Chromebooks. Those once weird niche laptops, are finally coming into their own. The Asus C201 is one of the least expensive options in the UK, but it provides a far from entry-level experience. Let’s take a closer look in our full review.
Disclosure: Asus did not provide MobileTechTalk with the C201 to review. It was purchased and is wholly owned by me (Dom). The C201 being our personal device was tested the way we use ChromeOS, which is on the Beta channel, which gets updates seemingly bi-weekly. Despite being on the Beta channel, the C201 had no stability issues nor did it have speed issues.
Asus are a well established brand and known for their mobile devices, be they tablets, smartphones or indeed laptops, as well as other computer peripherals and components. Asus were also one of the first estbalished players to get involved with Google on their ChromeOS project and start delivering Chromebook products to the market.
The Asus C201 Chromebook is a low-cost alternative to what would formerly have been classed a Windows “Netbook” and ChromeOS has improved a lot over recent years. Not only are Google pushing the C201 through the Play Store, but there are also some compelling options for this SKU. 2 and 4GB RAM options, up to 10 hours of battery life, free delivery and all on a unit starting at just £199. If this ticks the boxes for students, occasional users, or the sofa-dwellers out there, it is surely a contender isn’t it?
Asus’ Laptop is completely plastic. Let’s start there. There is some creak and some flex, but no worse than other devices at similar price points. Asus has made something that is completely plastic, feels like plastic, feels nice and light, but doesn’t feel cheap, which is more than I can say about things costing similar amounts or even slightly more.
The C201 is a silver, black and navy rectangle measuring a sliver under 18mm thick, 287mm wide and 194mm deep. It’s 980g mass feels delightfully light when holding it by the corner. Throwing it in a bag or just clutching it is effortless. It’s 11.6” TN glossy screen is bordered by a thick black bezel – no ultrabook screen to body ratio numbers here. It’s much thicker than I’d like, and whilst I’m not expecting Dell Infinity Edge type bezels here, 16mm bezels on the sides, 18mm bezel on the top and 20mm bezel on the bottom is a bit extreme. In the overly large top bezel we have the Microphone, LED indicator light to show you when the Webcam is active, and lastly the disappointing 720p webcam. The Webcam is serviceable, usable for quick video calls and not much else I wouldn’t rely on it for biometric authentication or for much more than the quick snap.
The Display itself is better than I was expecting it to be. It is an 11.6” 1366×768 TN panel and it is glossy, unlike most other Chromebooks. The glossy coating means that at the expense of glare and outdoor visibility, you get better colour reproduction. Whilst I would have preferred an IPS panel or even just a matte panel, the TN glossy unit in the C201 is acceptable, although not exceptional in any way, shape or form. Horizontal viewing angles aren’t actually too bad, but the vertical viewing angles are where it struggles. Colour inversion isn’t too horrific, especially in this price bracket.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” ]”This trackpad is better than Windows machines costing 5x as much.”[/pullquote]Moving downwards we have the surprisingly good keyboard and just outstanding trackpad. Let’s start at the keyboard first though. Asus has equipped the C201 with a really quite decent keyboard which isn’t too mushy with key travel being quite respectable and the key spacing being really easy to adjust to. Asus claim this is a full size keyboard, and whilst I wouldn’t quite go that far, the slightly shrunken key caps mean things such as the arrow keys aren’t too small and the Enter key is double height without sacrificing other keys. There is sufficient spacing between each key so that you can feel the edges and therefore a distinct change when moving between the keys. In fact the keyboard is so good that I have been using it as my daily laptop for about 4 months, and I have written this entire review on the Chromebook itself.
