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″, 1280×800 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.
What can you do with ChromeOS?
The Chromebook Flip runs Google’s Chrome OS. If you’re not already familiar with the platform, this OS basically offers the bare minimum of resources necessary to control the Flip’s hardware and run the Chrome web browser (at least, it did until just recently—more on that in a sec). The underlying operating system is a custom form of Linux, but it’s not possible to break into a shell or modify any of the Flip’s underpinnings without a lot of work. And really, that’s OK.
The ChromeOS desktop
Living with the Flip has shown me just how little I rely on local apps to get anything done any more. Photoshop and games aside, I spend most of my time in Chrome or Firefox tabs to begin with, whether for email or writing or Slack or Facebook or Twitter. Launching an “app” from Chrome OS’ taskbar just takes you to a new Chrome tab 99% of the time, where you proceed to use the web just like you might on a heavier-duty machine.
The Chromebook Flip has 16GB of local storage, but I never felt the need to do much of anything with it. It’s much easier to think of Google Drive as this machine’s file system. If you’ve used Drive on any other platform, you already know what that experience is like. Using Drive as the Flip’s back end also serves as a kind of built-in backup. Lose or brick the Flip, and getting your files back is as easy as signing into Drive on another machine. Chrome OS does have a file browser, but it rarely appears outside of saving images to the machine’s Downloads folder or unless you specifically go looking for it.
Google Play on the Flip
During the course of this review, Google began rolling out its Play Store to Chrome OS’ developer channel. Three machines are eligible to start using the Play Store right now: the Chromebook Flip, Acer’s Chromebook R 11, and the second-gen Chromebook Pixel. Google says it’ll be bringing the Play Store to an extensive list of other Chromebooks later this year. I hope Google moves as quickly as possible on that point, because it’s a big deal for filling in Chrome OS’s functional gaps. Apps like Skype that don’t have a good web-based equivalent are free on the Google Play Store, and folks who don’t want to use the web versions of Microsoft’s Office apps can grab the free Android versions off the Store, as well.
The Play Store also lets the Flip run some high-quality games. I tried the popular Hearthstone on the machine, and it ran alright once all of its assets loaded—a lengthy, jerky process. Expect some jaggies, too—the game clearly wasn’t running at a very high resolution, even given the Flip’s 1280×800 display. For comparison, I ran Hearthstone on my iPhone 6S Plus. Even with the iPhone’s PCIe storage subsystem, Hearthstone doesn’t load all that smoothly, but it does run without the jaggies of the Flip.
Parents and kids-at-heart will all be asking “but does it run Minecraft?” at this juncture, and I can report that yes, the Flip can run Minecraft: Pocket Edition. It’s a testament to how rapidly this platform is developing that when I first ran MPE, it was full of UI bugs and other weirdness. Just a day later, the app seemed to be working fine. At default settings, Pocket Edition runs smoothly on the Flip, so the Rockchip SoC doesn’t appear to be holding the machine back much.
I’m just hoping Google and Mojang can make controllers work with Chromebooks at some point. Plugging an Xbox controller into the Flip didn’t do anything, and although a PS3 controller shows up in the machine’s device list and this HTML5 controller test, Android apps on the Flip don’t appear to be aware of the thing. Moving around in the world of Minecraft with this Chromebook’s keyboard and touch screen is a decidedly sub-optimal experience.
Android apps on the Flip do pose a couple of problems. For one, heavy app users will probably run through the machine’s 16GB of local storage pretty quick, and Chrome OS doesn’t appear to be capable of using a microSD card as “adoptable storage” like Android 6.0 can. Google provides a version of Android’s application settings dialog to manage installed Play Store apps, but it’s hidden away in the OS’s settings screen. Not every app is quite ready to work with ChromeOS yet, either, so you’ll see some apps appear without taskbars and window controls. Still, Android apps feel reasonably fast on the Flip, and having the Play Store available feels like it could be a huge leg up for Chrome OS once the feature starts rolling out to more devices.
This is as good a time as any to talk about the Chromebook Flip’s internals and performance, so let’s take a look at some benchmarks.
Internals and performance testing
Asus builds the Flip around a Rockchip RK3288 SoC. Rockchip is, by its own description, a fabless chip design firm that employs about 700 people in three R&D centers in Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzen, China. Asus employs Rockchip SoCs in several of its Chromebooks.
From what we can figure out about it, the CPU side of the RK3288 comprises four ARM Cortex-A17 cores. Cortex-A17 is a midrange, 32-bit ARM core that’s more or less a somewhat higher-performance version of the Cortex-A12, a CPU core that traces its lineage back to the Cortex A9. We tested the Cortex A9’s performance on board the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime tablet over four years ago, for reference. Graphics power comes by way of a Mali-T764 graphics processor with an undisclosed number of shader cores. Asus pairs the SoC with 2GB or 4GB of RAM, and the Flip has 16GB of onboard storage. We’d strongly recommend sticking with the 4GB RAM option.
To represent a typical mobile cloud computing experience, we unplugged the Flip and ran some modern browser benchmarks by themselves: the independent JetStream benchmark, Mozilla’s Kraken benchmark, and Google’s Octane benchmark.
