Remember when cheap laptops were crap? Not anymore—because you can buy this amazing new transforming Asus Chromebook for just $280. Oh, and did I mention it’s the first Chromebook that doubles as a tablet?

What Is It?

The Asus Chromebook Flip C100 is a Chromebook, which means it’s a laptop with a glorified web browser as its operating system. But it’s unlike any Chromebook you’ve ever seen. Where most Chromebooks are cheap, plasticy, nigh disposable laptops, the 10-inch Flip is a sleek aluminum machine whose screen folds back to become a touchscreen tablet too. Chromebooks with touchscreens are rare enough, to say nothing of ones with a tablet mode or a classy aluminum chassis.

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Yet the most surprising part is the price: just $250 to start, or $280 for the version with 4GB of RAM. Right off the bat, you’re getting a lot for your money.

Who’s It For?

Again, like other Chromebooks, the Flip is a laptop that has a web browser as its primary interface. Which isn’t a problem if practically everything you do with your portable computer (read websites, edit documents, stream movies and music, interact with friends) is on the internet anyways. In fact, it has benefits: you never have to worry about updating your computer’s software, backing up your files, or getting viruses.

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Unlike other Chromebooks, the Flip is super portable and super easy to toss around. Want something the size of the tiny new MacBook, but just for the web? One that your stewardess won’t tell you to toss under the seat when your flight is about to take off? This could be the tiny machine you’re looking for.

Design

It boggles my mind that you can buy this computer for just $250. Every component, practically single facet feels like it belongs to a machine that costs hundreds and hundreds more. We’re talking about a $250 laptop that positively gleams due to all the metal used in its construction. From the shiny, attention-grabbing brushed metal edges that catch the light just so to the MacBook-like anodized aluminum frame, to the laminated LCD screen, this is one cheap laptop you won’t be ashamed to pull out in a coffee shop filled with pricier machines.

Particularly since that rigid metal construction also allows this laptop to stay just 15.6mm thick. That’s thinner than a MacBook Air—though not quite as thin as Apple’s new Macbook at 13.1mm. The downside of metal is that it transfers heat: though the Flip’s processor doesn’t get all that hot, my hands are still sweating a bit on these warm summer days.

Chromebook Flip (top) vs Dell Chromebook 11 (bottom). So much smaller.

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And it doesn’t stop at that chassis. The Chromebook Flip also has an amazingly good screen for a laptop this cheap—a nice, responsive 1280 x 800 touchscreen panel that’s laminated to the glass surface to remove the air gap. It loses a lot of brightness and looks a little shimmery from off-angles, so it might not be the best to share a movie with a friend, and the resolution is definitely low, but unless you’ve been totally spoiled by Retina displays, you may not notice given how small the screen is, anyhow.

When it comes to keyboarding, these chiclet keycaps are definitely a little small, but they’re reasonably spaced and not all that cramped. They press down with little effort and are well cushioned for nice quick bouts of typing. Even the touchpad’s not bad—smooth, responsive for mousing and two-finger scrolling, not too hard to click. It’s just pretty small.

Both input mechanisms are definitely a far sight better than the keyboard on the $200 Asus T100, a comparatively chunky detachable laptop/tablet combo that runs Windows. That machine’s also worth the price if you’re looking for a cheap Windows tablet that only occasionally doubles as a laptop... but I’m already convinced the C100 is better for typists. (As usual, I’m typing every word on the laptop itself, and having a pretty easy time of it.)

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The only thing that really feels missing is a couple more full-size ports. You get two USB sockets and a headset jack, but only microSD for expandable storage and microHDMI for video-out. The charging cable is reversible (!) but it’s sadly not the wonderful USB Type-C—only a proprietary knockoff.

Using It

So, what’s it like to use a touchscreen Chromebook—one that doubles as a tablet? Surprisingly easy, actually. Chrome OS has come an awful long way from the operating system that lagged like mad when you tried to use the original Chromebook Pixel’s touchscreen. Now, the whole interface has been optimized for touch to some degree.

You can reach out and grab a window, drag it around the desktop with a finger, or just reach out and grab the edge of the window to expand it. Pull a tab out of the browser to create a new window, or slide your finger along a stack of tabs to cycle through the carousel and find the one you’re looking for. Tap the search button on the desktop, and just tell Google—with your voice—what you want to search for, or scroll through your Google Now cards. Or hit a nice big touchscreen button on the desktop to change up your Bluetooth, wifi, or volume settings.

Bend that screen back into tablet mode, and ChromeOS makes things even easier. Since it knows you’ve no longer got a keyboard and touchpad to work with, it immediately makes your primary window grow to cover the entire screen, and magically places a brand new task-switching button at the lower-right-hand corner so you can quickly access other windows too.

