Another day, another Rockchip-powered Chromebook… but, thankfully, this one is different. Very different.
In fact, the Chromebook I’m reviewing today, the Asus C100, is the most buzzed about Chromebook in some time.
Where the Hisense and Haier Chromebooks represent the price basement of the Chrome OS lineup, the Asus C100 – hereafter referred to by its more common name, the Chromebook Flip – pairs the budget guts of those devices with an IPS touchscreen and a versatile aluminum hybrid body.
I gave a very positive review to the Asus C201, which has the same internal components as the Flip, but the Flip’s starting cost is nearly $100 more for a smaller device. Does it make sense to pair a budget SoC with higher-end build quality, and how is a touch-driven form factor work with Chrome OS?
The Asus Flip is the fourth Rockchip RK3288 SoC-powered device to hit the market this year, so again this is an ARM-architecture device with an integrated Mali GPU. The majority of the specs are identical to the Asus C201, with the changes in bold:
- 1.8 GHz quad-core processor
- 2 GB of DDR3 RAM ($249) or 4 GB of DDR3 RAM ($279)
- 16 GB of eMMC flash memory for local storage (comes with 100GB Google Drive)
- 10.1″ 1280×800 IPS display with 10-point multitouch
- 2x USB 2.0 ports
- Micro SD card slot
- Combo headphone/microphone jack
- “HD” webcam
- 802.11 dual-band AC Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 4.1
One of the most exciting components of the Flip is its IPS touchscreen display. It is vibrant and responsive, though compared to most mid-range and above 10″ tablets, the resolution is below current standards. Viewing angles are very good horizontally, and decent vertically; this display is much better than the TN panels used in many lower-end Chromebooks, but nowhere near in the same league as the Toshiba Chromebook 2. As you can see in the photo below, it is also extremely reflective. Thankfully, this is worse in photos than it is actually watching content.
As with the other Rockchip-powered Chromebooks, this device is limited to USB 2.0 only, by way of two USB 2.0 ports. This has been a sticking point for some folks, but in all honesty I can’t find a compelling reason why this should discourage you; the Flip has limited local storage, so it is relatively unlikely that you’ll be moving so much data to and from the device via USB that you’d need USB 3.0 speed.
The Flip also has the “micro” versions of both the SD card slot and the HDMI display out. Fortunately micro SD cards have dropped considerably in price this year, and micro HDMI is not uncommon in these types of smaller hybrid devices, so I find its inclusion here not as troublesome as on the Asus C201. All of these ports are located on the same side of the device – front right, when using it as a laptop facing you.
The Flip comes with either 2 GB of RAM for $249 or 4 GB of RAM for $279, though both units have already seen discounts. As with all Chromebooks where you have the option, I’d suggest going with the increased RAM, as it will add longevity to your Chromebook and helps with tab management. That said, if you’re on a budget, I tested the 2 GB RAM version of the Asus C201 in my review and found that it performs pretty well up to about 8 open tabs, so for most users that version should be sufficient.
These devices cannot be upgraded by users after the fact, so you’re limited to the 16 GB eMMC storage on both versions, and cannot upgrade the RAM at a later time after purchase.
Build Quality and Design
The Flip extends on the excellent design of the Asus C201, looking in many ways like a miniaturized, metal version of that Chromebook. In doing so, Asus has made a Chromebook that you’ll be proud to use in public. This device is significantly more aesthetically pleasing than any Chromebook that isn’t the Google Chromebook Pixel.
The entire outside of the device is metal, save for the plastic hinge, with the end result being a consistently great appearance and a tactile feeling of quality build. The screen has a 360 degree hinge:
Note that the speakers are on the bottom of the Flip. This means that no matter what mode you’re using, the speakers are facing away from you. They’re decently loud, thankfully, but this is a drawback when compared to modern 10″ tablets in this price range, as well as Chromebooks like the Acer Chromebook 15 and Toshiba Chromebook 2, which have much louder maximum volume.
This hinge provides the Flip with a variety of modes of use:
It is also worth noting that the Flip’s power on/off switch and volume control are on the side of the device, enhancing its usefulness when in alternative use modes:
As you hopefully can tell from these photos, this is an attractive and well-built laptop. It weighs just under two pounds, so compared to designs that have a detachable tablet/keyboard construction instead of a 360 hinge, this is a light machine with a standard array of ports.
The hinge does have some wobble in it when being used as a touch input device, and in general it isn’t quite as sturdy as most normal laptop designs. It isn’t so bad as to be constantly irritating, but is noticeable on occasion.
For the price, this is absolutely a very nicely built Chromebook, certainly far better than you’d ever expect for a sub-$300 laptop, but comparisons to the MacBook Air or Chromebook Pixel are a stretch.
One very important item to note here is that the keyboard is 97% sized to a full-size keyboard. 3% might not sound like a lot, but when you first start typing on it, it is obvious that this is a not a normal keyboard. It took me about an hour of typing to get used to the keyboard on the Flip, and that first hour involved quite a few typos and much slower typing in general than I’m used to.
Fortunately, outside of being a bit cramped, the actual construction of the keyboard is impressive. Keys have nice resistance and plenty of travel. This is leaps and bounds ahead of the keyboard on the Asus X205TA, and were it full-size, it would be better than that of the Asus C201’s keyboard, which was itself quite good in my opinion.
Moving on to the screen, a 10.1″ display at 1280×800 isn’t the worst resolution in the world, but it is far from the best. As a point of comparison, the Nexus 10 tablet from 2012 has literally twice the resolution of the Chromebook Flip, and in comparing the same video content – The Hobbit streamed via Google Play – the difference is quite obvious:
Those of you who are used to super high PPI displays like the iPad Air 2, MacBook Pro with Retina display, Chromebook Pixel, or quad HD displays on high-end phones may cringe a bit at the Flip’s display.