We also ran those tests on two other mobile devices in the TR labs: Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus and a 15″ MacBook Pro (mid-2014). The iPhone 6S Plus uses Apple’s A9 SoC, while the MacBook Pro uses Intel’s Core i7-4770HQ CPU. These devices are much more expensive than the Chromebook Flip, but they provide decent context for just how much more performance you’re getting for that money. Click the buttons beneath our graphs to switch between benchmarks. We ran our tests in the most recent version of Chrome available on each platform.
Anyone hoping for world-beating performance from this machine can put down their pom-poms now. Whatever the specs of the Rockchip SoC might be, its benchmark results trail even our smartphone contender by a wide margin. To be fair, browser benchmarks are optimization targets, but we tried to negate any real or perceived advantage that the iPhone and Safari might have had on that point by using Chrome. Still, if one Twitter convo I had is anything to go by, Apple’s SoC is really just that good. The Core i7-4770HQ is here more for reference than anything else.
Numbers are all well and good, but they don’t tell us anything about actually using the machine. Sadly, the Flip can stutter and hitch while scrolling through feed-style pages like Facebook and Twitter. Sites with a lot of dynamic elements or resource-intensive ads can also cause the Flip to chug a bit, but not so much that it spoiled the user experience. The machine isn’t what I’d call snappy, but it only occasionally felt like it was really being bogged down. I had to wait over ten seconds for Microsoft’s Word Online to load, and Google’s potentially lighter Docs didn’t feel much snappier to start. Once those web pages were loaded, though, I didn’t have any problems.
While writing this review, I loaded down the Flip with as many as 14 Chrome tabs (including a Soundcloud player) and an instance of the Caret text editor. That’s about as much content as I could practically consume on the Flip’s 10″ display, and the machine didn’t so much as hiccup.
As we talked about a bit ago, the Chromebook Flip can run Android apps and games pretty well, although users should be prepared to wait a bit for apps to load. Still, if Minecraft Pocket Edition is any indication, the Rockchip SoC has enough 3D grunt to let the average Flip owner kick back and have fun, assuming Google works out all of the bugs and user experience issues that come with blending Chrome OS and Android.
The Chromebook Flip is the first PC I’ve used in a long, long time that’s genuinely surprised me. No, it’s not going to play Crysis, and it can’t run full-fat Photoshop. So what? It’s a $240 computer that doesn’t make any noise unless it’s playing music. It doesn’t get hot under load. It seems next-to-impossible to corrupt with malware, and it generally won’t lose all your files if you somehow manage to destroy it. Were it that we could say the same of our big, complex laptops running Windows or macOS.
Chrome OS’s mission in life is (mostly) to run the Chrome browser. While that might sound limiting in theory, I didn’t have any trouble getting my day-to-day work done on the Flip. For the kinds of work that most people need to do on a basic productivity machine, the Chromebook Flip has Google’s Docs suite. Or Microsoft Office Online. Or iCloud. Take your pick. I actually wrote this entire review in the Caret text editor, so it’s not even necessary to step into a walled garden in the clouds to get work done.
If there’s not a web app for the thing you need to do, Google’s Play store will be coming to more and more Chromebooks with time, and that means many Chromebooks will eventually have access to Google’s thriving mobile app ecosystem. Only a couple Chromebooks—including the Flip—can run Android apps right now, though, and only on developer releases of the operating system. The Android-apps-on-Chromebooks situation should become a little more user-friendly over the rest of this year.
Like I’ve been saying throughout this review, the Flip is a great little package. The underlying hardware all feels rock-solid, the onboard audio sounds good with headphones, and the IPS touchscreen looks better than the ones we’ve experienced in much more expensive laptops. That’s before you consider that the Flip can become a media viewer or a tablet with a twist of its hinge. It’s a bit heavy for a tablet, but that’s not how I imagine most people will be using this machine most of the time. It’s good to have the option, and it doesn’t compromise the Flip’s basic mission as a tiny laptop.
Performance is the only place where the Chromebook Flip struggles a bit. As a platform, it’s about a third as fast as the A9 SoC on the iPhone 6S Plus, and there’s a yawning gap between the performance of the machine’s Rockchip SoC and full-fat x86 CPUs like the Core i7-4770HQ in my MacBook Pro. In real-world use, those results translate into hitches during scrolling on demanding pages like Facebook and Twitter. Lighter HTML pages like TR are buttery-smooth, though. Even with that slight pokiness, I didn’t feel terribly held back by the Flip, and I could easily run as many tabs as I needed to in Chrome without causing a chuggy experience.
We’ve recommended against Chromebooks for a while in our mobile staff picks, but after using the Chromebook Flip, I don’t think that caution applies any more. Cheap Windows laptops tend to be big, heavy things with delicate, slow mechanical hard drives, crappy screens, and all the rope that Windows tends to give the average user to hang themselves with. Yeah, you can get Windows “cloudbooks” with tiny SSDs and paltry amounts of RAM for the same price as the Chromebook Flip, but I’m not sure those machines would offer any better a user experience. If you need a tiny PC for basic tasks and you’re OK with running a few Android apps on the side, the Flip is an affordable, well-built option that’s well up to the job. We’ll have to test an Intel-powered Chromebook at some point to see how that combo fares.