Asus' first Chromebooks play it safe

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The Asus Chromebook C200 James Martin/CNET

Asus joined the long list of manufacturers jumping on board the Chromebook bandwagon this week, announcing a pair of near-identical Chromebooks -- the C200 and C300. They were part of a spate of new Chromebooks Google and Intel showed off on Tuesday, at an event to usher in Intel's energy-efficient Bay Trail platform. At $250 Asus is setting its sights right in the middle of the Chromebook ecosystem -- it's a gamble that could pay off, provided that the company cuts the right corners.

Looks aren't everything, right?

Asus didn't really take many risks here. There's a matte on the covers, which open to a full-size chiclet-style keyboard. Notebooks with smaller displays tend to sacrifice on keyboard size, so bravo to Asus for keeping this spacious. I haven't spent any time with either of these machines, but I'm a bit wary of that attractive budget price: in my experience with Chromebooks (and low-end wares in general), the first thing to go is the build quality.

Touchpads are notoriously hard to get right, but I like what I see here. It's wide -- Asus says it's comparable in size to those found on 14-inch laptops -- and supports multi-touch gestures.

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The Asus Chromebook C300 James Martin/CNET

Bay Trail Inside

Things get a bit curious under the hood. I'll start with the Asus C200's 11.6-inch, 1366-by-768 pixel resolution display. It weighs 2.5 pounds, and is fairly slim, at 0.78 of an inch thick. It'll have 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage space -- you can upgrade to 32GB. The Asus C300 brings a 13.3-inch display with the same 1,366x768 pixel resolution. It has twice the RAM (4GB) and storage (32GB). It's also slightly thicker -- but still just shy of an inch thick -- and weighs 3.1 pounds.

The pair are otherwise identical. They run the same 2.4GHz Intel Bay Trail-M processor, and have a 720p HD webcam, a USB port, a USB 3.0 port, and an HDMI jack. The machines will only support 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi at launch, and will get support for 802.11ac in a future (free) software update.

Outlook

Given that we have so little data on how Intel's new Bay Trail-M chipsets will perform, it's difficult to say at this point how successful the Asus C200 and C300 will be. Still, their final fit and finish will play a bit part. This is Asus' first stab at the Chromebook market, but budget prices often belie sacrifices in build quality. Consider the $300 Acer C720P: our biggest gripes (besides the limitations of Chrome OS) revolved around the low-end feel of the hardware.

The Asus Chromebook C200 will begin shipping at the end of June. Expect the C300 to follow later this year.

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