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
|Chipset||Intel HM76 Express|
|Graphics||Intel HD Graphics 4000|
|Display||11.6″ TN panel with 1366×768
|Storage||500GB Hitachi ZSK500 5,400 RPM
|Audio||HD audio via Via codec|
|Ports||1 USB 3.0
2 USB 2.0
1 10/100 Fast Ethernet
1 analog headphone/analog microphone
|Expansion slots||1 SD card reader|
|Communications||802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Atheros
|Input devices||Chiclet keyboard
|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.
A touchy feely display
After a year and a half of spending a lot of time with various tablets, I’ve become thoroughly spoiled by quality IPS panels. It probably doesn’t hurt that, for many more years than that, I’ve splurged on true 24-bit monitors for my desktop rigs. Coming from those screens, the X202E’s display is a bit of a letdown.
Contrary to what you might think, the 1366×768 display resolution isn’t really an issue. Text and images aren’t as crisp as those on a Retina-equipped iDevice, but jagged edges and blocky pixels are hard to see when the X202E is sitting on your lap or at arm’s reach on a table. The one-megapixel resolution is a good fit for the 11.6″ screen. As an added bonus, you won’t run into any of the annoying scaling issues associated with Windows 8 on high-PPI displays.
Win8’s touch-friendly Modern UI will be at your fingertips, though. The VivoBook’s screen supports 10-finger multitouch input, and it seems to be pretty responsive. To be honest, it’s hard to tell how well the notebook’s touchscreen works because reaching up to use it feels inherently awkward. The touchpad supports all the same core OS gestures and sits much closer to the natural position of one’s hands. Plus, the tip of the mouse cursor is much more precise than the business end of one of your digits.
While the screen’s touch capability fails to add truly valuable utility, at least it doesn’t detract from the experience. Unfortunately, the mediocre quality of the underlying LCD does. The screen has the telltale poor viewing angles of a TN panel, as you can see in the images below. The pictures were shot at the same distance, exposure settings, and lens height with the display at 100% brightness. On the right, from top to bottom, are straight-on shots of the screen angled back at 110°, standing vertical at 90°, and angled forward at 70°. The picture on the left has the screen vertical but the notebook rotated 30° counter-clockwise.
In the picture on the left, you can see that the horizontal viewing angles aren’t too bad. The on-screen image is only a little darker than the dead-on view immediately to the right. However, the vertical viewing angles are atrocious. Even with the screen deviating only 20° in each direction, the image is either washed out or substantially darker. Thankfully, the screen has enough tilt adjustment to accommodate a perfect view in most positions, at least for one person. Just be prepared to change the angle every time you change positions.
While I was taking the forward angle shot, I noticed a lot of light shining out of the bottom edge of the screen. Here’s what it looks like with an all-black image on the screen standing upright at 90°.
There are no sharp points of backlight seepage, but the bottom third of the screen is awash in the pale glow of what looks like the first stage of moonrise over a cold, bleak desert. The backlight bleed isn’t something I noticed when testing the system in Windows, but it is visible when watching fullscreen movies in a dark room.
We can also quantify the unevenness of the backlighting with our colorimeter. The table below illustrates the screen’s luminosity across a grid. Measurements were taken at full brightness in the center of each region. Luminance readings are presented both as cd/m² figures, which we read using our colorimeter, and as percentages of the most luminous point we measured. Note that luminance and perceived brightness follow different scales, so the display appears more uniform than the chart below might suggest.
To no one’s surprise, the brightest section is the bottom middle. The top of the display is up to 20% dimmer, and the right is a little stronger than the left. Smack in the middle, the screen pumps out only 209 cd/m². That may be sufficiently powerful for most indoor environments, but you don’t want to be using the X202E in anything close to direct sunlight.
Our colorimeter has one more trick up its sleeve: the ability to measure color reproduction. We can use the data it collects to map the screen’s color gamut. Click the buttons under the image to switch between the X202E and Asus’ pricier UX31A ultrabook, which has an IPS display.
