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Acer Goes Tegra K1 for Chromebook 13

Author: SKYMTL
Date: August 10, 2014
Product Name: Chromebook 13
 
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Chromebooks. Depending on your opinion that word either refers to an underpowered, narrowly focused netbook replacement or a saving grace for the many people who choose not to spend over $750 on a suitably portable notebook. However, the Chromebook segment is advancing at a breakneck pace and a new partnership between NVIDIA and Acer is hoping to push things even further. Together theyíve teamed up to create the Acer Chromebook 13.

In order to understand why the Chromebook 13 is significant, itís important to understand the current state of the Chromebook market. Many of you reading this article already have a perfectly capable notebook or convertible laptop that boasts good battery life and is suitable for everyday computing or on-the-go work. A Windows or OSX-based environment for those tasks is key simply due to file compatibility and, more importantly, performance.

Chromebooks on the other hand have followed closely in the footsteps of the now-defunct netbooks. Theyíre for people who appreciate the convenience of a small computer that can browse the web, print documents and post to Facebook but just donít use advanced word processing, content creation and charting applications on a regular basis. Thatís not to say that Googleís Android ecosystem wonít ever be able to provide those features but right now itís geared towards providing an economical, efficient and adaptable OS rather than pure multi tasking performance.

Thereís also the education domain where value is of the utmost importance since school boards continually struggle to find the funds for technology. Sub-$500 Chromebooks have the potential to become a simple lifesaver by providing an inexpensive but still fully capable solution for their goals.


This is where Acerís Chromebook 13 gets factored into the equation when itís . It is supposed to be inexpensive but feature-rich and boast performance thatís rarely seen on these devices. How does it achieve that? By being the first Chromebook to utilize an NVIDIA Tegra K1, the same processor found in the recently-released SHIELD Tablet.

Past the obvious benefits of the K1 (weíll get more into that a bit later), there will be three Chromebook 13 models and all of them will use the same processor. The base $279 configuration will boast an ďHDĒ screen with a 1366x768 resolution, 2GB of memory, a 16GB SSD and about 13 hours of continual battery life. Thatís an extremely aggressive price considering many competitors go for $299 and higher.

Moving up the product stack we have a pair of Chromebook 13ís with FHD 1080P screens, one of which has the same configuration as Acerís entry level option but includes a $30 premium for the benefit of higher resolution. The highest-end configuration receives 4GB of memory and a 32GB SSD alongside a cost of $379. Both 1080P options have a runtime of about 11 hours on battery power alone. Even at $379 the 13 compares quite favorably to the likes of Samsungís highly regarded Chromebook 2 13Ē, particularly from a value perspective. Despite the recent ballooning of appsí storage requirements, there wonít be a 64GB version offered.

All of these will be available through Acerís retail partners like Amazon and Best Buy starting sometime next month while Canadian customers should be able to pick theirs up closer to the end of September. The only configuration not seen here is a specialized commercial / education version that will go for $330 and come with 4GB of memory, an HD screen and a 16GB SSD.


From the outside the Acer Chromebook 13 is no different than many of the other 13.3Ē Chromebooks on the market simply because it uses an ultra slim form factor. On the other hand it uses a full-sized keyboard, has a large integrated trackpad (though no physical trackpad buttons) and is very, very white. At least initially there wonít be a black or grey finish available. Unfortunately we canít discuss build quality Ėone of Acerís historic weaknesses- nor can we comment about how quickly that pretty white exterior gets blemished since a sample hasnít arrived yet.


While it may have an abundance of plastic, the Acer Chromebook 13 is one of the thinnest of its kind. At just 18mm at the thickest point and a mere 3.30lbs, this may quickly become a new standard in portability for its class. There isnít anything particularly sexy about the design but with it lacks avant-garde is more than made up for in a utilitarian layout.


