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 1366×768, 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 1366×768 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 (1366×768) 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?
Apples and oranges
For a fairly run-of-the-mill Windows laptop, the U30Jc looks surprisingly tasteful. Aluminum with a subtle purple tinge covers the display lid and palm rest, contrasting with plastic highlights and a black, glossy display bezel.
Asus ships the notebook wrapped in at least a half-dozen removable plastic sheets that keep its various surfaces pristine. Thankfully, the palm-rest stickers come on one of those sheets. The only sticker that remains after unwrapping lies at the top right of the keyboard, next to the power button, advertising a “green LED backlit panel,” DDR3 memory, and a brushed aluminum exterior—an odd choice of bullet points to pimp the U30Jc’s qualities. Like all the other stickers, though, this last one can be removed, leaving its host clean as a whistle.
With dimensions of 12.9″ x 9.4″ x 0.8-1.2″ and a weight of 4.6 lbs for the six-cell model, the U30Jc is definitely not slender or light enough to be part of the ultraportable club. It’s even a little plump compared to my late-2008 MacBook, which has an all-aluminum enclosure and a similar 13.3″ display.
At 12.8″ x 8.9″ x 0.95″, the MacBook’s enclosure is tighter, and it gives the system (as well as newer, Pro-branded successors) a sturdier overall feel than just about any Windows notebook, including the U30Jc. The all-metal design also doesn’t have a negative impact on overall weight, since the Mac only tips the scales at 4.5 lbs with a battery rated for 10 hours of run time.
Of course, even the latest 13.3″ MacBook Pro contains a platform distinctly older than the U30Jc’s. That’s because Apple outfits it with a Core 2 Duo processor, as opposed to the Asus laptop’s freshly released Core Mobile CPU. To make matters worse, the MacBook Pro starts at a pricey $1,199. (Admittedly, though, word around the web is that the MacBook Pro’s GeForce 320M integrated graphics chipset has more stream processors than the U30Jc’s discrete GeForce 310M.)
The display and the controls
Now that we’re through with comparisons of dubious relevance, let’s take a closer look at the U30Jc’s cockpit. Like many recent notebooks, the U30Jc display has a 16:9 aspect ratio and a 1366×768 resolution. That resolution seems almost omnipresent these days, having permeated everything from 11.6″ ultraportables to big-honkin’ 15.6″ desktop replacements—plus, let’s not forget, a good percentage of smaller HDTVs.
1366×768 looks just right on a 13.3″ panel, though. The pixels are a little smaller than on a typical desktop monitor, but that’s only normal, since folks tend to sit closer to their laptops than desktops. The most important thing is that text at the default font setting looks neither too large nor too small, so web browsing doesn’t get uncomfortable over time. Quite the contrary.
The U30Jc’s display looks crisp enough, but its brightness didn’t really wow us. That’s unfortunate, because a glossy display finish really ought to go hand-in-hand with a very bright backlight. Otherwise, anything other than a solid white background will reflect the laptop’s user and anything behind him. That aluminum MacBook we saw on the previous page has a noticeably brighter display, and I still find the reflectiveness a problem when using it in a well-lit environment or with a light source behind me.
Asus defaults to a somewhat high color temperature, so the image has a pretty strong blue tinge out of the box. Conveniently, however, one can switch between several color profiles by holding down the Fn key and hitting C. The “Gamma Correction” profile seems most akin to my own desktop monitor, but your mileage—and personal preference—may vary.
Otherwise, the U30Jc’s display has a pretty run-of-the-mill TN panel with the accompanying caveats. Viewing angles are unsurprisingly mediocre, especially vertically, so you may feel an urge to adjust the display angle anytime your sitting position changes. You wouldn’t have any luck finding a PVA or IPS panel in the U30Jc’s price range, of course. TN panels are pretty much a given for notebooks like these, even if they happen to sport Apple logos.
Looking down brings us to the U30Jc’s keyboard, which has one of those newfangled chiclet designs. I might be biased, because I use a similar chiclet keyboard on my desktop, but typing on this laptop feels pleasantly smooth and natural. Keystrokes aren’t met with a whole lot of tactile feedback, but the keys bottom out with a faint yet satisfying clicking sound when depressed. The keyboard flexes when pushed down, but not enough to become bothersome during a typing session. Finally, the keys are a little small compared to those of our reference laptop (as the table below illustrates), but they’re in the same league as what you’ll find on Apple laptops.
