Life as a tech reviewer leads to a biased perspective about PCs. We always have the latest and greatest from every hardware category at our fingertips. Our systems are always blindingly quick, no matter the workload. Our monitors have more megapixels on tap than some smartphone cameras. Over time, we end up forgetting that building our PCs off the shelf would cost several thousand dollars. In short, we're spoiled rotten.
Sometimes, it's good for reviewers like yours truly to get a reality check, to shed our hermit-crab shells of high-end hardware and see what PCs for the rest of the world are like. We're talking sub-$500 or maybe even sub-$350 machines—the world where regular folk might be picking up iPads, Android tablets, or even a smartphone instead of a traditional desktop or laptop.
Enter Asus' Chromebook Flip. On its face, this little machine defies easy judgment. It runs Google's Chrome OS, not Windows. It's powered by a Rockchip RK3288C SoC, a quad-core, 32-bit ARM part from a company most folks have probably never even heard of. The model I bought comes with 4GB of RAM and 16GB of eMMC storage, plus a two-year subscription for 100GB of Google Drive space, for its $240 price tag on Newegg right now. Not a firebreather, by any stretch of the imagination.
And you know what? It's kind of amazing.
The Chromebook Flip feels several times as expensive as its price tag would suggest. Its body, hinge, and screen are all clad in a sturdy aluminum that wouldn't feel out of place on a product from Cupertino. The 10.1", 1280x800 IPS touch screen lives under a sheet of plastic, but I mistook it for glass at first. Heck, this thing feels sturdier to me than the noodly, $1600 Zenbook 3 that Asus debuted at Computex. The Flip's body barely gives under twisting forces. Pick it up by the screen, and the hinge doesn't move a millimeter. More expensive machines would be proud to claim this kind of construction quality.
Somehow, Asus put an all-star keyboard in this thing, too. The 15" MacBook Pro I usually take on the road has one of the better scissor-switch keyboards out there, but the Chromebook Flip's has more travel and better tactile feedback. It doesn't flex or bounce one bit, either. I'd put this thing's key feel up against a classic ThinkPad's for pure typing pleasure. Heck, it might be better. The 10.1" screen size means the keyboard is a little cramped, but not so much that I ever felt like it was slowing me down during extended typing.
All this value would be pretty amazing in a traditional laptop, but the Flip goes one better with its convertible screen hinge. You can use this machine in a traditional laptop mode, turn it into a tent for reading recipes or watching videos in the kitchen, stand it up on its keyboard for use on a tray table or in other space-constrained environments, or even fold the screen back on itself to turn the machine into a tablet.
I'm not 100% sold on the convertible laptop trend, but the Flip's hinge is solid enough that it doesn't move at all during heavy typing in laptop mode. If you want to turn the Flip into a tablet or media viewer, those options are there if you need them. I'm just happy this little thing is a rock-solid traditional notebook, since that's how I use it most of the time.
The Flip also has a multi-touch trackpad. If there's one rough edge to the Flip's hardware, the trackpad is it. The acceleration curve on the pad doesn't feel natural—it's slow to start and jumps to fast movement without much of a gradient in between. Combine that jumpiness with the Flip's rather pokey internals, and it's easy to overshoot the section of a web page you want or move a selection handle further than you mean to. The pad does have a sure, if slightly hollow-feeling click to it, so at least there's that. If you know multi-finger mouse gestures from your Windows machine or your Mac, the Flip will generally behave as you expect when you invoke familiar gestures like pinch-to-zoom and three-finger slides for app switching.
It's possible to bypass the touchpad entirely in laptop mode and use the touchscreen instead, but Chrome OS' largely desktop-size UI elements aren't friendly to touch input. The Flip has Bluetooth built in, so users can also bring an external mouse to the party if the built-in input methods don't pass muster. I had no trouble pairing Logitech's MX Anywhere 2 mouse with the Flip, and it worked fine once it was connected.
A couple physical controls and ports ring the Flip's diamond-cut edges. On the left side, we get a volume rocker and a power button, plus a proprietary input for the machine's charger. I have no idea why Asus didn't use a microUSB or USB Type-C port for charging the Flip. Lose this machine's charger and it'll probably be hard to find a replacement.
On the right side, we get a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a micro-HDMI jack, a microSD card slot, and a combination headphone-and-mic jack. I plugged my Sennheiser gaming headset into the Flip's audio out to get an impression of its analog audio output, and I was impressed. The Flip's audio quality is even a cut above the integrated audio on my daily-driver Asus Z97-A desktop mobo, so it should be fine for most people's ears.
The Flip's underside conceals four generously-sized, soft rubber feet and a pair of stereo speakers under perforated grilles. Simple. These speakers don't sound like much, but they'll do for basic listening if you don't have a pair of headphones available.
Now that we've seen the Chromebook Flip's outsides, let's fire it up and see what's possible with Chrome OS.