Wednesday, 14 November 2018

ASUS VivoBook E203MA Review: A good entry-level laptop let down by a mediocre screen and limited storage

The previous generation of the ASUS VivoBook E203MA ran on an Apollo Lake N3350 processor, came with 32GB storage and 2GB RAM. The latest refresh comes with a better Gemini Lake Celeron N4000 processor, 4GB RAM and 32GB storage. The shift to 4GB RAM is becoming a positive trend with Windows 10 entry-level laptops. There is also a 64GB version available that is difficult to obtain in Europe. Below is a key point review of the laptop:
  • Processor: The N3050 and N3060 Braswell Celeron processors were poor and struggled with basic tasks, e.g. rendering complex websites, editing larger Google Docs documents and moving between browser tabs. Intel then introduced the Apollo Lake N3350 that improved performance but the processor still struggled to keep up with moderate workloads. The Gemini Lake N4000 goes further than previous generations and offers adequate performance. 
  • The ASUS VivoBook E203MA weighs only 0.99 grams - this makes it the lightest laptop in its category. 
  • The trackpad is serviceable but is inferior to trackpads you get even with the cheapest Chromebooks. The chiclet keyboard, on the other hand, is positive with its good key travel. 
  • Entry-level laptops are designed as mobile devices and usually, in comparison to other laptops, you expect a minimum full day usage from one charge cycle. The ASUS VivoBook E203MA hits the standard but falls short in comparison to HP’s Stream laptops. I found the laptop just goes over the eight-hour of mixed usage when running in battery saving mode and at around 40% screen brightness. Similar to other vendors, ASUS overestimates the battery to ‘up to 10 hours’. 
  • HP is known for good audio output and the HP Stream laptops, based on my experience, produce the best audio in this category. The ASUS VivoBook E203MA’s audio does not match HP’s level but is clear and loud enough. 
  • Subscriptions: The VivoBook comes with a one-year Office 365 subscription but there is no one-year 1TB OneDrive cloud storage subscription (HP bundles both subscriptions with their HP Stream laptops). The bundled Office 365 subscription is a positive as not all vendors in this category bundle the subscription. 
  • Storage & RAM: The VivoBook, following the positive trend in this category, is configured with 4GB RAM. Similarly, keeping with the trend in this category, ASUS decided to keep the 32GB as the default storage option. A 64GB option is available but is restricted, it appears, to North America. The available 32GB storage is workable but you need to constantly monitor storage and select which software package is necessary. The available SD Card slot is useful but is no substitute for internal storage, e.g. Microsoft has not, so far, supported the syncing of OneDrive files to an external storage drive. However, workable is not a good user experience and vendors should up the minimum storage to 64GB. 
  • Mediocre glossy screen: The VivoBook E203MA’s screen - a glossy non-IPS panel - is mediocre. It is similar in quality to the HP Stream 14’s glossy screen. Colours and viewing angles are poor and to get optimal viewing it is necessary to set the screen angle to 90 degrees. Tilt the screen slightly and colours shift. I don’t think that the VivoBook being an entry-level laptop justifies ASUS’s screen choice. Acer, for example, fit some of their cheapest Chromebooks with an IPS display. Even the HP Stream 11’s matte non-IPS Screen is more colourful. 
The ASUS VivoBook E203MA falls short with its screen and limited storage. When vendors decide that an IPS/PLS screen and 64GB storage should be the minimum standard then we will finally get the all-rounder entry-level laptop that gets the basics right.

Due to availability, I haven’t tested the N4000 HP Stream 11. However, it is a better choice, considering the previous generation’s screen and excellent battery life, coupled with an improved N4000 processor. I don’t understand why HP decided to restrict its availability to selected countries.

  1. Very light. 
  2. Improved performance. 
  3. Good keyboard. 
  4. One-year Office 365 subscription included. 
  1. Mediocre screen. 
  2. 32GB storage is not enough. 
  3. Battery life acceptable but could be better.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Kobo neglects basic features

The latest firmware update for the Kobo Forma gives the option to enable or disable the header and or the footer in KEPUB e-books. I own the Aura ONE and the latest firmware does not support the feature. It appears, for now, the feature is restricted to the Forma. Due to its unique design, the Forma’s firmware has features that are not available on other Kobo e-readers. The choice to enable or disable the header and or the footer is not one of these device-specific features and so I expect other e-readers will support it soon. It is a choice that Kobo should have supported long before but neglected.

