Amazon Review by Jean-Etienne LaVallee
444 people found the following review helpful
A Great Chromebook... An Even More Amazing Linux-based Development Workhorse
I've been waiting for this Chromebook for some time now and having only had it for about two weeks, I can say that the device and purchase were well worth it. To start out, I'm a software engineer working in the realm of cloud DevOps, and multi-platform web and mobile application development. As much of my time is spent writing code as building cloud infrastructure in AWS, Google Cloud, and Azure. As such, I can defer a lot of horse power to those cloud services and keep my actual computer fairly lean. After playing with a loaner Chromebook for a couple of months, I found the whole minimalist approach Google has taken with this platform to be totally refreshing, this Chromebook kits that up a notch and then some.
Going to break this down into three parts: Hardware/Design, Use as a Stock ChromeOS Device, and Advanced Usage… In each section, I’ll summarize the pros/cons and then at the end will provide a final summary. Hope this helps you get a good idea of what this Chromebook is capable of and why it’s such a great buy.
- Hardware & Design
Asus has really set a new standard with the C302CA’s internals and physical design. Internally this device is basically an entry-level MacBook. A 12.5" IPS screen that is gorgeous to look at, extremely bright and full 1080p resolution. A solid little M3 processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of SSD storage make this machine capable of handling heavy usage and earn it a solid Octane 2.0 score in the 19000-20000 range. No slouch.
The physical design is not just one of the best I’ve seen in a Chromebook but also in the general “ultrabook” form factor with comparable quality and design details associated with MacBook Air, MacBook, Asus’ own Zen line, and Samsung’s recent Chromebook Plus and Pro offerings. The case is a solid aluminum billet structure with the now-ubiquitous scissor-action chicklet keyboard. The surface texture of the case is a satiny paper-like touch, which is both clean and easy to wipe down, but also not so smooth that you have to be concerned with it slipping out of your hand when carrying it. While Samsung has gone with an iPad-esque rounded edge style with their Chromebook Plus/Pro lines, Asus has stuck with a clean, square edge design with subtle beveling reminiscent of miniaturized MacBook Pro 13". Even with the 2-in-1 flip hinge, the device has a solid feel and there’s very little wobble in the screen while typing. The backlighting on the keyboard is a really nice treat and makes using the Chromebook in low-light settings a dream.
When in the “flipped” form factor, you’re effectively looking at a 12.5" Android Tablet experience. The pop-up keyboard looks just like the Android screen keyboard and the orientation detection and capacitive touch screen are snappy and very responsive. One place that does frustrate me in the tablet mode is that ChromeOS has a number of UI features that don’t lend themselves to touch interaction. For example, the “close-X” button on tabs is very tiny and has a small hit-target area on the screen. Similarly the task tray area of the main task bar is on the small side and lends itself to fat-fingering. A simple OS update to make tablet mode “beef-up” certain UI components would give this a much more Android-like table experience. More on Android in a bit…
The touchpad on the C302CA is the best I’ve used on a Chromebook to date. It has a glassy-smooth surface that resists finger-prints and goop, is very large, and has a firm but not too-clunky feeling click to it. It takes up more than 1/3rd of the palm-area horizontal space and makes thumb-tapping mouse tweaks very easy. Likewise, the touch screen has a very nice responsiveness and I regularly find myself just deferring to the touchscreen for scrolling and quick button-clicks.
Finally, there are the ports… and this is where I had the most trepidation about this machine. To keep the lean and skinny profile, Asus (like Apple) has equipped the C302CA with a whopping 2 USB-C ports (one on each side of the keyboard), a micro-SD expansion slot, and a headphone-mic jack. The USB-C ports can act as the power-jack which is convenient when your power plug is sometimes on the left and sometimes on the right. Unfortunately, if you’re charging the machine, this leaves you with only one remaining USB-C port. I’ve purchased a multi-port hub that provides a pass-thru USB-C plug, 2 USB3.0-B plugs, and ethernet jack, and an HDMI-out port. I velcro it to the back of the screen and remove it when I’m using the device in tablet mode (since I usually don’t need it wired up in tablet mode). It gets the job done, but running $50-100 for a good dongle like this, you’re adding to the TCO of the device if you need more connectivity than a single USB-C port.
