With the steady stream of consumer ultraportables flooding the market, regular laptops with reasonably powerful hardware and compact enclosures have become a whole lot less glamorous—and harder to come by. Step into your local electronics store, and you'll probably find multitudes of larger 14" and 15.6" systems, often with resolutions no higher than 1366x768, sitting alongside netbooks and mildly underpowered ultrathins. What happened to all the nice, vanilla 13" laptops?
The system we're looking at today is part of this seemingly endangered breed. It has a 1366x768 display resolution, but married to a 13.3" panel where that number of pixels actually looks good. A Core i3 processor and discrete Nvidia graphics provide plenty of horsepower, but they're enclosed within a reasonably compact and eminently portable enclosure. And thanks in part to Nvidia's Optimus graphics switching technology, this thing has purportedly great battery life, too.
We're talking, of course, about the Asus U30Jc, whose North American debut we covered only a couple weeks ago. On paper, the notebook ticks all the right boxes for a system just above the consumer ultraportable class yet below the desktop replacement category. Is the U30Jc as good as it sounds? Let's find out.
The U30Jc has another noteworthy trait beside its form factor: that of being one of the very first laptops with both a mobile Core i3, i5, or i7 processor and Optimus-enabled graphics. That's quite a combination. Our test system's Core i3-350M should pack a mean punch with two cores, four threads, and a 2.26GHz top clock speed. The discrete Nvidia graphics processor should also provide some measure of game-worthiness without really eating into battery life, since Optimus switches that GPU on and off dynamically—and seamlessly—depending on what the user is doing.
Admittedly, the GeForce 310M Asus chose for this system probably won't knock your socks off. This part features the same 40-nm GT218 GPU as the older GeForce 210M and the recently announced next-generation Ion, so it has very clear entry-level credentials. Still, with 16 stream processors, 512MB of dedicated memory, and Nvidia drivers primed for gaming and GPU computing applications, the GeForce can't be called an unwelcome addition to the U30Jc. We'll find out a little later if it has enough brawn for proper PC gaming.
When the U30Jc's GeForce isn't on, the Core i3's integrated graphics component handles menial duties like rendering the Windows 7 desktop with Aero effects and playing back some standard-definition video. Simply dubbed Intel HD Graphics, this integrated GPU resides in the CPU package and sits on the same piece of silicon as the processor's memory controller. We saw in our Core Mobile review that this new IGP is substantially less mediocre than Intel Graphics Media Accelerators of old, yet its performance still falls well behind that of even an Nvidia IGP running on an older Core 2 platform.
For the geeks out there, here's a complete look at the U30Jc's specs, from the hard drive to the battery:
|Processor||Intel Core i3-350M 2.26GHz|
|Memory||4GB DDR3-1066 (2 DIMMs)|
|Chipset||Intel HM55 Express|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce 310M 512MB|
|Display||13.3" TFT with WXGA (1366x768) resolution and LED backlight|
|Storage||Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B 320GB 2.5" 5,400-RPM hard drive|
|Optical||Hitachi-LG Data Storage HL-DT-ST GT30N DVD writer|
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec|
|Ports||3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet via Atheros controller
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
|Communications||802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Intel WiFi Link 1000 BGN|
|Input devices||"19.0 mm size" keyboard
|Dimensions||12.9" x 9.4" x 0.8-1.2" (328 x 238 x 20-30 mm)|
|Weight||~4.6 lbs (~2 kg)|
|Battery||8-cell Li-Ion 5600 mAh|
Nothing besides the Core i3 and Optimus tag team strays too far out of the ordinary. Four gigs of memory is becoming increasingly widespread on consumer systems, and the expansion and connectivity options pretty much meet our expectations for a system of this caliber... except for the U30Jc's lack of Bluetooth connectivity, which is a strange omission.
Asus lists a few different configurations of the U30Jc on its website. You can step down to the Core i3-330M or climb all the way up to the Core i7-620M, whose cores can peak at 3.33GHz thanks to Turbo Boost. Other options include higher-capacity 5,400-RPM or 7,200-RPM hard drives, different editions of Windows, a six-cell 4,400-mAh battery, a Blu-ray drive, and Bluetooth. Only one flavor of the U30Jc looks to be available at major online retailers like Amazon and Newegg right now, however: the same one we're reviewing today, listed at $899.99 and available for a little less.
Almost 900 bones might not seem particularly affordable relative to the endless procession of bargain ultraportables, but remember that those systems have very low-power processors—often of the single-core variety—running alongside crummy, previous-gen integrated graphics. With the U30Jc, Asus lets users spend a little more for hardware that more closely resembles what they'd find in a desktop PC. That extra speed can come in very handy for doing actual work, or when, for some reason or other, one's laptop temporarily takes over as one's primary computer. You wouldn't want to run Photoshop on a 1.2GHz Celeron M, now, would you?
Before we take a look at performance, let's first get a little more familiar with the U30Jc's physique and ergonomics. Is this system as sleek and slender as it should be? And what about that chiclet keyboard and wide-screen display—are they any good?