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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.
|Price as reviewed||$899|
|Display size/resolution||12.5-inch 2,560x1,440 touchscreen|
|PC CPU||1.2Ghz Intel Core M 5Y71|
|PC Memory||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz|
|Graphics||3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5300|
|Networking||802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)|
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.
The keyboard base is closer to a traditional laptop keyboard than on the Surface Pro 3, as it has large island-style keys that have reasonably key depth and a decent-sized touchpad. I ran into a few moments of delay when first making the keyboard/screen connection, but typing was decent, if not as good as a standard 13-inch laptop such as the MacBook Air or Dell XPS 13. The touchpad, while larger than the one included on the Surface Pro 3 keyboard attachment, was sluggish and imprecise, leading to more frequent use of the touch screen to hit buttons and scroll through long web pages.
With a smaller physical size, only 12.5 inches diagonally, and a higher-than-1080p resolution, the 2,560x1,440 can be hard to see if you're using the traditional Windows desktop mode. A 1,920x1,080 version is also available, and frankly is more than high enough for a screen this size, so that's one way to save a little on a configuration. The screen in our upgraded model was clear, bright, and not overly reflective, and worked well from wide viewing angles in tablet mode.
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||1 micro-USB 3.0, microSD card slot|
|Networking||802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Like the much-maligned single port on the 12-inch MacBook, connection options here are very limited, with only a single Micro-USB port on the side of the display, plus a microSD card slot. The keyboard base has a micro-USB connection, but that's to keep its internal battery (used only for the keyboard, not the system) charged. On optional accessory is an Asus active stylus, available for $40 in the US.
The Intel Core M processor used here performs better in some tests than in the first Core M system we tested, the Yoga 3 Pro. Core M was pitched for power efficiency, not performance, but in some of our tests, it performed on par with recent mainstream Core i5 laptops.
In hands-on use, it felt less sluggish than the Yoga 3 Pro did, with a little occasional stuttering. For lower-power systems such as this, you'll get a better experience using Microsoft's built-in Internet Explorer Web browser rather than Chrome, as IE is so well optimized for Windows 8.
The real test for Core M will come with Apple's 12-inch MacBook, which will also use that chip. Significantly lower performance or battery life than the current MacBook Air models will be a tough hurdle to overcome.
And battery life seems to be a weak spot for the Core M, at least in Windows 8 hybrids. Both the Yoga 3 Pro and the Asus T300 Chi ran for less than 6 hours (5:14) in our video playback battery drain test. That's fine for an afternoon of meetings or a work session in a coffee shop, but despite being very portable, this isn't going to be an all-day companion, unless you use it sparingly. Based on our tests with other higher-res laptops, you may get better battery life from the 1,920x1,080 screen configuration.
On paper, the Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi sounds like a great combination of smart design, new components, and a very reasonable price. In person, it's not as effortless to use as I'd like, and the Intel Core M platform doesn't seem to be optimized for especially long battery life. But, starting at $699, it still represents a very good value, and is worth a look if you want a small hybrid that packs in features without packing on the cost.
|Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi||Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.2GHz Intel Core M 5Y71; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5300 Graphics; 128GB SSD|
|HP Spectre x360 13t||Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 256GB SSD|
|Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014)||Apple OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks ; 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-4260U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1536MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000; 128GB SSD|
|Lenovo Yoga Pro 3||Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y60; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5300; 256GB SSD|
|Lenovo Yoga 3 (14-inch)||Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 256GB SSD|
|Dell XPS 13 (2015, touchscreen)||Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 256GB SSD|