When you're shopping for a sub-$400 laptop, you usually need to compromise on screen and build quality. However, Asus' $399 VivoBook E403NA gives you a 14-inch, 1080p display and all-day battery life in a lightweight aluminum chassis. The successor to the E403SA, one of our favorite budget laptops of all-time, the new laptop upgrades its predecessor's processor to a newer model and adds a fingerprint reader for good measure. Budget-conscious shoppers will find the VivoBook E403NA to be one of the best Asus laptops, but if they're willing to consider a larger laptop, they can get even more performance and image quality for less money.
For a sub-$400 laptop, the Asus VivoBook E403NA has a fairly premium design, using aluminum on its lid and deck to go with the plastic sides and bottom. You don't often find metal laptops in this price range or even for under $1,000, so this is a real plus.
At 13.3 x 9.3 x 0.7 inches and 3.1 pounds, the E403NA is more than light enough that you could carry this machine around all the time. It's the same weight as and a tiny bit longer than the HP Stream 14 (3.1 pounds, 13.3 x 8.9 x 0.7 inches) and much smaller than the Acer Aspire E 15 E5-575-33BM (5.06 pounds, 10.2 x 15 x 1.2 inches), which has a 15-inch display.
The VivoBook E403NA has a fairly wide selection of ports, including most of what you'll need. The right side contains a USB 3.0 port, a Kensington lock slot and an SD card reader, while the left side houses HDMI out, a second USB 3.0 port, a 3.5mm audio jack and a USB Type-C port. Unfortunately, the USB Type-C port cannot charge the laptop, so you'll have to keep Asus' proprietary power brick on hand.
At a price at which most laptops saddle you with a low-res, 1366 x 768 display, the E403NA provides a full-HD, 1920 x 1080 screen. Having a full 1080p panel means that you have significantly more desktop real estate for viewing web pages and documents or stacking windows side by side. On a typical website, you might see as much as a paragraph of additional text on screen.
However, when it comes to video or photo viewing, the color quality leaves a lot to be desired, as many images look whitewashed. When I watched a trailer for Thor: Ragnarok, Thor's normally bright cape looked like a dull burgundy and the Hulk's green skin appeared as though it had been dipped in a gray milk bath. Fine details like the hairs in Mark Ruffalo's beard were sharp and visible.
According to our colorimeter, the Asus VivoBook E403NA can reproduce a weak 69 percent of the sRGB color gamut. That's worse than the HP Stream 14's score (82 percent) and miles behind the result from the Acer Aspire E 15 E5-575-33BM (159 percent), which costs $50 less and also has a 1080p screen.
Despite the E403NA screen's mediocre brightness level of 213 nits, the display delivers decent left/right viewing angles, with images fading only slightly when viewed at greater than 60 degrees to either side. However, we had to tilt the screen back about 35 percent to prevent the image from being washed-out. The category average (253 nits) is much brighter, while the Acer Aspire E 15 (215 nits) is about as luminous as Asus' laptop. The HP Stream 14 (186 nits) is noticeably dimmer.
The VivoBook N403NA proves that budget laptops can provide good audio. When I played AC/DC's "Back in Black," the output was completely free from the tinniness and distortion I've experienced on so many other notebooks, including more-premium models. The maximum volume is only loud enough to fill a small room, but if you want to DJ a concert with the E403NA, you should get a pair of external speakers.
Asus' built-in Audio Wizard software allows you to choose from among Music, Movie, Voice and Gaming sound profiles. I found that the Music profile sounded best when I played songs and that disabling the Audio Wizard altogether made the output sound flat and lifeless.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The VivoBook E403NA's keyboard provides a solid typing experience, with responsive keys and none of the annoying flex we sometimes see in budget laptops. With 1.4mm of travel and 61 grams of force required to actuate, the keys are slightly below our preferred travel range (1.5mm to 2mm) but never caused me to bottom out (or hit the base hard) while I typed. When I fired up the 10FastFingers typing test, I achieved a rate of 97 words per minute with a 4 percent error rate, on the low end of my typical range.
At first, using the 4 x 2.8-inch buttonless touchpad to navigate around the desktop was like trying to walk on an icy sidewalk in a pair of dress shoes; you need to watch your step. The pad's surface was slippery, and the pointer often moved when I was trying to click on buttons and icons. However, the jumpiness comes from the texture of the pad, not from the device itself; when I got used to using the pad, the accuracy improved.