The VivoBook X202E covers a much narrower range of colors than its ultrabook relative. The UX31A costs much more, of course, but the IPS displays on modern tablets like Asus’ own VivoTab RT also offer better color reproduction than X202E. Those systems are in the same price range as the X202E, too.
You don’t need a fancy colorimeter to notice the screen’s pale colors, which have a certain lifelessness when viewed next to a true IPS panel like the one on VivoTab RT. The difference is stark. That said, the X202E’s panel doesn’t appear to be substantially worse than other TN displays I’ve used in the past. If you don’t have frequent exposure to higher quality screens on other devices, you can probably enjoy X202E in blissful ignorance of the lushness you’re missing.
One more thing: we can also use our colorimeter data to depict the color temperature of the screen, which we’ve again compared to the UX31A. Click the buttons below the image to switch between the two notebooks.
By just looking at the screen, you wouldn’t think the X202E’s color temperature was so far off the 6500K illuminant that represents typical daylight. That’s probably because the screen comes close to a neutral temperature with pure whites, which is where warmer or cooler tinges are most visible. Things go off the rails as white fades to gray and eventually black, making me wonder if the screen’s backlight bleed might be tainting the results. The UX31A certainly doesn’t have any problems maintaining a neutral color temperature across a wide range of gray levels.
Keyboard and touchpad
If you’re not interested in touchscreen input, you can take some comfort from the fact that the X202E has a full complement of traditional inputs sitting just below the display. They’re quite good, too, but there are a few quirks to note.
The first is more of a question: why leave such a wide border around the keyboard and touchpad in an 11.6″ system with a relatively small footprint? It looks to me like Asus could’ve made the keyboard and touchpad larger without increasing the size of the chassis. Maybe the tapered front edge and the port hardware along the left and right sides make expanding the input area more difficult than it might appear.
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||265 mm||93 mm||31,570 mm²||163 mm||47 mm||9,804 mm²|
|Versus full size||92%||84%||77%||95%||82%||78%|
To be fair, the keyboard and touchpad aren’t exactly small. The tracking area measures a generous 4.1″ x 2.4″, and the keyboard is nearly the width of our full-size reference. The alpha keys are a little wider than they are tall, at 16 x 14 mm. They’re certainly large enough—and the gaps between them wide enough—to prevent my stubby fingers from drifting off target during spirited typing sessions.
Asus sticks with a conventional layout for the keyboard, which means everything is in the right places—and the right size. The only concessions are the half-height keys that make up the directional pad. At least those stick to the traditional inverted-T layout.
In part thanks to the rigid chassis, the keyboard feels excellent. Flex is almost nonexistent; I certainly can’t detect any during normal typing, and there’s barely any visible deflection if you exert pressure on the center of the keyboard.
The underlying key switches provide a decent amount of travel and good tactile feedback, making it easy to type quickly with confidence—and without bottoming out each key stroke. There is a catch, although it’s really more of a squeak. While the majority of the keys actuate with a dull thunk, the spacebar emits a higher-pitched chirp. Sounds like the sort of thing a shot of WD-40 would cure, but I’m not brave enough to find out. I can only hope the noise will get quieter as the switch mechanism breaks in over time.
The spacebar might need a little lubrication, but the touchpad does not. It’s delightfully smooth, allowing fingertips to glide effortlessly across the surface. A subtle ridge around the exterior nicely defines the tracking area, and I wish there were something similar separating the integrated buttons. This is technically a clickpad, which means you can press down anywhere on the tracking area to generate a left click. The bottom of the touchpad also has tap zones for left and right clicks, but tracking in those regions is somewhat inconsistent, especially with gestures.
Asus’ associated Smart Gesture software allows the left and right buttons to be swapped, but not to be disabled. That’s a shame, because literally every one of the 13 gestures supported by the touchpad can be toggled individually. In addition to everything you’d expect, there are gestures that replicate Windows 8’s touchscreen controls, including edge-based swipes that switch between applications and bring up the Charms and Menu bars. Three-finger swipes are also part of the package, enabling forward/back navigation in web browsers and a quick shortcut to the desktop.