The trackpad is another feature that is just outstanding. This trackpad is better than Windows machines costing 5x as much. Although it is plastic
not glass, the tracking is great, the latency is low, and 2 finger scrolling is just wonderfully smooth. It is amazing to me how Google has managed to create trackpad drivers in a few years that rival Apple’s, whilst Microsoft is still struggling to do it to this day. Whilst this is not a Pixel or a MacBook, it’s probably the closest you’ll get and you’re also spending 5 times less than most of those. If I had one minor complaint about the trackpad, it would be that whilst it is sufficiently wide, it could stand to be a few mm taller. Whilst it’s tall enough to make scrolling down web pages easy, having it a little taller would make it far easier.
Moving on to the ports. Asus has equipped the C201 with a really nice amount of ports. It may sound silly to say but on a budget machine, as well as one this thin and light, Asus has delivered the AC charger (which looks suspiciously like MicroUSB Type-A), a MicroSD card slot, a MicroHDMI port and a 3.5mm audio jack, as well as two USB 2.0 ports housed on the right side of the unit. Whilst it’s not a bountiful amount of ports – there is no Ethernet, no USB3 and no USB-C ports, what we do have here is something I can charge, to display out, audio out and plug peripherals into with relative ease, something not said about other ultra-portable ultralight laptops costing a fair amount more.
Internally, the C201 comes equipped with a Quad-Core Cortex A17 chip from Rockchip, the RK3288. If you want to know the nitty-gritty, the RK3288 is built on GlobalFoundries 28nm HKMG process. Being a Cortex A17 it’s the highest performance 32bit Core that ARM produce designs for, and its direct successor, the 64Bit Cortex A72, is only just being made available in consumer devices, such as the Kirin 950/955 in the Mate 8/P9. The GPU is a Mali-T760 MP4 at 600Mhz. That just means there are 4 cores at 600Mhz. The GPU is more than acceptable to push things at the native resolution of the screen, and even handles 1080p60 videos on YouTube without issue, though anything higher than 1080p60 is pushing it. For ‘normal’ people though, what you need to know is that the C201 with this processor is snappy, it very rarely slows down, and if it does, it’s usually because I’m actively trying to slow it down. The other benefit of using the RK3288? It means that Asus could make the C201 fanless, and the RK3288 is so good at managing its thermals that I’ve never, ever, felt it get anywhere near uncomfortable. The great thermals, the great speed; they just prove that Asus made a great choice when developing the c201, and they’ve made a cracking little nippy laptop.
Software on every Chromebook is the same. It is just plain ChromeOS. Vendors aren’t allowed to modify ChromeOS and they aren’t allowed to install bloatware. The closest we get to bloatware on a Chromebook is the free trial of Citrix software that Samsung provided on one of its models, but this is something you don’t have to use and can be uninstalled with 2 clicks.
ChromeOS has evolved quite a lot since its inception a couple of years ago. Now it is a “normal” desktop operating system in looks; it has a taskbar, window management, a notification centre and an app launcher. The problem comes when people realise that a few of the apps they’re used to don’t run on ChromeOS. There is no iTunes (praise whatever deity you please) no Microsoft Word (although there is an online version) and no Skype (though an online version is in the works).
With ChromeOS you have to keep your expectations in check. I’ve been using a Chromebook for nearly 3 years now so I know what to expect and what is out of it’s reach, but a lot of people don’t. If you’re okay with using web apps or the very limited range of ported Android Apps, ChromeOS is a perfectly suitable everyday computing platform. Email is handled by web portals – I use Google for both my personal and professional email accounts, so I have those set up. For Twitter there is Twitter.com (eww) but the much more capable Tweetdeck also is an option at Tweetdeck.com. Google Has their Google Drive online storage and office suite, but if Microsoft is the way you feel more comfortable, Microsoft has even created online versions (though they are less capable) of the major components of the Office Suite.
Productivity wise, Slack has a workable and full featured web client, many calendar apps do as well. But there are even some offline apps that work well that aren’t just web apps. There is Writer, a distraction free writing app, no frills and offline. There is Drumbit, a sort of synth that’s fun when you’re bored, but you might be able to make something useful on it. Pixlr is a great photoshop-esque albeit rather lite tool that allows for image manipulation and there is so much more.
