Asus C300 Chromebook

How far and fast did Chromebooks evolve during 2014? For a computing platform that we can now confidently predict is no longer a niche, far enough to dramatically improve battery life by swapping Intel’s Celerons for more efficient Bay Trail and Nvidia processors, something that also shaved cost from $300 to $200. Screens improved too, with 13.3 and 14 inch screens on offer in addition to the traditional 11.6 incher, a few with true HD resolution and touch screens.

The Chrome OS itself gained features, impressing with its clean, simple gradualist approach that develops the platform with lots of small changes rather than Microsoft’s big and historically clunky jumps. On both device and OS fronts, 2015 promises more on these developments, with a greater range of options, including 15.4 inch form factors, more rugged designs aimed at education, powerful Core i3 processors, as well as useful tweaks to the interface and overall usability.

Chromebooks, then, are becoming more mainstream in the way they offer different capabilities at different but still cheap price points. Meanwhile, a startled  Microsoft is rather ludicrously attempting to make PCs behave more like Chromebooks with the frankly inconsequential ‘Windows with Bing’ initiative that appears to be killing mid-range PCs faster than it is killing cheaper Chromebooks.

But the real Chromebook story of 2014 had nothing to do with the spec sheet and everything to do with acceptance and profile. A year ago, every Chromebook review felt it necessary to add a patronising list of the platform’s supposed ‘limitations’. You couldn’t run Photoshop or Office, they said, nor could you do much with a Chromebook when not connected to the Internet.

Of course you can’t do much with a PC either these days when the Internet is absent - a lot of the supposed independence from networks that Windows users talk up is exaggerated - but we digress. The point is that more and more users have got past these generalisations and realised that Chromebooks aren’t meant to ape what PCs do in the first place. Chromebooks are cloud personal computers, connected clients that deliberately avoid the local model of computing made infamous by Windows because it has turned out to have limitations to balance out its dwindling legacy advantages.

Microsoft hopes it can buy some time with its cut-down cheap Windows with Bing PCs (e.g. HP’s Stream) but it’s fighting a losing battle. These have all the limitations of cloud computers with none of the advantages. What Microsoft needs to embrace is the need to produce a Windows cloud computer of its own and stop persisting with a dying model of home computing that is now decades old.

The Asus C300

Which brings us to the Asus 1.4Kg C300, a great example of a well put together 2014 vintage Chromebook (supplied to Techworld by ebuyer.com in the UK) that delivers very precisely on the platform has to offer. It’s not outstanding at any one thing but it does everything well and serves as a pointer to the functional future that Chromebooks will serve.

At 13.3 inches, the screen is about the right size to be portable without that becoming a problem (an 11.6 inch version  is also available), while the 2GB of DDR3 RAM,  Bay Trail-M N2830 2.16GHz processor and 16GB SSD is adequate to power the machine for up to a dozen open tabs. Unlike some of the Acers, the keyboard is also decent in terms of travel. The one hole some have picked is the screen, which is only 1,366-by-768 compared to the full HD 1,920-by-1,080 of Toshiba’s Chromebook 2, but that costs more and is harder to find in some markets.

Asus fits the C300 with a single USB 3.0 port to complement the HDMI, SD card slot (for emergency storage presumably) and audio jack; pleasingly Wi-Fi support includes the 802.11ac almost nobody currently has but is essential for a machine with no physical Ethernet port.

The stand-out is the 3-cell battery that kept the C300 running for 7 hours without trying, probably a bit more if the screen is turned down more. Some report more than this but the point is that all-day running is now achievable on a budget laptop. When the time comes to charge the machine, it topped up rapidly in just over an hour when close to empty.

Physically, the Asus C300 runs passively, so no fans or over-warm lap. It’s not clear whether this design (used on all recent Chromebooks from rivals vendors too) will lead to better component reliability but it’s possible that it might when the machine hits year two, three and four. There is less physically in a Chromebook which should mean there is less to go wrong.

Problems?

One drawback of this approach is that Chromebooks can’t be upgraded and behave more like computing appliances. Not everyone likes the idea of a computer whose memory can’t be upgraded but, then again, upgraded to what end? Adding more RAM wouldn’t increase a Chromebook’s perceptible performance when running a handful of tabs.

This brings us to the other issue with the Asus C300 and indeed any Chromebook from the last six months based on its design model - how on earth do you distinguish one model or vendor from another? They all look nearly identical at the same price point.

In fact there are subtle differences that will bother some people. For my money, Asus keyboards and slightly better than HP’s which are in turn slightly better than Acer’s rather springless designs. Screens also seem to vary in viewability by model as much as by vendor.

The other issue is availability and this is where the Asus C300 and C200 score highly, going on sale in a range of markets within three months of their announcement. Compare that with Toshiba's well-regarded Chromebook 2 which despite being announced over five months ago, is still hard to get hold of outside the US. This has been an issue with several Chromebooks for reasons that aren’t clear - how difficult is it to manufacture such a basic computer? - and it slows their momentum and appeal. Product cycles have to move a bit quicker for user numbers to grow in 2015.

As for price, while Chromebooks have successfully been sold on their low price tag, they’re not that low  if you consider how basic these machines are. They represent a stripped back form of utility computing but the quid pro quo of that should be even lower prices. With basic processors, limited RAM and no need for extensive onboard storage, these should be $150 (£140) devices not $250 (£230) ones. When people pay more they should be paying for a benefit such as a larger screen or processor.

Review unit supplied by eBuyer.com.

OUR VERDICT

Conclusion: The Chromebook problem in the eyes of more traditional users seems to be that it’s similar enough to a Windows PC to invite comparisons but different enough to be misunderstood. It’s a laptop but there’s a twist. As with almost every other change in the history of computing, people feel slightly confused by the mix of apparent sameness and challenging unfamiliarity. The Asus C300 is a perfect example of how to overcome these misunderstandings with an uncomplicated machine that will do precisely what it promises to. No long Windows setup, no constant updates, simple cloud applications and no malware. Is it any better than the growing band of rivals that do the same thing? Arguably, yes, It’s a bit cheaper than HP’s 14 inch Chromebook but has (in our opinion) slightly better build quality and keyboard than Acer’s equivalent models such as the CB5-311.