If you need a tablet to run Android apps, your first and likely last stop would normally be the Android tablet aisle of your local electronics superstore. But that aisle is likely to contain a lot of dust these days, thanks to a combination of the Apple iPad and manufacturers dragging their feet on the development of new models. But you might soon have an intriguing alternative: the Chrome OS-powered Acer Chromebook Tab 10 ($329). Initially targeted at the education market, the Chromebook Tab 10 is a groundbreaking product, but our initial take is that it may need another round to reach its full potential outside that sphere.
The First “Pure Tablet” Chromebook
Yes, its name is a tad contradictory. The Chromebook Tab 10 is not a traditional clamshell/”book”-style chromebook, but a straight-up slate. But it’s nevertheless sufficiently descriptive: In collaboration with Google, Acer has created the world’s first 10-inch “pure” tablet that runs the Chrome OS commonly seen in chromebooks, not the Android OS that is typically found on tablets. When you first pick it up and turn it on, you immediately notice that it’s not Android-powered. There’s a taskbar at the bottom of the screen, complete with the circular app-launcher icon on the left and notifications on the right, the same as you’d find on a chromebook. Chrome OS, of course, is not designed for touch input as its primary interface, so this is an intriguing first encounter without a keyboard.
Even before you get to the Chrome login screen, however, you notice something else about the Tab 10 as you run your fingers along the Indigo Blue textured back: This is a model designed to be used in elementary school classrooms. At 1.2 pounds, it’s not exactly ruggedized, nor is it particularly heavy (the iPad weighs only slightly less, at 1.03 pounds). But it feels sturdy, and the hardened plastic is easy to wipe clean after grade-schoolers’ grubby hands have been all over it.
Only Available for Students
That’s a good thing, because Acer is only selling the Chromebook Tab 10 to schools right now, in the hopes that they’ll buy them in bulk to create classroom sets. School districts and other educational organizations who buy them in these large quantities will almost certainly get a significant (and confidential) discount off the $329 list price. That’s a good thing, because although the Chromebook Tab 10 looks great from the outside and feels sturdy, its internal components are more in line with what you’d expect from a chromebook that costs at least $50 less.
The 9.7-inch display is an In-Plane Switching (IPS) panel that allows for wide viewing angles, with a very sharp resolution of 2,048 by 1,536 pixels at 264 pixels per inch. It looked bright and vivid, even in PC Labs, which is lit by overhead fluorescent lights similar to those found in many school classrooms. Along the edges, there’s a USB Type-C port for charging and connecting peripherals, a headphone jack, a storage slot for the included battery-free EMR stylus, volume and power buttons, a microSD card slot, and stereo speakers that offer adequate, if uninspiring, audio quality. Video quality from the front- and rear-facing webcams is also adequate, with none of the hesitation or stuttering that some chromebooks exhibit due to their underpowered CPUs’ inability to process camera input in real time.
That’s not to say that the Chromebook Tab 10’s processor is powerful, however. It’s a Rockchip-made OP1, which is designed from the ground up to power chromebooks. With six cores and a clock speed of up to 2GHz, this ARM-based CPU prioritizes battery efficiency and fast wireless connectivity over processing power, which is fine since that approach fits well with the requirements of apps that elementary and middle schools are using, such as the Chrome web browser or Google Classroom to work on and submit worksheet-based assignments. The 4GB of memory and 32GB of eMMC flash storage are in the same vein as the processor: relatively poky by Windows or Mac standards, but perfectly adequate for most of the tasks that the Chromebook Tab 10 will be asked to perform.
However, unless you’re a kid who couldn’t care less about the Chrome user experience, you’ll almost certainly walk away unimpressed with the Rockchip CPU. Even simple tasks such as opening, closing, or switching apps and drawing with the included stylus in the Google Keep app feels sluggish on the Chromebook Tab 10. After using it occasionally for two days and casually comparing my activities to how they felt on the Google Pixelbook, a pricey ode to the essence of Googliness, I obviously prefer the latter, which displayed far fewer stutters when switching apps in tablet mode. I also far preferred my own personal Apple iPad, which I use nearly every evening, costs the same as the Tab 10’s list price, and never feels sluggish.
Interestingly, the Chromebook Tab 10 performs at least as well, and in some cases better than, competing budget chromebooks on synthetic benchmark tests. Our review unit recorded a score of 85 on the app-based CrXPRT test (a Chrome OS-specific benchmark suite from Principled Technologies), and 192 on the browser-based WebXPRT 2015 tool from the same company. That’s better than the comparably priced, Intel Celeron-powered Dell Chromebook 3189 2-in-1 (57 on CrXPRT and 126 on WebXPRT), but light years behind the Pixelbook (202 on CrXPRT; 416 on WebXPRT). Essentially, these results confirm that if you want the best chromebook experience, you should buy a Pixelbook (or at least an Intel Core-based chromebook), and if you want a great mobile computing experience for around $300, you should buy an iPad, not a Chrome machine.
