Asus’ bamboo-infused U33Jc 13-inch notebook

Manufacturer Asus
Model U33Jc-A1
Price (Street) $999
Availability Now

The PC industry has committed a great many crimes against fashion and design. For years, PCs were little more than bland, beige boxes with all the aesthetic appeal of a mid-80s K-Car. Almost entirely devoid of distinctiveness, these so-called clones made the desktop landscape look like an endless subdivision of stuccoed sameness. No wonder folks thought PCs were boring.

In response to this abject dullness, enthusiasts and the companies that targeted them decided to walk a different path. Think Pimp My Ride, but with computers… and very little restraint. Before long, high-end PCs were lit up with more neon than a seedy porno district. They pulsed with the seizure-inducing strobing of LED-bedazzled fans and glowed with enough UV-reactive elements to fill a teenage stoner’s bedroom. That’s great if you take your stylistic cues from The Fast and the Furious, but it’s a little gaudy for the rest of us.

Apparently, notebook makers figured the rest of us wanted glossy plastics. You know, the kind that look all nice and shiny when buffed up on retail shelves and in promotional pictures. The very same that instantly pick up a mess of fingerprints and smudges, even when caressed with hands obsessively sanitized in fear of the next global pandemic. Glossy plastic doesn’t look that bad if it goes untouched after polishing, but for notebooks that tend to be handled constantly, it’s an epic failure of design.

Artistic merit tends to count for more with laptops because they can’t be tucked discretely under a desk or otherwise hidden from view. In fact, for many users, notebooks have started to replace desktops entirely. Even for those of us with powerful desktops, portable PCs have become almost omnipresent accessories. They should look good, and precious few do.

I suppose that’s why I was so impressed with Asus’ collection of bamboo-infused notebooks when the company revealed a series of new designs at the Consumer Electronics Show last year. Asus had done bamboo before in the U2E and U6V, but those were premium notebooks that debuted with price tags hovering around $2000. The new bamboo treatment on display at CES was coming to more affordable systems, and it arrived in our labs wrapped around a 13.3″ U33Jc that sells for only a grand. That’s not bad for a thin-and-light system with a Core i3 CPU, Optimus graphics, and USB 3.0 connectivity. And one thing is guaranteed: no other notebook in its class looks quite like the U33Jc.

Obviously, bamboo is the star of the show here. Versions of Asus’ U2E and U6V ultraportables have been available with bamboo accents for quite some time, and for them, a labor-intensive process was used to bond bamboo to plastic panels. According to Asus, this process required a lengthy cure time for the adhesive to set, and the results weren’t always consistent.

For its new bamboo series, Asus experimented with several different methods before settling on a “3D in-mold decoration” technique that combines an ABS plastic frame, a non-woven geotextile base material, and bamboo sheets just 0.16-0.45 millimeters thick. These elements are bonded together, and a surface coating provides a measure of protection for the bamboo outer layer.

Perhaps due to the subtle sheen imparted by the surface treatment used, the bamboo panels look a little more like laminate flooring than real wood. The grain still comes across nicely through the smooth top coat, but the color isn’t quite right for something that’s supposed to look like bamboo. Asus’ marketing slides officially refer to the tone as “smoky brown bamboo,” and it’s much darker than the more traditional shade seen on the U2E and U6V.

I’d prefer a lighter, more authentic hue, but the richness of the darker wood does add a measure of old-world charm. Combined with copious amounts of brushed aluminum, the pseudo-mahogany paneling reminds me of the dashboard of a Jaguar or an Aston Martin: luxurious and high-tech at the same time.

The muted grains of the wood and metal play off each other nicely without being too busy. I’m a total sucker for brushed aluminum finishes, but there’s a certain sterility and coldness to all-metal designs. On the U33Jc, the wood adds a measure of warmth that definitely softens the overall look and feel of the system.

Speaking of feel, laying your mitts all over the U33Jc won’t impart a mess of smudges and fingerprints. Greased up digits fresh from a bucket of the Colonel’s Original Recipe will still leave their mark, but the aluminum and wood surfaces tolerate handling much better than glossy and polished plastics.

Unfortunately, Asus couldn’t resist the lure of gloss completely. A faux-chrome band runs around the edge of the system and easily picks up fingerprints, one of which you can see illustrated above. The very same finger left no lasting evidence on either the brushed aluminum or bamboo panels.

