Sitting at a casual dining table and attempting to adjust the screen on the Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi hybrid for a better viewing angle, a funny thing happened. As soon as I grabbed the slim, metallic top half of the hybrid by the upper left corner and pulled it forward a bit, the screen went dead.
Running a finger along the top edge of the 12.5-inch display, a small ridge about an inch long brushed against my finger. That was the culprit. When the display and keyboard base of the T300 Chi are assembled into its clamshell laptop form, the system's main power button ends up sticking out from the top left edge of the lid.
More than once, even after committing this fact to memory, I accidentally put the system to sleep merely by grabbing the top left corner to tweak the viewing angle, because the button was placed exactly where one might grab the screen, and because it triggered with even the lightest accidental touch.
That minor but maddening design quirk is unfortunate, because it mars an otherwise impressive effort from Asus to marry high-end parts and design with a low starting price.
The T300 Chi starts at $699 in the US (available in Australia for AU$1,299; availability is not yet known in the UK, but directly converted is about £450) even though it makes use of Intel's new Core M processor, which is designed for high-design, premium-priced tablets, laptops and hybrids. Core M is cool and efficient enough to run in fanless designs such as this, as well as the upcoming 12-inch MacBook, but requires some compromises in performance and battery life.
That base price also includes a 128GB SSD and a keyboard dock that works when the two halves are connected, and that keyboard can connect via Bluetooth for remote operation. Our upgraded configuration doubles the RAM to 8GB and upgrades the display resolution from 1,920x1,080 to 2,560x1,440 for a total of $899.
The T300 has improved our perception of Core M somewhat, as the first system we tested with this CPU, the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, suffered from dawdling performance and too-short battery life. Here, the performance results were better, but still not up to the level you'd get from a low-voltage Core i-series processor, and the battery still fell short of 6 hours.
Systems such as the Surface Pro 3 are better as a Windows 8 slate, while the upcoming 12-inch MacBook, in our early hands-on experience, feels like a much smoother clamshell experience. But both of those are significantly more expensive than the T300 Chi, especially when you consider it includes a decent full-function keyboard/touchpad accessory.
As with most pull-apart hybrids, the T300 is also sometimes hard to assemble or disassemble, and naturally top-heavy, as the components and battery all need to fit behind the screen. The relatively low price and flexible design make it hard not to like, despite a few design rough edges, as long as you can tolerate speed that's not exactly blazing.
Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi
Price as reviewed
12.5-inch 2,560x1,440 touchscreen
1.2Ghz Intel Core M 5Y71
8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz
3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5300
802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Windows 8.1 (64-bit)
Design and features
Laptop and hybrid design is on a tear of late, with sharp-looking systems such as the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro and the 12-inch MacBook getting thinner and lighter, while still using premium materials and high-res screens.
The T300 Chi is takes those general ideas and drops the budget a bit. It's slim, reasonably light at 3.2 pounds (1.45 kilograms), made mostly of aluminum (with some plastic), but several hundred dollars less than either the Yoga 3 Pro or MacBook. It's not exactly in the same design tier, as the screen bezel is thick, the hybrid hinge mechanism is clunky, and the clamshell form is top heavy, but starting at $699, it's one of the best-looking hybrids in the price range.
A hybrid lives or dies based on how it shifts between laptop and tablet modes. Some, such as the Yoga line and its imitators, keep the screen and keyboard base permanently attached, simply folding between different shapes. Others, including the T300 Chi, allow the two halves to physically separate, letting you use the screen as a totally stand-alone tablet.
In those cases, there are two general types of connection between screen and base. Some use a physical latch, requiring a button or switch to release tiny claws holding the two halves together. The T300 Chi uses what I consider to be a better system, a strong magnetic connection that pulls two small metal tabs on the base into two corresponding slots on the bottom edge of the screen.
Pulling the two halves apart takes some effort, and you'll have to hold the base down with your other hand. Someday we'll have a one-handed hybrid, but that day is not today. Reconnecting is easier, if you manage to line up the tabs and slots reasonably close to on-target. The strong magnetic pull usually does the rest, but it can be hit or miss, depending on how much attention you're paying.