Where do you draw the line between a laptop and a tablet?
It's a question that's becoming increasingly difficult to answer as devices -- and even platforms -- take on multiple forms and purposes. On one end of the Google spectrum, we have Android tablets that double as laptops, blending passive recreation with active productivity. On the other, we have Chrome OS notebooks that also act as tablets, adding an entertainment-focused angle into a traditionally productivity-centric environment.
The latest such device to blur the line is the Asus Chromebook Flip, a laptop with a screen that swings back to serve as a stand-supported slate or fully flattened tablet. The Flip is expected to be widely available starting this week for $249 with 2GB of RAM or $299 with 4GB.
I set aside my own personal devices and used the Flip for all my work and play over the past several days. Here's a real-world account of what I discovered.
Body, design and display
The Chromebook Flip makes a fantastic first impression. The device has a metal-based body that feels solid and sturdy and yet still manages to be incredibly light (1.96 lb., to be precise). It's sleek and attractive, too, with a level of design, build quality and attention to detail that's not commonly seen in this price range.
Pop open the lid and you'll be greeted by a 10.1-in. 1280 x 800 IPS display. The resolution isn't great, but it's all relative: You're looking at slightly more pixels per inch than what you'd find in a typical 11.6-in. 1366 x 768 entry-level Chromebook but less than what you'd see in a 1080p device like Toshiba's 13.3-in. Chromebook 2.
The Flip is a tablet as well as a laptop, though -- and that designation opens the door to some less forgiving comparisons. Most 10-in. tablets today sport insanely high resolutions that have spoiled our eyes for anything else -- with 2560 x 1600 at the high end of the spectrum. Compared to that, the Flip's setup looks downright dismal.
So it really all depends on your expectations. It's important to keep in mind, of course, that this is a sub-$300 system while most high-end tablets cost $400 to $500 at a minimum. Practically speaking, the Flip's display is quite passable in day-to-day use and meaningfully better than most Chromebooks in its class. The screen is bright and has vibrant colors -- an important distinction resulting from Asus's use of IPS technology instead of the lower-quality TN alternative used in most comparably priced laptops.
The low resolution, however, is still a limiting factor -- particularly when it comes to clarity. When I viewed text in a document or Web page, for instance, letters weren't completely crisp; instead, I could usually detect pixilation and areas where the fine detail was fuzzy. That's par for the course in a sub-$300 laptop, so it's not a knock specifically on the Flip -- but I'd be remiss not to mention it as part of the discussion.
(Text also appeared incredibly small on the Flip's screen by default, though that can be adjusted by increasing Chrome's zoom setting. I found 110% to 125% to be about right for comfortable Web page reading and document editing at normal laptop-viewing distances.)
And while 10 in. is a common screen size for a tablet, it's strikingly small for a laptop. The substantial black bezel surrounding the Flip's display makes it seem even smaller, because you're looking at a little rectangle within a significantly larger surface. I couldn't help but feel somewhat cramped when trying to conduct my usual work routine on the device; after a few hours of staring at words on the screen, my head started to hurt and my eyes glazed over. While I could see the system serving well for more casual computing needs, it's really just not ideal for extended periods of concentrated work.
The touch and tablet factors
Quality and size aside, the Flip's screen stands out for its touch-enabled and pivoting nature. Even when using the system in its regular laptop mode, you can touch the screen to interact -- a feature I found to be a nice (though certainly not essential) addition. Given how often we interact with touch-centric devices these days, it felt perfectly natural to reach up occasionally and use my finger to scroll through a page of text or browse through a social media stream.
Where that ability really shines is when you flip the Flip's display (see what they did there?) past the 180-degree mark and start to use the screen as a slate. While Chrome OS and the Web in general still aren't entirely optimized for touch-only interaction, there are plenty of times when such an arrangement makes sense -- like when you're reading, watching videos or taking part in full-screen video chats.
To its credit, Google has been working to make Chrome OS more touch-friendly. The Flip shows off some of those efforts, like a redesigned virtual keyboard that appears whenever you're using the device in one of its tablet modes. The keyboard even offers the option to input text by writing with your finger on the screen (something that strikes me as more of a novelty than anything in this context -- but hey, it's there if you want it).
The main Chrome OS UI also adopts some subtle touch-friendly elements when placed in a tablet mode, similar to what I observed when reviewing Lenovo's $455 convertible Yoga 11e Chromebook last year. And Google is slowly but surely bringing bits of the Android experience into the Chrome OS environment, including native integration of the company's Google Now personal assistant and the ability to run an ever-expanding (though still rather limited) number of Android apps on the platform.