Because the chrome is largely limited to thin strips in areas that aren’t manhandled constantly, smudges on the mirror-like finish aren’t as obvious with day-to-day usage. However, the same can’t be said for the glossy black plastic that rings the screen. The bezel that gets touched each and every time the U33Jc is opened is a fingerprint magnet, and when the laptop’s open, all those smudges are right in front of you.

Fortunately, the unsightly blemishes that accumulate on the U33Jc’s few glossy elements don’t ruin the overall look of the laptop. I only point them out because they’re in stark contrast with the rest of the system’s surfaces, which are much more resilient.

Asking Taiwanese notebook makers to drop glossy plastics completely is like trying to get Amy Winehouse to go cold turkey. Ain’t gonna happen. But Asus appears to have gone to rehab, and it apparently came back inspired. You might not like the wood and aluminum combo, but there’s no denying that Asus has realized a unique design with the U33Jc. I think it looks gorgeous.

Thin, light, and loaded

Asus’ bold new bamboo aesthetic will be available on 13″, 14″, and 15″ systems in the U33, U43, and U53 families. I’m sure you can guess which is which. Those three lines should nicely cover the meat of the mobile market, as nearly 70% of TR readers expect their next notebook to fall within that range.

As someone whose notebook complements a primary desktop rather than replaces it, I tend to prefer my portables as thin and light as possible without sacrificing usability. The U33Jc may not be the thinnest or the lightest 13.3″ system around, but it’s certainly easy to carry. Here’s how it looks posed with my 11.6″ Acer Aspire 1810TZ.

The 13.3″ U33Jc is bigger than the 11.6″ Acer. Shocking, I know. With dimensions of 13.1″ x 9.5″ x 0.8-1.2″ and a weight of just a hair under four pounds, Asus hasn’t starved the U33Jc into supermodel territory. The system has more of an athletic build: it’s a little thick, but solid and trim.

Oh, and muscular, too. Under its bamboo shell, the U33Jc-A1 model ripples with a Core i3-370M CPU that has two cores and can execute four threads at once thanks to Hyper-Threading. Although it lacks Turbo Boost functionality, the 370M is designed to run at 2.4GHz when under load. At idle, the CPU multiplier drops from 18X to 10X, cutting the core clock speed nearly in half. This isn’t a fancy ultra-low-voltage model, so the CPU’s TDP is a fairly pedestrian 35W. (Low- and ultra-low-voltage Core 2010 mobile CPUs have 25W and 18W TDP ratings, respectively.)

Processor Intel Core i3-370M 2.4GHz
Memory 4GB DDR3-1066 (2 DIMMs)
Chipset Intel HM55
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GT 310M with 1GB GDDR3
Display 13.3″ TFT with WXGA (1366×768) resolution and LED backlight
Storage Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 2.5″ 5,400 RPM hard drive
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 2 USB 2.0

1 USB 3.0

1 HDMI

1 RJ45 10/100/1000 Ethernet via Atheros AR8131

1 analog headphone output

1 analog microphone input

Expansion slots 1 MMC/SDHC
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Intel WiFi Link 1000

Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR

Input devices Chiclet keyboard

Synaptics capacitive touchpad

Internal microphone

Camera 2.0-megapixel webcam
Dimensions 13.12″ x 9.52″ x 0.8-1.2″ (333 x 242 x 20-30 mm)
Weight 3.96 lbs (1.8 kg)
Battery 8-cell Li-Ion 5600 mAh, 84 Wh

As is becoming tradition for Asus notebooks, the U33Jc doesn’t restrict its CPU to stock speeds. The system ships with Power4Gear software that offers a range of performance and power-saving modes. A high-performance mode adds 10MHz to the base clock, pushing it to 143MHz and the CPU to 2.57GHz. Somewhat surprisingly, a battery-saving mode retains the 143MHz base clock and instead curbs power consumption by capping the multiplier at 10X. An additional Super Hybrid Engine switch can be flipped to knock the base clock down to 100MHz. We’ll explore these power states in a little more detail in a moment.

Nvidia’s Optimus technology brings additional power savings to the U33Jc by completely shutting down the notebook’s discrete graphics processor when its pixel-pushing prowess isn’t required. If you’re just idling at the Windows desktop or performing tasks that don’t demand much in the way of GPU horsepower, the U33Jc relies on the Intel HD Graphics component built into the Core i3 CPU. Thanks to easily-updated profiles, Optimus knows which applications can take advantage of extra graphics grunt and even when you’re playing back a Flash video that might benefit from decode acceleration. The discrete GPU will rise to the occasion automatically, and the transition between the two is flicker-free and completely seamless.

