Asus VivoBook Max X541SA
The VivoBook Max X541SA is a low-cost 15.6in system that’s designed for those who want to spend as little as possible while still getting something that looks and feels like a proper laptop.
From arm’s length, the silver model appears to be made from metal. The lid and keyboard surround have been designed to mimic brushed aluminium, and the lid has a silver-blue gradient. Unsurprisingly though, given its price, the X541SA is made from plastic. Like most budget laptops, the underside is also black, rather than matching the finish of the rest. (An all-white version is also available.) Similarly, the lid flexes under finger pressure. You will, however, have to accept a few build compromises like this if your budget only stretches to £300.
A perhaps more important area is the keyboard. There is some slight flexing, though not under the pressure of normal typing.
One crucial aspect to take on board is that the Asus is a laptop for home or work use, not one for taking on your travels. It weighs 2kg and is 27mm thick, which we’d consider too chunky to carry around all day.
Unlike slimmer laptops, the X541SA has an optical drive on its right side. It has a DVD multi-writer. There’s a decent spread of connections too: USB 2.0, USB 3.0 and USB-C sockets, VGA and HDMI video outputs and an Ethernet port. A full-size SD memory card slot also sits on underneath the front of the Asus. Almost no premium laptops offer VGA ports these days, but one may be essential if you have an old monitor you need to hook up.
Keyboard and trackpad
As a larger 15.6in laptop, the Asus has room for a numberpad alongside the keyboard. There’s plenty of space to go around, and no keys have been made too small as a result. The feel is a little unusual though, particularly now we’re accustomed to slim chiclet keyboards. There’s a lot of travel to the keys, but they are also springy.
In a more expensive laptop this would be a major issue, but like the all-plastic build, a slightly patchy keyboard is to be expected at this price. There’s also no backlight to help when working in a darker room, though at this price we’d have been surprised if Asus had included one.
The trackpad is solid, but again has some elements that seem rather basic. Positives include that it’s smooth, is a good size and doesn’t suffer from any annoying driver issues that make it appear to wilfully misbehave with Windows 10. On the downside, its clicker is stiff and a little harder to press than is necessary, and loud. This only becomes obvious when you try to double-click, though.
Like almost every budget laptop, the Asus has a TN screen rather than the IPS kind more popular these days. These tend to have fast response times, but almost universally look worse than their IPS cousins because of the relatively narrow viewing angles.
This doesn’t just affect looking at the screen from an extreme angle, as the character of the display alters from just a few degrees of tilt. Looking at the laptop dead on, the contrast appears different at the bottom of the screen than the top.
It’s 15.6 inches across, which gives you plenty of space to work
The VivoBook Max X541SA’s lid and keyboard surround have been designed to mimic brushed aluminium, and the lid has a silver-blue gradient
on, but as the resolution is relatively low at 1366x768 there aren’t enough pixels to make cramming in loads of windows a good idea.
Cementing its position as a home laptop rather than one to use on your travels, the maximum brightness is unremarkable at 210cd/m2 and a glossy screen finish means reflections are an issue if you’re not careful about how the laptop is angled.
Colour performance is limited too, although that’s no surprise given it’s a TN panel. The X541SA covers 59 percent of the sRGB colour standard, 41 percent of Adobe RGB and 42.2 percent of DCI P3. While not a bad result for this type of panel, it’s not suitable for editing photos. In person, though, colour is one of the screen’s stronger suits. It’s perfectly good for general use, even if the punch of its tones is reduced by the poor 344:1 contrast.
One other big sub-£300 laptop sacrifice is performance. The Asus uses an Intel Pentium N3710 CPU rather than the Core i-series processors we’d recommend to anyone using Windows 10 every day.
For a little more context, all Core i-series CPUs can be considered ‘premium’ chipsets, even the Core i3. Intel’s Pentium, Celeron and Atom models are used in lower-cost machines. For a laptop like the X541SA, the Pentium range is the best of the three. It uses more energy than an Atom, but tends to offer more power than either an Atom or Celeron chipset.
The Pentium N3710 is a quadcore CPU with a clock speed of 1.6GHz and a 2.56GHz burst mode. It offers acceptable performance with Windows 10, but we wouldn’t say much more than that. Apps take a little while to load, and the system feels less responsive than a laptop with a Core i3. It’s an important distinction as models like the HP 250 G5 offer Core i3 power for £350. That’s more money, of course, but if you use your laptop for several hours a day, we’d argue the performance boost is worth paying the extra. Core i processors run Windows 10 as Microsoft intended, while Pentiums feel compromised.
Doing much more than basic tasks such as web browsing or writing documents makes the X541SA feel distinctly sluggish. And even the basics of Windows run slower than they would in a slightly more expensive machine.
Aside from the CPU, the X541SA has 4GB DDR3 RAM and a 1TB hard drive. There’s plenty of storage, but this is a slow 5400rpm drive, which will contribute to the slightly slow feel of the operating system.
The Pentium N3710 also has a much worse GPU than the Core i3 family. It’s the Intel HD 405, making all but the most basic of gaming inadvisable. As the laptop has a 1366x768-pixel screen we couldn’t run our usual 1080p gaming tests, but even at 720p the results were terrible. With settings minimised, Thief ran at 5.9fps and Alien Isolation at 8.25fps. Neither was remotely playable, and those games slow down to 2.5fps (Thief) and 7.5fps (Alien) at native resolution with visual effects increased. If you want to play some basic titles, then the Asus should handle them just fine, but for more console-like games you’ll need to look for ones at least a decade old.
It’s also worth noting that this is a loud PC, with fans that seem to turn on regularly even when you’re doing something undemanding such as watching a video. They are not high-pitch, but have a distinct almost husky tone that is noticeable in a quiet room.
The speakers are a pleasant surprise after all that. For a cheap laptop, they’re rather good. They live behind the circular grilles above the keyboard and have a much fuller tone, and louder output, than we expected given the sacrifices elsewhere. At maximum volume you will hear some distortion with certain content, but there’s real mid-range bulk here and an approximation of bass. We’d happily watch a film on this laptop.
We wouldn’t rely on the Asus for use away from the mains for extended periods though, as the battery life is not good enough. It lasted just three hours 57 minutes playing a 720p video on loop at standard 120cd/m2 brightness (the sort of level you might use indoors).
Such pedestrian battery life is disappointing when the Pentium N3710 is still a low-power CPU with a 14nm architecture.
The Asus VivoBook Max X541SA is a laptop that’s designed for those who want a solid, cheap computer. It has some neat extras such as a large hard drive, a fake brushed metal finish and speakers that sound much better than most at the price. However, if you are looking for a computer that you’ll use extensively most days we’d strongly advise getting one with an Intel Core i3 CPU rather than the Intel Pentium used here. While it’s the ‘next best’ option, it is noticeably slower, regardless of what you’re doing. If £300, or even £400, is your maximum budget you also have to accept that you won’t get a great-looking screen. The VivoBook’s dated display technology ensures image quality is, at best, passable.
At maximum volume you will hear some distortion with certain content, but there’s real mid-range bulk here and an approximation of bass