The ASUS X205 is one of three Windows 8.1 notebooks, all released in November, designed to halt the encroachment of Chromebooks into the low-end Windows notebook market. (The other two are the HP Stream 11 and HP Stream 13.)
With 32GB onboard storage (an eMMC memory drive) and retail price of $199, the X205 matches the cheapest Chromebooks, such as the Acer Chromebook 11, which also starts at $199. During the recent holiday season, the ASUS X205 was offered at even more aggressive pricing -- $179 from the Microsoft Store to as low as $99 from Best Buy and Staples.
Let’s run through the features and functionality of the ASUS X205:
UNDER THE HOOD: The X205 comes with 2GB RAM and an Intel quad-core processor that was originally designed for tablets and is clocked at 1.33 GHz. It’s a 64-bit processor, but for some reason, this notebook comes installed with the 32-bit version of Windows, Windows 8.1 with Bing. This version of Windows sets Bing as the default on Internet Explorer, but this does not prevent you from visiting Google.com or installing another browser like Chrome.
APPEARANCE: The X205 is available in four colors: black, gold, red and white. Its bottom, lid, and keyboard paneling are a finely matted plastic. Unfortunately, this material easily picked up smudges from my fingers and hands no matter how much I would keep my mitts washed. In slight contrast, the bezel and keyboard keys both appear to share a plastic that has a rougher surface, which protects them from being stained as easily.
WEIGHT: This is one of the lightest notebooks you can buy now with an 11.6-inch screen, weighing at less than 2.2 pounds. It’s a bit lighter than the HP Chromebook 11, which is one of the lightest Chromebook models at 2.3 pounds, and even lighter than the 11.6-inch screen MacBook Air (2.4 pounds). The physical dimensions of the X205 are similar to the MacBook Air, though not as thin as the Air at its thinnest point. The X205 doesn’t have a removable battery -- its battery is sealed inside the case.
COMFORT: With its lid shut, the X205 has a very slight wedge profile. I found it comfortable to hold with one hand whenever I had to, whether its lid was closed or fully open, without feeling as if my wrist was straining.
STORAGE: On its 32GB eMMC drive, there’s barely 13GB of free space for you to use to put your personal files on, but the total size of this drive is listed as being 21GB. The missing 11GB has been set as a hidden partition where the recovery installation files for Windows 8.1 are stored. X205 owners get 500GB of online storage for free for two years on ASUS’ WebStorage service. Microsoft also gives 100GB of online storage on OneDrive, also for free for two years.
OPERATING SYSTEM: Windows 8.1 worked as expected when the X205 was first booted up, and the OS took me through the steps of setting itself up on the notebook. Afterward, I manually checked for any updates that were available, going through Windows Update, and there were almost 700MB of patches to install. After letting them download and install, I checked again and there were more official updates (around 200MB).
APPS: A few third-party Windows apps are pre-installed: Flipboard, Line (a social-networking chat service), Netflix and Twitter. ASUS provides desktop programs to adjust the audio and display of the X205. They also include Windows app and desktop versions of front-end software to access your files stored on WebStorage. This notebook comes with a free one-year subscription to Microsoft Office 365.
SCREEN: Images on the 11.6-inch,1366-by-768 pixel display look good -- not razor sharp, but still very suitable. Colors are subdued. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I have the display’s backlight cranked up all the way whenever I use this notebook. ASUS includes a desktop application that lets you choose among display presets to tweak the vibrancy of colors. Indoors, so long as you are sitting directly in front of this notebook, its display lighting is mostly even throughout its screen, with broad side-to-side and up-and-down viewing angles. Outdoors in sunlight, the most comfortable viewing angle narrows; it can still be viewable with the backlight turned up to maximum, but the surface of the display becomes more distractingly reflective.
KEYBOARD: Although the keys of the keyboard are obviously spaced apart from one another, once I started typing, they seemed to feel more tightly placed near one another. I was able to adjust my fingers to them, but these keys also may feel as though they recede into the panel a bit too much for some people’s preference. In particular, the spacebar appears to have been intentionally set barely a tad lower than the other keys.
Because it’s positioned right below the spacebar, it can be easy to accidentally tap the touchpad with your thumbs if you tend to type with your palms rested on the keyboard panel. Your listless palms will also come into contact with this large, wide touchpad. These possibilities explain why there’s a hot key on the keyboard to switch off the touchpad.
