Windows 8/8.1 laptops/tablets have been extremely hit or miss in my experience. For every Surface 3 or Lenovo Yoga 11s, you have a collection of low end, cheap “contenders” that barely function. Case in point, my first Win8 laptop. I was so enamored with the 11s and how well Win8 ran on that device, that I decided to buy my own laptop, though more something in my price range. I figured a $300 Windows 8 laptop couldn’t be THAT bad, right? Wrong, you definitely get what you pay for, which I learned the hard way. The laptop was barely functional, and it goes to show that if you want something that actually works, never go cheap with the internals. It may seem like common sense, but even knowing I was buying a less than stellar machine did not prepare me for the poor performance I actually got.
So basically it comes down to price, which is one of the biggest hurdles in this current generation of Windows laptops/tablets/hybrids. Sure, you can go super high end and pay $799 for the lowest tiered Surface 3 Pro, but then you’re getting just the tablet itself. If you want the Type Cover, you’re going to be shelling out an additional $129.99 (I never understood the decision to sell the keyboard separately). Hate fingerprints? Toss in another $49.99 for the Surface Pen. When all is said and done, you’ve just dropped nearly a grand. What if you want better performance? Then you’re looking at $1,549 for just the tablet itself (i7 model). Want something with a keyboard built-in? Why not the Lenovo Yoga 3? It has the keyboard built-in with the ability to swivel it completely out of the way for a tablet experience. But then you’ve still spent $799, and now have to deal with an exposed keyboard under your fingers if using it in a tablet configuration. Essentially it’s not TRULY a hybrid, just a laptop with a bigger swivel range.
It seems we’re all out of luck when it comes to buying Win8 machines. You either spend under $500 for a piece of dung that cries for mercy with two Chrome tabs open, or you shell out around $1,000 for something that can get you through the workday. What about those of us that can’t spend $1,000 but still need a functional Win8 device that can get through a day of work on the go, and maybe a movie while on a flight?
It seems we may now have our answer. Asus has sent me a Transformer Book T300 Chi to review, and I’m pleased to say that I am quite impressed with this hybrid. Included keyboard? Check. Removable keyboard? Check. Super light, thin, and portable? Check, check, check. Decent enough internals for moderate to heavy multitasking? Check. Good enough battery to get me through an entire New Japan Pro Wrestling PPV? Well……no.
Let’s the get the elephant in the room out of the way first. The battery for the T300 Chi is pretty weak. It’s one thing to admit that you’re probably not going to be watching the entire Lord of the Rings extended edition trilogy in one go on any device, but it’s a whole other thing to accept that you probably can’t even get through ONE LOTR extended edition film on the Chi. Sure, you can end the movie with a tiny bit of juice left if you have no other programs running, airplane mode on, and the brightness all the way down, but then you better be sprinting to find an outlet, because you’re not going to get much else done after your little visit to Middle Earth. I spent most of my time just doing day to day work stuff like web browsing, writing, checking and answering emails, farting around on Facebook and Twitter, and occasionally streaming something on Netflix during my breaks. I barely got through 5-6 hours. This would almost be acceptable if I had a way to hook up my massive external battery that I carry around on trips, but the charging for the Chi uses a non-USB DC adapter, so that’s a no go as well. In today’s day and age of portable and wireless charging, being tethered to a wall outlet on a device that’s meant to be portable is kind of a buzzkill. As a result, if I’m dealing with a long layover at the airport and there are large crowds, I’d be too scared to pull the Chi out for any meaningful work/entertainment for fear that I wouldn’t be able to find an outlet after just a few hours. Then you’re forcing me to do math, and I hate math (if I have x hours on layover and a flight that’s y hours, will the Chi survive x+y?).
That’s the biggest negative I can heap on the Chi. Everything else works the way I need it to, even if there are a few additional niggles here and there. For starters, lets talk about the mechanism that holds the screen and keyboard together. Throughout my time as a tech junkie, I’ve seen quite a few systems used to combine a keyboard and tablet. Everything from a keyboard built into a cover (like the Surface) to a separate bluetooth keyboard dock have been used, and short of having a keyboard built in, nothing really works that well. I can bash out a few sentences here and there with a type cover, but it certainly is not something I would want to spend any extended periods of time doing. And as far as separate bluetooth keyboard docks go, I have yet to use one that has a comfortable keypress mechanism, and comfy key spacing.