Two-finger scrolling is arguably the most important gesture for a modern notebook, and the X202E has a pretty good implementation. Horizontal scrolling feels smooth, and the speed of the flick-and-coast function is nicely correlated with the aggressiveness of the gesture. Unfortunately, tapping with two fingers doesn’t consistently produce a right click, at least with my fingers.
On numerous occasions, I’ve sent the mouse cursor careening across the screen with inadvertent touchpad contact while typing mid-sentence. Ugh. Touchpad drivers should really let users set a delay that defines how long input will be ignored after consecutive key strokes. The Smart Gesture software isn’t quite that smart. It can, however, automatically disable the touchpad if a USB or wireless mouse is connected to the system.
Connectivity and expansion
With 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, the X202E has the most important wireless bases covered. The system has plenty of physical ports, too, and at least one pleasant surprise on the expansion front. First, the ports.
On the left side is a wired networking jack, which supplements the built-in Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, that jack is connected to a Fast Ethernet controller that tops out at a measly 100Mbps, one tenth the speed of a GigE connection.
At least the VivoBook serves up a USB 3.0 port. It’s joined by a pair of USB 2.0 connectors, one on each side. An HDMI output completes the highlights on the left edge, and it’s joined by an VGA connector on the right.
The analog video out might seem a little dated, but it’s an important feature for anyone who has to deal with older projectors that lack digital inputs. Schools are notorious for having vintage AV gear, and I suspect Asus had students in mind when it designed the X202E.
To the left of the second USB 2.0 port sits an SD card reader and a 3.5-mm headset jack. With the Koss PortaPro headphones that live in my laptop bag, the audio output sounds all right but not exceptional. Listening with even halfway-decent headphones beats using the integrated speakers. The speakers are better than one might expect from an inexpensive notebook, but expectations in that department tend to be pretty low.
While we’re discussing sound, I should note that the VivoBook X202E emits a low hum. The blower spins constantly, even when the system is sitting idle and the CPU is running at a mere 800MHz. The droning isn’t loud enough or high-pitched enough to be disruptive, but it can be a little annoying in completely silent environments. Being able to set the temperature at which the fan spins down sure would be nice. AIDA64 says the CPU hovers around 40°C at idle, though; I’m not sure I’d want it getting much hotter when unoccupied.
Incidentally, the CPU gets into the mid-to-high 70s under combined loads that peg the CPU and GPU at 100% utilization. The fan definitely gets louder under heavy loads, although not to the point where the noise becomes unbearable.
The VivoBook’s venting is largely confined to a single strip in the bottom panel. The strip is in the middle, so it shouldn’t be blocked completely if the X202E is perched on your lap. There’s also a clever bit of venting hidden between the bottom panel and the screen’s hinge, although the gap there is quite narrow.
The bottom panel is held in place by nine screws. Surprisingly, not a single one of them is covered by a sticker warning against voiding the warranty—and they all have standard Phillips heads. That’s practically an invitation to peek up the system’s skirt.
Even after the screws are removed, the bottom piece is held in place by plastic tabs. Force must be applied carefully but firmly to pry off the panel.
At first, I was overjoyed to have such unfettered access to the guts of the system. Then I noticed the DRAM chips soldered onto the motherboard. You’re stuck with the default, single-channel memory configuration.
Thankfully, you’re not stuck with the sluggish, 5,400-RPM mechanical hard drive. The 500GB Hitachi Travelstar pops out with ease and can be replaced in minutes. Any 2.5″ SATA drive will do as long as it conforms to the slimmer, 7-mm version of the form factor. Numerous SSDs fit the bill, and I suspect that’s the upgrade route most folks will take.
Exposing the VivoBook’s guts also provides access to the 38 Wh battery. That capacity is a little on the low side, and it’s not like you can swap in a new cell easily if you run out of juice on the road. We’ll see how long the battery lasts in web surfing and movie playback tests a little later in the review.
