If you're thinking of buying a Chromebook for around £200 you're going to have to make compromises on components, and the new £199.99 (inc. VAT) Chromebook C201PA from ASUS is no exception.
There's quite a lot of strong Chromebook competition in the market at the moment, including Acer's Chromebook R11 which I recently reviewed. One of the R11's endearing features is a fully 360-degree rotating screen.
There are some Windows 10 laptops available at a similar price point. A recent example is ASUS's own Vivobook E200HA, which admittedly cuts some corners to reach its ultra-low price, but is arguably a steal at around £160.
So, does ASUS do anything special with its 11.6-inch Chromebook C201 to draw the eye away from the competition?
First impressions are encouraging. The build, while plastic, is quite solid, and the dark blue lid and base of my review sample add a touch of distinction. The silver wrist rest and keyboard surround is not so exciting, but there are other options for more vivid colours in this area. The rounded edges are neatly finished and the machine seems quite robust.
You should easily be able to fit this Chromebook into a bag as it measures just 28.7cm by 19.4cm by 1.79cm -- a footprint that's slightly smaller than a sheet of A4 paper. It weighs just 980g, so the weight shouldn't be a problem either. As is often the case with an all-plastic chassis it is pretty easily scratched, so if you want to maintain a pristine look then you'll need a protective sleeve.
The Chromebook C201 offers a meagre selection of ports and slots: a headset jack, a pair of USB 2.0 ports and a Micro-HDMI connector, plus a MicroSD card slot. Acer's Chromebook R11 wins a couple of points here: one of its two USB ports is USB 3.0, and its HDMI connector is full sized. The C201 also has an HD front-facing camera, for those all-important video calls.
The keyboard is large enough for comfortable touch typing, and while the island-style keys lack spring they feel robust. The squished Enter key was my only real bugbear during testing: it's nicely double height, but is very narrow for half of that. I found the touchpad responsive and efficient.
The LED-backlit 11.6-inch screen has a Chromebook-standard resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels (135 pixels per inch). Unfortunately, colours lack the kind of vibrancy and depth you'd expect to find on a more expensive machine, and in fact watching YouTube videos and catch-up TV was not a great visual experience. Viewing angles are poor in the vertical plane, passable on the horizontal, and suffer in both orientations because of the screen's reflectivity. This is the main compromise that ASUS has made to meet the Chromebook C201's sub-£200 price point.
On the plus side, the speakers deliver acceptable-quality sound and there's plenty of volume.
The Chromebook C201's quad-core Rockchip RK3288C SoC and 4GB of RAM delivered an acceptable level of performance for the workloads I tested with, including writing documents, browsing the web and streaming video. It coped well with multiple open tabs in Chrome well too -- better, in fact, than the Intel Atom-powered, Windows 10-based ASUS Vivobook E200HA I mentioned earlier.
For wireless connectivity there's dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
The Chromebook C201 has 16GB of internal eMMC storage, of which 9.3GB was free on my review sample. That's not a huge amount (you may well have more free space on your phone), but you'll be using what's available differently to how you use storage on a Windows laptop, and it's not out of kilter with the Chromebook market.
ASUS rates the 2-cell, 38Wh battery as good for up to 13 hours. My experience of a usage pattern involving working with documents on Drive, visiting websites and some video streaming suggests the battery depletes at about 10 percent per hour -- enough to get me through some serious chunks of work away from a power source, but somewhat less than the 13-hour claim.
A direct comparison with the similarly priced Acer Chromebook R11 shows that Acer's machine has the edge in terms of ports and connectors thanks to its USB 3.0, full-size HDMI and SD card slot (rather than Micro-HDMI and MicroSD here). The R11's rotating screen may be a draw too. Having said that, the C201's Rockchip processor delivers better performance than the Intel Celeron N3050 in the R11.