On the bright side, the pad responded immediately and accurately to every multitouch gesture I tried, including pinch to zoom, two-finger swipe and three-finger swipe. There's also a single-touch fingerprint reader in the upper right corner.
With a budget-minded Intel Pentium N4200 CPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of eMMC storage, the Asus VivoBook E403NA won't win any speed contests, but it performed admirably in my real-world use. With 14 tabs open in Chrome, two of them running WebGL aquarium animations, and a 1080p video playing in another window, I didn't experience lag when switching between tabs or apps.
On Geekbench 4, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall performance, the VivoBook E403NA scored a modest 3,849, comfortably behind the showing by the Core i3-powered Acer Aspire E 15 E5-575-33BM. However, the Celeron N3060-powered HP Stream 14 and the prior-gen E403SA, which had a Pentium N3700 chip, fared worse.
While the E403NA is fine for editing documents and small spreadsheets, we wouldn't recommend it for complex calculations. The laptop took a full 9 minutes and 9 seconds to match 20,000 names with their addresses in our spreadsheet macro test. That's well behind the Aspire E 15's time (5:14), but over 4 minutes faster than the result from its predecessor (13:31).
The E403NA's 128GB eMMC drive doesn't have any moving parts, but please don't mistake it for a solid-state drive. Using the same type of Flash memory as an SD card, eMMC is power-efficient and durable, but it's usually no faster than a mechanical hard drive. Accordingly, Asus' laptop transferred 4.97GB of files at a rate of only 33.3 MBps, just a tad less than what the Aspire E 15 (36.61 MBps) and its 1TB hard drive achieved and a tad more than last year's model completed (30.1 MBps). The HP Stream 14 and its eMMC storage drive (24.7 Mbps) were noticeably slower.
The VivoBook E403NA's integrated Intel HD graphics chip is fast enough to play HD videos, but we wouldn't use this machine for gaming. Asus' laptop scored just 14,935 on 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited, a synthetic graphics test. That's far lower than the Aspire E 15 (49,211) and even a tad behind the HP Stream 14 (19,073).
The VivoBook E403NA has the staying power to make it through an entire work or school day. Asus' laptop lasted 8 hours and 4 minutes on the Laptop Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. That time is noticeably less than the 14-inch notebook category average (8:39) and about an hour behind the time of last year's E403SA (9:02). The Aspire E 15 (E5-575-33BM) lasted for a very-similar time of 8:16, while the HP Stream 14 conked out after 7:04.
Asus cut a sharp corner by giving the E403NA a low-resolution, 640 x 480 webcam in a market in which most laptops have 720p cameras.
When I shot a photo of my face, the quality was barely as good as that from a VHS tape, as my features came out both dark and blurry.
Software and Warranty
Apart from the AudioWizard sound software, a support registration app and an electronic manual, the E403NA doesn't come with any first-party software. However, the notebook has a fair amount of bloatware, though most of this is the same stuff you find on every Windows 10 system. The E403NA has not one but six different freemium games preloaded, including Minecraft, Candy Crush Soda Saga, Bubble Witch 3 Saga, March of Empires: War of Lords and Microsoft Solitaire collection. There's also a tile for Asphalt 8, which leads to that game's Windows Store page.
Plex is on board to help with your media streaming. There are free trials of Autodesk Sketchbook and the Keeper password manager, and there's a link to buy the Drawboard PDF editor for $9.99.
Asus backs the E403NA with a one-year warranty, but you have to pay for outbound shipping if you need to send your system in for service. See how Asus fared in our Best and Worst Brand Ratings and Tech Support Showdown.
The VivoBook E403NA is a great value, with solid performance, good build quality, a full-HD display and over 8 hours of endurance. It's unfortunate, however, that the E403NA is a couple of steps behind its now-discontinued predecessor, with an hour less of battery life, a USB-C port that doesn't charge the laptop and an oddly slippery touchpad.
If you don't mind getting a 15-inch notebook that weighs 2 pounds more, go for the $349 Acer Aspire E 15 E5-575-33BM, which has much stronger performance, a more colorful screen and 1TB of storage. However, if you want the best lightweight Windows notebook for under $400, the VivoBook E403NA is made for you.
Credit: Shaun Lucas/Laptop Mag