Although Optimus is very slick indeed, the GeForce 310M inside the U33Jc is considerably less impressive. The 310M is based on the same GT218 graphics chip used in Nvidia’s next-gen Ion GPU, so it’s a pretty low-end solution. This DirectX 10.1-class graphics processor has a 605MHz core clock speed and 16 shader units that tick along at 1.5GHz. In the U33Jc, the GPU is paired with an obnoxiously excessive 1GB of memory clocked at an effective 1.33GHz. As you’d expect, the GPU also has a PureVideo HD decode engine capable of accelerating the playback of all three major HD video formats used in Blu-ray movies. This dedicated decode hardware can also handle the heavy lifting associated with streaming video playback if you’re running Flash 10.1.

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 1366×768 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
Width Height Area Width Height Rough area
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 front—or 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.

Connectivity and expansion

Without an ExpressCard slot, the U33Jc’s expansion options are a little bit limited. The system doesn’t sport an optical drive or eSATA connectivity, either, but it does have a few other tricks up its sleeve.

The enclosure’s right edge houses an all-important card reader plus two USB ports. Crucially, one of those ports is of the USB 3.0 variety. USB 2.0 has been painfully inadequate for external storage devices for quite some time now. In fact, even today’s budget 5,400-RPM mobile drives are more than fast enough to make use of the extra bandwidth that USB 3.0 provides. Including a SuperSpeed port on a system with only one internal hard drive bay is really a no-brainer, and with only a few notebooks offering USB 3.0 connectivity, the U33Jc scores big points here.

On the networking front, the system offers Gigabit Ethernet via an Atheros chip and 802.11n Wi-Fi via an Intel controller. The Wi-Fi chip supports Intel’s WiDi standard, which allows video output to be routed wirelessly to compatible displays. If your HDTV isn’t equipped for WiDi, Asus recommends Netgear’s Push2TV adapter, which sells for $100 online.

Those who would rather connect an external display the old-fashioned way can use the VGA and HDMI outputs along the U33Jc’s left edge. While some may prefer a DisplayPort connector to the VGA output, there are a great many users who need to pipe PowerPoint presentations to projectors that only accept VGA input.

The left edge also plays host to a second USB 2.0 port and the system’s primary exhaust vent. I’ve been using the U33Jc on and off for more than a week now, and I haven’t noticed much in the way of fan noise. The blower will kick into high gear under a demanding CPU and GPU load, but even then, the sound emanating from the system isn’t terribly loud or annoyingly pitched. A fair amount of hot air gets dumped out the left side of the system when it’s really being stressed, though. That could be a problem for a left-handed gamer who likes to keep the mouse in line with the keyboard.

Additional venting can be found on the U33Jc’s underbelly. You’ll need to flip the system to remove the battery, which is an 8-cell unit rated for 84 Wh. Similar batteries have been used in Asus’ U30Jc, UL30A, and UL80Vt notebooks. In a moment, we’ll see just how much run time the U33Jc can squeeze from its lithium-ion power source.

Asus has long catered to the DIY crowd in the desktop world, so it should come as no surprise that the U33Jc’s chassis allows for easy upgrades—at least for the hard drive and memory. A single panel hides the system’s 2.5″ drive bay and its pair of SO-DIMM slots. The hard drive in our review sample is a Seagate Momentus 5400.6 with a healthy 500GB capacity. If I were using the U33Jc as my primary PC, I’d be tempted to swap in an SSD and move the Momentus to an external USB 3.0 enclosure. However, there’s no pressing need to upgrade the system’s 4GB of DDR3-1066 memory.

Perhaps the best part about the access panel is that it’s not secured with stickers threatening to void the warranty if you take a peek inside. The laptop itself is covered by a two-year warranty. Asus also has a zero-bright-dot policy that provides a measure of protection for the first 30 days after purchase.

Our testing methods

We’ll be comparing the U33Jc’s performance to a motley crew of notebooks, including Acer’s Aspire Timeline 3810T; Asus’ K42F, U30Jc, and UL80Vt; Dell’s Studio 14z; Samsung’s R480; plus Eee PC 1201T, 1005PE, and 1000HA netbooks.

