Asus' motto declares the company to be "In search of incredible," and it may have found its target with the $399 VivoBook E403SA. Not only does this 14-inch notebook offer an extremely light and premium design, but it also boasts fantastic battery life and a sharp, 1080p display. Asus' laptop does get a little warm on the bottom and compromises a bit on screen brightness, but this sub-$400s strong build quality, solid performance and wide array of features make it one of the best bargains in tech.
The Asus VivoBook E403SA has a sleek, brushed-aluminum lid that looks like it belongs on a notebook that costs twice as much. The laptop's keyboard deck may look like it's made of the same material, but it's composed of a metal-looking plastic, which did a fine job of supporting my wrists. Two small tabs that protrude from the back of the hinge may look peculiar, but they stop the lid from scratching against flat surfaces.
Measuring 0.7 inches thick and weighing 3.18 pounds, the Asus VivoBook E403SA is thinner and lighter than the 14-inch Toshiba Satellite Radius 14 (0.83 inches, 4.5 pounds), Dell Inspiron 14 3000 (0.84 inches, 3.8 pounds), Lenovo Ideapad 300S (0.77 inches, 3.6 pounds) and the 15.6-inch Asus F555LA (1 inch, 4.6 pounds).
Ports and Webcam
Asus gave the VivoBook 403SA plenty of ports for a budget machine, including one that's a rarity at this price. On the left side of the notebook, you'll find its HDMI, USB 3.0 and USB Type-C ports, along with a headphone jack. A security lock slot, a USB 2.0 port and an SD memory reader sit on the laptop's right side.
The VivoBook's USB Type-C port supports both data transfer and charging -- provided that you buy a Type-C charger -- but it doesn't do video-out, leaving that function to the dedicated HDMI port. None of the competitors we've named offers a Type-C port at all.
The VivoBook E403SA's 0.3-megapixel webcam shot noisy selfies that appeared to have been put through a Pointillist filter, but it accurately captured the red in an office wall and the purple in my shirt.
The VivoBook E403SA's 14-inch, 1920 x 1080 display isn't the brightest or most accurate on the market, but it looks fantastic when you consider the laptop's price. Very few sub-$600 laptops have full-HD screens, while many have low-res 1366 x 768 panels. By giving users 30 percent more pixels, a 1080p screen shows a paragraph or two of additional text on web pages (or documents) and allows you to stack two nearly full-width windows side by side.
When I watched the 1080p Captain America: Civil War trailer on the VivoBook's display, skin tones weren't as warm as they should have been, but Iron Man's red and gold armor rendered accurately. The sharp panel made it easy to see every scratch and dent on the fallen War Machine.
Our colorimeter said the Asus VivoBook E403SA can produce only 68.5 percent of the sRGB spectrum, which is similar to other 14-inch budget notebooks (64 percent to 70 percent). For its class, the VivoBook also has a rather accurate display, scoring a 2.3 in the Delta-E test (where zero is perfect). That's better than the Asus F555L (6.3), Inspiron 14 3000 (4.4), Ideapad 300S (4.4), Satellite Radius 14 (3.7), and even the category average (2.8).
The VivoBook E403SA's display emits a mediocre 201 nits (a measure of brightness), which is close to the Asus F555L (198 nits), Inspiron 14 3000 (188 nits) and Satellite Radius 14 (182 nits). The Ideapad 300S (225 nits) and average thin-and-light notebook (245 nits) shine brighter. The VivoBook's panel provides decent viewing angles, as color washed out only slightly when I moved more than 45 degrees to the left or right.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The VivoBook E403SA's keyboard provides a solid typing experience, without any of the annoying flex we often find on budget laptops. The keys provide a slightly low 1.4 millimeters of travel (1.5 to 2 mm is typical) and could be snappier, but typing was comfortable overall.
On the 10fastfingers.com test, I clicked my way to 69 words per minute, which is about 15 percent below my typical 80 wpm. The layout of the keys took a minute to get used to, as the bottom-right section's Shift key is shrunken and its arrow keys are higher up than I'm used to.
The VivoBook E403SA's 4.1 x 2.8-inch buttonless touchpad accurately tracked my fingers as I navigated the desktop. The pad provided a solid feel to each click, and speedily registered three-finger Windows 10 gestures.