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There’s also a new software keyboard, complete with autocorrect and a voice recognition button.

Dare I say ChromeOS makes more sense for touch than Windows 8? I guess I just said so.

And in case you’re wondering, ChromeOS is also way more efficient than the Chrome browser in OS X or Windows. Even though the Chromebook Flip is equipped with a comparatively weak quad-core Rockchip RK3288 processor—not an Intel Core or even an Intel Atom CPU—it was able to begrudgingly handle my work load of over a dozen Chrome tabs, a bunch of plug-ins, auto-refreshing websites and email, and even some music streaming in the background.

Sure, it couldn’t cut through that load anywhere near as effortlessly as the Dell Chromebook 11 with its formidable Core i3 processor, and I definitely noticed the Asus begin to slow down as I added to the load, but my point is that it was doable. (Mind you, I’m using the $280 version with 4GB of RAM. I doubt you’d get quite as far with the 2GB, $250 model.)

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Just because ChromeOS is viable for some people, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t without some weird flaws. To get things done, you may need to use a weird pastiche of native Chrome apps, weirdly formatted apps ported over from Android, and actual websites—and Chrome still doesn’t differentiate between those experiences at all.

When I launched the Evernote app, I was dismayed to find it was a crappy port of the Android version, one I could barely read, and one that I couldn’t blow up to full screen mode. I could point my browser to the (much better) web interface, but unlike that Android version, I couldn’t pin the website to my taskbar. Tapping on Gmail, I was actually hoping to get a nice custom ChromeOS version of the email client, but was confronted with the web version instead—and if you’ve ever used the web version of Gmail on a touchscreen, you know that’s not optimal.

Like

Six solid hours of real-world battery life with heavy web use—enough to let me consider leaving the charger at home.

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Unlike most transforming Windows laptops, accidentally tapping the power button on the edge doesn’t annoyingly make the laptop shut down or go to sleep. It takes deliberate effort.

Love how small, cheap, yet competent this machine can be. It’s a potent combination.

The speakers get surprisingly loud, and while they’re not great, they’re not terrible either!

No Like

Even though it’s small and light enough to hold as a tablet, it’s not that comfortable to grip. It feels a little weird to have the beveled edges digging into my hands, and the hinge assembly—one of the few external parts made of plastic—doesn’t feel strong enough to use as a grip. It flexes quite a bit.

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The palmrests don’t feel quite long enough for comfy lap use. On an incline like my lap, it feels like I constantly need to press down with my wrists to keep it positioned.

4GB of RAM should really come standard. I watched my memory usage for a bit, and it took me fewer than 8 browser tabs to exceed the 2GB capacity.

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None of ChromeOS’s multitasking features really work unless you proactively rip tabs out of your browser and turn them into new windows. By default, when you start a new app, it launches in your existing browser window.

Pretty disappointing to find an interesting-looking game in the Chrome app store and add it to my app collection, only to find out the app is just a glorified link to a Flash game embedded in an ugly website.

Should You Buy It?

Yes. If you want what Asus is selling, for the price Asus is selling it at, there’s no other game in town. Everything else at this price is going to feel cheaper, be less portable, or come with other awkward caveats. The Chromebook Flip doesn’t really suck in any meaningful way.

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Still, that doesn’t necessarily make it the Best Chromebook. I’d definitely still pick a Dell Chromebook 11 or Acer Chromebook 13 for getting regular work done, with their larger screens and more substantial keyboards. I’d pick a Toshiba Chromebook 13 for watching movies. I’d pick an HP Stream 11 if I needed my Windows apps at this size and price.

But if you want a pint-sized portable that’s dirt-cheap and surprisingly classy, look no further.

Update: Asus and Google originally told us the Chromebook Flip would cost $300 for the 4GB version we recommend. Now that it’s out, it only costs $280. At that price, it’s a no-brainer to opt for the extra memory.

Asus Chromebook Flip C100 Specs

  • Display: 10.1-inch 1280 x 800 display
  • Processor: Quad-core 1.8GHz Rockchip RK3288C (ARM)
  • Graphics: ARM Mali T764
  • Memory: 2GB ($250 model) or 4GB ($280 model)
  • Storage: 16GB SSD
  • Connectivity: 2x USB 1.0, 1x microSD card slot, 1x 3.5mm audio, 1x micro HDMI, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
  • Dimensions: 10.3” x 7.2” x 0.61”
  • Weight: 1.96lbs
  • Base price: $250

Contact the author at sean.hollister@gizmodo.com.