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One of the best laptops you can buy for less than $700 is not what you'd expect

One of the best laptops you can buy for less than $700 is not what you'd expect
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The Acer Chromebook Plus 516GE
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

ZDNET’s key takeaways

  • The Acer Chromebook Plus 516 GE is available now starting at $649. 
  • Its bright, high-refresh display plays nicely with a solid processor, making it fast, responsive, and optimized for cloud gaming. 
  • Despite being a gaming Chromebook, the keyboard isn’t great, and its overall design keeps it relegated to its price point.

After a relatively quiet year for Chromebooks, Google has announced the release of six new Chromebook Plus devices, and all eyes are on the new models from Acer, HP, and Asus. I was lucky enough to get my hands on the Acer Chromebook Plus 516 GE, a beefed-up refresh of the previous cloud gaming model, and one of two Chromebook Plus laptops Acer has released.

Also: 5 useful AI features Google just unveiled for Chromebook Plus

Chromebook Plus refers to devices that are largely the same as “regular” Chromebooks (light, agile, run on ChromeOS, and are designed for the cloud) but boast more robust hardware and leverage Google’s Gemini for a host of AI functionalities.

The AI functionality in the new Chromebook Plus devices ranges from flashy features like generative AI wallpapers to photo editing tools in the Google Photos app and Google Chrome’s Help Me Write app. More notably though, they come with Gemini on every device, right out of the box.

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Yet it’s the hardware that that’s impressive. In fact, the Acer Chromebook Plus 516 GE is powered by an Intel Core Ultra 5 (or an Ultra 7), a powerful processor that is typically found in much more expensive laptops. This, along with the sharp-looking 16-inch WQXGA display with a 120Hz refresh rate, RBG keyboard, and decent speakers, make this device look more like a solid gaming laptop than a Chromebook.

Also: Beyond Google: 5 Chrome extensions that give you search superpowers

Acer’s Chromebook Plus 516 GE is designed for cloud gaming, not for playing games off of its local drive. It can come with up to 2TB PCIe NVMe SSD storage, but starts at 256GB with 8GB of RAM. This is not a lot, but it’s fine for a device that’s designed to work almost exclusively off the cloud.

Acer Chromebook Plus 516 GE2
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

In that vein, the laptop features a 2.5G Gigabit Ethernet LAN port along with Wi-Fi 6E for multiple connectivity options. Other ports on this device include an HDMI port, one USB-A port, two USB-C ports, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a Kensington lock slot. It charges via USB-C.

In my testing of the 516 GE, I fired up GeForce NOW, one of the biggest hubs for cloud gaming, and launched a few different titles. Performance was quite good across the board. After connecting to my Steam account, I ran Diablo IV and Manor Lords, among others. Everything was up and running within seconds with impressive performance.

Also: ChatGPT vs. Microsoft Copilot vs. Gemini: Which is the best AI chatbot?

That’s one of the first things I noticed, actually. The device’s startup time is swift, and app launches are just as fast. Switching back and forth between apps is also responsive. Even when I had launched a game, Chrome was open with a handful of tabs, the YouTube app was in the background, and a few other things were running, navigating ChromeOS felt light and responsive, with less lag than I expected.

I’m not going to say this is the best gaming laptop I’ve ever used, but given what it’s designed for, its performance was impressive, and folks into cloud gaming will absolutely appreciate how good it feels.

The upgraded hardware in the new line of Chromebook Plus enables the devices to embrace multitasking and productivity in a way that was, let’s face it, a little hit-or-miss on previous models. Google touts roughly double the processing power, double the memory, and double the storage on Plus models, letting you run industry-standard creator apps like Adobe Photoshop or Lumafusion. 

With AI built-in, Google says all these functionalities will be improved further. Having access to Gemini on the desktop essentially decouples Google search from the browser, while AI optimizations offer improvements to the device’s battery life. In my testing of the Acer Chromebook Plus 516 GE, I found the battery life to be really solid. Battery usage drops to a trickle when it’s not in use, and even with consistent, sustained use, the battery lasts upwards of 10 hours.

Also: Chrome now has a new AI writing tool to help you write almost anything online

Regarding the laptop’s physical appearance, the display is definitely the best part. The 16-inch matte screen gets quite bright and features a 100% sRGB color gamut. If you’ve read any of my previous reviews, you’ll notice I can’t stand a dim display, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Also, despite not having a dedicated graphics card, visuals look crisp and smooth.

Acer Chromebook Plus 516 GE
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

The rest of the laptop is rather nondescript. The keyboard is made of black plastic with white sides that emulate a backlight, but in my opinion doesn’t do much to portray a sleek design. The glossy black finish on the body is a magnet for fingerprints, and the plastic bezels surrounding the display are what you’d expect from a laptop at this price point. 

Normally, I would say the lack of a full-sized keyboard on a 16-inch laptop holds it back, but in this case, the extra real estate elongates the Ctrl, Shift, and Alt keys, which are commonly used in gaming. While this is a nice touch, the keyboard as a whole is still kind of “mushy” and lacks the springiness of a proper gaming keyboard.

Also: Google’s just demoed its multimodal Gemini Live feature, and I’m worried for Rabbit and Humane

The W, A, S, and D keys are highlighted in white to stand out, but unfortunately don’t feature any tactile differentiation. Also, the arrow keys are small, which is a little puzzling, and the lack of labeling on the top row of keys (which act as function keys) is not convenient for gamers who use those as key binds. 

ZDNET’s buying advice

If you’re a gamer who primarily streams off the cloud and is looking for a portable, capable device, the Acer Chromebook Plus 516 GE is a fantastic option, especially for the price. It doesn’t have a high-end video card or tons of RAM, but the display’s fast refresh rate and solid processor make it well-suited for streaming games and multimedia. 

Despite its niche near the top of the line of gaming Chromebooks, the Acer Chromebook Plus 516 GE would also make a solid device to take to work with its strong battery life and nice processor.

To entice people to join the Chromebook Plus party, Google is offering the Google One AI Premium plan for free for a year to new users. This gives you not only upgraded storage but also enables you to use Gemini Advanced, including in Docs and Gmail.

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