Asus’ default power management profile underclocks the Eee PC 1005PE and 1000HA’s Atom processors to 1.33GHz and 1.25GHz, respectively, when those netbooks are running on battery power. We tested both with this profile and the “high-performance” mode, which lets CPUs scale up to their top speeds even on the battery. The Asus U33JC, U30Jc, UL80Vt, and K42F also have special “battery-saving” modes, which we’ve used in some of our battery life and performance testing. We tested the U33Jc and UL80Vt in their respective “high performance” and “turbo” modes, which overclock the processor, as well. Other laptops were run in their default configurations.

With the exception of battery life, all tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.

System Acer Aspire AS3810-6415 Timeline Asus Eee PC 1000HA Asus Eee PC 1005PE Asus Eee PC 1201T Asus K42F Asus U30Jc Asus U33Jc Asus UL80Vt-A1 Dell Studio 14z Samsung R480
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 1.4GHz Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz Intel Atom N450 1.66GHz AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-540M 2.53GHz Intel Core i3-350M 2.26GHz Intel Core i3-370M 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 1.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-430M 2.26GHz
North bridge Intel GS45 Intel 945GSE Intel NM10 Express AMD RS780MN Intel HM55 Express Intel HM55 Express Intel HM55 Express Intel GS45 Nvidia GeForce 9400M G Intel HM55 Express
South bridge Intel ICH9M Intel ICH7M AMD ID439D Intel ICH9M
Memory size 4GB (2 DIMMs) 1GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM) 2GB (1 DIMM) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 3GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz
Memory timings 6-6-6-15 4-4-4-12 5-5-5-15 5-5-5-15 7-7-7-20 7-7-7-20 7-7-7-20 6-6-6-15 7-7-7-27 7-7-7-20
Audio Realtek codec with 6.0.1.5807 drivers Realtek codec with 6.1.7600.16385 drivers Realtek codec with 6.0.1.5948 drivers Realtek codec with 6.0.1.5948 drivers Realtek codec with 6.0.1.5939 drivers Realtek codec with 6.0.1.6029 drivers Realtek codec with 6.0.1.6029 drivers Realtek codec with 6.0.1.5898 drivers IDT codec with 6.10.0.6217 drivers Realtek codec with 6.0.1.5969 drivers
Graphics Intel GMA X4500MHD with 7.15.10.1666 drivers Intel GMA 950 with 8.15.10.1749 drivers Intel GMA 3150 with 8.14.10.1929 drivers AMD Radeon HD 3200 with 8.635.0.0 drivers Intel GMA HD with 8.15.10.1995 drivers Intel GMA HD with 8.15.10.2021 drivers Intel GMA HD with 8.15.10.2119 drivers

Nvidia GeForce 310M with 8.17.12.5721 drivers

Intel GMA X4500MHD with 7.15.10.1752 drivers

Nvidia GeForce G210M with 8.15.11.8688 drivers

Nvidia GeForce 9400M G with 8.15.11.8619 drivers Nvidia GeForce GT 330M with 258.96 drivers
Hard drive Toshiba HDD2HD21 500GB 5,400 RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB 5,400 RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB 5,400 RPM Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B 250GB 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 Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB 5,400 RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Starter x86 x64 Windows 7 Starter x86 x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x86

Ubuntu Linux 10.04

Windows 7 Ultimate x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x86

We used the following versions of our test applications:

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.

Performance, two ways

The Asus Power4Gear software that comes installed on the U33Jc is loaded with different modes and a healthy dose of configuration options for each one. In the interest of simplicity, we’ve restricted our testing to two extremes: a high-performance mode that runs the CPU at slightly faster than its stock speed thanks to an overclocked base clock, and a battery-saving mode that should deliver the best power efficiency. In battery-saving mode, we enabled Asus’ Super Hybrid Engine, which underclocks the base clock to 100MHz and lets the processor slip into “ultra low wait states” in a bid to conserve power.

While testing with the Super Hybrid Engine, we observed intermittent screen flickering when running CPU-Z. This flickering would disappear when we closed the system-monitoring app, and it didn’t pop up elsewhere during testing. Asus wasn’t able to reproduce the issue, but we found the exact same problem with a second system the company sent out. That system has since been returned, and Asus is looking more closely into the problem. The Super Hybrid Engine isn’t enabled in the default battery-saving mode, so you can certainly get by without.

