Microsoft has been changing the way we think about Windows over the past few years. Windows 10 is a software-as-a-service release. Instead of asking users to pay to upgrade to a new version a few years after launching Windows 10, Microsoft has been releasing about two major updates per year… while still calling the operating system Windows 10.
Last year the company also introduced Windows 10 S… a version of the operating system that takes a less-is-more approach by restricting users from running applications downloaded from sources other than the Microsoft Store. The idea is to offer better performance, improved security, and automatic updates… much like Google’s Chrome OS. It’s not surprising that Windows 10 S was originally targeted at the education market, which is currently dominated by Chromebooks.
This year Microsoft took another major step, launching Windows 10 on ARM. PC makers are now able to ship notebooks and tablets with the same chips that help give smartphones long battery life, even longer standby time, and an the ability to stay connected to the internet via WiFi or LTE at all times.
It was a long-anticipated move… and one that, by all accounts seems to be a work in progress at the moment. Still, when Asus offered me the chance to test one of the first Windows 10 on ARM devices, I jumped at the opportunity.
The Asus NovaGo TP370QL is a convertible laptop with a 13.3 inch touchscreen display, a 360-degree hinge, and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. It ships with Windows 10 S, but you can switch to the full version of Windows 10 Pro if you’d prefer.
The model Asus loaned me has a list price of $699, although it’s often available for less than that. It’s the most affordable Windows on ARM device to ship to date, but it’s also one of the biggest: the notebook measures about 0.6 inches thick and weighs about 3.1 pounds. It has a fanless design, but it’s not the same kind of thin-and-light machine I think of when I think of ARM-powered computers. It feels more like a full-fledged laptop.
Unfortunately it also feels like a very sluggish full-fledged laptop.
I’ve been using the laptop with Windows 10 S for the past two weeks. It lives up to its promise in a few ways. You could leave the power adapter at home and use the laptop all day without plugging it into a wall jack. Insert a SIM card and it’s easy to connect to a cellular network.
But it takes a little longer than I’d like to launch software or switch between running apps… or even browser tabs. The Edge web browser has a nasty habit of crashing when I have too many tabs open. And for the first time in at least a decade, I find myself occasionally typing a sentence and then waiting a few seconds for the letters to show up on the screen.
It would also probably be easier to justify trading performance for battery life and connectivity if the first Windows 10 on ARM devices were cheaper, smaller, or offered other benefits.
At this point, it’s really hard to recommend spending money on a Windows 10 computer with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. There just don’t seem to be enough benefits to justify the lousy performance. But I’m still hopeful that future Windows on ARM devices will smooth over the problem spots with software updates and faster processors: Qualcomm is already prepping a new Snapdragon chip designed specifically for Windows 10 computers.
That said, it you do find yourself with an Asus NovaGo TP370QL, it’s not exactly a useless computer. There’s still a lot you can do with it, even if you never bother switching from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro.
I’ll be taking a look at the Pro experience in a future article. For this review I wanted to focus on what you can do with the Asus NovaGo using the software that ships with the device so I could evaluate both Windows 10 on ARM and Windows 10 S at the same time.
The Asus NovaGo featured in this review is a model with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. It’s the version currently available in the United States, although Asus may offer 4GB/64GB and 8GB/256GB configurations in some other markets.
Lenovo and HP are the only two other companies to ship Windows on ARM computers so far, but the Lenovo Miix 630 and HP Envy x2 are both tablets with detachable keyboards. The Asus NovaGo keyboard is built into the computer, which mean that this machine is a notebook first and a tablet second.
Weighing in at 3.1 pounds and featuring a full-sized keyboard there’s no mistaking it for a tablet. Sure, you can pick it up and hold it, but it’s really too big to comfortably used as a handheld device for an extended period. Still, it’s nice to have the option of folding the screen part way back and propping up the computer in tent or stand modes when you’re watching videos, reading recipes, or viewing presentations.
By laptop standards, it has a mix of premium and mid-range features. The NovaGo has a 13.3 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel IPS glossy touchscreen display with sRGB color gamut. It has a full-sized keyboard and a large touchpad with an integrated fingerprint sensor. The lid is aluminum, but the base if the laptop is plastic.
But the keyboard isn’t backlit. The screen wobbles a bit when you touch it (which is sadly pretty common for convertible tablet-style laptops). And the fingerprint sensor can sometimes take a few tries to recognize my finger — even after I registered the same finger with Windows twice.
The Asus NovaGo also has UFS 2.0 storage rather than a faster SSD. It has two USB 3.1 Type-A ports, an HDMI 1.4 port, a 3.5mm audio jack, and a combination nano SIM + microSD card slot, but no USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports.
The 720p webcam is pretty awful and does a horrible job in low-light environments, but that’s true of most laptop cameras.
On the bright side, the notebook’s stereo speakers are pretty good. They offer decent volume and clarity, although like most laptop speakers, they don’t provide a lot of bass.
Other features include a 52 Whr battery, 802.11ac WiFi, and Qualcomm’s X16 Gigabit LTE modem. You’ll need to supply a SIM card to connect to LTE networks, and you may end up paying extra for data, depending on your wireless plan, (although Sprint, at least, is offering Windows 10 on ARM users some free data through the end of the year, and some carriers, like Project Fi, offer data-only SIM cards that tap into your existing plan for no additional fee… other than charges for any additional data you may use).
So is it fair to judge the NovaGo as a laptop computer? It’d be hard not to. It looks like a laptop. It runs an operating system that looks and functions almost exactly like Windows. And it’s priced like a mid-range notebook.
I’m a firm believer that Chromebooks, for example, are laptops. They just run a different operating system than most PCs or Macs. By that standard, you have every reason to expect the Asus NovaGo to function like a PC… even if it’s a PC that may not run all the apps you’re used to installing on a computer.
Unfortunately even if you’re cool with the limitations that come with Windows on ARM and/or Windows 10 S, the NovaGo’s sluggish performance makes this a computer that feels less useful than it should.
This is the section where I’d normally post some benchmark results. I’m not going to do that here, because most common benchmarks aren’t available in the Microsoft Store and they aren’t really optimized to run on Windows 10 computers with ARM processors anyway.
I did run some web-based benchmarks using the Edge web browser. The results weren’t great… and they also deviated pretty significantly from results that I’ve seen posted by other websites. So I’m not sure that web-based bechmarks such as Sunspider, Octane, Speedometer, or Kraken provide an accurate, consistent way to measure performance of Windows 10 on ARM devices.
Instead, let’s talk about my subjective experience of using the Asus NovaGo with Windows 10 S.
Battery life is pretty great. Speed is not.
Asus says you should be able to get up to 22 hours of continuous battery life from the Asus NovaGo (if you’re using it for video playback with the wireless radios turned off).
Using the laptop with some heavy-duty multitasking while connected to the internet, I’m getting around half that. But I’m also asking a lot of the computer.
I do most of my work on the web, so I typically open two or more web browser windows and up to a dozen tabs so I can write in one window and research in another. I fire up an image editor in the background and switch to it when I need to crop, rotate, or resize pictures. And sometimes I’ll stream music in the background while I work. Fortunately Spotify is available from the Microsoft Store, making it easy to keep the music playing without opening another browser tab.
I suspect folks who just view one website at a time or just use the computer for writing, watching videos, or performing other one-at-a-time tasks will both find the computer to be more responsive and to offer longer battery life. But in my tests, about 10-12 hours of continuous usage seems pretty typical.
It’s also pretty cool to see your battery level dip below 30 percent and know that you’ve probably still got a few hours of battery life left.
The NovaGo gets pretty good standby time too. When the notebook first arrived on my doorstep, I charged the battery to 100 percent and then went five days before I had to plug it in, using the notebook for a few hours at a time and then closing the lid and leaving it unplugged overnight… for several nights in a row.
Asus says you should be able to get up to 30 days of standby time and I totally believe that, even though the system supports “modern standby,” which means that while the system is sleeping it can stay connected to WiFi and receive incoming emails and other messages so that they’re available for review as soon as you turn on the display.
The laptop also supports quick charging: Plug it in for 15 minutes and you should get a few hours of run time.
So now for the subjectively bad stuff. Everything takes just a little longer than it should on a $700 laptop. I’m not talking about heavy-duty stuff like video editing or CAD rendering, or cryptocurrency mining.
Asus sends a product guide to reviewers that notes that the NovaGo “was not designed for intensive computing tasks like graphical design or CAD modeling or graphically-demanding games, but for the general productivity programs like emailing, word processing, web surfing, media viewing, and ‘light’ creativity work.” But even so, this computer feels slow… especially when multitasking.
Web pages take a little longer to load than I’d expect. Apps take a little longer to launch. And switching applications is a little on the slow side too. None of this matters much if you’re single-tasking. But if you’ve got more than a few processes running, the computer feels like something out of the 90s.
Overall, I find the NovaGo to be moderately frustrating to use. It lacks that magical feeling that I’ve come to take for granted with modern computers: instantaneous results.
I’d forgotten what it was like to click a button and then have to wait a moment for something to happen before figuring out if the click had registered, or to type a line of text and wait for it to show up on the screen before I can see if there are any typos.
Those aren’t things that happen all the time, but they do happen frequently enough to be annoying.
And as I mentioned above, I’ve had the Edge web browser unexpectedly freeze or crash more often than I’m comfortable with… especially on a machine with 6GB of RAM. And I spent a lot of time looking at “[URL] is not responding” messages.
Don’t get me wrong. You can still do a lot with this computer. It just might take a little more patience than on another machine. I’m hopeful that faster ARM-based processors or future optimizations of Windows 10 on ARM will relieve some of the pain points. But right now it’s hard to recommend spending $699 on the Asus NovaGo unless you’re a heavy duty single-tasker that needs a computer with LTE connectivity… and even then, you’re probably better off looking for an Intel or AMD-powered machine with a SIM card slot.
Windows 10 S and Windows 10 ARM notes
Spend a few minutes with Windows 10 S and you may be surprised at just how much it feels like, well… Windows.
The user interface is identical to Windows 10 Home or Pro. The most important difference is that you can only install apps from the Microsoft Store. Among other things, that means you’re stuck with Microsoft’s Edge web browser instead Chrome or Firefox. But if you need software that’s not available from the Store, you can switch to Windows 10 Pro. Just bear in mind that the Asus NovaGo will have to rely on emulation to run x86 apps, so while switching allows you to run software that wouldn’t otherwise be available, some apps may run slower than others… and some may still not run at all.
Run the ARM-specific version of the Geekbench benchmark for example, and you’ll see that performance is about twice as high as you’d get from the x86-version of Geekbench, which requires emulation to run.
Other features that are missing from Windows 10 S include support for Bitlocker encryption, Device Guard, Remote Desktop, and Group Policy Management. Power users and enterprise customers may miss those features. I suspect most home users won’t even notice they’re missing.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that there are Microsoft Store versions of some of my favorite apps.
VLC is in the Microsoft Store. So are Kodi, Plex, Spotify, and Netflix. So I’m pretty much covered for audio and video apps.
My favorite light-weight image editing tool Irfanview is also available as a Store app. Basically give me Irfanview, a web browser, and the LastPass extension and I’ve got 95 percent of everything I need to work on Liliputing.
Some of the apps I use most that aren’t available? GIMP, QuickBooks, LibreOffice, Reaper, Handbrake, and Notepad++ (although there is an unofficial, open source fork of that last one).
It’s not too hard to adjust my workflow so that I can use the apps that are available. But if my only PC were a Windows 10 S machine I wouldn’t be able to use my accounting software, do any podcast or video editing, or complex image editing (unless I learned to use something other than GIMP, which I’m too lazy to do at the moment).
That said, Microsoft Office is a Store app. So is Adobe Photoshop Elements. So there are certainly options for editing documents or images. I’d just need to switch to new apps rather than using the ones I typically use on other Windows or Linux computers… just like I have to use the Edge web browser instead of Chrome when running Windows 10 S.
Another thing to keep in mind is that even if you switch to Windows 10 Pro, there are some applications and features that will never work on a Windows PC with an ARM processor. That includes drivers for some older hardware. So if you have an ancient printer or scanner, for example, it may not work with the Asus NovaGo. Newer devices that use modern drivers should be supported.
And while you can run 64-bit ARM applications, there’s no support for 64-bit x86 apps at all.
It’s probably too early to write off Windows 10 on ARM as a failed venture. There are certainly some limitations, but increased competition in the chip space is a good thing. I look forward to the day when Qualcomm or other chip makers start to offer a Windows-compatible solution that’s competitive with the latest offerings from Intel and AMD. Unfortunately, based on my experience with the Asus NovaGo, it doesn’t seem like the Snapdragon 835 is that chip.
If you’re looking for an entry-level Windows on ARM computer in mid-2018, the Asus NovaGo is probably your best option. Priced at $699 or less, it’s the most affordable Windows 10 computer with an ARM chip.
It’s still overpriced and I’m not really sure why it exists at all.
The Asus NovaGo is too slow to be useful as a general purpose PC, too expensive to easily justify as a second or third PC to supplement your primary computer, and too big and heavy to really think of as a tablet.
I mean, it’s a 3.1 pound fanless laptop, which is pretty nice. But for about the same price as an Asus NovGo, you can pick up a 2.8 pound Microsoft Surface laptop with a higher-resolution display, a faster Intel Core M3-7Y30 processor, a faster SSD, and significantly better all-around performance.
Really, just about any computer with an Intel Core Y-series processor would probably offer better performance. Heck, you could probably do better with an Intel Apollo Lake or Gemini Lake Celeron or Pentium processor.
That said, I understand why the first crop of Windows 10 on ARM devices cost as much as they do. The Snapdragon 835 processor is a premium component designed for high-end smartphones. 4G LTE support is usually only offered on premium notebooks. Fingerprint sensors aren’t exactly standard on entry-level laptops either. Nor are full HD touchscreen displays (even if they should be).
Even if Asus had cut a few more corners on the design of this laptop, I suspect the processor alone would have made the NovaGo cost two to three times more than an entry-level Chromebook (many of which go for $200 or less).
So I get it. I just wouldn’t recommend buying it.
At least not the first generation. Hopefully lackluster reviews like this one don’t prevent Asus, Qualcomm, Microsoft, and other partners from making second-gen and third-gen Windows on ARM hardware, because I’m looking forward to seeing what’s possible in the future even if I’m not thrilled with what’s available today.