Enter the Asus VivoBook E403SA (MSRP $399.99). For four Benjamins, this laptop has a nice-looking metallic finish, good keyboard, smooth trackpad, plenty of storage, all the ports you'd want, and a 1080p screen. Its quad-core Intel Pentium chip won't change your life, but it brings enough muscle for browsing Facebook, watching Netflix, and of course for Microsoft Office. What's better is that it comes with Microsoft's Signature build of Windows 10, which has no frustrating bloatware ruining the experience.
There's very little we didn't like about this affordable gem. If we had to pick nits, we were less than blown away by its dim screen and its shallow viewing angles, and its black plastic bottom leaves the whole thing feeling unfinished. Setting our complaints aside, it's quick, long-lasting, inexpensive, and highly recommended.
As much as we love having choice, it's sometimes great to have one well-rounded option to point to when recommending computers. The VivoBook E403SA is just such a computer.
•Intel Pentium N3700 Quad Core Processor
•4 GB RAM
•128 GB eMMC flash storage
•14-inch HD (1920 x 1080) matte display, non-touch
•WiFi AC/Bluetooth 4.1
Now, Intel's N3700 procesor isn't the fastest, but it's got enough oomph to do most tasks. Compared to Intel's more expensive mobile Core M chips, this processor isn't quite as fast, putting up Geekbench scores that are roughly half as good. In a nutshell, for less than $400, you're getting what would have been a $700 entry-level ultrabook from a couple years ago.
Great specs for the money
This thin-and-light laptop might not have the beefiest processor you can get from Intel, but it makes up for this shortcoming in other areas. You get 4 GB of RAM, and a 128 GB eMMC flash drive both standard, on top of a big, 14-inch full 1080p HD screen. So, you've got plenty of storage for your stuff, enough RAM to keep a ton of tabs open in your browser of choice, and a sharp screen that lets you see more at once than many comparably-priced 14- and 15-inch notebooks.
Now, we could kvetch about how much slower eMMC storage is than a normal SATA SSD, or complain that it uses an Intel Pentium N3700 chip instead of a Core M or i3, but for $400, this is a notebook that has everything an average user could ask for. Instead of offering a cramped experience like the sub-$200 notebooks you can buy, this feels much more like a "real" computer.
A keyboard and trackpad good enough for long study sessions
Budget notebooks and ultrathin models often need to sacrifice a good typing experience in order to shave off every precious millimeter of size. Not so with this Asus. We found that the typing experience was plenty good, and even preferred it to using the keyboards of other, more expensive computers like Apple's MacBook. Key travel is comfortable, and the shape and size of each letter is just about perfect.
The trackpad wasn't quite as good as you can get from a premium Windows computer like the Dell XPS 13 or Microsoft's Surface Book, but it's way better than some we tried on other budget-oriented laptops we've assessed this year. It responds well to gestures and with enough surface area to scroll and mouse around on.
You get plenty-o-ports
We've seen thin-and-light laptops ditch ports in the pursuit of thinness. Thankfully, the VivoBook E403SA comes with two full-sized USB ports (one of which is running at full 3.0 speeds), a real HDMI port, and even a shiny new USB Type-C port that lets you charge the device should you have a strong enough charger (the notebook comes with a regular AC adapter instead of a USB-C charger in the box). You also get a full-sized SD card slot, which we love having for quick uploads of images from a digital camera.
Every version comes with a clean Windows installation
It isn't common for us to see a model of a laptop that comes with the bloatware-free Microsoft Signature treatment no matter where you buy it, but here we are, looking at the VivoBook E403SA. Whether or not you buy this at the Microsoft Store doesn't matter, you'll get a clean, unobtrusive Windows 10 experience from the minute you open the box. No annoying Symantec or McAfee trials to expire, and no junk software onboard to uninstall…it's how every PC should come from the factory.
Asus delivers absolutely stellar battery life
Compared to more powerful notebooks we've tested recently, the Asus VivoBook E403SA killed it in our intensive PCMark 8 Home battery test. Whereas more expensive notebooks like Lenovo's Yoga 900 or Samsung's Notebook 9 13-inch racked up around three hours or so, the lowly E403SA busted through the seven hour mark. Seriously, if you're pulling all-nighters wrapping up a paper or trying to get work done at your favorite coffee shop, the VivoBook E403SA will get things done without dying.
This computer isn't actually all-metal
Don't be fooled by the photos that the manufacturer put online--Asus cut a corner in this computer's metallic design. Turn the notebook over, and you'll find unpainted black matte plastic, which looks really out of place given the computer's metal screen cover and metallic-looking keyboard deck. It's a small gripe to have, but it's just that it's a lot prettier when you're looking at photos and we think that it's something worth noting.
The 1080p display leaves something to be desired
Call us spoiled, but we're a little snobby when it comes to the quality of a device's screen. Even some of the cheapest phones come with IPS-type screens, with pretty decent color and viewing angles. The screen that you get in the E403SA has a sharp 1920 x 1080 resolution, but its matte TN panel has viewing angles that are pretty shallow and it looks less colorful than other displays we've laid eyes on this year.
Unless you're looking at the screen pretty much dead-on, colors can shift and look a little weird. Moreover we thought that the screen could have been a little brighter, since we found it was easily washed out by direct sunlight. Again, the reasonable price of the device means that tradeoffs had to be made somewhere, and this is another area where you can see where Asus shaved money off the retail cost.
If you have around $400 to spend on a laptop, we think the VivoBook E403SA is a choice that you won't be disappointed with. We haven't found a better bargain around under $500, and unless you're opposed to using Windows (or unless you're a real power user), you're looking at spending a whole lot more to get to the next-best thin, light, and long-lasting model we'd recommend. What it offers is just enough of everything to let you balance the household budget, or to let you tackle a study session at the library, all in a package that won't make your backpack or purse feel like it's full of bricks.
The biggest competitor to this laptop are midrange 15-inch models like the Dell Inspiron i5559-1350SLV, usually featuring previous-generation Intel Core i3 or i5 chips, and many of them coming in around the same $400 price. Many of these computers are fine, but often weigh up to six pounds, feature lower-resolution screens, and sluggish hard drives that can make the experience grind to a screeching halt quickly. What's more is that the VivoBook E403SA has the light weight (only 3.1 lbs!), thinness, and battery life of a much more expensive ultrabook-style device. Add in the un-messed-with, bloatware-free Microsoft Signature Windows, and it's a great experience from the moment you turn it on.
Let's make one thing perfectly clear, though: this will never be a smokin' hot gaming machine, or a rig that can eat HD video for breakfast. But for YouTube, Facebook, Microsoft Office, and even some casual gaming? This notebook can deliver the goods. It shouldn't be this hard to find an inexpensive computer that's this good, but all too often there are completely avoidable problems that dissuade us from giving a full-throated recommendation. If you pick quality and design over having the best performance, the E403SA delivers a wonderful computing experience for your dollar.
Meet the tester
Brendan is originally from California. Prior to writing for Reviewed.com, he graduated from UC Santa Cruz and did IT support and wrote for a technology blog in the mythical Silicon Valley. Brendan enjoys history, Marx Brothers films, Vietnamese food, cars, and laughing loudly.
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