Before we take a closer look at the X202E’s performance, I have to give a shout out to Asus for a couple of smaller touches. The first is the power adapter, which is both small and lightweight. The second is the relative lack of software bloat. Sure, Asus has loaded the system with a handful of its own apps, most of which have dubious value. The Asus Vibe Fun Center, for example, is just another app store and not much fun at all. But you won’t find a mess of trialware or third-party software infecting the Windows 8 install.
I should also give Asus some credit for coming up with a couple of its own Modern UI apps. The unit converter might be useful for some folks, but it’s also painfully ugly. While it’s a little hard to see in the screenshot above, those gold elements have a faux leather pattern. Ewww. The calculator app at least matches Microsoft’s new design language, even if I can’t get excited about using a touchscreen calculator on a notebook.
Our testing methods
Benchmarking time! Before we get started, we’ll walk you through all the nerdy details of our system configurations. If you’re already familiar with how we do things around here or want to get straight to the performance results, feel free to skip ahead to the next page. It’ll save your fingers some scrolling.
To put the VivoBook X202E’s performance in perspective, we’ve tested it against Asus’ own Zenbook Prime UX31A ultrabook. This particular UX31A configuration runs about a grand online, so it’s nearly double the price of the X202E. Still, the deck isn’t stacked too much in the ultrabook’s favor. The X202E’s Core i3 CPU has the same core count as the UX31A’s Core i5, and its base clock speed is actually 100MHz higher. The Core i5 can reach higher speeds via Turbo Boost, though. The Core i3’s Turbo functionality is limited to its integrated GPU, which is at least identical to the Intel HD Graphics 4000 in the Core i5.
Like other Asus notebooks we’ve tested recently, the X202E comes with Power4Gear Hybrid software that switches between High Performance and Battery Saving modes. On the VivoBook, the latter locks the CPU at 1.8GHz, while the latter caps the maximum frequency at 1GHz. Instead of the Asus-specific modes, we elected to use Windows 8’s Balanced power profile for testing. This mode allows the CPU to scale from 800MHz to 1.8GHz, its natural frequency range, depending on the system load. The UX31A was also tested in Balanced mode.
We ran every test at least three times and reported the median of the scores produced. The test systems were configured like so:
|System||Asus UX31A||Asus X202E|
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3317U 1.7GHz||Intel Core i3-3217U 1.8GHz|
|Platform hub||Intel HM76
|Memory size||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (1 DIMM)|
|Memory type||DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz|
|Audio||Realtek codec with 184.108.40.20610
|Via codec with 220.127.116.110
|Graphics||Intel HD Graphics 4000
|Intel HD Graphics 4000
|Hard drive||Adata XM11 128GB SSD||Hitachi Z5K500 500GB HDD|
|Operating system||Windows 8 Enterprise x64||Windows 8 x64|
Thanks to Asus for volunteering laptops for us to test.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- 7-Zip 9.20 64-bit
- TrueCrypt 7.1a
- Chromium 20.0.1096.0
- SunSpider 0.9.1
- The Panorama Factory 5.3 x64 Edition
- x264 HD benchmark 4.0
- Battlefield 3
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
- FRAPS 3.5.0
The tests and methods we employ are usually publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
We’ll begin our testing with a quick look at Stream memory bandwidth. This test isn’t part of our standard mobile suite, but it’s important to highlight the impact of the VivoBook X202E’s single-channel memory configuration.
Yeah, that’s a big difference. The UX31A delivers more than double the memory bandwidth of the X202E thanks to dual channels of faster 1600MHz RAM. There are plenty of dual-channel systems in the X202E’s price range, so it’s not like only thousand-dollar ultrabooks offer that luxury.
We tested the latest SunSpider release, version 0.9.1, in a special build of Chromium (the open-source version of Chrome) that we keep around for such purposes.
The X202E is much more competitive in this test, but the UX31A still offers better performance. It’s hard to tell how much of the ultrabook’s advantage can be chalked up to higher Turbo clocks as opposed to greater memory bandwidth.
