The Machine.

I've always been a fan of laptops. I love having the ability to pick up my computer and go work somewhere else for a while without interrupting my workflow and without having to sync files between a laptop and desktop. Right now my daily-driver is a 15" Thinkpad T530: it's large, thick, and heavy, but it's a wonderful desktop-replacement and I love it for everything but its size.

Due to the hulking nature of my primary laptop, I wanted something super light and (preferrably) cheap to take to coffee shops, meetups, etc. – places that weren't as accomodating to a 15" beast of a workstation. I scoured the internet, falling on many perfect-sounding products (like the HP Stream) that simply are not, at the time of writing, available to purchase in Canada. Eventually I found myself on Microsoft's online store, and minutes later I had ordered one of the 11" Asus notebooks (netbook?). All told, the order came to a whopping $200 (after tax and shipping costs).

Table of Contents

The Packaging

Let's start with something trivial and boring: the box.

The Box

The packaging is all cardboard, and quite eco-friendly (except for the styrofoam pouch wrapping the computer itself). +10 environment points for Asus.

The box design is covered in "IN SEARCH OF INCREDIBLE", which are definitely English words but I still don't think it actually means anything.

The Hardware

For a $170 computer, I had zero expectations. I have used low-end PC laptops before, so I sort of assumed it would be creaky, bendy, and nearly impossible to use without feeling gross.

Simply put, I was wrong.

The Keyboard

I want to start with what is probably the highlight of this machine: the keyboard. The chicklet-style keys have a moderate travel distance, a slightly textured feel, and a very satisfying crispness. To boot, there is absolutely no bend to the keyboard at all – it is extremely solid.

Only a couple keys got shafted: the escape and tilde keys are both half-width, but that's acceptible on such a tiny form-factor, and for generally under-used keys. Otherwise, the keyboard feels full-size (or damn-well close to it) and I have had no trouble typing this entire review using it.

The Body

The body on this machine is totally solid. I can't seem to find any points of flex, nor any creaky or cheap-feeling plastic. The entire exterior is a type of soft-touch plastic that feels wonderful to the touch.

The lid has a bit of wobble if you tap it, but only slightly more than my Thinkpad. There is a single pressure-point that produces visible distortions on the display if you close the lid with one hand, but nothing I would worry about.

The Size

This is one of the smallest and thinnest laptops I've used. It's not quite Macbook Air-thin, but it's close. For comparison, here it is beside my 2014 Retina Macbook Pro.

Height comparison with Macbook Height comparison with Macbook while open

If Apple made an 11" Retina Macbook Pro, this would match its physical size almost exactly.

However, its similarities with the Retina Macbook Pro end with the dimensions.

The Screen

The screen is a 1366x768 TN panel with a glossy finish. Personally, I dislike all of these things. That said, the TN panel is one of the better ones, with adequate viewing angles and surprisingly good colours (most likely due to the Asus Splendid utility that comes pre-installed). The resolution is also acceptible because at 11", the screen has a DPI that actually makes that resolution perfect. The glossiness I can get over (I've used Apple products for long enough to ignore it), but I still would prefer a matte version.

Overall, it's a good screen. It's not great, but for a $170 computer, it's pretty good.

The Trackpad

The trackpad is another strong point of this laptop. I'd even venture to say it's one of the best PC trackpads I've used. It is accurate, smooth, large, has a satisfying click, and is multi-touch. There are not separate click buttons, which could be annoying for some people, but I found myself clicking with my other hand, resting my finger on the bottom left, and it worked fine.

The included Asus gesture-enhancing driver does wonders; two-finger smooth scrolling works great, edge-swiping to get to charms works great, tap-to-click works great…

Really, I have no complaints. It works and it works well. It's actually better than the one on my Thinkpad.

The Webcam

This thing has a webcam. It's blurry, grainy, slow, and 480p. It is terrible.