We also encountered some oddness with the battery-saving mode’s multipliers. This mode is supposed to cap the CPU multiplier at 10X, but CPU-Z reported a 9X multiplier at idle and a 7X multiplier under load. Yes, you read that right; the CPU runs faster when it’s idling at the Windows desktop than it does when crunching Prime95. This behavior persisted regardless of whether we had the Super Hybrid Engine enabled. We’ve had CPU-Z report throttled or capped multipliers incorrectly before, and that could be what’s happening here. For what it’s worth, Power4Gear’s high-performance mode behaved as expected.

We’ll start off our mobile benchmark suite by looking at browser performance using FutureMark’s Peacekeeper benchmark. FutureMark says this app tests JavaScript functions commonly used on websites like YouTube, Facebook, Gmail, and others. Next, we’ll look at Flash performance using the Flash component of the GUIMark rendering benchmark.

There’s a huge difference in performance between the bamboo notebook’s high-performance and battery-saving modes. When running at top speed, the U33Jc clocks in between Core i5-powered systems from Asus and Samsung. Battery-saving mode knocks the U33Jc down into netbook territory.

Despite low scores in our browsing tests, the battery-saving mode doesn’t feel sluggish when browsing with multiple tabs in Firefox. It certainly handles Flash-heavy pages much better than Atom-based netbooks.

7-Zip’s built-in benchmark is nicely multithreaded, so it should be a little more demanding than our browsing tests.

Once again, the U33Jc finds itself sandwiched between a couple of systems with Core i5 CPUs—not bad for an overclocked Core i3. When running in battery-saving mode, the bamboo is still substantially quicker than the collection of netbooks that sits at the back of the field.

Different test, same story. The U33Jc is fast enough to keep up with Core i5-based notebooks when running at full tilt, and its performance can be scaled way, way back if you want to conserve power.

Video playback

Video playback shouldn’t be a problem for a notebook with a Core i3 CPU and discrete GeForce graphics. Just to be sure, we played back standard- and high-definition clips in Windows Media Player and streamed some HD content from YouTube, all while keeping an eye on CPU utilization and overall smoothness. Firefox was used for the YouTube clips, and we did some additional testing on that front with the latest version of Flash 10.1. Each playback test was conducted in a maximized window rather than full-screen.

CPU utilization Result
DivX PAL SD 0-3% Perfect
Iron Man 2 trailer 1080p 1-9% Perfect
Iron Man 2 YouTube HD windowed 1080p 24-43% Perfect
Iron Man 2 YouTube HD windowed 1080p (Flash 10.1) 10-23% Perfect

In high-performance mode, the U33Jc had no problems with any of our test clips. Yes, I know we’re testing 1080p content on a display whose resolution is only a little better than 720p. I wanted to give this system a challenge, and it’s clearly up to the task.

Note how CPU utilization is cut roughly in half by Flash 10.1. Optimus spun up the GeForce 310M automatically, and it’s clearly shouldering some of the load.

So, what about the battery-saving mode?

CPU utilization Result
DivX PAL SD 0-3% Perfect
Iron Man 2 trailer 1080p 1-9% Perfect
Iron Man 2 YouTube HD windowed 720p 65-92% Smooth
Iron Man 2 YouTube HD windowed 1080p 92-100% Choppy
Iron Man 2 YouTube HD windowed 1080p (Flash 10.1) 22-41% Perfect

You’ll definitely want to be running Flash 10.1 if you’re going to cap the U33Jc’s clock speed. While local HD video played back perfectly, the 1080p YouTube clip was incredibly choppy until we upgraded to the latest version of Flash. With the Ironman 2 YouTube trailer scaled back to 720p, playback was acceptably smooth without decode acceleration, but it still hit the CPU pretty hard. Really, there’s no reason not to be using Flash 10.1 these days.

Battery life

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 with the exception of the Aspire Timeline and U33Jc, which we cranked up to 50%. (We found the 50% setting on those systems more directly comparable to the 40% brightness setting on the others.)

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 U30Jc 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 for this test.