For the majority of people, I think they can get away with what a Chromebook offers, but I’m not naive enough to think that everyone can get away with having a Chromebook as their only computer. I mean, It’s not my only computer, but it’s most certainly my most used computer. At home I have a desktop computer I built, and it’s more powerful than this, has a bigger display, etc, but that’s only useful when I’m at home. When people say that Chromebooks are only useful online, I’d argue that unless you took the time to download stuff before hand, so is a Windows PC, or so is a Mac, perhaps increasingly so.
Offline these all have video and audio players, image viewers and more, and because of the nature of the Chromebook and the architecture of the ARM processor inside, the Chromebook will be able to do a lot of what it does for longer than the other two.
ChromeOS isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t have everything. I can’t rip my DVDs to my NAS, I can’t burn a CD/DVD, and I cant record my audio for the podcast in Audacity. But what ChromeOS does have is simplicity, security, and above all else, price and performance. You don’t have to spend £1000 to get a great Chromebook, but you can spend £1000 to get the best Chromebook. For most Windows laptops, you’re going to want to spend near £1000 to get a great experience, and most Macs cost around the £1000 mark when you want something that doesn’t have a garbage screen. But for £200 you can get a damn good Chromebook, which I want to use, which is not something I can say about £200 Windows laptops. If Apple ever made a £200 Macbook I’m not sure I’d want to use that either.
Battery isn’t generally an issue for Chromebooks because they don’t often do all that much, and the low power components Asus has used means that the relatively small 2-Cell 38wH battery that Asus shoehorned into here can last relatively close to the 10 hour estimate.
Whilst I didn’t get the full 10 hours, 8 hours was almost always achievable, unless I had a day full of video watching with full screen brightness in a poor signal area for hours at a time. 8 hours is not the best. An Apple Laptop handily manages more in a laptop with higher power draw components but then again we go back to the key differentiator here – price. MacBooks also cost a lot more as well as having larger batteries, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
The charger provided with the C201 is a dinky little cute thing. It’s a 12v 25w charger. The male part of the charger is a small, bidirectional charger, looking suspiciously like a MicroUSB Type-A (most phones use MicroUSB Type-B) but Asus tells me it is not MicroUSB Type-A which is a shame because that would mean spare charging cables would be easier to acquire, and that I could also charge the C201 from a battery bank.
An overnight charge fully charges the Chromebook, but I can’t see it taking more than an hour and a half from dead to full, as long as you’re not using it whilst you’re trying to charge it, it’s a relatively rapid process. Whilst I would like a longer cable on the charger, I do appreciate the very petite charger and I do understand that making something that small and compact means sacrifices have to be made.
It’s hard to review a Chromebook without reviewing ChromeOS, and ChromeOS gets rapid updates so very often it’s a moving target, but here goes nothing. The C201 from Asus is a cracking machine, and you’d be hard pressed to find a windows machine for £200 that I’d want to use more than this.
In the C201, Asus has made a budget machine that doesn’t produce a budget experience. It’s snappy, and thanks to the ARM processor’s low-power draw, it’s fanless so that it’s completely silent unless I’m typing. Another benefit to that ARM processor is that fantastic battery life. Asus quotes about 10 hours and it gets quite close to that sitting at 8 hours. Asus have also equipped it with a fantastic trackpad and a more than serviceable screen and keyboard in a machine that’s under a kilo and about 18mm thick.
The C201 is a machine I gladly carry every day. It’s something that I produce when people ask what laptop I use, and it’s something I will vouch for time and time again. ChromeOS isn’t for everyone, but it is for me, and the C201 is my weapon of choice and I’ll happily recommend it to others for a while to come.
- Performance is great
- Battery is really great
- Trackapd is better than devices costing much more
- Keyboard is better than other things in this price range
- Sufficient amount of ports.
- Screen is still TN
- Limited screen angles (doesn't go back far enough)
- Webcam could be improved