The battery life on the C302CA is no joke, either. I’ve been getting regular 10-11hr usage times between charges and it can get back to fully charged over the USB-C ports in about 2-3hrs. Really in-and-of-itself that’s a great feature by just reducing the need to always lug around a power-brick.
- Internals are very performant and well-spec’d for the entry-level price point of this Chromebook
- The physical case is solid and of a production quality you’d expect in machine 3-5x the price of this machine
- Beautiful, bright IPS Screen with full 1080p resolution
- User interfaces that are tight, responsive, and comparable to Apple grade quality
- Backlit keyboard rocks
- Battery life is pretty amazing at 10-11hrs
- 4Gb RAM cap… Rumor has it Asus will be releasing 8Gb and 16Gb variants down the road… this will be a good thing for power-users
- Many UI elements are not user-friendly in tablet mode
- Port minimalism… two USB-C’s pretty much guarantees your going to be investing in a could adaptor/hubs to carry around wtih you
- Stock ChromeOS Usage
Out of the box, the Asus C302CA is a powerhouse for stock ChromeOS usage. The general mantra of ChromeOS is that the web/cloud is your primary application interface and stand-alone applications are really just web-applications bundled up as Chrome browser Apps/extensions. Initially, this may seem like a limiting scope for being able to get actual work done beyond just web-surfing. But with a host of solid productivity suites on the web these days (Google Mail/Docs/Drive/Calendar, MS Office365, and Apple iCloud Apps), you can actually do a major amount of your day-to-day productivity activities with a Chromebook w/ having to install a single copy of anything to do it.
For more advanced usages, there are now a number of cloud-based development toolkits and graphics tools available to make a stock ChromeOS system a capable web development environment. I have a stack setup right now with GitHub for source control, Cloud9 for development environment/terminal access, and a couple of AWS services for code assembly and deployment to a dev cloud server. All and all, it’s a light weight, but very robust development stack, that also has the added convenience of Cloud9’s collaboration features wherein multiple developers can be writing code in even the same file simultaneously. Much like collaborative editing in Google Docs/Spreadsheets, but in code itself. Great for pair programming, code reviews and group refactoring sessions.
Performance-wise, I can easily have 12-24 tabs open simultaneously and see no slow-down in performance. On occasion a tab may freeze up on me with the “Uh-oh!” message, but this is no more regular than what I’ve experienced with the Chrome browser on Mac, Linux and Windows systems. I’ve fiddled with some web-based games, but the graphics capabilities while decent for this form factor, you won’t be playing any intense games in stock ChromeOS mode.
Where ChromeOS really shines and what I think is going to be a very significant deal-maker for these devices in the coming year is the inclusion of the Google Play Store and the ability to run Android applications in the ChromeOS environment. You do have to be on the developer channel of the OS to get this feature, but there are a number of guides in the ether that explain how to set it up. As the owner of an Android phone, I really like this feature since I can load apps onto the Chromebook that I regularly use already, apps I’ve paid for are available on this device, and the Play Store accurately recognizes the C302CA as a “tablet” form factor and will suggest the tablet alternative of many apps. Thus far, I’ve loaded a number of games, my password vault, several productivity apps, Skype, Spotify and some network scanning Android Apps and they’ve all worked very well. On occasion with graphically intensive apps, like games, there can be some masking artifacts around graphics and sprites that can easily be fixed usually just by restarting the app. I’m really looking forward to where Google takes this in the coming years as it looks like they’re trying to find the ideal balance between ChromeOS and Android… An AndroidOS, if you will.
One place that I find lacking in ChromeOS is the settings management. For the most-part you don’t have much freedom to make any significant changes to settings. Mouse and Trackpad settings are very minimalist, there’s no way to modify short-cut keys, and the power management options are pretty minimal, too. All and all, they are simple devices, but it would be nice to have a more immediate access to deep config settings.
One of the features of ChromeOS that I find very convenient is the way in which all of your configuration settings are stored in the cloud with your gmail account. When I grab my daughter’s Acer R11 or borrow a coworker’s Chromebook, all I need do is login with my Google account and within seconds I’ve got the same user experience I get anywhere else in the GoogSpace…
- Clean and secure operating system that is very lean and gets the most out of the systems modest specs
- With the combination of web-based productivity tools and development apps/services, this Chromebook can provide a breadth of very viable usage scenarios without bogging the system down with locally install applications.
