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Asus' VivoBook X202E notebook reviewed


An affordable not-an-ultrabook
— 12:48 PM on January 16, 2013

Ultrabooks were meant to revitalize a PC notebook industry that had lost some of its swagger in the face of super-slim systems like Apple's MacBook Air. PC makers have been rolling out similarly svelte designs for a couple years now, and some of their offerings have been quite good. However, like the MacBook Air, this new breed of premium notebooks has also been rather expensive. Combine relatively high prices with the growing hype surrounding less expensive tablets, and you've got a recipe for slow sales.

Market research firm IHS initially expected 22 million ultrabooks to ship in 2012, but it cut that estimate by more than half in October and lowered its 2013 forecast by 25%. Mainstream consumers won't be interested in ultrabooks until prices drop to around $600-700, IHS says. The thing is, there's already an ultraportable notebook available in that price range. Although it may not meet Intel's strict definition for what constitutes an ultrabook, this three-pound, 11.6-incher still boasts a 17W Ivy Bridge CPU, brushed metal surfaces, USB 3.0 connectivity, and a Windows 8-friendly touchscreen. I'd like you to meet the Asus VivoBook X202E.

She's a looker, isn't she? At first glance, it's hard to believe the X202E rings in at just $550. The overall style definitely draws inspiration from Apple's aesthetic, but I'm not going to complain about clean lines and textured metal surfaces becoming available on such an inexpensive system. Besides, Asus has put its own spin the whole brushed aluminum trend with a beautifully tinted top panel that defies the monochromatic tones of modern Macs.

The subdued shade of purplish gunmetal sets the X202E apart from the mountain of MacBook wannabes on the market, and it provides a touch of warmth to the otherwise cold metal exterior. This isn't one of those all-metal unibody designs, though. The chassis' metal pieces are complemented by plastic parts, including the entire bottom panel and the strip running across the front edge of the lid.

Asus has resisted the urge to polish those pieces to a fingerprint-prone shine, allowing the X202E to maintain its classy looks even after a busy day in the real world—mostly, anyway. Glossy screens are hard to avoid these days, and adding touch to the equation invites plenty of ugly streaks. Of course, you don't have to use the X202E's touchscreen. Like Window 8's Modern UI Start screen, it's there but can be easily ignored.

While the VivoBook's body isn't metal throughout, you wouldn't know it by picking up the thing. One perceives only the slightest hint of flex when holding the notebook by the front corner of the palm rest. The brushed slab that comprises the palm rest and keyboard tray likely deserves a lot of credit for the structural rigidity. As an added bonus, the metal skin looks and feels a lot more expensive than you might expect from a system that costs 550 bucks.

Despite the fact that the VivoBook hasn't dieted down to meet ultrabook standards, the chassis is only 0.85" thick. There are certainly thinner designs out there, but in my experience, shaving a few millimeters off a notebook doesn't yield practical benefits beyond the initial "hey, cool, it's thinner" reaction. Spread the VivoBook's three-pound weight over its relatively small 12" x 8" footprint, and you've got a system that's equally comfortable tucked in a bag or propped on a lap.

Processor Intel Core i3-3217U 1.8GHz
Memory 4GB DDR3-1333 (Soldered single channel)
Chipset Intel HM76 Express
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4000
Display 11.6" TN panel with 1366x768 resolution
Storage 500GB Hitachi ZSK500 5,400 RPM hard drive
Audio HD audio via Via codec
Ports 1 USB 3.0
2 USB 2.0
1 10/100 Fast Ethernet
1 HDMI
1 VGA
1 analog headphone/analog microphone
Expansion slots 1 SD card reader
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Atheros AR9485
Bluetooth 4.0
10/100Mbps Ethernet
Input devices Chiclet keyboard
Asus Clickpad
Internal microphone
Camera HD webcam
Dimensions 11.9" x 7.9" x 0.85" (303 x 200 x 21.7 mm)
Weight Laptop: 3.14 lbs (1.42 kg)
AC adapter: 0.32 lbs (145 g)
Battery 38 Wh polymer battery

For such a portable, reasonably priced system, the X202E is pretty well equipped. The 17W, Ivy-based Core i3-3217U CPU is the very same chip used by less expensive ultrabooks. This duallie is clocked at 1.8GHz, and it can execute four threads in parallel via Hyper-Threading. There's no support for Turbo Boost or AES-NI acceleration, though.

The Core i3 features the same Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics as other notebook-bound Ivy Bridge chips. However, in the X202E, the processor's built-in GPU will be somewhat hampered by Asus' choice of memory configurations. While the Core i3 has dual memory channels that support memory speeds up to 1600MHz, the X202E's RAM runs at 1333MHz, and it hangs off just one of the CPU's dual channels. That means peak memory bandwidth will be less than half what it ought to be.

Depriving the Core i3 of one of its memory channels is kind of like deflating one of an athlete's lungs—and with the slower RAM on top of that, making them breathe through a snorkel. Since the processor's CPU and GPU share the same pool of system memory, bandwidth is critically important. We'll explore the real-world performance implications in a moment, but first, let's continue our tour with a closer look at the display.