Despite huge performance gaps between its overclocked and battery-saving modes, the U33Jc’s run times with each mode are considerably closer. At best, you’re looking at just under five hours of movie playback and a smidgen under six hours of Wi-Fi web surfing. Running in high-performance mode reduces battery life by less than an hour in each test. That’s not bad when compared with the other Core 2010-based notebooks, but it’s worth noting that the Core i5-toting U30Jc lasted more than an hour longer than the bamboo notebook in our web surfing test. The U30Jc appears to use the very same battery as the U33Jc, so this isn’t just a matter of one having a bigger gas tank than the other.

Optimus, transform!

As one might expect, the U33Jc comes with Windows 7 Home Premium x64. It’s also been loaded with a buttload of bloat, including a multitude of Asus apps you don’t really need, a Kindle app no doubt sponsored by Amazon, a CyberLink Power2Go disc burning suite that’s particularly useless on a system with no optical drive, and a collection of pretty lame demos for games like Alice Greenfingers and Dream Day Wedding: Married in Manhattan. I wish I were joking, and that’s not even all of it.

Fortunately, the bloat’s easy enough to remove. There’s plenty of room on the hard drive for real games, so I installed a few to see how the bamboo’s Optimus-managed GeForce would handle recent titles. All the games were run at the notebook’s 1366×768 native resolution with Power4Gear set to high-performance mode. Fraps was used to monitor in-game frame rates.

I started with Left 4 Dead 2, which, like most Source-engine games, tends to run pretty well on low-end hardware. As expected, the game ran smoothly at the U33Jc’s native resolution with everything cranked except for antialiasing. Frame rates largely hovered between the high 20s and mid 30s, occasionally dropping to the low 20s during periods of heavy action or in environments with lots of fire and smoke effects. The game was still very playable overall.

Borderlands isn’t known for being particularly friendly to budget graphics hardware, but I managed to get the game running reasonably well on the U33Jc with high foliage, texture, and game detail settings. All the other eye candy was disabled with the exception of decals, and frame rates stayed mostly in the mid 20s. Heavy action would drop the FPS counter down into the high teens, but lowering the detail levels didn’t make things any smoother. This one’s a little borderline in terms of playability, at least for those of us accustomed to fluid frame rates.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was up next, and it ran surprisingly well with all the detail settings maxed except for antialiasing. I saw frame rates in the 20-30 FPS range most of the time, although explosions and heavy gunfire would drop the counter down to the high teens. Turning off smoke edges pushed minimum frame rates into the low 20s, making this game very playable with little compromise.

You’ll have to use the “ultra low” detail setting to coax smooth frame rates from DiRT 2. Fraps’ FPS counter generally stayed in the mid-to-low 30s, although the lack of in-game smoke, dust, and water effects was certainly glaring at times. Bumping up to the low detail setting saw frame rates dip down into the low 20s too often for what I’d consider to be playable for a driving game.

Alien Swarm is fresh, free, and quite a lot of fun. It runs pretty well on the U33Jc, too. With antialiasing and anisotropic filtering disabled, medium shader detail, and high settings for everything else, frame rates were nice and smooth in the mid 30s.

Conclusions

Warning: car analogy ahead. But I can’t resist, because the dashboard of a Jaguar is the first thing that pops into my mind when I look at Asus’ U33Jc novel blend of brushed metal and mahogany-stained bamboo. This wouldn’t be an original design direction in a luxury car, but it’s unique in the notebook world. Asus has succeeded in creating an aesthetic that blends old-world warmth with high-tech industrial design. Although I wish the wood paneling more closely resembled actual bamboo, I still think this is one of the best-looking notebooks around. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at a virgin system from behind a pane of protective glass or one that’s been handled all day, either.

There’s more to luxury than appearances alone, and the U33Jc feels as decadent as it looks. Despite tipping the scales at just under four pounds, there’s a sturdiness to the chassis that seems much more substantial. The flex-free keyboard feels incredibly solid even when typing aggressively at speed, and the surface of the touchpad is silky smooth.

Because everything surrounding it feels so indulgent, the slightly dim TN panel is a little disappointing. It’s a decent enough display for a $1000 notebook, but the U33Jc feels more expensive than that. Swap in a higher-quality panel, and I think this notebook could compete with premium models that cost quite a bit more, even if Asus would have to raise the asking price to cover the upgraded screen.

The U33Jc’s Core i3-370M and Optimus-enabled GeForce 310M are less exotic than what one might find lurking under the hood of high-end notebooks, especially in the thin-and-light category. However, they offer good performance for everything short of serious gaming, and battery life is pretty decent for a system with this much horsepower. You get all sorts of extras as standard equipment, too: USB 3.0 connectivity, Intel WiDi support, and even a high-res webcam. And don’t forget to add in all the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Gigabit Ethernet goodness you’d expect from a laptop in this price range.