(You can see a list of officially available Android apps in the Chrome Web Store, though the results will appear only if you open that link while using a Chrome OS device. It's also possible to port an Android app over to Chrome OS yourself, but that requires some semi-advanced hacking efforts and won't work with every application. Long story short, it isn't going to be something most users will want to mess with.)
I found the Flip's "stand" mode -- in which the keyboard faces downward behind the screen and props it up -- to be the most useful for touch-centric interactions. You can also turn the device upside-down from that position and put it into a "tent" mode, though I've yet to find any reason to do so myself.
Finally, you can rotate the screen back a full 360 degrees and flatten it into a tablet, albeit one that's rather thick -- thanks to the non-detachable base pressed up against it. This also means that the physical keyboard unfortunately faces outward on its backside. The keys are disabled in that mode, but even so, an upside-down keyboard doesn't make for the most pleasant surface on which to rest your fingers while holding a tablet.
Keyboard, trackpad and the rest of the hardware
Speaking of QWERTY, the Chromebook Flip's keyboard is a mixed bag: The keys are a bit plasticky and insubstantial-feeling, as you'd expect for a device of this class, but they're pleasingly responsive and have a satisfactory amount of resistance. The biggest issue is that the keyboard, like the Flip's screen, is quite cramped. Due to the device's narrow frame, the keys are small and close together, which makes typing a little awkward -- serviceable enough, especially for short periods of time, but more like using a tablet attachment than a full laptop keyboard.
The trackpad, meanwhile, is excellent -- smooth to the touch and precise, with support for the full range of Chrome OS touch gestures.
The Flip has two stereo speakers on its bottom that project adequate-sounding audio. There's not much in the way of bass, which results in a somewhat hollow sound, but music played from the system is loud and clear -- unless the device is sitting on your lap, in which case the output often becomes muffled.
The left side of the Chromebook holds physical volume and power buttons -- unusual for Chrome OS but helpful when you're using the device in a tablet mode -- along with a proprietary charging port (no reversible and universal USB Type-C, unfortunately). On the right side, you'll find a dedicated micro-HDMI port along with two USB 2.0 ports, a microSD card slot and a standard headphone jack.
Performance, stamina and storage
Asus has opted to go with an unconventional processor in its Chromebook Flip: the Rockchip 3288-C, a 1.8GHz quad-core ARM CPU. Its performance is generally decent, though there are a couple of caveats.
First, unless cost is a major consideration, you're almost certainly going to want to spring for the model with 4GB of RAM, which is what I used for this review. For comparison, I tested the Hisense Chromebook, which has the same exact setup with 2GB of RAM. That configuration is noticeably more limited in performance -- particularly when you start having more than a few tabs open, which causes the system to get sluggish.
With 4GB of RAM in the Flip, I've managed to have as many as 10 to 15 tabs open simultaneously without noticing any meaningful lag or slowdown. The system still isn't what I'd call snappy -- it'll sometimes take a few seconds too long to load a page, for instance, and will often be a bit choppy in scrolling for the first several seconds after a document or page has been opened -- but it's quite usable, and should be more than sufficient for most users' needs.
Impressively, the Flip is completely silent while running and never gets particularly warm, even during resource-intensive use. And its stamina is superb: The system is listed for up to nine hours of use per charge, and I generally exceeded that by a small margin -- even with an ongoing mix of heavy multitasking and video streaming.
As for storage, the Flip gives you 16GB of internal space along with the option to add an additional 64GB via microSD. It also comes with 100GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage for two years -- a subscription that'd cost about $48 if you were to buy it outright.
The Chromebook Flip is a neat little device with a lot of compelling qualities -- and a lot of bang for the buck. The thing you have to ask yourself is if a device like this makes sense for your needs.
The broad question, of course, is whether Chrome OS is right for you -- and that's a whole other story. Provided you're sold on the platform, though, it's critical to think about what purpose you want a Chromebook to serve.
If you're looking for a computer for extended productivity-centric use, I'd think twice about getting a device this small. Between the limited screen space and the cramped keyboard, it's just hard to see it being ideal for that type of work. Most people would do better with a full-sized system like the $330 Toshiba Chromebook 2 -- which is bigger but still quite portable -- or the $350 Acer Chromebook 15, which is large and more of a desktop replacement type of device. (Both devices have 1080p IPS displays.)
If, however, you're looking for a small but versatile system that's suited for passive consumption along with a bit of limited or lightweight work, the Asus Chromebook Flip could be just the line-blurring device for you. At $249 to $299, it's a tremendous value -- with a level of quality that exceeds what its price suggests.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.