TrueCrypt disk encryption
TrueCrypt supports acceleration via Intel’s AES-NI instructions, so the encoding of the AES algorithm, in particular, should be very fast on the CPUs that support those instructions. We’ve also included results for another algorithm, Twofish, that isn’t accelerated via dedicated instructions.
As you might suspect, the UX31A’s Core i5 CPU supports AES-NI instructions, while the X202E’s Core i3 does not. The two aren’t even close in the AES test. They’re on a more level playing field in the Twofish test, but the VivoBook still trails by a substantial margin.
7-Zip file compression and decompression
The figures below were extracted from 7-Zip’s built-in benchmark.
Once again, the X202E’s performance is well behind that of its ultrabook kin.
The Panorama Factory photo stitching
The Panorama Factory handles an increasingly popular image processing task: joining together multiple images to create a wide-aspect panorama. This task can require lots of memory and can be computationally intensive, so The Panorama Factory comes in a 64-bit version that’s widely multithreaded. We asked it to join four pictures, each eight megapixels, into a glorious panorama of the interior of Damage Labs.
x264 HD benchmark
This benchmark tests one of the most popular H.264 video encoders, the open-source x264. The results come in two parts, one for each of the two passes the encoder makes through the video file. I’ve chosen to report them separately, since that’s typically how the results are reported in the public database of results for this benchmark.
Our media processing tests reveal no surprises. Due to its lack of Turbo, its narrower path to memory, or a combination of the two, the X202E lags behind the UX31A. That said, the differences in performance aren’t nearly as vast as the price delta between the two systems.
Windows 8 boot
Our boot test timed how long it took each system to return from a standard Windows 8 shutdown, which is really more of a hibernation mode.
The X202E boots nearly three seconds slower than the UX31A. Some of that gap is likely due to the different storage configurations; the X202E is saddled with a 5,400-RPM mechanical hard drive, while the UX31A has a much faster SSD.
The Panorama Factory
Here, we tallied the read and write portions or our Panorama Factory test. This should give us a closer look at the gap in storage subsystem performance between the two systems.
What a difference solid-state storage can make. The UX31A performs the read and write operations associated with our photo-stitching test in half as much time as it takes the X202E.
Our next load-time test involves opening a 124MB Excel spreadsheet. The file comes from one of our “Inside the second” graphics reviews and is loaded with frame time data, which explains the large file size.
This is why I store most of my TR-related files on an SSD. The UX31A loads our spreadsheet nearly 30 seconds faster than the X202E.
Adobe Reader 11
For this test, we opened the PDF version of Canon’s Rebel T4i manual in Adobe Reader.
Although the X202E loads this 24MB PDF file in under seven seconds, the UX31A takes less than one third of the time to perform the same task.
We’ll close out our timing tests by loading the first race in the DiRT Showdown demo. The game was configured to run at 1366×768 resolution with low detail levels.
Another test, another clear victory for the UX31A. The ultrabook loads the game level more than two times faster than the X202E. You’ll certainly notice waiting another 15 seconds to get into the game.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Our Skyrim test involved running around the town of Whiterun, starting from the city gates, all the way up to Dragonsreach, and then back down again.
We tested at 1366×768 using the “medium” detail preset.
Now, we should preface the results below with a little primer on our testing methodology. Along with measuring average frames per second, we delve inside the second to look at frame rendering times. Studying the time taken to render each frame gives us a better sense of playability, because it highlights issues like stuttering that can occur—and be felt by the player—within the span of one second. Charting frame times shows these issues clear as day, while charting average frames per second obscures them.
For example, imagine one hypothetical second of gameplay. Almost all frames in that second are rendered in 16.7 ms, but the game briefly hangs, taking a disproportionate 100 ms to produce one frame and then catching up by cranking out the next frame in 5 ms—not an uncommon scenario. You’re going to feel the game hitch, but the FPS counter will only report a dip from 60 to 56 FPS, which would suggest a negligible, imperceptible change. Looking inside the second helps us detect such skips, as well as other issues that conventional frame rate data measured in FPS tends to obscure.
