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.