Regardless of the svelte sizing here, Acer has packed a relatively impressive amount of connectivity into their latest Chromebook. There are two USB 3.0 connectors (one in the front and one in the back), an SD card reader, a full-sized HDMI 1.4 output and the usual 3.5mm headphone jack. Unseen by the naked eye is an advanced 2x2 MIMO antenna design that insures reliable throughput for the onboard high speed 802.11AC WiFi interface.


One of the main challenges is providing Chromebooks with hardware performance thatís suitable for the ever-evolving nature of online and application-based content. Previously, these pseudo-notebooks were equipped with relatively basic ARM derivative processors that had passable but certainly not spectacular GPU performance. With the advent of WebGL, interactive education tools, and more complex Android gaming, even the most basic usage scenarios have become increasingly taxing on the processorsí graphics subsystem.

NVIDIA is hoping this perfect storm will lead to system builders opting for their new Tegra K1 over the options being offered by the competition. They are of course a GPU-centric company so it makes sense that K1 would be architected for the new and future realities within the Android application market.

In order to achieve graphics superiority but still retain high end serial task performance, the Tegra K1 primarily makes use of 192 graphics cores based on NVIDIAís latest Kepler architecture. These are paired up with a quartet of ARM A15 cores operating at 2.1GHz so there are no bottlenecks throughout the processing stages. NVIDIA claims this solution is superior to other processors currently being offered within the Chromebook space like the Exynos 5 Octa and Intelís Bay Trail Celerons.


One of the main benefits of K1 is its ability to operate in an extremely low power mode when applications arenít calling on the processorís full capabilities. Alongside the four standard processing cores, NVIDIA has added a fifth low power core that operates exclusively in reduced usage scenarios, taking over from the A15 and Kepler compute modules. With this active and all other cores in their standby states, this Tegra processor is one of the most efficient around and is supposed to conserve battery life like no other while still having a few more gears to pull away when the going gets tough.


By effectively leveraging the native compute power resident within their Kepler cores, NVIDIA and by extension the Chromebook 13 is able to fly ahead. WebGL is a perfect example of this trend towards graphics-first processing since its being used quite widely within interactive websites. Since its inception WebGL has become an integral API within the JavaScript library since it allows for the simple processing of 3D and 2D environments directly within a web browser. Naturally, this requires a certain amount of acceleration from the onboard graphics subsystem and quite a few current processors are unable to keep up with the demands and get bogged down.

During this yearís World Cup, FIFA initially published all of their in-game updates, streaming and live game statics within a WebGL accelerated environment. Unfortunately, quite a few users complained since their mobile processors werenít able to handle it so less feature-rich version was quickly rolled out. Visitors sporting a K1 and some other higher end ARM-based processors didnít have a problem with the content and could access it without bogging down their systems.

Tegra K1 is able to bring next-generation WebGL acceleration to the table right now, thereís more here than just one narrow usage-based scenario. NVIDIA has also built in optimizations for apps like Googleís Hangouts as well, where multi streaming video stream playback is becoming essential. Multi tasking Ėsomething that has long plagued other Chromebooks- has been addressed as well through fine-grain performance modulation for primary applications.


The Chromebook 13 looks to have everything it takes to keep Acerís predominance within this rapidly expanding market and create an important design win for NVIDIAís Tegra K1. With market analysts predicting Chromebook sales will crest at 5.1 million units this year and 7.2 million next year, thereís certainly potential for significant growth. It also looks like the underlying architecture is more than able to remain ahead, at least for the time being. However, NVIDIA SoC competitors are on the cusp of launching new architectures of their own and with the advent of WebGL and other graphics-intensive APIs, it isnít too hard to guess at what theyíll be focusing on.

Until we get our hands on a Chromebook 13, premature judgments canít be passed on our part. With that being said, thereís certainly a great deal of potential here but Acer will have to get more than just performance right. Build quality, real world battery life and reliability are playing an increasingly large role in the purchasing decisions of Chromebook buyers who care about more than just a bargain basement price.
 
 

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