We’re going to start by charting frame times over the totality of a representative run for each system—though we conducted five runs per system to sure our results are solid. These plots should give us an at-a-glance impression of overall playability, warts and all. (Note that, since we’re looking at frame latencies, plots sitting lower on the Y axis indicate quicker solutions.)
Whoa. Despite featuring the same Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU as the UX31A, the X202E has much higher frame latencies throughout our test. Most of the system’s frame times are over 80 milliseconds, which corresponds to frame rates below about 12 FPS.
We can slice and dice our raw frame-time data in other ways to show different facets of the performance picture. Let’s start with something we’re all familiar with: average frames per second. Though this metric doesn’t account for irregularities in frame latencies, it does give us some sense of typical performance.
Next, we can demarcate the threshold below which 99% of frames are rendered. The lower the threshold, the more fluid the game. This metric offers a sense of overall frame latency, but it filters out fringe cases.
Of course, the 99th percentile result only shows a single point along the latency curve. We can show you that whole curve, as well. With integrated graphics or single-GPU configs, the right hand-side of the graph—and especially the last 10% or so—is where you’ll want to look. That section tends to be where the best and worst solutions diverge.
Regardless of the metric, the X202E’s Skyrim performance is a disaster. Notice how the X202E lags behind by a factor of about 2X, which nicely matches the gap in memory bandwidth between the two systems.
Finally, we can rank solutions based on how long they spent working on frames that took longer than 50 ms to render. The results should ideally be “0” across the board, because the illusion of motion becomes hard to maintain once frame latencies rise above 50-ms or so. (50 ms frame times are equivalent to a 20 FPS average.) Simply put, this metric is a measure of “badness.” It tells us about the scope of delays in frame delivery during the test scenario.
While the UX31A spends a great deal of time working on long-latency frames, the X202E spends more than half of the test run working on those long frames.
We tested Battlefield 3 by playing through the start of the Kaffarov mission, right after the player lands. Our 90-second runs involved walking through the woods and getting into a firefight with a group of hostiles, who fired and lobbed grenades at us.
BF3 wasn’t really playable at anything but the lowest detail preset using these IGPs—so that’s what we used.
Yeah, you don’t want to play Battlefield 3 on the X202E. The gaps between the two systems are wider here than they were in Skyrim.
Don’t assume that you can’t play any games, though.
Battlefield 3 and Skyrim are rather challenging for systems with integrated graphics. To get a better sense of the X202E’s gaming potential, we fired up a handful of less demanding titles. We didn’t gather detailed frame time data on these games, but we did play long enough to get sense of the experience. All the games were run at the native 1366×768 display resolution.
First, we tackled DiRT Showdown. The game was surprisingly playable despite the fact that Fraps’ frame rate counter rarely rose above 20 FPS. We had to use the lowest detail setting, which makes the graphics considerably uglier, but at least everything ran properly. The Torchlight II demo didn’t fare as well; it consistently crashed to the desktop within seconds of loading.
Left 4 Dead 2 was more cooperative, and we didn’t have to lower the detail levels all the way. With low shader detail and medium textures, the game’s frame rate hovered around 20 FPS. It wasn’t the smoothest or prettiest experience, but the game was certainly playable.
Mark of the Ninja is one of the best games of 2012, and it runs pretty well on the X202E. The game felt a little choppy with displacement and blur effects enabled, but with those turned off, everything smoothed out nicely. According to Fraps, the frame rate wavered from 24-30 FPS.
For the last game, we went with something easy: Edge, a charming 3D platformer that got its start on the iPhone. This game was locked at 30 FPS, according to Fraps, and it played very smoothly.
We tested battery life twice: once running TR Browserbench 1.0, a web browsing simulator of our own design, and again looping a 720p Game of Thrones episode in Windows Media Player. (In case you’re curious, TR Browserbench is a static version of TR’s old home page rigged to refresh every 45 seconds. It cycles through various permutations of text content, images, and Flash ads, with some cache-busting code to keep things realistic.)
Before testing, we conditioned the batteries by fully discharging and then recharging each system twice in a row. We also used our colorimeter to equalize the display luminosity at around 100 cd/m².
