Friday, March 10, 2017

On Chromebooks - First Week [Part 05]

Body Issues

Although I am not generally a fan of the style used for the Asus Chromebook Flip C302, there is a lot of good here. I enjoy simple and understated devices. What makes a device understated is a matter of opinion, though, so I will share mine. To me this is something that is not flashy or gaudy, yes. It is also something which is unassuming and, often, utilitarian. Sometimes I admire function over form. Sometimes I don't. I am not certain even I could say what the difference is between my admirations. I am not even certain I wouldn't assess devices differently at different points in time.

The Asus Transformer Prime had a style I loved. There was excellent attention to fit and finish. The entire device was made of aluminum, which made it heavier than it needed to be, but also made it feel nice and solid in the hand. It was anodized aluminum with a dark purplish blue hue that looked almost black from a distance. I felt the device would not stand out in a crowd, or even be noticed in any particular way when sitting on a desk. It could look akin to a digital picture frame when turned off. Despite this, holding the device felt very special, with smooth finish and solidity. It also helped that there were very few tablets on the market with this level of attention to detail at the time. The iPad was similarly well appointed, but in flashy silver instead. I don't know that it would be fair to call an iPad gaudy, but it was definitely more flashy than I prefer.

The Asus Chromebook Flip C302 is more like an iPad than a Transformer Prime. It is entirely silver and it is definitely noticeable. Most of the professional reviews I've read of the device like to compare it directly to a Macbook Pro, so I am given to understand the body is in an identical style. Fit and finish are excellent, so I have complaints in that regard. Some seams can be seen, but none are obvious and none manifest any sort of gap flaws. The body is made entirely of aluminum with a drab silvery hue. I suppose some people might find it unassuming, but compared to my former devices this one practically screams "touch me I am awesome" which isn't my preferred look.

On the other hand, while toting my 10 inch tablet as a laptop setup, I generally noticed many dubious sideways glances. I never really felt like a professional writer because the diminutive form factor and tightly packed keyboard were not great for the exercise. It was very functional, but only with a good amount of adjustment. I can imagine some people might not even be able to use the keyboard, which honestly felt really small in use. This Chromebook feels nothing like that. The keyboard is spacious and comfortable and the device feels like a serious tool in use. I can't imagine anyone looking at this computer and thinking it just a toy, it has the air of professionalism and production, which are nice feelings to have accompanying one's laptop.

The aluminum itself is apparently called "soft touch" which means almost nothing to me beyond the fact that it does not feel cold and hard. It does not feel glossy smooth either, though it is also not rough by any measure. In all, I would say "soft touch" is a good description of it. While this feels nice - even comfortable - I have noticed the aluminum appears especially susceptible to scuffing. The smudgy scuffs aren't really an issue, though. One could say they add character.

Overall, the body feels satisfyingly solid, which is encouraging given its impossible thinness. Intel, for all its faults, has really done marvelous things with the core-m architecture to allow for such a thin, light device that doesn't require any exhaust vents or fan ports. Despite this generally encouraging strength, I do notice just a tiny amount of flex in the center of body between the keys of the keyboard. The keyboard itself has no flex, but the metal around the keys can be flexed inward if pressed in the right spots. I don't know if this will lead to any damage in the long-term. For now I am satisfied to ignore it and avoid putting pressure in those spots. I would also note I observed identical flex in my Asus T100, even though that device has a much smaller chassis.

The wrap-around hinge supporting the screen is bafflingly solid. After examining it for several days I cannot determine what gives it strength, but I am happy it works well. It is possible to position the screen at any desired angle, which is helpful. This device has a tablet mode, so the strength of the hinge helps alleviate concerns that the transformation of the Chromebook would eventually cause problems.

