Intro – Sub-$200 Windows PCs
This Fall, we’re seeing the first full Windows laptops hitting the market at or below the $199.99 MSRP price point, part of Microsoft’s initiative to push back against Google’s Chromebooks and Chrome OS. One of the first of these was the HP Stream 11, which I reviewed and did a follow-up on. In short, it is a surprisingly solid first effort by HP with some great value add items included, but is somewhat marred by a poor trackpad and a questionable set of color choices, both of which should be fairly easy for HP to fix if they so desire.
Right behind the Stream 11 comes the Asus X205TA, which launched at $199.99 but quickly dropped to $179.99 online at most retailers including Best Buy and Amazon. Like the HP Stream 11, this is a full Windows 8.1 laptop running Windows 8.1 with Bing. However, there are a number of differences in terms of specs, design, and what is included in the full package.
For this review, I’m going to focus on looking at the X205TA mostly unto itself, with some comparisons to rivals at this price point where appropriate. I’ll also talk about my experiences with Windows 8.1 itself as they relate to this computer.
Let’s get familiar with the X205TA.
The Asus X205TA is an 11.6″ Windows 8.1 laptop powered by an Intel Atom processor, specifically the Quad Core Bay Trail Z3735 1.33 GHz with turbo boost to 1.8 GHz. If you’re not familiar with the Intel Atom family of processors, these are low-volt chipsets typically used for mobile devices like tablets.
While this is one of their more powerful Atom offerings, these chips are still the weakest family in Intel’s lineup. This processor is weaker than the N2840 Celeron in the Stream 11, which itself is weaker than the 2955u Haswell processor used in some 2013 Chromebooks (such as the HP14, Acer C720, and Dell 11). We’ll look at how this affects the device under “Performance”, below. Also note that this processor is running 32-bit Windows 8 (compared to 64-bit on the Stream 11). As the RAM is soldered on and cannot be upgraded, this shouldn’t be a concern except for those hoping to convert this to a Linux machine.
Asus pairs this processor with 2 GB of RAM (1333 MHz), 32 GB of eMMC flash storage, and a 16:9 1366×768 glossy TN panel display. These are all typical specs at this price point, but it is worth noting that the display on this device looks somewhat better than the matte TN panel on the Acer C720 or HP Stream 11. That said, you do experience more glare on this monitor, so whether you prefer it will depend on your use case. For me personally, I prefer this display to the other sub-$200 laptops I’ve tried the past 12 months. It is sharper and generally more pleasant to use and watch media on than the Stream 11, Acer C720, or HP14, all budget devices I’ve used the past 12 months.
Looking at ports, the X205TA has two USB 2.0 ports on the right of the device, and on the left side we find a proprietary charging port in the back left, and a micro SD card slot, micro HDMI output, and combination microphone/headphone jack. The micro HDMI is a bit of a bummer as you’re less likely to have those lying around than a spare HDMI cable, so keep in mind if planning to use HDMI that you’ll want to grab a cheap adapter (see Appendix). The lack of USB 3.0 is also unfortunate, as is the placement of those ports: they’re jammed close together which can prevent both from being used at the same time depending on what you have plugged in.
For sound, you get two small, down-firing speakers at the front of the laptop. Sound quality is average, with typical poor output at high volume and lack of bass.
The power charger is a mixed bag. It is a very small size without a large brick, which is great for travel, and I like the proprietary plug (which has no true top or bottom and can be inserted either way), but it can be a pain to use in some scenarios (such as power strips) due to how it is designed.
That said, the battery life is excellent. Asus states 12 hours and like all battery claims I find this possible but unlikely; with the laptop set on performance mode and 75% brightness I got more like 9-10 hours of mixed use: web browsing, watching Netflix and Youtube, and some light gaming. Regardless this is still incredibly good battery life. It also charges very quickly and has excellent standby power consumption.
You may note two small, silver protrusions on the back of the laptop in the photo above. This is a bizarre design decision, in that while these stabilize and help hold the laptop in place, they also are likely to scratch up many surfaces on which you may be using the device (such as a wooden desk or table, especially particle board).
Outside of this unfortunate decision, the overall fit and finish of this device are quite good considering the price point. There’s very little flex, and the color and quality of the device lid are professional in appearance. The lid does attract a lot of fingerprint oil but otherwise I think this is a great looking laptop.