The Audio

The on-board audio is also surprisingly not bad. If you usually use on-board audio, you probably will be totally happy with it. If you're on the go and need to listen to music, it'll accomodate. From a couple listening tests with different pairs of headphones, it outputs a fairly balanced and clear sound, if lacking a bit in the low-mid-range. It drives my Sennheiser HD280 Pros without a problem, even at (dangerously) high volumes. I could push it all the way to 100 without any distortion or quality loss. Dance music is punchy and crisp; speed metal maintains its definition and doesn't get lost in a white-noise mess; acoustic guitar and acapella sound very clear and clean…

Obviously plugging in an external DAC will always be a better choice, but if you're too lazy, too cheap, or too far away the on-board audio does a satisfactory job.

I would mention what the chip is, but I can't seem to be able to find out. Both Speccy and Windows Device Manager report it as an "Intel SST Audio Device", but there is a pre-installed "Realtek HD Audio Manager" so I'm not quite sure what it is or who makes it.

The in-built speakers are surprisingly not terrible. Granted, they are still laptop speakers, and compared to anything else are tinny and dreadful, but they have a noticable depth to the sound and are very loud. Perfect for podcasts, Youtube, or even light music listening if you hate your music. The speakers are down-firing and have little slits in the bottom-front of the case to speak out of. The down-firing nature likely helps dissapate most of the hissy high-end that is usually so present in laptop speakers. It also means, however, that they are completely useless when on a lap.

The Lack of Vents

One thing I immediately noticed was: there are no holes. No vents, no gaps, no grills… The low-power nature of the CPU is such that it does absolutely fine with no active cooling. The lack of vents, to Steve Jobs' credit, very much adds to the sexiness of the design.

Performance

"But Alex…" you cry, "how does it perform?!"

Firstly, a quick rundown of the guts.

  • Quad-core Intel Atom Z3735F (Bay-Trail) @ 1.33Ghz
  • 2GB DDR3 RAM @ 666Mhz
  • 32GB internal SD-based storage (21GB useable)
  • Some Broadcom Wireless N card
  • 2 USB3 ports
  • 1 micro-HDMI port
  • 1 micro-SD card slot
  • 1 headphone/mic combo jack
CPU ID

"But Alex…" you cry, "those specs are shit!"

They are definitely not the most impressive specs, but that was one of the reasons I bought this machine in the first place: I wanted to torture a Bay Trail chip to see what the performance was like. Intel ARK reports this chip to have a SDP of just over 2W, so just being able to boot Windows would be good enough for me to call it a successful part.

Luckily, it does much more than that.

Minecraft

Just for fun, I decided to play a video game. I installed Minecraft, generated a new world, and played for a few minutes. On average, I went between 15 and 22fps. A lot more than I was expecting. I would nearly call that playable, if you were in a pinch and super bored and just needed to play something no matter what.

You won't be running Crysis on this any time soon, but hey for a light, casual game when you have nothing else, this works enough.

The CPU

The Bay Trail Atom performs pretty well, but it definitely doesn't break any speed records.

GeekBench 3 scores a 702 and 2147 for single- and multi-core, respectively. It's quite obvious that this chip is a serious multi-tasker, which likely helps when running a full OS that generally has a tonne of background services and applications running.

The Storage

Interestingly, it appears this laptop uses SD-based internal storage (yes, SD)… Inside, as the primary storage and OS drive, is a Hynix (Hitachi) 32GB SD card (is it really still a card if it's permanently internal?).

Also interesting is the fact is comes out-of-the-box with Bitlocker enabled. I hope this becomes standard for all computers.

The performance is about what I'd expect from an SD card. Sequential read is pretty good, matching a high-end spinning disk, but everything else is pretty mediocre, even dropping to a little over 10MiB/s for random 4k writes…

Disk performance benchmark

32GB is pretty small, especially for a full Windows laptop – honestly I'm surprised Windows fits on here at all… Never has an 8GB recovery partition seemed so large…

General Use

I committed to doing everything for an entire day on this machine – including taking it into the office and actually doing real work. I never noticed any noticable slowdowns or stuttering during use, even when I had a few Chrome tabs open with streaming music and a couple heavy webapps like Slack.