A few problems need to be addressed, of course. Asus should make it easier for users to get their hands on the very latest Synaptics touchpad drivers, and the Super Hybrid Engine power-saving scheme appears to need a little polish. Speaking of polish, I’d ditch the last vestiges of gloss from the chassis, or at the very least get rid of the smudgy border around the screen.

Even with those complaints, I’m really quite enamored with the U33Jc. This notebook equivalent of a mid-range coupe strikes a sensible balance between portability, connectivity, performance, and luxury. Asus has created a system that looks and feels like a Jaguar but is priced like a Toyota, and that’s a very good combination indeed—one worthy of TR Recommended distinction.

Comments closed
    • fredsnotdead
    • 9 years ago

    If Asus is going to put veneer on their laptops, how about more choices? Birdseye maple would be nice…

    • My Johnson
    • 9 years ago

    The screen is LED backlit? Then why is there a mercury warning sticker on the unit for the screen?

    • allston232
    • 9 years ago

    geoff, did you actually weigh the laptop yourself or you just follow whatever number Asus gave you? I heard/read through the grapevine in other forums that it is actually heavier than 4.0 lbs. if you could, please weigh and let us know the actual weight. thanks.

      • AloXander
      • 9 years ago

      Yeah, the specified weight for this machine is all over the place on the interwebs. The official specs on Asus’ website say 3.96, I believe, but the Anandtech review listed 3.74, and other websites have specified 4+! As long as it’s less than 4 pounds.

      Also, did you find heat emissions to be too much for usage in one’s lap? Or, is the only trouble spot the left-side vent, and that’s easy enough to avoid obstructing?

    • FireGryphon
    • 9 years ago

    That laptop looks even sleeker than a MacBook Pro (with the exception of the dinky chrome and smudgy monitor frame).

      • blastdoor
      • 9 years ago

      Interesting comment. I was about to disagree, but then I looked up the definition of the word “sleek”, and it said “smooth or glossy”, which somehow isn’t quite what I thought “sleek” meant. But with that definition, I guess you can’t get any glossier than chrome, so perhaps you’re right.

      Turns out the word I was thinking of is “svelte”, and it doesn’t hold a candle to the unibody MBP when it comes to svelte. In particular, look at the middle picture on the second page of the review. Then look at a picture of the unibody MBP from a similar angle. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s no sense arguing over taste, but to my eye that picture on page 2 is just butt ugly.

    • Jambe
    • 9 years ago

    Replace the chrome with more brushed aluminum and the glossy plastic with matte and I’m absolutely sold (a matte display would be nice, but I can live with glossy).

    You freakin’ chumps, /[

    • DaveJustDave
    • 9 years ago

    +1 for the K car comment. those things were UGLY! (but quick in the hands of shadetree DIYers)

    • Skrying
    • 9 years ago

    It’s a move in the right direction but…

    Those “lines” on the unit are ugly. Besides the bamboo the unit is dead ugly. It’s your average laptop. It’s obvious 1 of 100 different units going through Asus at any given time and therefore none of them look special or seem to have had that extra bit of engineering that make them really stand out. The faux chrome for instance just hammers that point further home. Who in their right mind thinks using such coatings is a good idea?

    Then there’s the touchpad shipping with massively out of date drivers. Why? How does that happen?

    It’s issues like those that make me avoid these units. It just seems that if a company can’t even get the drivers right then what else may be waiting for you to have trouble with or not be as high quality as you expected?

      • blastdoor
      • 9 years ago

      I agree… comparing it to a Jaguar is bizarre. It’s more like the Grizwald family station wagon.

    • anotherengineer
    • 9 years ago

    Best part of the review was the Canadian quarter on the keyboard ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Should have used a nickel Geoff, everyone likes a beaver ๐Ÿ˜€

      • Voldenuit
      • 9 years ago

      Or a loon. ^_^

    • Thresher
    • 9 years ago

    That is quite honestly one of the most attractive laptops I have ever seen. Personally, I think I like it even better than the MacBook Pro.

    I think there is a market for laptops made with premium materials and Asus is on the right road here. They just need a full range of them.