- Android Apps and Google Play Store are real game changers for the ChromeOS landscape… Suddenly, one device can effectively serve as a platform for two different application topologies. And the Google Play Store is chock-full of great apps and games.
- Boot time, sleep time and wake time are crazy fast… There’s never a long, finger-tapping wait for the system to come up.
- System settings could be more robust and better organized
- Tablet-mode still needs some work… It’s definitely a work in progress, but with more 2-in-1’s entering the market, I’m expecting there will be significant feature enhancements around tablet-mode.
- Advanced Usage
[WARNING: Here there be dragons!!! The following options require you setting up your Chromebook in “Developer Mode” which requires a full factory-reset. This in-turn provides features that are normally disabled in “Normal” ChromeOS mode. Venture at your own risk/responsibility…]
So, this is where this little Chromebook REALLY shines… As I mentioned in the intro, I’m a software engineer and while I love the liberation and simplicity of the ChromeOS experience, there are still times where I want some more classic applications like you’d find on MacOS, Linux, or Windows. Luckily, there are a number of ways to accomplish this and there’s a healthy developer community regularly making new tools and options. Since ChromeOS is itself a Linux platform that’s been pared down to a very simple and low-overhead system footprint. This gives us several ways to get a more fully-featured desktop experience:
a) Chroot/Crouton Linux Desktop Installation
b) Chroot/Crouton/Xiwi Embedded Application Launcher
c) Dual Booting into Linux Desktop
The first two options are very similar and only differ in the way in which you interact with the Linux environment, while the third option is quite literally installing a full installation of Linux onto the machine and booting directly into it instead of ChromeOS. Without going into too much detail (seriously, google or wikipedia ‘chroot’ if you want the bloody details), a “chroot” is a parallel installation of an operating system in it’s own isolated “container” in the ChromeOS operating system. It’s neat because it let’s you run both ChromeOS -and- a Linux Desktop OS like Ubuntu at the same time (!!!). The chroot installation is actually sharing number of resources with the ChromeOS operating system, making it still very resource conservative.
Crouton is an opensource script that makes the creation, installation and management of one or >many< chroot installations a breeze. With the Crouton script and a decent internet connection, you can very easily have Ubuntu or one of it’s many variants installed in about 10 minutes. Once installed, you just need to press Ctrl-Alt-Shift-FwdArrow and you’ll be in a running Linux desktop… -BackArrow to hop back over to ChromeOS. It’s really seamless and smooth to move back and forth and makes experimenting with different Linux configs and environments effortless.
In addition to this first full-desktop chroot approach, Crouton offers another installation method that lets you run Linux in a “headless” mode where there is no desktop environment, rather the Linux OS forwards the application windows to the ChromeOS desktop. This is accomplished by installing the “xiwi” packages into the Linux chroot and adding a ChromeOS extension that exposes the ChromeOS desktop interface to the Linux chroot. When all is said and done, you can setup an application launcher which will bootstrap and app on the Linux chroot and then open it in a window on the ChromeOS desktop. Iv’e used this method to install VS Code, Arduino IDE, and a 3D printer host application in this “embedded mode” and it’s very functional and comfortable to have everything in the ChromeOS experience and just consume the resources needed to run the application and nothing else. It’s worth noting that there is a performance hit with this approach, namely that the forwarding of the application window to ChromeOS comes at the cost of losing accelerated graphics rendering for the Linux apps. While I can run Minecraft in a full-desktop chroot of Xubuntu with a very good framerate and rendering, when I use the xiwi approach here, the game is nearly unplayable. That being said, for code editors, general productivity and networking apps, and just a basic XTerm, this approach works just fine.