The keyboard that comes with the Chi is fantastic. First off, it looks and feels like an actual laptop keyboard, not some wannabe dock with miniscule buttons and no give. This is an actual, full sized (as far as laptops go) keyboard that has a nice “click” with every keypress. If this keyboard were built into any other non-hybrid laptop, I would think nothing of it. The touchpad is a bit on the small side, and the double tap has on more than one occasion not registered at all, but overall, this is the type of keyboard that I would want for a portable computing device, not a type cover or something cheaper.
The keyboard attaches to the tablet via two magnets along the thin, barely noticeable hinge. These provide a surprising amount of holding power; if you were to grip the tablet portion and shake vigorously, nothing would happen. The two pieces don’t even jiggle. That’s pretty impressive considering nothing more than two small magnets separate the tablet and the keyboard. It’s such a solid hold that you would never know that these were actually two completely separate components. In fact, it even passed the “Hsieh Family Inadvertent Toddler Attack Test,” where my 3 year old daughter violently snatches it from the table, shakes it like a jar of glitter, and asks “Daddy, what’s this? Can I poke it?”
With such a strong attachment, you might be wondering how difficult it is to separate the two pieces when it’s time to initiate tablet mode. It’s pretty easy, but not as easy as I felt it could have been. It’s not so much that the strong magnet makes it hard to pull apart, but more so the fact that there really isn’t anything around the perimeter to grasp. In order to open the clamshell, you kind of just have to feel around and pry it open with your fingers. There’s no latch or groove or anything to help things along, which I understand was a necessary sacrifice in the name of keeping things thin. Once you do get the clamshell opened up, you have to grip one corner and pull up, which gets grubby fingerprints all over the screen. It certainly isn’t the end of the world, but I’m personally super OCD about smudges, so I always spend the next few seconds after separation furiously wiping away at the screen with a microfiber cloth. And if I’m holding one of my kids with the other hand? Then forget about it; I haven’t been able to perform a one handed separation yet.
All in all, I would rather have a device that won’t fall apart accidently over one that’s easy to open, but flimsy. Which brings me to the build quality of the Chi. To be blunt, I like to touch it. The Chi just feels nice. It has a smooth, sapphire blue matte finish across the back and bottom, and the edges are a diamond cut, metallic bevel. The tablet alone weighs just slightly over 1.5 lbs, the keyboard the same, and combined, the Chi weighs 3.15 lbs. As far as weight goes, it’s not too bad but take into consideration that the tablet has a 12.5” screen, so it’s pretty wide. Holding it with one hand while attempting to read in bed is not exactly a relaxing experience, but then again, if that’s what I was looking for, my Nexus 7 will do just fine. It’s also an extremely thin unit, measuring in at 1.65cm tall when both pieces are closed. The tablet itself is only 7.6mm thick, the thinnest Win8 tablet out there. In fact, the entire unit is thinner than the MacBook air. As my friend Doge would say “Much thin. Wow.”
Along the right edge of the tablet, you have a DC port for charging, a volume rocker, and a dedicated WIndows button which takes you to and from the Start Screen (so convenient to have). The top edge is mostly empty except for the Power/Wake button, which can often get in the way when opening and shutting the clamshell configuration. The left edge has a Micro USB 3.0 port, a Micro-HDMI port, and an audio jack. Finally the bottom edge has the two slots for the magnets and nothing else, or so I thought. It was pointed out to me that “hidden” along the bottom edge is a Micro SD port (up to 128GB). That was a nice surprise, as I thought I was stuck with the built-in 128GB SSD.
Internally, the Chi sits somewhere between a high end WIn8 machine and a more affordable “budget” version, though it leans closer towards higher end. To put it simply, I never had any performance issues with the Chi. Sure it may not pack a ton of storage and the best processor out there, but where the Chi shines is in its ability to take these more “moderate” leveled components and mash them all together in a way that works wonderfully. Take the processor, for example. The Surface 3 packs an Intel Atom x7 processor. Other models have an i5/i7. The Chi has an Intel M 5Y71 processor at 1.2 Ghz. Will it run Crysis? Absolutely not, but the trade-off is no cooling fan and a super thin design. Will it handle a bunch of Win8 apps sitting in the background while I’m writing in LibreOffice, have half a dozen Chrome tabs open, and also have Spotify blasting Led Zeppellin? Absolutely.