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||295 mm||104 mm||30,680 mm²||168 mm||52||8,736 mm²|
|Versus full size||103%||95%||97%||98%||91%||89%|
The keyboard design doesn’t deserve sole credit for the U30Jc’s typing comfort, because it has a great sidekick: the brushed aluminum palm rest. Set your wrists down on this bad boy, and you should feel no flex, no creaking, and no heat emanating from the laptop’s internal components. None of that clingy, smudgy awfulness from those all-too-common glossy plastic palm rests, either. Sure, the aluminum feels a little cool to the touch when you first open up the system after some inactivity, but that’s a small price to pay for the overall comfort and solidity. (Speaking of cool, the U30Jc’s internal cooling system does a nice job of keeping the keyboard itself from heating up, even in games.)
Let your eyes drift farther south, and they’ll come across the U30Jc’s touchpad. This Elantech specimen has basic multi-touch functionality that lets you scroll with two fingers, right-click by tapping with three fingers, and middle-click by tapping with two.
Asus also provides a thin see-saw-style button for those who don’t like tapping to click. Can you see, in the image above, how the button has a glossy, almost chrome-like finish? Yours will never look like that, because it’ll be covered with finger smudges all the time. For a company that had the good sense to use a matte palm rest and display lid, applying a glossy finish to the one surface that serves no purpose other than to come in contact with fingers seems… puzzling. Aesthetics aren’t the button’s only problem: it actually sits recessed from the palm rest surface, so you have to apply pressure with your thumb angled down in an uncomfortable fashion to register a click.
Tap to click works well, thankfully, but several things about the tracking area bug me. Out of the box, the surface feels like a plate that’s just come out of the dishwasher. You’ll have to spend a few hours using the U30Jc (and presumably greasing it up with your skin’s natural oils) before the tracking area is smooth enough to drag a finger across without it skipping. Additionally, two-finger scrolling and drag-and-dropping seem oddly unreliable, like the touchpad sometimes forgets your fingers are on it. After a few mishaps, I had to configure the software to require a second tap to drop a dragged item. That seemed to do the trick, although scrolling still felt a little finicky. Updating the touchpad drivers didn’t seem to help.
Connectivity and expansion
Like all laptops, the U30Jc also has an assortment of ports, connectors, and expansion areas. Asus didn’t venture outside the norm here, outfitting the system with VGA, HDMI, dual USB, 3.5-mm headphone, and 3.5-mm microphone ports on the left side…
…and a tray-loading DVD burner, USB port, Ethernet port, and power connector on the right. (The U30Jc’s left edge also houses a Kensington security slot and a fan exhaust vent, in case you were wondering what those gaps are.)
Asus deserves props for that lone USB port on the right flank, which will come in handy should you ever need to use a bulky USB device that blocks adjacent ports—like, oh, maybe Corsair’s plump Padlock 2 thumb drive. I do wish the DVD drive were a little farther back, though. I’ve accidentally pushed the tray unlocking button several times now when trying to turn the laptop toward the left.
Flipping the laptop over reveals a nicely even bottom area, with no fan exhausts that might get blocked off when the laptop sits on your lap.
Asus nevertheless provides very easy access to the memory and hard drives; removing two screws and popping off a plastic panel will do the trick in both cases. The battery comes off, too, but a pair of locking clips keep it nicely secure the rest of the time. Thanks to a pair of rubber pads inside the battery bay, there’s pretty much no discernible play even if you try pushing the battery back and forth. I’ve seen loose batteries in even notoriously well-built machines like Lenovo ThinkPads, so the pads are nice touch that really contributes to the U30Jc’s solid feel.
Our testing methods
We like tall bar graphs here at TR, so we’ve decided to compare the U30Jc to four other systems that passed through our labs recently: the Acer Aspire Timeline 1380T, Asus K42F, Asus UL80Vt, and Dell Studio 14z. Both Asus systems have special “Battery-saving” modes, which we’ve used in our battery life comparisons. We also tested the UL80Vt in its “Turbo” mode, which overclocks the processor. Other laptops were run in their default configurations, as was the U30Jc for straight performance tests.
Some might call this comparison strange, since we’re bringing together pretty different machines, including two ultraportables with slow CPUs and integrated graphics. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Without knowing exactly how much better—if at all—the U30Jc performs compared to cheaper, lighter systems, we wouldn’t learn a whole lot from this exercise.
