Introduction, Design Features
What do you picture when you think of an under-$400 laptop? If you’re thinking of a chunky-plastic boat anchor, you’re not alone.
But the folks at Asus had something different in mind when they envisioned the Asus VivoBook E403SA: a thin, light machine with upscale touches that belie the $399 price. Yes, corners have been cut somewhere, namely in the choice of processor and in the storage scheme. But for basic computing needs, the VivoBook E403SA will more than suffice, and it will look great doing it.
The things that set the VivoBook E403SA apart from other budget-priced laptops are its size and the company’s choice of materials. Instead of a textured-plastic shell, the lid and the keyboard deck are brushed aluminum, which gives the machine a sleek appearance reminiscent of the company’s upmarket ZenBook line.
Now granted, the aluminum tends to get fingerprint-streaked when touched, as you can see above. And where the Asus ZenBooks tend to be all aluminum, the base of the VivoBook E403SA is high-impact plastic, a necessary compromise to hit the price target.
Still, that trade-off does not appear to have affected the VivoBook E403SA when it comes to size and weight. The machine is just 0.7 inch thick and weighs only 3.3 pounds, making it among the thinnest, lightest 14-inch laptops at any price.
As with most thin-and-light machines, the E403SA does not offer a user-replaceable battery on the bottom. In fact, the smooth underside doesn’t even have any heat vents.
The low-voltage processor puts out little heat compared to today’s faster CPUs, and the internal layout of components was designed to effectively dissipate what heat is generated. In fact, the machine requires no internal fan, which means nearly silent operation. Asus also points out that the internal layout keeps heat-generating components away from the palm rest, so that area stays cool and comfortable.
The thin edges of the VivoBook E403SA house what has become the typical selection of ports and slots for an ultraportable. The right edge of the machine houses an SD-card slot, a USB 2.0 port, and a Kensington-style cable-lock slot…
An HDMI output, a USB 3.0 port, and the headphone/headset jack reside on the left edge, along with a USB Type-C port…
Long gone are Ethernet and VGA connectors, but that Type-C USB port is a nice touch for a low-cost laptop, even if most of us don’t have any USB Type-C-compatible peripherals to plug in quite yet. (For more on USB Type-C, see our primer on USB 3.1, USB Type-C, and Thunderbolt 3, which runs down the details of these related, emerging connectivity options.)
The VivoBook E403SA offers a 14-inch screen that packs full 1080p HD (1,920×1,080) resolution. Note that certain other models in the VivoBook E403 line make do with a 1,366×768 panel, so pay special attention to the details of the model numbers as you shop. (We reviewed, specifically, VivoBook model E403SA-US21.)
The 1080p resolution makes for very crisp text, although it’s tiny at default zoom levels. Indeed, the recommendation in Windows’ Display Settings dialog is to run at 150 percent. The panel is very bright, and the LED backlighting of the screen means vivid, well-saturated colors. To keep the price down, though, Asus opted for a lower-cost, non-IPS panel. The viewing sweet spot is wide side-to-side, but not so in the vertical plane; you have to have the lid open to just the right angle to avoid color shifting. Another cost-cutting measure is the lack of a touch screen, so if you like Windows 10’s touch abilities, the VivoBook E403SA is not for you. Then again, we didn’t expect touch in this $399 laptop.
The full-size island-style keyboard is roomy and offers comfortable key spacing…
The key-press action is a bit on the spongy side for our tastes, and, as with other ultra-thin machines, the key plunge (the amount of up-and-down travel) feels a little shallow. There’s also no backlighting for the keys, nor any dedicated keys or buttons for oft-accessed functions such as volume and brightness. But all told, it’s a good keyboard for a budget machine, without the flex and cheap feel we’ve encountered in many other low-cost models. And the VivoBook E403SA’s touch pad is impressive. No corners cut here: It’s large and quite responsive to taps, swipes and other gestures.
Another impressive feature is the sound system. Thin laptops in general (and thin, low-cost laptops in particular) tend to have weak speakers that deliver tinny sound. But the VivoBook E403SA’s stereo speakers deliver clean sound with no clipping, even at the top volume level. The audio also has more presence than one might expect, even if the bass response is lacking.
Much less impressive, though, is the Webcam. Topping out at only 640×480 resolution, the VGA (yes, VGA!) image quality is reminiscent of an early Webcam, from a time when people were impressed you could transmit a video image at all. Images look grainy, with poor detail, colors appear washed out, and any movement causes motion blur. Considering how important video communication is these days, we expected a little more gusto to be applied to this component. (Maybe Asus is figuring most people would just use their smartphones for video chats.)
Another strike against the VivoBook E403SA’s componentry is its dearth of onboard storage. We’re happy to see that a budget machine includes all-flash storage, but bear in mind that this is not a true solid-state drive (SSD) here, but eMMC flash memory, which tends to be slower. Flash is impervious to crashes caused by drops and bumps of the laptop, unlike a hard drive, but the capacity tops out at 128GB (and some E403SA models have only 32GB or 64GB helpings, so again, look carefully at your model numbers).
Clearly, a traditional spinning hard drive would have thrown off the whole feng shui of the interior, requiring more room, cooling, shock protection, and so on, and thus thickness. But 128GB gets consumed pretty quickly these days. To help offset this shortcoming, Asus offers 500GB of online storage free for two years.
Rounding out the feature set are 802.11b/g/n (notably, not 802.11ac) and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless connectivity.