    • rootheday
    • 9 years ago

    I’m puzzled by comment in the review that the discrete card helps out with Flash playback. While Intel gpus weren’t fully supported in some of the beta’s of Flash last fall, Flash 10.1 now supports hardware accelerated video decode on Intel HD graphics just fine.

    Are you sure Optimus is activating the discrete card for Flash? If so, it is wasting battery life for no good reason.

    • darc
    • 9 years ago

    If this had an express card slot and/or firewire, it’d probably be my next laptop. Bummer, but I just can’t do without… not yet anyway.

    • YeuEmMaiMai
    • 9 years ago

    lol that’s a spendy price for a machine that can just barely play solitare lol

    • Hattig
    • 9 years ago

    That wedding game looks awesome.

    Nice to see someone try something new in terms of aesthetics.

      • TaBoVilla
      • 9 years ago

      OMG I want that wedding game so bad, want to play as Jason and get Emily in the sack.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 9 years ago

        Unfortunately that game is the sort of thing that my wife totally gets into, and I believe they’re just hidden object games. Meh.

          • LoneWolf15
          • 9 years ago

          I feel your pain, buddy. Let me guess –she loves watching “The Bachelor” too, right?

    • Voldenuit
    • 9 years ago

    Excellent review, Geoff!

    So, it’s a handsome laptop with decent battery life, but is let down by a mediocre screen (par for the course) and GPU. I don’t think 4 lbs is heavy – the Dell Studio 14 is 5.5 lbs, which is positively portly.

    I do think discrete GPU makers need to up their game, because these 310Ms and 4250 cards are hardly any better than intel IGPs. Maybe Bobcat or Llano will change things up a bit, because the GPU space for mainstream systems is certainly stagnant.

    • Bensam123
    • 9 years ago

    It is nice seeing different types of notebooks on the market, but I largely find notebook reviews pointless. I do have a notebook, but honestly it isn’t that exciting and I don’t plan on upgrading it till it no longer runs as all I use it for is browsing the web, IMing, and some light typing.

    My desktop on the other hand I actually consider upgrades based on reviews I read here and actually take into account buying a new model of X, Y, or Z. Maybe I’m not like everyone else and trade my laptop in every year for a new model?

    Either way the laptop reviews just seem sorta pointless in my opinion.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 9 years ago

      People use their notebooks for different things. I bought mine so that I would have a gaming platform while traveling, so performance was more important than battery life.

      • Voldenuit
      • 9 years ago

      I actually find laptop reviews more useful than desktop reviews. If you’re building your own rig, you have a pretty good idea what performance to expect and what parts you need to get it, as long as you keep abreast of industry.

      With laptops, everything’s usually preconfigured, and there is a lot of variability in how OEMs integrate and fine-tune things like performance, battery life and usability. With laptops, the only way to find out is to usually buy it (a route rife with russian roulette, restocking fees and RMAs), or to read reviews relentlessly for references and requisite information. ARR!

    • MadManOriginal
    • 9 years ago

    Say Geoff, this is the second (or more) time in an Asus notebook/netbook review that you’ve gone and tested in the high performance and battery saving but i[not the default speed].i It kind of makes me laugh and blows my mind at the same time to not see ‘stock’ speed tests. I understand time is limited but you had enough time to do a bunch of tests apparently so what’s up with no ‘sttock’ tests? I hope Asus isn’t -[

      • odizzido
      • 9 years ago

      I run high or low on my laptop and don’t use stock. Either I am using it for general stuff in which case I keep it on low, or I am playing games in which case I need it on high.

      I am sure I am not the majority, but for me the test was perfect and I never even noticed he didn’t test stock till I read your comment.

      • Dissonance
      • 9 years ago

      Asus has no input in the tests we run or the settings we used. I’ve chosen to test with high-performance and battery-saving modes on several occasions because, as the review notes, those configurations represent the two extremes for both performance and battery life.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 9 years ago

        I really do appreciate showing the power saving and enhanced speed modes, it gives a more complete picture of the laptop’s capabilities. Not running stock settings though makes it very hard to cross compare with other reviews not on TR and thus makes the review less useful than it would be with stock setting tested.

    • jackbomb
    • 9 years ago

    “we observed intermittent screen flickering when running CPU-Z”

    My old Pentium II-333 machine does the same thing…lol.

    • bdwilcox
    • 9 years ago

    For the bloatware:
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