Asus boasts that the VivoBook features SonicMaster-enhanced audio, but I found the sound unimpressive and muddied until I changed one of its presets. Out of the box, the laptop produced enough volume to fill a medium-size living room with a mediocre version of Desiigner's "Panda," rendering its bass softly and muffling vocals.
I fixed this problem by opening the preinstalled ICEpower AudioWizard sound utility and changing its setting from the default Music mode to Movie mode. After that tweak, both music and trailers sounded more full and accurate, the drums and vocals on "Panda" sounded clearer, and the track's strong bass returned.
The VivoBook E403SA packs enough performance under the hood for solid multitasking. Asus armed the only configuration of this notebook with an Intel Pentium N3700 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of eMMC storage, but I saw no lag during my testing. When I split the screen between a streaming video and a dozen Chrome tabs -- including a Google Doc, Spotify and TweetDeck -- I jumped back and forth between tabs and typed segments of this review without encountering any stutter or delay.
The VivoBook E403SA performed reasonably well on the Geekbench 3 general performance test, where it earned a 3,341. That's greater than the Core i3-powered Asus F555L (2,080) and on a par with the Pentium N3700-powered Inspiron 14 3000 (3,413). However, this system fell behind the Core i3-powered Satellite Radius 14 (4,671) and the Core i5-powered Ideapad 300S (5,753).
Like other computers with eMMC storage, the VivoBook E403SA is slow to copy files, needing 2 minutes and 47 seconds to duplicate 4.97GB of multimedia files, for a rate of 30.1 MBps. That's within the range of its competitors (27.93 to 32.2 MBps), which sport 500GB, 5,400-rpm hard drives.
The VivoBook's budget price also showed in our OpenOffice test, where it needed 13 minutes and 31 seconds to match 20,000 names and addresses. That's close to the Inspiron 14 3000 (13:33), but the Asus F555L (6:31), Ideapad 300S (4:31) and Satellite Radius 14 (6:31) are all much quicker.
Armed solely with integrated Intel HD Graphics, the VivoBook can only run casual games such as the preinstalled Candy Crush Soda Saga and stream video from services such as Netflix. The laptop scored 26,224 on the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited gaming benchmark, which beats the Inspiron 14 3000 (24,777) but is below the Asus F555L (46,285), Ideapad 300S (52,840), Satellite Radius 14 (51,738) and category average (54,960).
The Asus VivoBook E403SA stays cool up top, but you'll feel some warmth if you use it in your lap. After we streamed 15 minutes of full-screen HD video on the notebook, our heat gun registered a hot temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit on the laptop's underside. The touchpad (79 degrees) and keyboard (84 degrees) did not breach our 95-degree comfort threshold.
If you carry the VivoBook E403SA around, you can likely leave your charger at home. Asus' laptop lasted a full 9 hours and 2 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi. The Asus F555L (5:44), Inspiron 14 3000 (6:33), Ideapad 300S (6:25) and Satellite Radius 14 (6:22) all died much more quickly.
Software and Warranty
Asus has given the notebook a few proprietary utilities, only some of which are useful. The Asus Splendid Technology display adjustment application includes an Eye Care setting to adjust the panel to emit warmer colors that may help some people sleep easier, but its Vivid and Tru2Life video clarity settings did not produce notable improvements. Asus WinFlash gives users an interface to update the BIOS, and On-Screen Display lets you enable and disable visual cues for when modes are changed.
The only configuration of the VivoBook costs $399 and packs an Intel Pentium N3700 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of eMMC storage.
Unlike a lot of 14-inch budget Windows 10 machines, the Asus VivoBook E403SA packs a full-HD (1920 x 1080) display, a premium lightweight chassis and a battery that lasts more than a full workday. The only strikes against this system are an underside that runs a little hot and speakers that require adjustment for the best sound.
If you want more performance in this price range, you're going to have to pay for it, as the Core i5-powered Ideapad 300S costs $131 more, and offers much less battery life. The 15.6-inch Asus F555LA gives you a bigger screen and costs $25 less, but it weighs a lot more, has some keyboard flex and offers less endurance. Overall, the VivoBook E403SA is one of the best laptop values on the market and a great choice for anyone who's on a budget.