For several years, I’ve watched low-cost Chromebooks chip away market share in the entry notebook segment and chomp away at the education market. In the Windows PC ecosystem, you could find notebooks within spitting distance of Chromebook costs ($200-300). Though price points were close, the actual devices were not. The notebooks were 15.6″, 6lb, 4hr battery life “portable desktops”. It was the equivalent of cross-selling a cost-reduced pickup truck against an affordable compact sedan.
Very recently, with the help of appropriate SoC platforms and Windows licensing programs, a trickle of ultraportable $199-249 Windows notebooks have come to market, and are being greeted by reasonable sales (5 out of the top 20 Amazon bestselling notebooks are PCs from this category) and good customer feedback (4.3/5 stars for those 5 bestseller models). I hope this encourages the thoughtful design compromises that are needed at this price segment. On a personal note, I like to think I had a role in these coming about; in my last weeks in the Windows PC Ecosystem team, I co-pitched a number of OEMs these SoC-eMMC-ultraportable notebook configurations in the <$250 segment. I recall consternation, from product managers, about the Windows 8.1 experience with these chipsets, 2GB RAM, and limited user storage (typically 32GB eMMC, due to cost pressures). As we’ll talk about later on, the optimizations to Windows 8.1 and efforts around WIM Boot helped make these systems possible.
I’m writing this from the keyboard of the ASUS X205, a faster, lighter, longer-lasting reincarnation of the netbook. It may be the purest form, to-date, of what the modern netbook can be, with its tablet silicon guts, optimized for consumer electronics-like, consumption-oriented usage. Its technical specs bear that out:
- Intel Atom Z3735F – 1.33GHz base clock (HFM) and 1.83GHz Turbo clock, Bay Trail platform, tablet SoC. It has a 2.2W SDP, meaning in this chassis, it can be passively cooled.
- 2GB DDR3L 1333MHz RAM – 1x64bit bus, 10.6GB/s bandwidth. Compared to LPDDR3, this will have a negative impact on Connected Standby battery life.
- 32GB eMMC (Hynix) – As the perf benchmarks will show, this is a middle-to-upper tier eMMC 4.5 part, a bit slower in sequential R/W than a typical 2.5″ 5400RPM laptop drive, but easily an order of magnitude faster at <512KB random R/W. That matters a ton for system responsiveness.
- 11.6″ non-touch display – 1366×768 TN panel, glossy, typical run of the mill
- Broadcom dual band WiFi (up to 802.11n) – supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, which is fantastic for cramped airwaves in apartments
- ELAN touchpad – has nearly identical dimensions to a 16:9 4.7″ display and while not a Precision Touchpad, at least exhibits a bunch of the characteristics – smooth two-finger scrolling, granular pinch-zoom, panning to the Windows 8 All Apps view via vertical scrolling.
- Ports – 2xUSB 2.0, microHDMI, microSD slot
- Dimensions – 286 x 193.3 x 17.5 mm (WxDxH)
- Weight – 980g
First up, here’s what the out of box experience looks like:
- You get a simple cardboard box containing the laptop, a charger, manuals and a redemption code for OneDrive storage.
- Time from first power-on to having a configured system and Windows user profile was 5 minutes flat.
- I hit a bug that prevented me from using a Microsoft Account during profile setup – I’ll have to check up on that.
- The ~29GB of formatted storage has 8GB reserved for a recovery partition. To Windows, 17.2GB of free space remains out of the visible 20.8GB OS/data partition. This system uses WIM boot in order to shrink its required OS footprint.
- Unfortunately, there are 600MB of Windows Updates pending; after download and installation, free storage space shrinks to 14.9GB.
- After installing the client apps of Office 365, I have 13.1GB of free space.
- After employing Windows’ function to create a copy of the recovery partition on a USB key, I’m mulling deleting the partition from the eMMC disk.
I’ve used the laptop as my regular couch or counter surfing machine, since I received it in early November. After a few weeks, there are already a few highlights to call out about the hardware:
- It is very light and portable. It gets tossed around the condo, from the den to the kitchen counters to the couch to the bed. It’s a great reference/fact checker machine, since it resumes so quickly (thank you, Connected Standby).
- What’s Connected Standby? Think of it as the smartphone or tablet-like responsive experience; your data is always up to date and system resume times are nearly instantaneous, shorter than the time it takes to open the lid to viewing position. That’s simply fabulous.
- Quality of materials is good. Under normal typing pressure, the keyboard deck remains firm, wrist-rests don’t flex. There is some flex in the display lid, if you push on the back. There’s a bit of creaking, when picking it up from a corner, with the lid opened, which is the position of maximum leverage one can put on the device.
- Battery life (active and standby) is stellar. I’m seeing 11.5-13 hours of real-world light usage battery life and 350-400 hours of Connected Standby (15 days). When I open the laptop and see 10% battery life left, I know I still have an hour (!) of use left.
- Performance is sufficient, for consumption-oriented scenarios. I typically run IE with 6-8 tabs open, an Office app, and a couple Modern apps (Mail and Finance are regulars). There is no issue multitasking between them. Responsiveness is particularly high, compared to typical PCs in the price segment, given the order of magnitude advantage in random disk I/O performance.
- Thermals are under control. With my workload, I’ve not felt any part of the device get warm, much less hot. There are no fans. Silence is golden.
- The display is not a deal breaker, but it’s just a simple TN panel, and color-shift is evident at any viewing angle other than perpendicular. More annoyingly, due to the particularly narrow vertical viewing angles, common to TN, there is color shift across the vertical axis of the display, as the your viewing angle of incident varies down the display.
- Physical input is nicely sized (particularly the touchpad), and again is functionally better than many larger, cheap laptops. In particular, the touchpad, for which we impressed importance time and time again with OEMs, actually does not suck.
- The AC power adapter is a single cord segment type, providing 1.75A @ 19V (33W). The wall-wart does not have foldable prongs.
This isn’t a mobile powerhouse, nor is it a premium device, hewn from premium materials. However, for $179-199, there are a bunch of areas it exceeds expectations.
- Input (keyboard and touchpad) quality
- Real world battery life
- Design and build quality
Don’t purchase this as a cheap replacement for the family desktop from 5 years ago. This will be slower, overall. Do purchase this, if you have tablet-like use cases and want tablet-like battery life and responsiveness, but think you need to buy a keyboard case, to make that tablet truly useful.
Another popular Windows option in this segment is the new HP Stream 11 (also $199). I mainly couldn’t accept the colour options, but you should get very similar performance with that PC. Trade off the free year of Office 365 Personal, 1TB OneDrive, and larger keyboard (Stream 11) against Connected Standby responsiveness, battery life, and portability of a smaller and 0.5lb lighter laptop (X205).