It is also extremely light, coming in at just 2.2 pounds. Compare this to the original iPad, which weighed 1.5 lbs and had no built-in keyboard, and you have an idea how light this actually is. The X205TA is quite portable, and the half-pound difference between this and competitors like the Stream 11 is definitely noticeable when comparing them. It actually feels more like a large tablet in the hand than a traditional laptop.
The keyboard is not a full-size keyboard, and is actually smaller than that of the Stream 11 or C720. As such, it can feel a bit cramped to use even compared to those devices. The keys don’t have a lot of travel, but have a satisfying tactile feel compared to the somewhat “mushy” response from the Stream 11. More impressive is the trackpad, which is quite good – definitely better than the Stream 11. Asus also includes an easy-to-use interface to control multi-touch gestures. Obviously none of these devices can approach what you’d experience with the 11.6″ Macbook Air.
Unfortunately, I had intermittent issues with multi-touch response on the X205TA; occasionally all multi-touch gestures (such as two-finger scrolling) would stop working, often after waking from sleep, and a system reboot was required to restore them. Hopefully this is a software issue that Asus can fix in the near future, as besides this problem, I actually like the trackpad, considering the price point.
I was pleasantly surprised by the easy set-up of the HP Stream 11, but sadly, the Asus X205TA gave me a more “traditional” Windows experience. Reading on forums this appears to be one of those random Windows issues more so than something related to this device, but I’ll share anyway as this is part of the “charm” of Windows.
Out of the box, set-up was easy and the device was quick to reach an initial desktop.
After reaching that desktop, I was pleased to find no installed Virus Software and minimal bloatware installed by Asus. The device showed 17 GB of space available out of 20 GB usable. I installed Avast and Chrome, and then checked for Windows updates. I was greeted with 70 updates plus 1 optional update, totaling 500 MB. I chose to download and process all of these.
For comparison, the HP Stream 11 had 35 Windows updates.
After the X205TA started processing the updates, I left the room for 15 minutes, and came back to find… 0 KB downloaded and 0% progress. Odd. I verified Wireless was connected (it was) and ran a speed check (about 35 Mb/sec, not as fast as some other wireless devices I’ve tried on my network but not bad either). I figured I’d give the device some more time, but a half hour later, it was still sitting there at 0 KB.
The laptop wasn’t frozen – other applications launched and closed just fine – but Windows Update was clearly confused. I clicked to Stop the download, closed Windows Update, and went back in… and this time Windows told me all the necessary files were found and ready to install. From there they processed without issue, and upon reboot and additional processing, I was at the full and functional desktop.
Far from a Windows horror story so far, but definitely worse than the Stream 11, and Windows of course can’t approach the ease of use found with Chrome OS.
Upon reboot I found there was an 8 GB recovery partition created, reducing my available space to just under 8 GB. Considering that you probably want to keep at least 2-3 GB of available space at a minimum for temporary files, this is alarmingly cramped. I created a recovery device on a $5 USB 2.0 flash drive, and set out to delete the recovery partition and reclaim that space.
But wait… here again, I was reminded about why people complain about Windows. It appears that the system created a (hidden) 8 GB recovery partition, with no access or ability to change this even with admin privileges. Even better, whereas with other Windows 8 devices I’ve used, in the Create Recovery Drive option, once done you have the ability to delete the recovery partition, with this device, no such option was given. Similarly, downloading the Asus Backtracker software also did not give the option to delete this partition. Essentially, selecting only suggested Express install settings somehow stole 8 GB of space from me.
This would still have been fine if the partition had been accessible – if I could move files to use, use it to set up a Steam library, etc. Unfortunately, as noted above, while I could see the drive (though not in File Manager, as it is hidden), I couldn’t actually access it, extend it, shrink it, or format it – even with DiskPart!
As a result, I wiped the laptop back to factory settings and tried again. Thankfully, this wasn’t all that time consuming as there’s only so much you can redo when you’re talking about 8 GB worth of work. Still, this was a disappointing outcome. Frankly, between this issue, the intermittent gesture failure, and the Windows Update crash, it reminded me why I fell in love with Chromebooks in the first place.
Upon installing Windows updates, I found myself in the same spot. The reality is that you can add a MicroSD card and get a lot of additional space pretty cheap, but it won’t have the same read/write speeds as the internal eMMC, and the lack of USB 3.0 means that you can’t get a high-speed USB Flash Drive, either.