With the exception of battery life, all tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.
|System||Acer Aspire AS3810-6415 Timeline||Asus K42F||Asus U30Jc||Asus UL80Vt-A1||Dell Studio 14z|
|Processor||Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 1.4GHz||Intel Core i5-540M 2.53GHz||Intel Core i3-350M 2.26GHz||Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 1.3GHz||Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 2.4GHz|
|North bridge||Intel GS45||Intel HM55 Express||Intel HM55 Express||Intel GS45||Nvidia GeForce 9400M G|
|South bridge||Intel ICH9M||Intel ICH9M|
|Memory size||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||3GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz|
|Audio||Realtek codec with 188.8.131.5207 drivers||Realtek codec with 184.108.40.20639 drivers||Realtek codec with 220.127.116.1129 drivers||Realtek codec with 18.104.22.16898 drivers||IDT codec with 22.214.171.12417 drivers|
|Graphics||Intel GMA X4500MHD with 126.96.36.1996 drivers||Intel GMA HD with 188.8.131.525 drivers||Intel GMA HD with 184.108.40.2061 drivers||Intel GMA X4500MHD with 220.127.116.112 drivers
Nvidia GeForce G210M with 18.104.22.16888 drivers
|Nvidia GeForce 9400M G with 22.214.171.12419 drivers|
|Hard drive||Toshiba HDD2HD21 500GB 5,400 RPM||Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM||Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B 320GB 5,400-RPM||Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB 5,400 RPM|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Ultimate x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64|
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Firefox 3.5.3
- Adobe Flash 10.0.32.18
- x264 HD Benchmark 2.0 with x264 version 0.59.819
- 7-Zip 4.65 x64
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
In Peacekeeper, the U30Jc is second only to Asus’ own K42F, which has a faster Core i3 CPU. Strangely, however, Dell’s Core 2-powered Studio 14z has an edge over the U30Jc in GUIMark. Perhaps the version of Adobe’s Flash plug-in we used, which doesn’t tap the GPU for acceleration, favors the Dell laptop’s higher CPU clock speed (2.4GHz, compared to 2.26GHz for the U30Jc). Either way, a production-ready, GPU-accelerated version of Flash is long overdue.
7-Zip’s built-in benchmark should strain our laptops a little more evenly, especially since it’s nicely multithreaded.
Now, that’s more like it. The Core i3-based systems pull well ahead of the competition, with the U30Jc outperforming Acer’s Aspire 3810 Timeline ultraportable by a factor of more than two. We’ll soon see how the extra performance affects battery life, but it’s pretty clear that the U30Jc packs a mean punch compared to cheaper ultraportables.
Our two-pass video encoding test gives us the same rankings as 7-Zip, with a similar gap between the 3810T and the U30Jc. The Studio 14z’s Core 2 is put in its place, as well.
With a Core i3 and a discrete GeForce, you can pretty much guarantee a laptop like the U30Jc will tear through even the most graphically intensive of 1080p videos. Still, we wanted to probe CPU usage in various playback scenarios, so we opened up some videos and monitored Windows 7’s Task Manager while playing back each, all the while jotting down our subjective impressions.
We used Windows Media Player to handle all playback tests and Firefox for our windowed YouTube HD test.
|Alice in Wonderland QuickTime 720p||10-25%||Perfect|
|Avatar QuickTime 1080p||9-33%||Perfect|
|DivX PAL SD||1-10%||Perfect|
|720p YouTube HD windowed||4-16%||Perfect|
Even playing the Avatar trailer, we only registered a maximum CPU utilization of 33% on the U30Jc. The average was well below that. Again, you need not worry about video playback smoothness on a system like this one.
Each laptop’s battery was run down completely and recharged before each of our battery life tests. We used a 40% brightness settings on all displays except for the Aspire Timeline’s, which we cranked up to 50%. (We found the Timeline’s 50% setting more directly comparable to the 40% settings of the K42F, UL80Vt, and Studio 14z.)
For our web surfing test, we opened a Firefox window with two tabs: one for TR and another for Shacknews. These tabs were set to reload automatically every 30 seconds over Wi-Fi, and we left Bluetooth enabled on systems that include it (the UL30Jc does not). Our second battery life test involves movie playback. Here, we looped a standard-definition video of the sort one might download off BitTorrent, using Windows Media Player for playback. We disabled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth across the board, too.
Over seven hours of web browsing definitely isn’t half bad for a system with discrete graphics and a regular-voltage mobile CPU. Admittedly, we only obtained that number using the U30Jc’s special “Battery Saving” preset, which switches off Aero, changes the desktop wallpaper, and throttles the CPU to 60% of its top clock speed or less. Using the default “Entertainment” preset with the CPU unhampered and no user-interface tomfoolery took us down to 6.5 hours, which is hardly anything to be embarrassed about.
The U30Jc strays from ultraportable territory in our movie playback test, where either power preset gives us less than five hours of run time. Oddly, the “Battery Saving” preset gave us a worse result here.
Getting down and dirty with the GeForce 310M
You didn’t think we were going to let an Optimus laptop through our labs without some gaming tests, did you? Our goal here was simply to find out whether the U30Jc can yield playable frame rates in a handful of recent games, and what kinds of compromises are needed to do so. We tinkered with settings while keeping an eye on frame rates using FRAPS and jotting down our experiences.
