Saturday, July 28, 2012

Asus X401a - the affordable ultrabook

My laptop of five years, the 2007 13 incher macbook has taken a hit. Fixing it is costly enough to warrant buying a new machine instead. So I decided to go shopping.

No Apple machines this time though. It made sense to cough up a grand when the competition cost only $200 less, and owning a macbook felt quite elite for a grad student. Not anymore. Laptop prices for the entry level ones have come down to less than half of what they were just 3-4 years ago. And what the OEMs call entry level, are by no standards entry level either, they just want you to buy a fancy spec-ed configuration, which you probably don't need.

I started with some market 'survey' so to say, sometimes I think I like doing that more than actually getting the thing I want! Talk about the journey being more interesting than the destination.

Some observations.

- The traditionally good players seem to be losing ground in the market. Dell/HP/Lenovo/Toshiba designs look dated compared to ones from Acer/Asus/Samsung.

- There are way too many CPUs from Intel and AMD available over a wide range of laptops, from  entry level to mid to the ultrabooks/performance machines. The problem with that is it is difficult to understand - for most buyers, even the 'serious' ones, which CPUs are better at what when compared. There's Intel's Pentium B9xx series, i3, i5, i7 and newer architecture Celerons; and AMD's C series, E series, A4, A6, A8 and some Athlon's still hanging around. It's a crowded market with not so obvious boundaries. So do your homework.

- Most entry level laptops are more than good enough for almost everyone, keeping gamers aside. Offcourse not including netbooks, which ship with the underwhelming Intel Atom, skip that.

- AMD's APU processors totally rock the graphics scene on laptops.

- Some in store models are absolutely not available online. Read that again. 

With all this in mind I was hunting for a reasonably priced machine. And just like that I stumbled across a machine just unveiled at Computex 2012, and it was sitting on a BestBuy shelf, exclusively, not available anywhere else, including Newegg and Amazon. 

It was love at first sight :D

The Asus X401a. It's slim, almost like an ultrabook. Weighs less than many ultrabooks. Plays 1080p on my TV without missing a pixel, while running cool. Runs Gimp like a champ.

Specs - Asus X401a, 14 in, Pentium B970(dual core), 4G RAM, 320GB HDD, USB 3.0, HDMI, 4lbs, $350

And you can buy three of these in the cost of a macbook air, and still save money for a Nexus tablet.

Like some other early reviewer said, this machine is a category in itself. And I'm impressed with the build quality and design by Asus, at this price. It even comes with a collapsible ethernet port to keep the design slim. Lenovo and Apple should learn from this. I'm sure Asus will sell a ton of these.


Jank said...

Have almost the same story, and I completely concur - I was looking last week for a cheap-ish laptop to cook up into a Linux box to go with my Nexus 7. I'm a week into my x401, and could not be happier. All the hardware "just worked" with a standard Ubuntu build, it's lighter than the Macbook that's supplementing (and probably eventually replacing), and it left plenty of money for beer.

I like the keyboard, like the layout. My one gripe was that I needed to use a spudger to get inside the machine, but it's easier to open than my iBook was, and went back together fine.

Parag said...

Jank < I installed Ubuntu 12.04 on it, everything works out of the box. Though I struggled a bit to figure out the UEFI boot, with dual booting. And hit some quirks like the media keys not working, but I think those can be worked out.

Great machine in all, and BestBuy even gave be $20 back with price-match 'cause they dropped the price!

pavelgee said...

Great little laptop. When my thinkpad w500 stopped working (working again, actually, after a complete dis-assembly) I, too, ventured out to Best Buy, in hopes of just test driving some machines. Ended up getting a $330 Asus x401a.

My problems:
1) sound is impossibly low - need to use headphones or external speakers
2) space and other keys sometimes miss
3) scrolling with two fingers on the touch pad is inconsistent
4) does not have microphone jack, only composite audio/mic. But when I connect composite jack headsets it only recognizes the headphopnes

Parag said...

pavelgee < Sound is not super loud but enough for hearing in a not too big room for me.

I had the space key issue too, but I realized that if it's pressed a little more than usual it works better.

Scrolling can be fixed - I removed all 'flicks' and rotation/zoom other fancy features, and now it works without being unpredictable.

Eldar said...

> Though I struggled a bit to figure out the UEFI boot, with dual booting.

How did you handle it?

Parag said...

Eldar < Boot the laptop with UEFI detection, I think by pressing ESC key during boot, I may be wrong. Once booted with UEFI, Linux installers(Ubuntu/Fedora) will install with UEFI boot support and detect other OSs too.

Andrej said...

Great choice. I was looking at notebooks for a friend that needs it for web surfing and browser work. Catched my eye for the slick look and modern design. And the price!

But you know what - you can get an even better notebook. I'm installing Ubuntu on a Vertex 4 128gb SSD (or a Crucial m4 might do too).

For the extra 100$ this baby has become a Mac Air! SSD is the best thing do do for this Asus.

Think about it, it's worth the investment.


ZIM said...

I have the same problem with Pavelgee... is there anyway that both audio/mic work at the same time? Does this model "x401a" support only one at a time? If I plug in a composite headset, it only has an option to use either the headphones or the mic... It should both work.... right?

Anonymous said...

ZIM, they intentionally short circuit pin 3 and 4 on audio connector thus eliminating any possibility of using 4-pin headsets. I have no idea why. Maybe a price policy maybe just a bad engineering.

Anonymous said...

X401A audio socket pinout I got from ASUS:

Rajul said...

I have the x401a and my double finger scroll just randomly stops working every once in a while and IDK WHY. and not just that, the other gestures I use too, like left edge flick, right edge flick. Those aren't working either and it gets really annoying.

Parag said...

Rajul < I've disabled all other gestures other than double finger scroll. And it has been working ok for me. Try updating the driver if that makes a difference.

Robert H said...

Do you know how this compares to the new vivobooks and other asus ultrabook laptops? It looks like they're really keeping up with other ultrabooks from lenovo, sony and dell.

As long as people can see there are better laptops out there than the macbook book air.

Parag said...

Robert H < I haven't checked new models from Asus recently, but the Vivobook looks quite costly at $599 for not too different specs - other than adding a SSD.

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