As noted under Specs, the processor found in the X205TA is a quad core Intel Atom processor often used in Windows Tablets and Hybrids. The result is that Octane benchmark scores for this laptop are slower than those for similarly-priced devices.
Google Octane scores for the X205TA were in the 5600-5800 range with a typical result output shown below. This compares to the 7800 range for the Stream 11 and 11,000 range for the C720. I also ran the Geekbench benchmark, which gave a score of 776 single core and 2188 multi-core. This actually compared favorably to the Stream 11, which has a Geekbench score of 1047 single core and 1801 multi-core.
Interestingly, web browsing via Google Chrome was not noticeably slower on the X205TA compared to the Stream 11. Using five Chrome tabs, I still found websites loaded reasonably quickly and didn’t have all that much delay while rendering, for the most part. Once loaded, sites like The Verge and Google+ showed some hiccups when scrolling (due to videos and pictures needing to load) but were smooth enough to be enjoyable and usable. Google Play Music chugged while trying to do searches with my 15,000 song library loaded.
The overall experience felt similar to the Stream in basically all aspects – boot and wake times are pretty similar, and both start to choke up as you go past five or so Chrome tabs. That said, both are able to handle Chrome and Steam open simultaneously, can run Youtube or Netflix in one window while browsing in another, and so on.
I was able to install Steam without issue, and tested some games installed locally. See the list, below – I got through about half of these and they all worked pretty well. Lethal League and Towerfall being able to run on this means that you can use this device and a $15 XB360 wireless adapter to have a pretty enjoyable couch gaming session with friends – provided you have an HDMI cable and micro HDMI adapter, of course. Given the surprisingly decent screen I think you could actually play a two-player game with this laptop too.
Keep in mind that your gaming options are going to be limited to indie titles and older games; for example System Shock 2 and Master of Magic from GOG both worked for me (loaded from an SD card – thanks, pointless 8 GB partition! This device can also handle game emulation for 8-bit and 16-bit systems but was not able to run PS1 emulation. You may have some challenges with DirectX versions while loading emulators, however.
For gamers, it is also worth noting that Steam Big Picture mode worked fine on this laptop, as did Steam In-Home Streaming. I was able to play Metro: Last Light streamed from my gaming rig to the Asus X205TA without any issue.
Google’s Chromebooks come with some “freebies” – typically a package of some amount of Google Drive storage (normally 100 GB but currently 1 TB as an offer for the 2014 holiday season), 12 GoGo in-flight WiFi passes, and a free trial to Google Play All Access Music.
The HP Stream 11 extended this trend to the Microsoft side of things, with a $25 Windows Store gift card, 1 TB of One Drive storage for 12 months, and a one-year subscription to MS Office 365 Personal.
The Asus X205TA doesn’t really have anything like these offers, although reading the promo materials from Asus, you would think it does. Their product page – linked in the appendix – references a year of MS Office 365 and 500 GB of Asus Cloud storage, neither of which were referenced at all in the packing materials with my device nor during set-up or registration of it. I did find a smaller offer of 150 GB of Cloud Storage.
EDIT: As of spring 2015, most retail models of the Asus X205TA are priced at $199.99 MSRP and include a one-year Office 365 subscription.
So, if extras are important to you, perhaps wait and see if the extras noted above are added at a later date. For now, it is worth noting that the X205TA is priced at $179.99 against $199.99 for the HP Stream 11, and it has already been on sale as cheap as $139.99 with a rumored doorbuster sale price of $99.99 on Black Friday from at least one retailer.
Many people look for a cheap, low-end laptop so they can reclaim their computers from the people in their house playing Minecraft. That begs the question: can the Asus X205TA run Minecraft?
As with the HP Stream 11, the answer is… kind of.
In order to get a reasonable frame rate without any mods or 3rd party changes, I took the following steps:
Set up this way, the frame rate is pretty close to 30 FPS consistently. Capping it helps the experience as you don’t get the wild swings up and down, as does reducing the render distance. Unfortunately while this dramatically helps the frame rate, it also makes it feel like mountains are popping into existence a foot in front of your face as you walk around. And, even this way, water tanks the frame rate.
