Not long after I set about to revive this blog, I found myself largely without a computer. This is a rather tenuous position to be in when you want to write for your site. Sure, my iPhone is a capable computing device, but I would never want to type anything longer than a tweet on it. A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to pick up an Asus X Series notebook from a family member. I haven’t owned a Windows machine since the 90s, but I was willing to give it a chance, especially after a couple of product updates from Apple that have felt a bit underwhelming.
So how does this two-year-old Asus stand up to the MacBook Air I’d had for six years? The short version is: not well. If you want the long version, keep reading.
The screen is the first thing you likely notice about a new computer, and it’s where your eyes will spend the most time. It’s important to get the screen right, and I’m sorry to say this laptop doesn’t. On a positive note, I will say that colors are quite bright. As Windows 10 is a colorful operating system, this leads to a positive initial impression. That impression unfortunately degrades after a couple of minutes.
It’s an odd thing that the screen is both larger and smaller than that on my old MacBook Air. It is physically larger at 15.6 inches compared to the 13.3-inch screen on my Air. However, where the Air has a resolution of 1440 x 900, the Asus sits at 1366 x 768. The overall effect is that the screen appears more spacious while offering a smaller actual canvas. Also, since it’s bigger, the lower resolution is more noticeable because the pixels are bigger.
The Asus also has perhaps one of the most reflective screens I’ve used. I can clearly see myself in the monitor at anything but the very brightest setting, and any applications, images, videos, or websites that feature predominately dark colors add to the problem. This makes focusing on the screen content a bit of a strain as my eyes keep trying to focus instead on the clear reflections.
The Keyboard & Trackpad
The keyboard is perhaps my favorite thing about the device, if only because it has a number pad. I cannot understand why Apple has deprecated the number pad to the point where they don’t sell a singe product that has one by default. (When purchasing an iMac or Mac Pro, you can swap the default wireless keyboard for a wired one with a number pad at no additional charge.) I love having a number pad back.
Beyond that, the lack of backlight on the keyboard is a hassle. Almost every Apple laptop has shipped with a lit keyboard since around 2009, so it feels like a trip back to the past.I don’t type in the dark that often, but I definitly miss that backlight when I do. Still, the actual typing action feels almost comparable to my MacBook Air. It just sounds a bit hollow, and the travel is farther than I would ideally like it to be. Saying the keboard is my favorite part of the computer is unfortunately faint praise.
Where the keyboard is decent, the trackpad is at the other end of the spectrum. Its palm and accidental touch rejection is so bad as to make it practically useless. Clicking and dragging anything is a particular hassle as it seems to have a hard time distinguishing between using one finger to hold and another to drag as opposed to tapping with both to simulate a right-click. Furthermore, for some inexplicable reason, clicking and dragging will sometimes cause the operating system to begin rapid-switching between applications. It’s just a mess, and I now understand why I see so many PC people carrying a mouse with their laptop.
(As an aside, I’ve been using a Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse in place of the trackpad, and it’s very nice.)
In a word, the performance is lousy. Here are the basic specs lined up against my six-year-old MacBook Air:
- MacBook Air 2011: 1.8 GHz Intel Core i7 “Sandy Bridge” 64-bit processor, 4 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 memory, 256 GB SSD.
- Asus X551M 2015: 1.86 Intel Celeron “Bay Trail” 64-bit processor, 4 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 memory, 500 GB HDD.
At the worst, this laptop’s performance should be equivalent to a MacBook three times its age, but it’s not. I don’t have any measurable benchmarks for you, but I do have this: the computer has a hard time keeping up with my typing. Scrolling through common websites like Facebook and YouTube is a chore. And I’m yet to successfully do any meaningful design work on it. I log in to my wife’s MacBook for that.
Then there’s the battery. It lasts long enough when the computer is asleep, but two hours of writing in the WordPress web app will nearly deplete the battery. I haven’t kept a laptop plugged in this much since my PowerBook G3’s battery gave up (after seven years of heavy use). The battery life easily doubles if I stay offline, but that’s far from a realistic expectation.
I mentioned earlier that I’m using a Bluetooth Microsoft mouse to avoid the trackpad. However, I wasn’t using it at first because I had to go buy a Bluetooth adapter. As far as I can tell, Bluetooth has been standard on Macs since roughly 2003. This Asus from 2015 doesn’t have it. So there’s that.
WiFi is spotty. Often it shows half the signal strength of my iPhone or my wife’s MacBook. The laptop seldom reconnects to known networks when returning from someplace with no signal. I find myself restarting the computer near daily just to get it to recognize that a known network exists.
The selection of ports is decent. It has 2 USB ports, an HDMI port, and a VGA port. There’s also an Ethernet port and an optical drive. The latter is especially noticeable since I haven’t had an optical drive in years, and I keep resting my hand on the Eject button when I carry the laptop. Of the available ports, I do prefer HDMI over the MacBook’s Thunderbolt. Other than USB, I feel ambivalent toward the other ports. In fact, they seem almost anachronistic.
At the end of the day, I miss my Mac. Sure, Apple has arguably made some missteps of late. Even the newest MacBook Pros have some concessions. However, Apple has an advantage no Windows OEM has — a tight integration between hardware and software. Where Microsoft’s software has to be compatible with a great variety of hardware from numerous manufacturers, Apple has a tight control over the components used in their products. This leads to greater optimization and the ability to squeeze more performance out of their selected hardware.
The other consideration is that there is really no such thing as a bargain basement Mac. This is obviously a laptop designed for price rather than quality or performance. That describes the majority of Windows-compatible devices out there. Apple doesn’t compete in that space. Sure, there’s the Mac mini and the MacBook Air, but those are still on the expensive side compared to the low-end Windows PC market. If it’s the difference between a computer I can rely on for years, however, and a machine that feels dated and clunky out of the box, I’d rather spend more and get a Mac.
Postscript: Windows 10
I haven’t addressed Windows 10 very much in this post, and that’s for a very simple reason. I’m not using it anymore. I installed Ubuntu after a couple of days, and I have to admit that performance has improved dramatically. The trackpad is still bad, and the battery life is still abysmal. It can, however, keep up with my typing now, so that’s something. I’ll be following up with impressions of Ubunu in the future.