Still, this is a bright display that is a glossy IPS panel. It is reflective, but also clear and vibrant. I’d take it over the muted, dull TN panels on the Acer C720 or C740, or even the full HD display on the Acer Chromebook 13. It is perfectly acceptable for consuming video media and browsing the web. It is less terrific at zooming in for high level of detail on photos or documents, or for reading full-screen PDFs.
It also has a really large bezel which is somewhat unattractive and also attracts, and displays, a lot of fingerprints.
The trackpad is good, but not great. I think the sensitivity may be a little bit less for clicks compared to most other Chromebooks as it doesn’t catch all my “tap to click” inputs. Scrolling and multi-finger controls are excellent, albeit a bit cramped.
Battery life on the Flip is rated at 9 hours. This is more or less accurate for browsing and light mixed use. When used to stream videos, expect closer to 6 hours. That’s still a pretty good result, and it is helped by the fact that the display is perfectly acceptable at 50% brightness.
As noted above, the Rockchip SoC powering this device is the same one that you’d find in the cheaper Haier, Hisense, Asus C201 Chromebooks. It is a budget quad-core processor that achieves Octane scores in the 6900-7100 range. These scores would indicate performance in the neighborhood of, but slightly behind, the NVIDIA Tegra K1 and Intel Bay Trail Celeron.
As this is the fourth such device I’ve covered, I’m going to repeat myself here:
It is important to note that while benchmarks are an indication of performance, they don’t necessarily reflect actual real-world user experience. One example: when comparing the Intel Bay Trail and Intel Atom processors from 2014, the N2840 Bay Trail has a much higher Octane benchmark than the 3735F Atom processor, but when using the two side-by-side, the Atom often feels faster, likely due to its quad-core architecture as compared to the dual-core Celeron.
All of these Rockchip Chromebooks are quite responsive for their price point, though on the Flip with its above $200 cost, you’re not at the same performance to price intersection. To be clear, using these Chromebooks grants one a web browsing experience that is exponentially better than you get when using Chrome on a low-end Windows 8.1 laptop.
Video streaming on Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, and HBO Go all worked perfectly with no stuttering or unexpected buffering. The Flip boots up in about 8-9 seconds, making it significantly faster to boot than even high-end Android tablets, or my 2014 MacBook Air for that matter.
Chrome OS itself has been updated for better touch input control, which really helps with the Flip. Whenever the Flip is rotated out of Netbook mode into Tablet, Stand, or Tent mode, the keyboard is disabled. Whenever this occurs, an on-screen “button” appears that when pressed, reveals all open windows, which helps emulate the feeling of multiple apps in Android. This is the same function accessed via what would be F5 on a regular keyboard or through a three-finger swipe up on the trackpad.
An on-screen keyboard (as shown in photos above) is also accessible automatically whenever a text field is selected, and can be hidden via on-screen button press.
Regarding the system’s RAM, there’s no difference in Octane scores, boot time, or performance with a smaller quantity of open tabs between this 4 GB Flip and the 2 GB Asus C201 I reviewed previously. As I noted in that review, if you’re planning on watching streaming video like Twitch that incorporates chat, if you routinely run a lot of tabs (more than 8-10 open), or if you plan to do a lot of working using Google apps (Sheets, Docs, Slides, Drive, etc) then you probably want to spring for the 4 GB of RAM. It is by no means required though, especially for those who rarely use more than a few tabs at once.
As I noted on the other Rockchip systems, this shouldn’t be your Chromebook of choice if you’re looking to use Crouton. ARM architecture systems have limited support in Linux, so you’ll want to go with a cheaper Intel system like the previous-generation Haswell systems or the Bay Trail devices like the Toshiba Chromebook 2, Asus C300 or Acer CB3.
To be clear, you can install Crouton and access a full Ubuntu environment, you just won’t be able to run many popular programs like Steam, Minecraft, Skype, or WINE.
If you’re holding out for a versatile and well-built device for Crouton, sit tight for the Braswell-Based Acer C738 that is supposed to be coming later this year.
The Asus Chromebook Flip is a device of contradictions.
It has excellent build quality on the outside, and a budget SoC on the inside.
It has an IPS touchscreen display, but the display is low resolution and the OS of the device is a desktop OS that lags far behind the touch capability of Android and iOS.
It has a well-designed keyboard, but the 97% size makes it hard to use at first, and always more challenging for long-term typing than other Chromebooks.
Even with these contradictions, the Asus Flip is a Chromebook I’d recommend to those who would find value in its versatility. It makes for an above-average travel companion, being not only light, but also having long battery capacity and very good ease of use for travel scenarios (such as use while on an airplane). Micro HDMI allows for external display capability (including dual-display) far beyond what you get from Android.
There’s also no other hybrid device close to this build quality for either Chrome OS or Windows until you double the $249 starting price of the Flip.
I wish that Asus had released the Flip as an upgraded version of the Asus C201, with an 11.6″ form factor and 1366×768 resolution. That would have solved the keyboard issue as well as providing for a more standardly used display resolution.
As it is, I still really like the Flip. It won’t be able to replace your full-time desktop computer and it isn’t as full-functioned as a traditional tablet, but it does a reasonable impression of both. If you’re looking for a versatile and affordable touch-screen device, the Flip should be one that you consider.
NOTE: The MSRP of the 2 GB RAM version is $249, and the 4 GB Ram is $279. The 2 GB version is currently on sale for $229 on Amazon. The 4 GB version has seen some price gouging due to scarcity.
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