(Pocket-lint) - The main aim of most Chromebooks is to offer a decent computing experience for little cash. That price proposition is changing, though, with higher-end models such as the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA entering the market.
The Chromebook Flip is a Chrome OS laptop designed to look every bit as fancy as an Ultrabook, albeit for about half the price, complete with a touchscreen mounted on a 360-degree hinge. That's a spec which, on paper, outshines many decent Windows laptops.
If you're simply after a metal laptop on a budget, then the similarly priced Acer Swift 3 is a more versatile machine as it runs full Windows 10. However, as Chrome OS continues to develop can the Flip establish a more sophisticated Chromebook proposition?
Asus Chromebook Flip review: What's different about Chromebook?
- Chrome OS software (not Windows)
- Google apps installed, ideal for lightweight work tasks
- Google Play support is in beta, and buggy
If you've not yet used Chrome, it's a bit like Windows but is much simpler, designed to be used while connected to the internet and uses the same Google apps as an Android phone instead of, for example, Microsoft Office. It's a bit like Android designed from the ground up for use with a keyboard and mouse, rather than in a phone form.
The big shift going on in Chrome at the moment is Google Play support. With certain models – this Asus included – you can get access to the same app store as an Android phone, to download the same Android apps. Without it, Chromebooks otherwise only get a thin catalogue of apps available from the Chrome web store. There are a few games and some basic apps, but it's sparse compared with what you can get with a Windows PC.
Asus Chromebook Flip review: Design
- High-quality aluminium casing
- 1.2kg and 13.7mm thick
- Hybrid 360-degree hinge
The main design element that separates the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA from a much cheaper laptop is aluminium. Like a Windows-style laptop, the Flip's whole frame is made of the stuff: the lid, the inner part around the keyboard and the underside.
It feels expensive, which is the point. That pricey finger feel is no guarantee of good build quality, but the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA is actually better made than some Asus Windows 10 aluminium laptops. The screen and the keyboard are all very stiff, not willing to just bow under the pressure of a poke.
The Chromebook C302CA is plain, though. You won't find any of the eye-catching finishes Asus uses in many of its ZenBook Windows laptops here.
The Flip is also a hybrid machine, in that its hinge allows the screen to flip all the way around, making it a tubby tablet. Don't think "tablet" in the vein of an iPad, think "tablet computer" – the kind of device you might use to watch Netflix on a bedside table or read an article while you wait for the carrots to boil.
Chrome doesn't yet offer loads of compelling reasons for a hybrid build to exist, but that's about to change with Android app support. But more details on that later.
Take away all the flashy metallic hybrid nonsense of the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA, and you see what's really important: this is a slim, lightweight laptop that you can take anywhere and start work on in a few seconds.
Asus Chromebook Flip review: Connections
- No full-size USBs or video connectors
- 2x USB-C and a microSD
- On-case volume controls
There are lot of Chromebooks that offer such portability, though. The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA separates itself from previous models by using some up-to-date connections.
On its sides are two USB Type-C ports and a microSD card slot. Sure, some of you might prefer a full-size USB port or a full-size SD, but that's last season's swimwear. Just look at the MacBook: it doesn't even have a memory card slot anymore.
Asus Chromebook Flip review: Keyboard and trackpad
- Good typing feel
- Plastic trackpad can feel 'sticky'
- Backlit keyboard helps night typing
The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA has some of the hallmarks of a laptop twice the price.
There's just one part that tells you this really isn't. Well, other than that Chrome logo on the back. Its trackpad surface is plastic rather than glass, and it's markedly higher-friction than a good textured glass trackpad. It is also less smooth than some plastic trackpads, such as the Acer Chromebook 11 N7's.
Whether you'll notice or not depends on the kind of laptops you've used to date. If you've owned an expensive model before, you probably will. The difference isn't truly jarring like a badly behaved pad that hardly seems to obey your finger, but does let down the otherwise very good build.
The Flip C302CA's keyboard doesn't have such cut-price bits, though. There's decent key travel for a dinky little laptop, the keys are full-size and well-spaced enough, plus there's a keyboard backlight. We could happily use this Asus to type away on all day long.
Asus Chromebook Flip review: Screen
- 1920 x 1080 resolution IPS LCD screen
- 12.5-inch, 1080p resolution
- Touchscreen with glass top layer
Chromebooks are great if you want to save money. A £200 Chromebook runs much better than a £200 Windows laptop. However, cut-price Chromebooks often have pauper's screens, because great displays cost money.
The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA has a much better display than the majority of rivals though. It's a Full HD screen, whereas a lot of bargain basement models have 1366 x 768 screens that are blockier and look weird at an angle.
The Flip's display is much more like the display of a high-quality tablet, with a touchscreen, good sharpness and colour that seems fairly full and rich rather than weak and undersaturated. You normally have to spend a couple of hundred pounds more to get a Windows 10 laptop with this calibre of screen.