Regardless, yes, it is playable with these settings, but would I recommend you buy this for someone specifically to play Minecraft? Probably not… but there are some plug-ins available to improve Minecraft frame rate. For instance installing Optifine for Minecraft 1.8 – as of this writing, 1.8.1 has no Optifine version yet – does amazing things for Minecraft, allowing you to run it with high graphical fidelity at very good frame rates. Just keep in mind that there’s a lag between Optifine releases and Minecraft updates, and this is 3rd party work that may stop being supported at any time, so I have a hard time recommending this for Minecraft based solely on Optifine.
That said, with Optifine installed, you get a terrific Minecraft experience on this computer considering the price. This is also true of the HP Stream 11, and even the HP Stream 7, believe it or not.
Setting aside the issues I experienced with Windows for just a moment, this is an interesting device. While the benchmarks suggest it should run poorly compared to the Stream 11 (which itself is no racehorse), it actually “feels” pretty good when doing basic tasks; boot times, wake times, and shutdown times were all pretty fast. Certainly all were faster at this than my desktop 3rd generation Core i7 which has a traditional mechanical hard drive instead of flash memory.
The Asus X205TA handled streaming video from Netflix and Youtube without any issues, ran Steam Streaming just fine, and some light local gaming (including Towerfall: Ascension, FTL, and Super Meatboy) and emulation (NES, SNES, Genesis, GBA) wasn’t an issue. Performance in all these areas was similar to the Stream 11.
The build quality is quite nice, with a better than $200 look and feel from a fit and finish perspective, as well as a decent (if tight) keyboard, and relatively good screen compared to its peers. Battery life is excellent and the laptop is impressively light, but also feels solid.
Unfortunately, I did have those Windows issues. The initial install was not problem-free. The system created an 8 GB recovery partition and offered no way to remove it, which means you have something like 9 GB of space on the hard drive to work with. Upon wiping the system back to factory settings and doing a fresh setup, I began experiencing Wi-fi issues and had to download and install updated drivers from the Asus webpage to resolve that issue. I then had to install 70 Windows Updates again, and again experienced the same issue with Windows Update sitting at 0%, 0 KB.
In any case, for a price of $179.99 this is a compelling device. Compared to the HP Stream 11, it is much lighter, has a more professional look and generally better feel. From a performance perspective, it behaves similarly to the Stream 11 despite the lower benchmark scores in Octane. In fact, the X205TA actually has similar, and sometimes higher, scores on Geekbench.
My main issues with it are the lack of a USB 3.0 port and poor placement of the two USB ports, the odd design choice to include metal protrusions on the rear of the device that can damage desks and tables, the intermittent multi-gesture failure on the trackpad due to driver failure, and the strange storage management functions between Windows and Asus which seems to create a recovery partition that cannot be deleted, accessed, or shrunk. Also a concern are the “offers” noted on the Asus product page (like Office 365 Personal for a year) that aren’t actually included. Note however that these offers are not referenced from the retailers that stock this device, which is good.
Given that the Stream 11 has a far more compelling set of inclusions, in particular the Office 365 Personal for a year, if you need an Office subscription and can stomach the weird color choices, even at $20 more the HP Stream 11 may be the better buy. If you live and die by your trackpad, then you’ll prefer the X205TA, and hopefully Asus will fix the random gesture failure issue.
With one sale from Best Buy already dropping the X205TA to $139.99, and more sales coming – including one as low as $99.99 at Staples on Black Friday – the Asus X205TA becomes a much more compelling value. If you can pick this up for $150 or below, I probably prefer it to the Stream 11 based on the better screen, lighter weight, superior battery, and much more professional color and fit/finish.
As you’d expect at this price point, this device – and its peers – all have imperfections. Surprisingly they all also offer competent performance. Therefore you’ll need to look at each device’s pros and cons, and determine which one has flaws that are least objectionable to you.
In the near future I’m going to put together a compare/contrast list of the Acer C720, HP Stream 11, and Asus X205TA that may help you decide – but in my opinion, at under $200, you won’t go really wrong with any of these three, especially as a second computer or an ultraportable for a student.
EDIT: Here’s that comparison
Buy the Asus X205TA:
Asus Product Page:
NOTE: Commercial versions of this device for sale at Best Buy and Amazon do not include Office 365 for a year as stated on the product page. The color options shown at the Asus page are not yet available at retail, as of this writing.
How To Geek: eMMC vs SSD: