The Asus NovaGo is one of the first Windows 10 computers to ship with an ARM based processor. Powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, the convertible tablet-style notebook promises long battery life, always-connected capabilities thanks to the built-in 4G LTE cellular modem, and silent operation thanks to a fanless design.
It has some premium features including a fingerprint sensor, aluminum lid, a full HD touchscreen display, and decent speakers.
But it’s also painfully slow at times. You know how you’re used to typing on a computer keyboard and seeing the letters pop up on the screen instantaneously? Sometimes that happens with the Asus NovaGo. Often it doesn’t. Opening browser tabs, clicking on links, launching programs, and just about everything else seems to take just a little longer than it should.
In some ways, using the Asus NovaGo feels a lot like using a Windows laptop 20 years ago, when you didn’t expect everything to happen immediately. Waiting to see if a click had registered was a regular part of the experience.
That said, it’s kind of remarkable that this computer works at all. After decades of only supporting processors based on x86 architecture, Microsoft spent the last few years designing a version of Windows 10 that could run on computers with ARM-based chips. Apps that are compiled to run natively work surprisingly well. Many programs that are compiled for x86 chips can run too… but they take a performance hit because Windows has to use emulation to run them on an ARM-based processor.
In part one of Liliputing’s Asus NovaGo review I focused on the experience of using this laptop with Windows 10 S, which is the version of Windows that it ships with.
Windows 10 S only allows you to run third-party applications if they’re downloaded from the Microsoft Store. That means if an app isn’t able to run on Windows 10 on ARM you won’t be able to install it at all. So you might be frustrated when you can’t find a favorite app in the Microsoft Store. But you also won’t be disappointed when you try to download and install an application only to find out it won’t run.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was able to get some serious work done using Windows 10 S. Sure, some of my favorite applications weren’t available but between Store apps and web apps, I was able to find substitutes for most of them. I was just disappointed at how sluggish the laptop felt.
While Microsoft, Qualcomm, and companies like Asus would probably like you to think of the Asus NovaGo (and HP Envy x2, and Lenovo Miix 630) as an entirely new type of computer designed to bring the benefits of long battery life and always-connected capabilities to the masses, the truth is that the NovaGo looks and acts like a crippled laptop and with a starting price of $599 it costs too much to run as slowly as it does… especially when you can find plenty of Intel-powered laptops that offer long battery life, and some models that even have 4G LTE support (although that’s a feature that’s typically only found in higher-priced models).
So I decided to switch from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro and see if it offers more bang for the buck when you break out of Microsoft’s walled garden.
Yes and no.
Switching to Windows 10 Pro
The Asus NovaGo ships with Windows 10 S, but you can switch to Windows 10 Pro for free. The process is surprisingly quick and easy — but it’s also irreversible. Once you switch to Windows 10 Pro you cannot go back to Windows 10 S.
If you want to proceed, all you need to do is install the “Switch out of S mode” app from the Microsoft Store and follow the on-screen instructions. The switch takes less than a minute and doesn’t even require rebooting your computer. Once it’s finished, you should see in the Windows settings app that you’re running Windows 10 Pro instead of Windows 10 S.
When Windows 10 S launched in 2017, it was only possible to switch to Windows 10 Pro. Now Microsoft has made an “S Mode” that’s available for Windows 10 Home, Pro, or Enterprise. Switching off S Mode will give you the full version of whichever operating system is running on your device.
Windows 10 S isn’t just for computers with ARM processors. PCs with Intel and AMD chips also support S Mode. In fact, the Microsoft Surface Laptop and Surface Go tablet both have Intel processors and ship with S Mode.
But S Mode probably makes more sense on ARM-powered devices like the Asus NovaGo, because blocking you from installing apps that aren’t available in the Microsoft Store is a pretty good way to make sure you only install software that’s going to run reasonably well on your computer.
That said, if you need to run software that’s not in the Microsoft Store and/or isn’t compiled to run natively on ARM chips, switching to Windows 10 Pro is the way to go.
Notes on app compatibility
Unfortunately, not every application is going to work. If an application is designed to run on computers with 32-bit or 64-bit ARM-based processors, you should be good to go. And 32-bit x86 apps should work as well, although they might run more slowly than you’d expect, since the Snapdragon 835 processor has to emulate x86 architecture.
There’s a rather long list of things that could prevent an application from running:
- 64-bit x86 apps cannot be installed at all.
- Games that use OpenGL 1.1 or later won’t work. You may be able to install them, but you probably won’t be able to run them.
- Apps and games that rely on drivers that aren’t designed for Qualcomm Snapdragon processors will not work. Microsoft says common apps in this category could include printing or PDF software, antimalware software, virtualization software, and CD and DVD utilities.
- Third-party antivirus apps will not work.
- Some apps that customize Windows features such as input method editors will not work.
Some of these are showstopping issues that will prevent you from installing an application in the first place. Others will install just fine… but you won’t be able to run them. I find that to be even more frustrating.
Here’s a non-comprehensive list of applications and games I was/was not able to install:
- Steam – yes
- Battle.net – yes
- Oxenfree – no
- Grim Fandango Remastered – no
- Batman: Arkham Asylum – no
- Lumino City – yes
- StarCraft – yes
- StarCraft II – yes
- GIMP – yes
- LibreOffice – yes
- DaVinci Resolve – no
- Reaper – yes
- Speccy – yes
- Handbrake – yes (kind of… the latest version is 64-bit only, but I was able to install Handbrake 1.07, which is the latest version to be released in a 32-bit version)
- Google Chrome – yes (Chrome stable it wouldn’t install initially, but after I installed Chrome beta, the stable channel started working as well)
After downloading a 1GB installer of DaVinci Resolve, the installer utility for the video editing application conveniently told me that the software requires a 64-bit processor, so the software wouldn’t install.
Unfortunately there was no such warning when I tried installing Oxenfree, Grim Fandango, and Batman: Arkham Asylum through the Steam Store. Each game was downloaded and installed… but when I tried to launch the games I saw a variety of error messages that all basically boiled down to one graphics feature or another not being available. The games wouldn’t run.
Lumino City, which I also downloaded from Steam did run… but at a pretty low frame rate. And when I installed the Battle.net client to try StarCraft and StarCraft II I was pleasantly surprised to see that they could both run on this computer… although one was a joy to play and the other was unplayable due to low frame rates.
Notes on performance
So let’s talk about games for a moment: this is not a gaming PC. But you can use it to play some games.
There are plenty of titles in the Microsoft Store that should work just fine. And games that don’t require a high-end discrete graphics card (or OpenGL 1.1 or later) may run… but you’re probably going to have better luck with older titles.
StarCraft was released in 1998, and the game runs perfectly on the Asus NovaGo. That’s not surprising, since the Snapdragon 835 processor is probably faster than many desktop CPUs from that era. The real-time strategy game moved along at more than 100 frames per second as I played.
StarCraft II, on the other hand, was released in 2010 and the game was designed to run on relatively modern hardware.
When I fired up the game using its default settings, it took several minutes to load and it averaged just about 12 frames per second during a video cut scene. When it came time to actually start a mission, the game slowed to 1 frame per second.
Anything under 30 frames per second is generally going to make it tough to enjoy a game, but I probably could have slogged through if the computer had been able to render something in the 15-25 fps range.
One frame per second is like looking at a photo slideshow, not playing a game.
I did try adjusting Starcraft II’s settings to see if I could improve performance. Out of the box it wanted to run at a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels and with graphics set to the high setting. I changed that to 1280 x 720 pixels and the lowest setting, and that did bump up game play to about 15 frames per second, on average, but it occasionally went substantially slower than that. It also still took several minutes for the game to load.
So of the half dozen games I only found one that was truly playable.
I should also point out that in order to check frame rates, I added StarCraft and StarCraft II to my Steam library and used Steam’s built-in FPS counter. I tried installing FRAPS, but it crashed every time I tried to run it.
OK, so gaming is hit or miss (and mostly miss). What about productivity?
As a blogger, my minimum requirements for getting work done are a web browser and an image editor. And as I discovered when testing Windows 10 S on the Asus NovaGo, the Microsoft Edge web browser isn’t bad and my favorite light-weight image editing application, Irfanview, is available in the Microsoft Store. So I was able to do the bare minimum without switching to Windows 10 Pro.
But after I switched I was able to install LibreOffice, enabling me to view and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents without a Microsoft Office license. I was able to install GIMP, which lets me do more complex image editing. And I was able to install the Chrome web browser, which allows me to synchronize my bookmarks, file history, and other settings across multiple devices including my laptop, smartphone, and the Asus NovaGo.
LibreOffice runs fine. I had no problems opening large documents, creating new documents, or editing text or sheets.
GIMP takes a long time to load on most PCs. It doesn’t seem to be much slower on the NovaGo.
Chrome is pretty slow. I still prefer it to Edge because it’s the browser I’m used to using and it synchronizes my data across devices. And it’s not like Edge is a speed demon on the NovaGo. But open a dozen or so browser tabs, and the glitches I mentioned in part of this review are even more noticeable.
I’m writing this article on the NovaGo, and as I type this sentence, sometimes the letters don’t show up on the screen until a few seconds after I type them.
It also takes just a little too long to switch to another tab or window, click a link to a new web page, or perform other common tasks. Sometimes things happen right away, and sometimes there’s a short pause… and not knowing whether to expect that pause or not can make it tough to adjust to the sluggish behavior of this laptop.
I was unable to replicate the issue when shooting the longer, in-depth, review-style videos featured near the top and bottom of the article, because the typing lag isn’t a consistent problem. Sometimes it pops up and sticks around for a while. Sometimes it doesn’t occur at all. The inconsistenty is almost as annoying as the fact that it happens at all, because you can’t get used to the laptop’s quirks if they only occur sometimes.
But I started experiencing heavy typing lag issues while writing this review, so I fired up my smartphone camera and captured this short video to give you an idea of what it looks like:
In this demonstration I’m using the Google Chrome web browser and editing a long article using WordPress. But I’ve had similar issues when using the Edge web browser or other applications including LibreOffice.
You can usually stop the typing lag problems temporarily by restarting the application or rebooting the computer. But it will always come back at some point. And anyway, you shouldn’t have to constantly stop to reboot a modern computer… which is part of why the NovaGo doesn’t really feel like a modern device. Using it feels more like using a computer from 20 years ago when it comes to performance and reliability.
I mean, in terms of raw horsepower, it’s kind of amazing how much this little machine can do with a low-power processor and passive cooling. It’s just the inconsistent performance that drives you slightly batty… that and the struggle to figure out which applications will or will not run on the machine.
While there aren’t a lot of benchmarks that are really optimized to truly measure Windows on ARM performance, I did run a few tests including some web-based benchmarks that gave me an idea of the difference in performance between an application optimized for ARM (Microsoft’s Edge web browser) and one that was not (Google’s Chrome web browser).
In both the Jetstream and Google Octane benchmarks, Edge scored about 3 times higher than Chrome.
in Chrome and Edge, including Jetstream and Google Octane. In both cases, the Edge web browser scored about 3 times higher than Chrome. So some of my performance issues are probably my own fault for stubbornly trying to use a browser that’s not optimized for this hardware when Microsoft includes an alternative browser that is. But why switch to Windows 10 Pro if you don’t plan to install some x86 applications?
I also ran Geekbench on the NovaGo, and got a single-core CPU core of 769 and a multi-core score of 3162. That’s about the same as I’ve seen from other folks who have Run GeekBench on this laptop.
If you take those scores at face value, they suggest that this computer is slower than a system with an Intel Atom x5-Z8300 (2015) or Celeron N2810 (2013) processor when it comes to single-core performance, When it comes to multi-core performance, it’s in the same league as a Core i3-380M (2010) or Core i5-4200Y (2013).
But you should keep in mind that synthetic benchmarks like GeekBench don’t necessarily measure real-world performance, and some applications that are optimized for Windows on ARM may run more smoothly than you’d expect, while apps designed for 32-bit x86 chips may run more slowly, since emulation is required for those programs to run at all. And of course some apps, including 64-bit x86 programs may not run at all.
Some applications that run are also crash-prone. Handbrake had no problem slowly converting a 480p video shot on an old camera to an .mp4 file. I mean, it ran more slowly on this computer than on anything else I’ve tested in the past few years, but it got the job done.
When I tried using Handbrake to compress a 1080p video shot on a newer camera though? It managed to slog through the first few seconds at about 10 frames per second, and then the program crashed. I tried it three different times, and it cashed every time.
This computer obviously isn’t meant to be used for video editing or other resource-intensive applications. But I wanted to try using a few just to see if I could push the system to its limits. It wasn’t hard to find those limits.
In terms of everyday usage, the NovaGo is inconsistent at best. Sometimes you’d be hard pressed to tell that there’s anything unusual about this notebook. I was able to play the original StarCraft game for about a half hour with no issues. Streaming videos from YouTube isn’t a problem. And for the most part Microsoft Store apps and built-in software like the Edge web browser run fine… if a little slowly.
Things get a bit more complicated when you start to expect more from the NovaGo. I wrote all 3 thousand words of this review on the computer, and it was an occasionally painful experience. Liliputing is built using WordPress, and while it’s not hard to compose short articles using the WordPress content management system on the NovaGo, longer articles with a lot of text, images, and embedded videos seem to make both the Chrome and Edge web browsers slow to a crawl (see the typing lag video above).
That’s why I say that using the Asus NovGo feels like using a very old PC.
Sure, it’s thinner and lighter than a laptop from you would have been able to buy two decades ago. It has a convertible-tablet syle design, a 1080p touchscreen display, up to 10 hours of mixed-use battery life (or longer run time for just watching videos or doing other light-weight tasks), and 4G LTE connectivity. Older computers don’t have those things. But when you actually try to get work done, the sluggish performance makes this computer feel very much like something out of the 1990s.
That said, if you are interested in an Asus NovaGo, I’d definitely recommend considering switching from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro. Doing so will allow you to install thousands of applications that might not otherwise be able to run on this computer. Just don’t expect them all to run well on a computer with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor.
I’m glad Asus, HP, and Lenovo decided to release some of the first Windows on ARM laptops and tablets this year, because they provide a sneak peek of what’s possible. But given the performance issues present in this first crop of devices, it’s clear that Qualcomm and other ARM chip makers will either need to performance or Asus and other computer makers will need to lower prices before it really makes sense for anyone to buy a device like the Asus NovaGo.
Fortunately, Qualcomm is already working on next-gen processors designed specifically for notebooks, and ARM has revealed its own roadmap for laptop-class processors. It remains to be seen whether any of those developments will lead to ARM-based notebooks and tablets that offer the level of performance you’d expect from a PC with an Intel or AMD chip. There will always be some issues with app compatibility, but at this point I’m just hoping future Windows on ARM devices will offer better performance reliability for the apps that they can run.
And I’d like to thank Asus for loaning me the NovaGo demo unit featured in this review.
Asus NovaGo Review pt 1: Design, overview, and Windows 10 S performance