touch display lets it take on many of the non-portable jobs of a tablet.
The Spin 311 isn't incredibly slim, can't run proper Windows apps, and a construction oversight affects the touchpad in one specific scenario. But it's in this price bracket that Chrome OS's particular appeals shine through, and this is a very good example of an affordable Chromebook.
Microsoft Surface Go 2
Out for an affordable hybrid? The Surface Go 2 is the next level up. Several aspects are far better. It has a lovely magnesium alloy case, a much better screen and an excellent webcam. However, add the Type Cover keyboard and the price rises far, far higher than the Acer's. And after working with both all day we prefer the feel of the Acer's full-size keyboard.