Chromebooks don’t have a monopoly on cheap. The Asus VivoBook 11 ($309 as tested) targets budget notebook buyers who want maximum affordability and portability but insist on Windows. Its puny 11.6-inch screen makes it compact and light—it’s only 2.2 pounds—and it’s adequate for word processing, web browsing, and email. But it’s sluggish, with just half the memory and one-quarter the storage of a good inexpensive laptop. Most users will be happier with the quicker response of a Chromebook or, if they can dig deeper into their pockets, a Windows system in the $500-to-$700 range.
Bare Minimum Everything
The VivoBook 11 that PCMag tested, at $309 at the time we purchased it, is model L203NA, with a dual-core Intel Celeron N3350 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of eMMC flash storage instead of a true solid-state drive. Different resellers offer different configurations that look to be better bargains: Walmart and Amazon sell the L203MA, which has a Celeron N4000, for $299 and $250 respectively, and I found the model L210MA with a Celeron N4020 at Amazon for $229.
Unfortunately, even Intel’s Core i3 CPU, let alone the popular Core i5, is in the performance stratosphere compared to the cellar-dwelling Celeron. And 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage, while tight but tolerable for Chrome OS, is cruel and unusual for Windows.
The Asus comes with Windows 10 Home in S mode, which restricts software installations to downloads from the Windows Store. You can enter the Store and make an irreversible switch to regular Windows 10 Home, as I did in order to run our benchmark tests, by entering your Microsoft account information and a couple of clicks. But you won’t be installing many apps either way: The laptop has only about 25GB of free space out of the box.
The ultralight VivoBook 11 measures 0.7 by 11.3 by 7.6 inches (HWD), with broad bezels around its 1,366-by-768-pixel display. It has a glossy plastic case with a chrome Asus logo on the lid and a fair amount of flex if you grasp the screen corners or press the keyboard deck. You can forget about frills such as a backlit keyboard, a fingerprint reader, or Wi-Fi 6 (though 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are onboard). The keyboard of our test sample is peppered with international symbols and French abbreviations (“Del/Suppr., Caps Lock/Verr. Maj.”).
Some larger laptops could learn from the L203’s array of ports. The left side holds USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C ports along with an HDMI monitor port and a microSD card slot. Another USB-A port joins an audio jack on the right.
The Display: Not Much to Look At
Both Chromebooks and Windows 10 laptops more or less start at 1,920-by-1,080-pixel screen resolution nowadays, so the VivoBook 11’s 1,366-by-768-pixel screen is an unhappy throwback. It’s actually not unbearably fuzzy or pixelated; the screen size is the maximum at which I’d consider this native resolution tolerable. But details are far from sharp, with bland, washed-out colors. Brightness is minimal, and the contrast is poor, with dingy, off-white backgrounds.
The keyboard’s typing feel is fairly snappy, and the cursor arrow keys are in the correct inverted T instead of a row, though they and top-row keys such as Escape and Delete are tiny. In lieu of dedicated Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys, you’ll have to pair the arrows with the Fn key. Unfortunately, the left Shift key is too small, so unless you’re extremely careful to press it with your pinky, you’ll get a backslash every time you want a capital letter. The buttonless touchpad glides and taps smoothly and clicks comfortably.
We often criticize laptops for lowest-common-denominator 720p rather than 1080p webcams, but the L203’s camera has only one-third their resolution—it’s good old VGA, 640 by 480 pixels. The webcam captures a close-cropped, reasonably well-lit view of your face, but it’s pale and soft-focused.
Bottom-mounted speakers produce weak, tinny sound. Volume isn’t bad, but drums are faint taps instead of booming bass; overlapping tracks are muddy. Realtek audio software lets you flatten the sound with an equalizer offering pop, rock, vocal, club, and live presets.
Aside from McAfee antivirus, the only preloaded software of note is an Intel Graphics Command Center that offers to optimize visuals for your game library, which is nothing more than wishful thinking, given the Celeron processor’s weak HD 500 integrated graphics.
