In the driver's seat
Arguably even more important than the hardware inside the U33Jc are the interfaces that greet the user: the screen, the keyboard, and the touchpad. These three components make up the cockpit, and unlike with desktops, you can't swap them out for something different. What you see is what you get... and what you're stuck with.
Opening the U33Jc reveals a 13.3" screen with a 1366x768 display resolution. This screen size is probably the best fit for what is fast becoming the de facto display resolution for laptops between 11.6 and 15 inches. Higher resolution options are typically only available on 14" and larger systems, with Lenovo's ThinkPad X300 series being a notable and expensive exception.
Like the displays in most affordable laptops, this one relies on a TN panel with a glossy coating. Picture quality is clear and crisp if you're looking at the screen dead on, but like most TN panels, the colors get washed out as the viewing angle increases. Sitting directly in front of the screen, as one tends to do when using a laptop solo, renders the limited horizontal viewing angles a non-issue. There's plenty of tilt range in the lid to mitigate the shallow vertical viewing angles, too.
I generally prefer matte displays to the glossy variety because the latter tends to produce annoying reflections that are difficult to ignore. Cranking the brightness can make reflections more difficult to see, but there's not enough power in the U33Jc's LED backlight to overcome the screen's reflectivity completely in normal indoor lighting. The screen feels a little dim, and whites don't become perfectly pristine until you push the brightness right up to 100%. When placed side-by-side with my 11.6" Acer ultraportable, the U33Jc's screen looks just a little bit darker. You certainly don't get the gobs of extra brightness available with some of Asus' budget netbooks.
Shortcomings aside, this isn't a bad display overall. I can't name a comparably priced notebook with a screen that looks significantly better, although I do wonder just how much more Asus would have to charge for the U33Jc to equip it with a nicer IPS panel. The fact that this system looks and feels much better than the average notebook makes the pedestrian screen all the more noticeable, at least to me.
The U33Jc might have a decidedly average screen, but its keyboard is considerably better than the norm. In a word, it's excellent. And that's coming from someone who spends all day typing and is particularly picky about keyboard quality.
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||297 mm||105 mm||31,185 mm²||168 mm||54 mm||9,072 mm²|
|Versus full size||103%||95%||99%||98%||95%||93%|
Asus doesn't use all of the width available in the chassis, but there's still more than enough room to stretch your fingers. According to my ruler, the keyboard's crucial alpha-key area measures nearly full size. The directional pad uses full-height keys, and there are no layout quirks or other oddities. You even get page up and page down buttons right on top of each other, as they should be.
The chiclet-style keys have a matte finish that won't get marked up by fingerprints. They're flat rather than contoured, but the well-defined gaps between the keys make it easy to keep one's fingers centered on the home row.
More than anything else, it's the feel of the keyboard that has me smitten. The keys look like they're set into a billet of solid aluminum, and they feel just that sturdy. You won't find any mushiness or flex while typing, and pressing down hard on the middle of the keyboard barely makes it buckle.
Key travel is adequate, and there's a good amount of tactile feedback at the beginning and end of each stroke. At speed, those keystrokes bottom out with a muted but satisfying cha-chunk that's like music to my ears.
Asus' bamboo treatment permeates the palm rest and covers the touchpad, whose area is reasonably generous and nicely defined by a shallow border. The surface is perfectly smooth, making tracking fluid and precise with no break-in period required. The see-saw single button is nice and clicky, too.
Early samples of the U33Jc used a touchpad from Elantech, but production units have moved to Synaptics hardware to bring more multi-touch goodness to the table. Work still needs to be done on the driver frontor at least the driver distribution front. Our review unit arrived with touchpad drivers from 2009 that offered little in the way of multi-touch functionality. The newer drivers available on Asus' support site aren't much of an improvement, either. Only after digging around in online forums was I able to obtain a generic Synaptics driver that supports multi-touch and chiral scrolling along with a smattering of other gestures. If Asus is serious about gesture support, it needs to ensure that the U33Jc makes use of all the multi-touch features available in Synaptics latest drivers. Those drivers should at the very least be available for download from Asus' support site if not installed on each and every U33Jc that Asus ships.
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