Kobo has a history of neglecting basic features, e.g. advanced PDF support, exporting annotations, landscape reading (a feature only available on the Kobo Forma) and syncing personal documents to collections. The upside is that it is relatively easy to install add-on software, e.g. KOReader, and patch the device to get some unsupported features to work. However, many of these patches are hit and miss - it would be better if Kobo developed Nickel to support these features natively.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Is it worth upgrading to the Kobo Forma?

Is it worth upgrading from the Aura ONE to the Kobo Forma? In short, the answer is no. Even if you don't own an e-reader, the Aura ONE is the preferable option. Below are some reasons to not upgrade or choose the Forma:
  • The Kobo Forma might have different dimensions but there is no significant screen size increase diagonally (the Forma's mimicking of the Kindle Oasis 2 is described as an 'ergonomic design' by Kobo). Rather, I think some might prefer the Aura ONE's dimensions that give it the feel of an A5 size book.
  • Both devices have an identical battery capacity, i.e. 1,200 mAh. 
  • Both devices have water-proofing.
  • You don't get a performance bump with the Kobo Forma as both devices run on the same processor (NXP i.MX6).
  • Both devices support comfortLight PRO. 
  • Both devices have the same RAM (512 Mbytes) and storage (8GB).
Other than 0.2 inches screen size increase, what extra features do you get with the Kobo Forma? Physical page buttons, auto-rotation, a robust E-Ink Mobius screen and a weight decrease from 226 grams to 197 grams. I don't think these extras warrant the Forma's price difference. As I will soon post, I would pick the Aura ONE over the Kindle Oasis 2 too. 

Thursday, 18 October 2018

The Kindle Paperwhite is finally updated

I thought Amazon wasn't going to update any Kindle in 2018 but I got it wrong. Amazon, with little fuss, updated the Kindle Paperwhite. The Kindle Paperwhite 4 is a typical Kindle update, i.e. incremental with just enough to justify an overdue refresh.

The Kindle Paperwhite keeps the six-inch display (something expected considering the 'premium' Kindle Oasis 2 has a seven-inch display). Storage goes up to 8 GB or 32 GB for the extra space required due to Audible support. There is also water-proofing, Bluetooth support, an extra LED for the front light and the weight is decreased to 182 grams.

The Paperwhite 4 is also more robust than the previous generation and is designed to withstand small drops. There is no indication that the Paperwhite 4 is using E-Ink Mobius, so it is not clear what Amazon did to make the screen more robust. Due to the extra features and storage, Amazon has increased the pricing from £109.99 to £119.99.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Pixel Slate is a niche two-in-one for dedicated Google users

Google just released the Pixel Slate. It is an impressive device but expectantly - following the Apple and Microsoft trend - pricing is inflated. The Intel Celeron model starts at £549 (add an extra £189 for a keyboard)! To compare, the Acer C302 Chromebook Flip with an Intel M3 processor is priced at £500 and can be bought on sale for £400. If the Pixel Slate sold the entry-level configuration with an M3 processor it might make the starting price acceptable.

Pricing aside, I think Google is taking a specific angle with the Pixel Slate: a device that synthesises desktop and mobile computing environments. The operating system is built around the desktop Chrome browser. At the same time, there is access to mobile platform applications. The Surface two-in-one line offers desktop computing and Apple's iPad-Pro line is a traditional tablet running a mobile operating system. Slowly Google is attempting to bridge the divide between desktop and mobile platforms and this can be further seen with the recent beta support of Linux applications.

Yet, despite trying to take on Microsoft and Apple, the Pixel Slate is a niche product. The Slate's inflated price might be a put-off for many users, especially considering that there are more powerful and better equipped Microsoft laptops at similar prices (Apple laptops are even priced similar to the high-end Pixel Slate configuration). The user-base of Chrome OS are not power users and might not need anything beyond an M3 processor. As stated, something like the ASUS C302 Chromebook Flip is a better choice. Of course, for Google fans, the Pixel Slate offers the very best of all things Google. For this small user-base, loyalty comes first and other products might not be considered. 

Saturday, 6 October 2018

What processor is the Kobo Forma using?

Kobo, on their official page, isn't very clear about the processor that runs on the Kobo Forma. You need to visit their media library webpage to find out that the Forma's processor is the same one that runs on the older Aura ONE, i.e. the single-core NXP i.MX6. The Kindle Oasis uses a more capable 1GHZ dual-core i.MX7D processor. The difference between the single-core i.MX6 and dual-core i.MX7 is noticeable - the Oasis is zippier than the Kobo Aura ONE. It is odd that Kobo decided to stick with the same processor considering the Forma is meant to be their now premium e-reader. Maybe the selection of the same processor was a trade-off due to the Forma's E-Ink's Mobius screen technology.