Performance Testing: Low Expectations
We have precisely one other 11.6-inch budget Windows laptop in our benchmark database: the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 2-in-1 from September 2019. It has a dual-core AMD A9 processor. In search of Windows systems with comparable hardware, I chose two versions of Microsoft’s entry-level Surface Go tablet: the current, Intel Core m3-powered Surface Go 2 and the older (January 2019) Surface Go LTE with a Pentium Gold CPU. The last slot, just for ballpark comparisons, goes to a much faster and more expensive laptop: our economy Editors’ Choice pick, the $699.99 Asus VivoBook S15.
Productivity and Graphics Tests
PCMark 10 is a holistic performance suite developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). It simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows, assessing overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, web browsing, and videoconferencing. PCMark 10 yields a proprietary numeric score; many of today’s high-end notebooks surpass 5,000 points and virtually every laptop tops 3,000.
Launching an app from the little Asus’ Start menu takes three or four seconds, and almost everything you do feels laggy. The VivoBook 11 can plod through everyday operations well enough, but when a 10.5-inch tablet kicks your laptop’s butt, you know you’re not driving a workstation. (See more about how we test laptops.)
UL’s 3DMark is a gaming simulation that measures relative graphics muscle by rendering detailed visual sequences that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two DirectX 11-based subtests: Sky Diver, suited to laptops and midrange PCs, and the more demanding Fire Strike, which lets high-end PCs and gaming rigs strut their stuff.
The Asus S15 is suited only for casual or browser-based games rather than fast-twitch titles, and it packs triple or quadruple the graphics punch of the VivoBook 11. The latter doesn’t even come with Solitaire or Mahjong.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video editing benchmark, in which we put a stopwatch on systems as they transcode a brief movie from 4K resolution down to 1080p. It, too, is a tough test for multi-core, multi-threaded CPUs; lower times are better.
Fast laptops finish our Handbrake trial in under 10 minutes and most take no more than 20. The 11.6-inch Asus needed an hour and a half—but that was twice as fast as the AMD A9-powered Inspiron.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we make battery-conserving changes to its power and sleep settings and turn off Wi-Fi in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. We then loop a video—a 720p file of the Blender Foundation short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system quits. Normally we run the movie from the system’s own SSD or hard drive, but the L203 didn’t have room, so I used an external SSD plugged into the USB-C port.
Nine hours is plenty of runtime for such a small system. The L203 should get you through a full or almost full day of work or school without having to search for an AC outlet. The dim, low-resolution screen was a major contributor to that decent battery showing, however.
The Chromebook Competition
The contenders for comparison are the HP Chromebook x360 12b and 11.6-inch Lenovo Chromebook 3, both of which are under-$400, Celeron-based laptops. As with the VivoBook S15 above, I also threw in a more mainstream or expensive Editors’ Choice award winner, the Core i5-powered Acer Chromebook Spin 713.
Their Chrome browser may be quicker than Microsoft Edge (though I ran Windows Update to install the latest Edge before testing), but it’s noteworthy that the two Celeron Chromebooks handily outran the VivoBook 11.
Hard to Recommend
Windows 10 gives you access to powerful applications that Chrome OS can’t match, but the VivoBook 11 can’t run those programs well, so for most shoppers there’s no reason not to go with a comparable Chromebook for a similar or even lower price. The Asus mini is certainly easy to slip into a bag or backpack, and it’ll muddle through routine tasks, but it’s not pleasant to use. Budget buyers can do better.
Asus VivoBook 11 (L203) Specs
|Laptop Class||Budget, Ultraportable|
|Processor||Intel Celeron N3350|
|Processor Speed||1.1 GHz|
|RAM (as Tested)||4 GB|
|Boot Drive Type||eMMC Flash Memory|
|Boot Drive Capacity (as Tested)||64 GB|
|Screen Size||11.6 inches|
|Native Display Resolution||1,366 by 768|
|Variable Refresh Support||None|
|Screen Refresh Rate||60 Hz|
|Graphics Processor||Intel HD Graphics 500|
|Dimensions (HWD)||0.67 by 11.3 by 7.6 inches|
|Operating System||Windows 10 S|
|Tested Battery Life (Hours:Minutes)||8:59|