The big pitch for Chromebooks and other devices running Google'swas that these machines could do most of what you wanted from a computer at a very budget-friendly price.
Of late, we've seen an increasing number of low-cost computers that offer a relatively full-featured Windows experience for the same or less than many Chromebooks. These include the $199 HP Stream 11 laptop, the $179 and others. To compete, new Chromebooks will have to offer better feature, lower prices or both.
Working closely with Google, Asus has created a Chrome OS hybrid that mixes high-end features with low-end components. The Asus Chromebook Flip C100 takes some real risks, some more successful than others, in order to provide a premium-feeling experience for only $249 (£249 in the UK; not currently available in Australia).
Right out of the box, the C100 impresses. It has a slim, light body made from solid-feeling aluminum, versus the plastic bodies of most other Chromebooks. The 10.1-inch display is a touchscreen, another feature rarely seen in either Chrome OS devices or in laptops in this price range (but to be fair, Chrome OS is not nearly as optimized for touch as Windows 8/Windows 10).
That touchscreen is necessary, because the C100 has a 360-degree hinge, which folds all the way back into a tablet mode, much like Lenovo's Yoga line does. This is one of the only Chrome OS hybrids we've seen (Lenovo makes one of the only others, the excellent), and in this case, the execution is only partially successful.
In hands-on use, the touchscreen was responsive in some cases, stuttery in others. The glass screen has a coating that drags on the finger more than other touchscreen laptop displays. When folded back into tablet mode, a custom Chrome OS onscreen keyboard pops up, but the small size of the screen means that this is a compact keyboard, which makes some basic punctuation and useful characters hard to use.
Rather than the more common Intel Celeron processors found in most Chromebooks, this system uses an ARM-based CPU from, a Chinese chip maker, most likely as a cost-saving move. It ran our benchmark tests very slowly, but it was still fast enough for basic Web surfing when compared to other Chromebooks. One benefit from the low-power processor is very long battery life, and the Flip C100 beat out other Chrome and Windows systems in its price range.
As a Chrome OS device, the C100 is inherently limited -- it's essentially an online-only Web browser, with a laptop-like shell built around it. That means Web-based tools such as Gmail, Netflix, and social media and news websites will work, but traditional software apps such as Photoshop or iTunes will not, as you can't download and install Windows software.
If you can deal with the limitations of Chrome OS, however, the C100 hits more than it misses, adding features and materials rarely seen in this price range, plus great battery life. However, remember that you can also get a full Windows laptop, tablet, or mini-desktop (but usually not a hybrid) for even less, which gives you more options than ever to consider for low-cost computing.
Asus Chromebook Flip C100
|Price as reviewed||$249|
|Display size/resolution||10.1-inch 1,280x800-pixel touchscreen|
|PC CPU||1.8GHz Rockchip 3288-C Quad-Core processor|
|Networking||802.11ac Bluetooth 4.1|
|Operating system||Chrome OS|
Design and features
At 2 pounds and 0.6-inch thick, the 10.1-inch Flip C100 weighs about the same as Apple's high-end. Both have aluminum shells, but you're unlikely to confuse them, which isn't surprising considering the thousand-dollar price difference between them. Still, the C100 looks and feels much more solid than the plastic HP Stream 11, another small laptop in the same price range.
The most important design feature, and the biggest potential point of failure, is the hinge that allows the top half to fold all the way back into a kiosk or tablet mode. In this case, it's a single long hinge that runs nearly the entire length of the system, and it feels stiff and stable when being flipped back and forth, although it'll give a bit under your fingers when tapping the screen in clamshell mode.
The keyboard key faces are very small, compared with those on a 13-inch or larger laptop (or the 12-inch MacBook), but they offer a deep, satisfying click and don't wobble too much under your fingers. It's not great for long-form typing, but for a budget 10-inch laptop, it's about as good as you're going to get.
Flipping into tablet mode and clicking on a text field brings up an on-screen keyboard. The default is a Chrome-friendly compact keyboard that's good for typing but hides so much of of the punctuation and special characters that actual document composition is difficult. Switching back to a traditional full keyboard makes the keys so small that typing accurately is a hassle. Another alternate onscreen input method replaces the keyboard with a pen input field, and scratching out search terms with a finger worked well, with excellent recognition of even my garbled handwriting.