Speaking of tablet mode, it is well formed and executed for what it is, but I do have some comments about using this device in the place of an Android tablet (which is my intention). Moving from a laptop with a keyboard to a tablet is fairly slick. The system response is appropriate and immediate, though I don't know what triggers it. I suspect the connection of the magnet in the lid with the magnet along the lower edge of the body disables the keyboard and touchpad. This is almost always perfectly effective. I have noticed a time or two when I had inadvertently pressed the volume keys built into the keyboard and the volume changed in response, which is not the way it should work. So, the system isn't perfect, but it is almost there.

Using a 12 inch tablet can be exceptionally awkward, depending on positioning. In fact, using a 10 inch tablet can be awkward as well. The most natural and comfortable feel for a tablet I've found is in the 7 to 8 inch form factor, which closely resembles holding a novel. 10 inches and 12 inches is more akin to holding a textbook in repose, which is to say it likely isn't something most people would want to do. I've more or less committed to attempting the feat, so I won't devote too much thought to complaining about it. I merely wanted to note that if the sole goal is content consumption, there are better systems for it.

My goal is not simply content consumption, though that is a part of it. My goal, as stated before, is to find an all-in-one device that suits these varied desires inclusively and at an acceptable cost. So, having acknowledged there is discomfort in holding such a large device, let me speak no more of it.

The Asus Chromebook Flip C302 is not a particularly heavy device in my experience, though comparatively speaking it is a beast. It weighs 2.7lbs. Compared to almost any other laptop I've spent time with, it is amazingly light. However, in terms of tablet performance, it is comparing to the 1.29lb Asus Transformer Prime I loved and the 1.2lb Asus T100 I also loved. It is a bit more than double the weight I am accustomed to holding. What I've determined anecdotally is that the weight doesn't matter nearly as much as the size. As the largest device I've owned, it is the most awkward but not by a large margin. I don't have any particular trouble holding a 2.7lb device for a half hour or so. I wouldn't attempt to lie back and watch a movie with it in my hands. Honestly, I wouldn't do that with my phone either, so there's nothing lost for me in this observation.

I don't think the tablet mode of the device would be for everyone. I have trouble envisioning a time when I would have any desire or capacity for sitting with a tablet longer than a half hour stretch. I have an entire family to keep me busy and sitting around tapping on a tablet screen is not actually very interesting by comparison. I usually play games in 15 minute spurts, for which the tablet is not only comfortable enough in size and weight, but is also quite pleasant because of the relatively enormous screen.

My final complaint against the tablet mode of the device relates to the flipping form factor itself. I find it quite off-putting to rest my fingers on the keyboard for support as I am holding the device. This method fills me with concern, nay, worry that I might be damaging the hardware. It is theoretically possible to hold the tablet from the opposite side, where most of the support would come from resting my fingers on the edges around the touchpad, however, I've not found this to be the natural method for holding it. I think this is mostly because there is a much more accessible bezel along the bottom edge of the screen. This sort of invites the user to place their hand there instead, which means the fingers will rest on the keyboard.

Despite the downsides, there is a lot to enjoy about the 12 inch tablet that is the Asus Chromebook Flip C302. The screen is large, beautiful and responsive. The games I've installed and tested scale well and are generally easier to use and enjoy with a larger screen. On my phone the controls will often cover what seems to be the majority of the screen, or be too small to handle. Scaled up to the larger screen, the controls are easier to select and appear to also scale to an appropriate size for the screen, meaning they don't still cover the majority of the application. I suppose this is, to a certain extent, dependent on the app itself and who developed it, but I have found it to be a really nice change.

The bottom edge of the screen has a slight rounded bump, which I take to be necessary for the hinge. It provides very nice leverage while holding the device and also makes portrait orientation vastly preferable to landscape. Whether portrait or landscape is ideal for the current application is up to the application itself, so this doesn't always work out for the best. Even so, holding the device like a book is really quite comfortable.

All in all, I am very pleased with the tablet side of this device. I can definitely still see a strong argument for owning a dedicated Android tablet and I don't think convertible Chromebooks are going to replace those at any point. However, if searching for a happy medium which includes both laptop functions and tablet functions, this is it. I won't be buying a tablet nor do I feel any need for one.

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