With sophisticated post-processing effects running atop a tweaked Unreal Engine 3, Borderlands has the chops to stress even the fastest GPUs out there. Unfortunately, the U30Jc’s GeForce 310M will force you to write off most of the eye candy. We were able to get frame rates in the 20-30 FPS range at the native 1366×768 resolution only after disabling dynamic shadows, ambient occlusion, bloom, depth of field, flare-outs, and anisotropic filtering. Keeping the other settings on “High” posed no problem, leaving us with flat but otherwise sharp and relatively smooth graphics.
Left 4 Dead 2 is a different story, since even the latest and greatest version of Valve’s Source Engine has very light hardware requirements. This cooperative zombie epic didn’t disappoint, giving us very playable frame rates (25 to 50 FPS) at 1366×768 with everything cranked up except for antialiasing, anisotropic filtering, and v-sync, which we left off.
My copy of Call of Duty 4 is somewhere in a shipping container traversing the Atlantic right now, so in its absence, I tested Call of Duty: World at War, which is based on the same engine but has slightly higher hardware requirements (and, sadly, less interesting gameplay).
Here, getting smooth performance in the first level involved disabling specular maps, dropping textures to “normal,” and setting the number of corpses on screen to “small.” Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering were disabled, as well. Remaining at 1366×768 with those settings yielded frame rates in the 20-30 FPS range, which, again, proved playable enough.
We wrapped up our gaming tests with the Need for Speed: Shift demo, which gave us a glimpse at what happens when Optimus doesn’t work just right. When we loaded the demo from the Start menu, the title screen was missing its background, and attempts to start a new game resulted in crashes. We eventually figured out that the game was trying to run on the Intel integrated graphics.
Getting this demo to load on the GeForce involved going into the Nvidia control panel, selecting “Add ‘Run with graphics processor’ Option to Context Menu” in the View menu, then hunting down the game executable in the Program Files directory, right-clicking it, and picking the Nvidia graphics in the “Run with graphics processor” submenu. That menu option also showed up when we right-clicked the shortcut in the Start menu, but selecting it there didn’t do anything. Go figure.
All that effort wasn’t quite worth it, as it turns out, because Need for Speed: Shift (or at least, the demo we tried to play) just didn’t want to run well on the U30Jc. We stepped down to 1280×800 with trilinear filtering, low detail, no shadows, and no motion blur. Those settings produced fairly ugly graphics and frame rates in the 25-35 FPS range, which actually felt a little choppy in the game’s fast-paced races. As for resolutions below 1280×800, those somehow didn’t work in full-screen mode.
Anyway, that’s three out of four for games on the U30Jc—not too shabby, especially considering the GeForce 310M GPU’s low-end pedigree. This isn’t a gaming laptop by any stretch of the term, but unlike most ultraportables and underpowered desktop replacements, the U30Jc will allow you to join your pals in a multiplayer shooter or two while you’re on the go. As for that snag with Optimus, Nvidia tells us it simply prioritizes support for full games over demos.
From the moment I peeled off the protective stickers and started it up, the U30Jc impressed me with its snappy performance, sleek palm rest, and comfortable keyboard. Windows 7 screams on this machine, and even with a 5,400-RPM hard drive, I don’t notice much of a slowdown compared to my quad-core Core i5 desktop. Considering the very respectable battery life results and the fact that this machine has a fairly capable discrete graphics processor, it’s hard not to see the U30Jc’s appeal.
Since the beginning, I’ve also been a little disappointed by this laptop’s touchpad. The button is glossy and recessed too deeply in the palm rest, and both scrolling and drag-and-dropping seem unreliable. That’s a shame, because the touchpad is arguably the single most important input device on a laptop. You could carry a wireless mouse around, but you’d need a USB adapter for it—remember this particular U30Jc model lacks built-in Bluetooth connectivity. I’d hardly call the U30Jc’s touchpad unusable, since it works just fine 95% of the time, but this laptop would be so much better if that number were 100%.
The display could also stand to be a little brighter, especially in light of the glossy finish. As evidenced by its battery life, the U30Jc clearly isn’t meant to be tethered at someone’s desk all day. However, the somewhat dim, reflective LCD panel could make mobile use more awkward than it needs to be.
Those two nitpicks aside, the U30Jc presents a very compelling package to users seeking a powerful desktop replacement that’s not the size of a small car. 13.3″ notebooks can offer the best blend of portability and performance, and Asus has done a great job of tapping into that potential. Of course, this blend comes at a price, since the U30Jc costs a good 100 bucks more than 13.3″ ultraportables like Asus’ own UL30A. In the end, your choice will likely hinge on just what you need your laptop to do for you.