SOUND: Two speakers are set toward the front corners on the bottom of the X205’s casing. When they’re turned up to full volume, they manage to blast out sound that feels surprisingly powerful from such a small notebook. The sounds, which are amplified with an impression of bassy fullness, come out toward the user as well as seem to erupt from this notebook’s sides. Likewise, listening with a good pair of earbuds (not included with this notebook), I found that the sound output from most sources (e.g. streaming music and video) was sufficiently loud enough that it was most comfortable to set the volume from 40 to 70 percent.
Audio that I recorded through the notebook’s mic, using the Windows 8.1 default Camera or Sound Recorder apps, sounded clear with no buzzing or other interference. However, the mic seemed a little more attuned to picking up background sounds than my voice, like when I was in a busy coffeehouse, unless I leaned in closer toward it.
CAMERA: The user-facing camera has a low-resolution sensor. It captures still images and video at only 640-by-480 pixels. Using Windows 8.1’s Camera app, the visual quality looked smudged -- certainly not sharp with defined edges. This gauzy effect was like a photo editor filter used to make a photograph look like an impressionistic painting.
PERFORMANCE: Because it was devised in part to challenge Chromebooks (which are meant to be primarily used online through the Chrome OS web browser), I mainly tested how capable the X204 was under this metric. The notebook performed reasonably quickly when I used Internet Explorer or Chrome with several (half a dozen or so) tabs open.
VIDEO: The X205 showed no issue with lower high-definition video: Videos on YouTube played flawlessly at 720p resolution. At 1080p, playback would stutter at varying points -- but this resolution is greater than this notebook’s maximum number of pixel rows (768). So you’d probably want to stick with playing video at 720p on it anyway. I nudged the X205’s capabilities by installing a few traditional Windows desktop applications (Adobe Reader XI, LibreOffice, Paint.NET and VLC media player), each of which functioned decently enough on it. (Remember, though, there’s less than 13GB of space on the onboard memory drive for the user.)
BATTERY: ASUS says this notebook can run up to 12 hours on a full charge. The bad news is that I found this to be possibly exaggerated under practical usage. By my estimates based on web browsing, and playing audio and video (either as media files or streaming), while putting the X205 into hibernation or shutting it down when I wasn’t using it, its battery lasted slightly more than 8 hours. (Admittedly, I did keep its display brightness turned all the way up, because, as I said above, I felt it was most comfortable to look at it this way.) After I drained the battery completely, it appeared to take about 2 hours to recharge it back to its full capacity.
NO LINUX: If you’re a Linux enthusiast, I know what you’re probably thinking: The X205 would make a great Linux notebook. I thought so, too, until I discovered it may be difficult to install any other OS onto it. Settings under its BIOS do not include the option to boot from a USB flash memory stick or other external source. As of this writing, ASUS had not provided an update to the BIOS that would allow for this.
UPGRADES: This could also be a problematic even if you don’t want to install a different OS. For example, you can’t boot up the Windows 8.1 recovery tool written onto a USB flash memory stick, to try to fix Windows 8.1 on the X205 if something goes wrong with the OS to where you can’t start it. Even if ASUS remedies this in a BIOS update, what about upgrading to Windows 10 when this new OS is released? At least based on its Technical Preview version, Windows 10 requires more than 16GB of free space to install, but there’s less than 13GB on the X205 for the user. Hopefully, ASUS and Microsoft have a process in mind to help users upgrade their X205 notebooks to Windows 10 when this OS is released later in 2015.
The X205 is definitely more than able to serve as a secondary computing device -- the kind of notebook you take with you for hanging out at a coffeehouse, typing in a classroom, or as a lightweight client to access an office network, or while traveling. But it handles web browsing and watching streaming video with such ease that I found it suitably tempting to use as a primary machine while at home.
Most Chromebooks at the lower end of price right now are generally as powerful as this notebook. So is the only differentiator here going to be your OS preference (Chrome OS vs. Windows 8.1)? Maybe. For now, what the ASUS X205 has going for it against the Chromebook encroachers are its small form factor and weight. You can tote it with you effortlessly, just as it can handle most of your basic computing needs effortlessly.
OS: Windows 8.1 with Bing, 32-bit
Processor: Intel Z3740, 1.33 GHz RAM: 2 GB RAM
Onboard storage: 32 GB
Display: 11.6”, 1366 x 768 pixels
Audio: microphone, speakers (two)
Camera: VGA, front
Networking: Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi
Ports: headphone/microphone combo jack, Micro HDMI, Micro SD/SDXC/SDHC, USB 2.0 (two)
Battery: Up to 12 hours (listed); over 8 hours (as tested for this review)
Dimensions (width, depth, height): 11.3” x 7.6” x 0.7”
Weight: 2.2 lbs.
Wen is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story, "Is the ASUS X205 Microsoft’s Chromebook Killer?" was originally published by Network World.