Finally, there’s the most performant but also most disconnected from ChromeOS approach of installing a full Linux OS in a separate partition on the machine’s system drive or microSD drive. I’ve done this using the excellent GalliumOS which is an upstart opensource distribution based on Xubuntu that pares down the OS footprint, adds appropriate graphics drivers and memory management configurations that make it zippy on a small system like this one, AND adds a number of touch, keyboard, and 2-in-1 friendly features. This installation has a lot of pep in it… Apps start very fast, graphics are much more responsive and capable when not being shared with ChromeOS and there are a number of ways you can tweak the UI/UX to your own liking. I haven’t tried it yet, but there are reports that Steam-based games can be run on this sort of configuration, but with a limited number of hardware applicable games. Again, this isn’t going to be a gaming mega-machine. You also sacrifice not having access to the Android/Play Store features. But if you’re looking to run an app that needs all the resources, like Gimp or a Java IDE, then this is the way to go. Having a zippy 128GB microSD card to mount for system storage on the Linux side is convenient too because you can also mount it from a chroot Linus installation on the ChromeOS side so you can share files and config across the various installation types.
If only for the dual boot option, I’m actually looking forward to when Asus actually releases the 8GB and 16GB models as I’d actually consider that to be a worthwhile since it would open the possibility of hypervisor’ing virtualbox and docker containers with serious resource availability. All that being said, you get a lot of bang for the buck with these three enhanced desktop/application options and I use all three in some capacity every day, so don’t think your’e isolated to just one approach.
In conclusion, the Asus C302CA Flip Chromebook is hands-down one of the best new offerings for Chromebooks in 2017 up there with the Samsung Plus/Pro models, and some of the new HP models. Build quality is amazing and not just a plastic, toy-like assembly, but a solid unit with high-quality parts through-and-through. As a stand-alone, stock ChromeOS device, the C302CA performs as well as Chromebooks in the $800-$1000 price range and provides more than enough options as just a web-application and Android app platform. If you really want to get the most out of this little wonder, then the options for installing Linux OS in various forms and integrations is solid and has outstanding opensource and community support in GitHub, reddit and Google Groups. When adding that “secret sauce” this machine goes from being a basic ChromeOS device to a fully-featured development platform… for only about $450-$500. By comparison, the entry level Apple MacBook has the same CPU, same graphics chip, comes with 8Gb more RAM, a 256Gb SSD, but a lower-resolution screen, and no touch or 2-in-1 features… for $1300. You won’t be disappointed with this great little machine how ever you end up using it, and that versatility is what really makes this machine such a fun and valuable computer.
I’d also recommend that you consider the following items for accessorizing your C302CA:
a) Vinyl Skins - There are a vast number of very beautiful skins available for this model that provide protection for the screen cover, keyboard face/palm rest, and screen bezel. While the stock aluminum case is darn solid enough, it can take scratches easily from things like keys or cable connectors tossed in a bag with it.
b) Anti-glare Screen Protector - The glossy glass screen cover is beautiful, but it has two drawbacks: it’s a mess of a fingerprint magnet and it’s so glossy that in outdoor environments or spaces with a lot of stray light from windows, the screen becomes a glare-reflecting mess. For ~$15 you can get a nice, fitted anti-glare screen protector that reduces the fingerprint/glare problems AND gives you some piece of mind about protecting that gorgeous screen.
c) USB-C Expansion Dongle - There are a number of them out there to address this port-minimalism trend. If you want to use a mouse/keyboard with a USB-A style wireless dongle, plugin an external HDD, display to an external monitor, or use an ethernet hardline, you’re going to need one of these. Expect to pay $50-$125 depending of features a build quality. Don’t skimp on USB-C devices, they handle a ton of current and you don’t want a cheap hub toasting your USB bus.
d) A Bluetooth Mouse - While this unarguably has one of the best trackpads in Chromebook Land, there are still times you just need the precision of a mouse… ChromeOS supports Bluetooth 4.0 and LE devices and there are a lot of nice, slim-style mice out there similar to Apple’s Magic Mouse that are BT and don’t require a USB dongle.
e) 64GB/128GB/256GB microSD Card - The only way to expand this machines internal storage is through a microSD card. You could conceivably install a USB 3.0 type-A low-profile memory stick on a USB-C adaptor, but that would be silly. With many of the high-performance microSD cards getting to 90-100mb/s read-write speeds, these drives can be used for all sorts of things, like storing music, videos, photos and the likes on a shared device.
f) A Capacitive Touch Pen - I prefer the kind that are active tip charging so that you can have a very fine-point, but still register contact. Helps with dealing with miniscule UI elements when in tablet mode.
Hope this has helped you make a decision and happy computing!