While we made an effort to equalize variables where possible, there are unavoidable differences between the two systems that will surely affect battery life—starting with the batteries themselves. The X202E has a 38-Wh battery, while the UX31A sports a 50-Wh unit. The UX31A’s SSD should give it a further edge in power consumption, but the 13.3″ panel likely consumes more juice than the X202E’s 11.6-incher, especially since the former has a higher pixel density. High-PPI displays typically require more backlight brightness to achieve the same luminosity as screens with lower pixel densities.
The X202E’s battery lasted four hours (238 minutes, to be exact) in both tests. That’s impressive consistency, but four hours simply isn’t a very long time. The UX31A manages 1.5 hours longer in the movie playback test and a whopping 3.4 hours longer surfing the web.
For this test, we probed video performance using two versions of the second trailer for Rian Johnson’s Looper: one in 1080p H.264 format from the Apple website and the other, also in 1080p format, on YouTube. We played back the former in Windows Media Player and the latter in Chrome 21 with the built-in Flash 11.3 plug-in, and we used Windows’ Performance Monitor utility to record CPU utilization.
|CPU % (low)||CPU % (high)||Result|
YouTube 1080p (Flash 11.3)
1080p video playback ain’t no thang for modern notebooks. Even with limited memory bandwidth, the X202E’s video output was perfectly smooth. You can thank the integrated GPU for much of the heavy lifting. While playing the videos, CPU utilization never got much higher than 16%.
We measured temperatures using an infrared thermometer at a distance of 1″ from the system after it had been running TR Browserbench 1.0 for about an hour.
The X202E’s exterior remains nice and cool even when the system is in use. These measurements were taken in my office, which is a little cool this time of year, but I haven’t noticed any of the X202E’s surfaces getting warm while using the system. After a several-hour writing session on the couch, my lap was barely warm.
The VivoBook X202E has a lot of redeeming qualities. Take the exterior, which is blanketed in stylish brushed metal that defies the system’s $550 price tag. Those metal pieces are good for more than just Apple-chic looks; they also deserve some of the credit for the VivoBook’s solid feel. The chassis may be a little thicker than the average ultrabook, but only by a few millimeters. With a small footprint and light weight, the X202E is for most intents and purposes just as easy to carry as slimmer, more expensive ultrabooks.
Asus also got the inputs right—mostly. Squeaky spacebar aside, the keyboard offers good tactile feedback with none of the mushiness often found in budget notebooks. The touchpad is a decent size, and it’s loaded with Windows 8 gestures that are genuinely useful. Those gestures work so well on the touchpad that I wonder why anyone would want to reach up to use the touchscreen. Stabbing the screen takes more effort than letting one’s fingers drift south of the keyboard, and the touchpad is much more precise.
The real problem with the screen is the underlying panel, whose poor vertical viewing angles, uneven backlighting, and washed-out colors remind me of why I love tablets and their higher-quality IPS displays. That’s unfortunately one of the compromises one must make to get a notebook in this price range. Core i3 processors cost a lot more than Atoms and ARM-based chips.
Trading screen quality for x86 horsepower would be easier to accept if the X202E’s single-channel memory configuration didn’t sour the deal. The resulting decrease in memory bandwidth compromises the system’s performance, especially in games that stress the integrated graphics, and the soldered-on RAM leaves end users with no way to tap the processor’s second memory channel. At least the 5,400-RPM hard drive is easy to replace. Anyone who buys the VivoBook should consider swapping the mechanical drive for an SSD to avoid the system’s sluggish application and file load times.
For the VivoBook X202E, Asus seems to have focused on style and touch above all else. Those priorities might appeal to mainstream customers cruising Best Buy for an eye-catching ultraportable that can take advantage of Windows 8’s touch-friendly Modern UI. However, they’re less appealing for enthusiasts and professionals seeking speedy performance, long battery life, and vibrant displays. Maybe that’s why the X202E’s price is down $50 from its debut at $600. There’s value here, no doubt, but also definite room for improvement.