Throughout the day, I did quite a few things:

  • Streaming 1080p Youtube videos
  • Streaming Google Play Music while working through SSH with two Gmail tabs and Slack open
  • Played Minecraft
  • Ordered pizza online
  • Wrote this review

And not only that, but I did it all on battery.

The Battery

The battery life of this laptop is by far one of the most appealing features. I unplugged it when I left for work at 07:30, and didn't plug it back in until I got home around 17:00, still with just under 40% battery life remaining. 40% battery remaining after a full day of active SSH sessions, heavy browser usage, and near-constant screen-on time.

The insane power-sipping tendencies of the Atom make battery life a completely non-issue, getting into Macbook territory – in fact, if Asus's marketing is correct (and all signs point to "yes"), this laptop has a 12-hour battery life, which matches that of the 2014 13" Macbook Air, and is greater than that of the 2014 11" Macbook Air. Granted, the performance is not at par, but it is a huge step up from the usual three hours your average PC laptop will achieve.

The Software

Out-of-the-box, we get Windows 8.1 "with Bing" (I'm still not sure what differentiates it from regular Windows 8.1). It's everything you love (and probably don't love) about Windows, plus… hold on… it must be here somewhere…

Bloatware

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this laptop is the lack of bloatware. There are three Asus-branded apps, all of which I never noticed until I looked in the "Programs and Features" control panel because they all do something to make the experience better, like multitouch gestures on the trackpad or colour correction for the display…

Aside from all the bullshit Metro apps that come with even the OEM versions of Windows, there was no bloatware, adware, or trials. It was astonishing–and refreshing–to find.

Suffice it to say, the "Microsoft Signature Edition" laptops definitely have my vote, especially for computers with 32-bit EFIs…

32-Bit EFI

Here comes the biggest kicker of them all: the laptop ships with a 32-bit version of Windows. Yes, 32-bit. The Atom itself is a 64-bit CPU, but both Windows and the UEFI are 32-bit. From what I've read on it, it's a memory/space-saving measure to get the most out of the measly 2GB RAM, but still something to note.

But there's a larger problem: Linux support for 32-bit UEFI is, well, nonexistent. I found a couple unofficial Debian ISOs from 2012, but nothing else. There are many forum threads about it, and it seems to be a common problem amoung these low-power Atom CPUs.

I tried for a couple hours to just boot a live USB, but to no avail. I simply could not get Linux to boot properly under a 32-bit EFI. I'm hoping with the proliferation of more of these small Atom machines and tablets that more attention is given to GRUB and related projects such that in the future the support will be there (or maybe a firmware patch from Asus to enable 64-bit booting, imagine that)…

It's also worth mentioning that there is no legacy BIOS support, meaning even if you wanted to run a 32-bit Linux distro, you still couldn't boot it because the 32-bit distros use the legacy BIOS due to the 32-bit EFI support problems.

This is by far the killer for the machine. I originally bought it with the intention of installing Linux and this bizarre limitation has struck that down, at least for the time being.

Conclusion

With power like this at a price like this, and now with everything moving to be internet-based services, I can see a resurgence in the "netbook" computer market. The performance of the Bay Trail chip has me very impressed, and I can't wait to work this computer into my day-to-day workflow.

For me, I just wanted a simple, cheap, portable secondary laptop to take with me places instead of my beast of a Thinkpad. This computer fits that use-case perfectly. It has surpassed my expectations for a $170 netbook.

I could recommend this laptop to students, or even business-people. If all you need is a super-portable machine to do email and some office-type work, this thing is perfect. Or if you have a powerful desktop at home and a VPN, you could use this as your remote machine and just work over SSH with tmux (as I do).

Or, hell, just as a fun play machine because it's $170.