The Intel M and 4GB of LPDDR3 RAM may not make this the most powerful tablet, but hey, I’m able to do all my work and play Hearthstone and Civ 5 on there with no issues. Include the fact that it comes with a keyboard and looks the way it looks, and weights what it weighs? Yeah, the Chi is becoming more and more attractive of an option at a fraction of the cost of its nearest competitors. And there’s no trade-off; everything you expect from a full blooded laptop is here. You get a 12.5” FHD 1080p IPS multi-touch screen, 802.11 a/b/g/n or 802.11ac wifi, Bluetooth 4.0, a 2.0 MP front camera, all the ports I mentioned earlier (no full sized USB/HMDI…thin, remember?), built-in dual side speakers, and a built-in mic. Oh, and Asus also saw fit to include a USB/Micro USB dongle just in case you DID want to plug in something like a flash drive or in my case, a Xbox 360 Windows controller. Now I can play Bastion and Castle Crashers. Fun times indeed.
On the software side, you get a full 64 bit version of Windows 8.1, with an upgrade to Windows 10 just around the corner. You also get a bunch of Asus branded bloatware, but surprisingly it’s not too invasive. There’s really only a handful of bloat, and much of it is actually pretty useful, like some free cloud storage through Asus, and also some display setting quick toggles. Nothing groundbreaking here, and after fiddling with it a few times, I never really looked back at these apps again. Though I noticed a few days later that they had synced themselves to my work desktop, so make sure your sync settings are not set to “maximum annoyance.”
The Chi also comes with a few additional accessories, such as an active stylus and a cover for those who prefer to use their Chi in tablet mode. I haven’t been provided with either one yet, but when I get those in, I’ll be sure to amend this review to include my thoughts on those accessories. Neither of them are absolutely essential, but it’s nice to have a stylus to avoid mashing your fingers all over the screen, and having the cover is useful for when you need to prop the tablet up to watch a movie without having to dig the keyboard out.
The Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi is an excellent 2-in1 hybrid for a fantastic price. Sure, it isn’t perfect; the battery is pretty terrible, and even though I love the keyboard dock, it isn’t the easiest to remove at times. But for $699, you’re getting a more than capable Win8 machine that can easily stand up to its fellow competitors. You get a clear, sharp, large display, a beautifully designed unit overall, and enough “oomph” internally to get you through whatever work you may need to do on the go. Full sized USB ports are not built-in, but you get an included dongle, which is better than nothing at all. Best of all, all these things COME WITH THE CHI. They are not sold separately. The keyboard is not an add-on, and even the aforementioned USB dongle is included.
It certainly is not a powerful gaming device, but that’s not why the Chi exists. The Chi is here to offer an alternative to the Win8 hybrid that was started by the original Surface. I remember when the Surface was first introduced and I was so enamored with the thought of a full Windows OS on the go, that I nearly bought one. But the price always turned me off, and the fact that the type cover, which I felt was an essential accessory for what they were trying to accomplish, was not included really did not tickle my fancy. Years later, the price was still a sore spot amongst the hybrids that were actual capable machines. It seemed that I was forever destined to pay $1,000 if I ever wanted a functional Win8 device. The Chi now offers that type of performance and functionality without having to drop a grand or more.
I do want to point out that the review unit I was provided with was the $699 model. There is an $899 model where you get a nice bump in memory (8GB), processor speed (2.9Ghz), and a WQHD (2560×1440) display. Everything else that comes with the model I have is also included with the pricier one. If you need more raw performance for whatever media and/or gaming you think you need, then the $899 model might open up your options a bit more. That being said, keep the battery life in mind. More raw power would most likely eat through that battery even faster, especially if you’re going to be streaming Daredevil on Netflix at max quality then playing some Civ 5. I’m perfectly satisfied with the model I was provided with, as it has handled my workload with hardly a hiccup.