Using Chrome OS on a Tablet
Apart from the Chromebook Tab 10’s ho-hum speed, the experience of using Chrome OS without a keyboard is occasionally rough around the edges. There’s no way to turn off tablet mode unless you connect an external keyboard and mouse, which means that you simply can’t perform tasks that require keyboard shortcuts, such as resetting the factory defaults (what Google calls “Powerwashing”) from the login screen. Kids normally won’t encounter these obstacles, but IT departments and parents will almost certainly need to connect peripherals. Fortunately, Belkin now makes a USB Type-C version of its Wired Tablet Keyboard for Chrome OS expressly for this purpose.
The Chromebook Tab 10 supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1, so you could instead connect a Bluetooth keyboard. I paired a combined, home theater-style keyboard/touchpad from Rapoo, but the Chromebook Tab 10 recognized only the keyboard portion as an input device, not the touchpad.
Teething issues aside, the world’s first Chrome OS-powered tablet offers tantalizing prospects for two specialized tools that have earned Google a presence in classrooms worldwide. The first is the rather mundane Chrome Management Console, which lets school IT departments set up user accounts for students and secure boot processes that manage encryption, among other enterprise features.
The second is Google Expeditions, which is essentially a suite of virtual field trips—some in augmented reality—that helps students learn about everything from the Great Barrier Reef to outer space. Its iOS and Android apps are a prized feature in many classrooms, and one that Apple is clearly trying to mimic by positioning its latest iPad as an ideal education tool for augmented-reality experiences (and dropping the price a tad for educators).
Thanks to the Chromebook Tab 10’s ability to run Android apps downloaded from the Google Play Store, which it shares with many other chromebooks, you can install Google Expeditions on the tablet right now. But Acer says that specialized augmented reality (AR) support for Google Expeditions is coming to the Tab 10 in a future update, which will let students map the classroom and place 3D objects, such as virtual versions of ancient artifacts, in it to study.
Until this functionality is ready, the main benefits of the Chromebook Tab 10 to educators versus simply buying a set of Android tablets or conventional chromebooks amount to the security, manageability, and IT features, as well as the integrated stylus.
Given its result of 12 hours and 40 minutes on our video-playback battery-rundown test, the Chromebook Tab 10 should last for a full day of classroom use without paying a visit to a wall outlet or a charging cart. Its battery life is similar to that of mainstream chromebooks like the Acer Chromebook Spin 11 (12:48) and the Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook (12:13), but it’s a few hours short of the excellent 17:25 that the Acer Chromebook 15 posted.
For Now, Keep It at School
The fact that the only way you can get your hands on a Chromebook Tab 10 right now is if your kid brings one home from school is probably a good thing, since there are several areas in which Android, iOS, and Windows tablets are much more convenient for consumers. Whether you’re typing on the onscreen keyboard, installing apps, or managing energy use, these operating systems have had the benefit of far more real-world testing and troubleshooting in the tablet form factor than Chrome OS has had.
Moreover, the main selling points of the Chromebook Tab 10—its stylus, its IT management features, and its support for specific in-classroom educational experiences—aren’t concerns that matter much to mainstream tablet users. The upshot is that for now, you should probably buy an iPad if you want a $300 tablet, or a conventional laptop or 2-in-1 if you want a chromebook. Of course, since Acer isn’t selling the Chromebook Tab 10 to the general public yet, these are your only choices.
Actually, there is a third option: an Android tablet. But the pickings are currently rather slim if you’re in the market for one that’s as high-quality and affordable as the iPad. Your best bet is to choose a model from the Amazon Fire lineup, which runs a modified version of Android that heavily favors Amazon services, or look into Samsung’s latest Galaxy Tabs (notably, the Tab S series) and Asus’ ZenPad models. (See our picks for today’s best Android tablets.)
If Acer decides to sell the Chromebook Tab 10 to the general public, perhaps at a lower price or with more powerful components, it could be a much-needed jolt for manufacturers to make more-attractive alternatives to the iPad or Windows tablets. Right now, however, the Chromebook Tab 10 is comfortably nestled into its niche as an educational tool. Its pioneering implementation of Chrome OS on a tablet could be great for students and teachers, but it will need finessing to work for most anyone else.