It's a 12.5-inch screen so isn't exactly like a cinema you can take on your holiday, but it is easily big enough to work on all day without feeling like you're peering into a far-away porthole. This size also makes the Flip a great size for on-the-go work – it's big enough not to seem cramped, but small enough to be extremely portable.
Its top layer is glass too, used to give it a pleasant touchscreen surface. However, as mentioned earlier it doesn't yet seem like the most crucial extra in a Chromebook.
Asus Chromebook Flip review: Software and performance
- Intel Core m3 CPU has more power than most Chromebooks
A £599 laptop like this needs more to justify its cost. And while Google Play access is coming to the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA, as we review it you have to switch over to the beta build of Chrome to get it.
We gave it a go. Google Play runs and you can download whatever you like, more or less. However, mapping of both the touchscreen and the keyboard is broken. Tap on a touchscreen button and the right zone simply won't be where it should.
But, hey, Chrome told us it was a beta feature so maybe we shouldn't complain. When Google Play support is fully integrated the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA should offer a lot more potential for fun, whereas right now it works best as a productivity PC.
The important part of the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA is that it is one of the few Chromebooks with a premium CPU. It uses an Intel Core m3, an ultra-low power version of a Core i3. You may think of that as a budget CPU, and from one perspective it is. However, it's a couple of leagues ahead of the Intel Celeron CPUs used in cheap Chrome OS laptops.
When you're just typing away in a Word document the difference isn't a world-changing. But it is if you start playing games: where the Celeron-powered Acer Chromebook 11 N7 stutters to about 3fps at certain points when playing retro Doom homage GoreScript, the C302CA stays at a rock-solid 60fps.
This is one of the reasons we hope Google Play optimisation sorts itself out. The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA could soon be a great little casual gaming laptop for titles sources from the Play Store. You need to have a little faith though, as right now there's not quite enough to really justify the better CPU. Not when the Windows 10 Acer Swift 3 can be had for a similar price and has a punchier Core i3 CPU.
There's also a more powerful version of the C302CA with a Core m7 CPU, but when this costs £799 it gets a little too close to ultimately more flexible Windows laptops like the Acer Spin 5 and Asus ZenBooks like the UX330.
As Chrome OS branches out the 64GB storage will be worth thinking about more seriously too. In its current state it feels like a lot, particularly as the OS itself hardly eats up any space, but seems stingy in an £800 computer. And there's only so much a microSD card can realistically add.
Asus Chromebook Flip review: Battery life
- Speakers are stereo, but a little weak
- 9-hour real-life battery from a 10-hour claim
- USB-C charging
Finally, Asus promises up to 10 hours battery life. While it's more realistic to expect around eight to nine hours when skipping between apps and using the C302CA quite actively, we did get close to the promised figure when just playing a YouTube video for an hour. With the screen brightness at 50 per cent that hour drained 11 per cent from the battery charge, suggesting you'll get just over nine hours from a single charge.
It's all-day battery life, then, just without the stamina to flatten the longest-lasting Windows machines.
The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA is a Chromebook that feels like a £1000 laptop in many respects. Its all-metal case and low weight make it a good choice for those tempted by a MacBook or Windows machine for work while travelling, who just don't have the spare cashflow.
A plastic trackpad does cheapen the Flip's feel a little, but you'll have to decide just how picky your fingers are. Otherwise the all-day battery life, decent typing experience, good screen quality for the price and prospective future potential from Google Play make the Flip among the most interesting Chromebooks available today.
The main reason to hold fire right now is that Chrome OS may feel limited for something costing £600 and up. Android app support will help, but you need to have a little faith that this will work well with the C302CA's touchscreen and keyboard. That should happen soon enough, but you might be best waiting until it's out of beta if this is your main incentive to buy right now.
The alternatives to consider
Acer N7 11
A much more familiar kind of Chromebook, the Acer N11 7 is much cheaper, much less powerful and has a lesser screen. It's nowhere near as pretty or slim, but is still practical.
It has an extremely sturdy plastic case and while its display is much smaller, it is still comfortable to work with. The keyboard in particular is very nice to use given the slow price. There's none of the glamour of the Asus here, but it'll do the trick for work.
Read the full article: Acer Chromebook 11 N7 review
Google Pixel C
- £600 with keyboard
This isn't a Chromebook but an Android tablet with a companion keyboard, although add that on and the Google Pixel C is actually the same price as the C302CA.
It has a sharper, punchier screen and its Tegra X1 CPU is better for gaming. However, for day-to-day work we'd pick the Asus Chromebook for its more convincing laptop-like feel.
Read the full article: Google Pixel C review
Acer Chromebook 14
It's cheaper than the Asus Chromebook, but the Acer Chromebook 14 still has an aluminium case and, if you buy the slightly more expensive version, a 1080p LCD screen. Display quality isn't as hot, but there's no denying the Chromebook 14 gets you a lot for your money.
As Google Play support arrives, you might want to consider the Acer's slower Celeron CPU, though. It's likely to struggle with some higher-end games given what we've seen from other Celeron-equipped Chromebooks.