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ASUS U36SD-A1 Notebook Review; Ultra Portable & Affordable

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SKYMTL

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No one wants to be carting around a five pound brick with them to class, onto a plane or to a meeting but before the advent of low voltage, high efficiency processors, heavy laptops were unavoidable. Sure, a relatively lightweight notebook could be found with decent specs but only if you had a few thousand to spend. Recently these convenient - albeit less powerful than their heavier kin - notebooks have come down in price to more reasonable levels and are more popular than ever.

ASUS currently has an enviably broad lineup of notebooks which is headlined by their U-series of ultra portables. These may not be the flagship gaming-grade ROG products but they are infinitely more affordable and can be carted around just about anywhere. Many of the U-series products have recently undergone a minor facelift along with a significant performance upgrade through the inclusion of Sandy Bridge processors. The U36SD-A1 we’re looking at today is a new model which is priced at just $899 (or less), uses the new internals and retains the classic shape of ASUS’ original genre defining U36.


The U36SD’s specifications are actually quite generous for a sub-$999 ultra portable. It uses a full voltage Sandy Bridge 2410M processor rather than a lower performing QM-series ULV CPU along with 4GB of single channel DDR3 (another module can be installed for 8GB in dual channel mode). However, the crowning achievement here is the inclusion of a dedicated GT 520M graphics processor which uses NVIDIA’s Optimus switching technology to achieve low power consumption and extended battery life. While it is considered an entry level graphics processor, the GT 520 should allow the U36SD to play most games at low detail settings and allow for accelerated processing via its GPGPU capabilities.

The rest of the equipment ASUS has included here is pretty much basic for most notebooks in this category but our unit did come with the optional 8-cell battery and a relatively slow 640GB 5400RPM hard drive. There are quite a few additional options with BlueTooth, faster hard drives and higher end processors being available on some configurations.

Once again, ASUS’ notebook completely out punches the competition in the warranty department. Instead of the industry standard single year (or less!), they provide 2 full years of coverage, one year against battery defects and 30 days of protection against dead pixels. What more could you possibly want?


ASUS starts off things on the right foot by clothing their U36 in a durable matte finish which doesn’t show fingerprints, actually repels dust and is nearly impervious to scratches. Unfortunately, it does tend to pick up quite a few scuffs which can usually be buffed out with a damp cloth.


The supple matte finish continues around the keyboard and palm rest but the same can’t be said of the whole interior since the screen is for some reason housed within a highly reflective bezel. The glossy screen on an ultra portable is bad enough but adding mirror-like qualities around it will drive any on the go user to absolute distraction. This is likely done to attract naïve shoppers at big box stores who are looking for something flashy but we think ASUS has missed their intended market by a country mile by eschewing an all-matte design.


While its footprint is slightly larger than some other 13.3” notebooks (that’s a 13.3” Vaio Z in the picture above), the U36 is only 2cm thick and weighs in at a mere 1.66kg which makes it highly portable. Trust us; you’ll be as surprised as we were upon seeing how easily it fits within a carrying bag.

This lack of weight and thickness doesn’t mean ASUS skimped on reinforcement since the U36 exhibits the same chassis rigidity and high quality feel as larger, more expensive notebooks. Everything from the screen hinges’ firm swing to the hair thin material joints belie the U36’s sub-$1000 price tag. The perception of such high quality is partially due to ASUS’ use of a durable magnesium-aluminum alloy for this notebook’s body.


ASUS has equipped the U36 with an abundance of well positioned connectors but due to its size, there is no disk drive included. On the right had edge there are jacks for a microphone and heaphones, a 5-in-1 card reader, a single SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port, an HDMI 1.4a output and a LAN jack. Meanwhile, the other side holds a Kensington lock, the power connector, a VGA output and two USB 2.0 ports. Some people may wish for more than what's included here but for its market niche, we certainly wouldn’t change anything.


The U36’s underside is mostly barren but the expanded 8-cell battery projects about a half inch from the bottom. This elevates the notebook into a comfortable, ergonomic typing position without causing any balance issues.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Keyboard & Touchpad / Upgrade Options

Keyboard & Touchpad



Keyboards are hugely personal things so what may feel great for one person may drive someone else to distraction. With that being said, ASUS has done almost everything right with the U36's. The chiclet style keys are laid out with an almost perfect amount of spacing and every one is also coated in a finish that encourages grip. Meanwhile, the palmrest and its “nano coating” is supposed to make the cleaning of skin oils a breeze and after two weeks of extensive use, it certainly worked well for us.

We have seen reports of keyboard flex on other ASUS ultraportables but the U36 only exhibited a very minor amount of deflection which didn’t impact in any way upon typing accuracy or speed. It is not however backlit and this may be a deal breaker for some of you.

The Power and 4Gear Hybrid (which is used to switch between ASUS’ preset power modes) controls are placed on the upper right and left hand corners respectively.


There are unfortunately some sacrifices here which can impact upon your typing experience. In order to accommodate the right side Page Up, Page Down and End keys (which are a handy addition for quick document scrolling), the right hand Shift key was minimized and the arrow buttons were closely incorporated with the standard typing surface This can lead to some confusion when typing and scrolling and the issue compounded by the lack of tactile feedback given by the keys. In order to save as much vertical space as possible, it seems like ASUS purposely limited each key’s travel distance.


For all intents and purposes, the U36’s trackpad is one of the best we’ve used. Its surface is just the right texture and there is more than enough surface area for almost any task. It also exhibited a near perfect amount of sensitivity where movements were clearly recognized but accidental palm touches were ignored.

Unfortunately the trackpad’s button is another matter altogether. There are two keys lying below its single slab-like façade and they do work quite well. However, in order to recognize a command, they require far too much pressure and make an unholy racket when pressed.


Upgrade Options



Popping the hood on the U36SD can be accomplished by simply removing a screw and popping out the access panel. What you’re greeted with is a lone 4GB memory stick (1333MHz with Kingston branding) which makes it easy to add a second module for 8GB. The one issue here is ASUS has made it impossible to upgrade the hard drive without performing a frontal lobotomy on this notebook.
 
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SKYMTL

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Screen & Audio Quality / Included Software

Screen Quality



Before we get too far into this section, let’s start off by saying the U36’s outdoors viewing experience is downright painful. The screen and its accompanying bezel boast mirror-like reflections which make using this notebook almost impossible in well lit areas like airports and classrooms. Unfortunately, these overly reflective qualities pretty much narrows down the areas where ASUS’ ultra portable can actually be used.

The fun doesn’t stop there since the U36SD is equipped with a webcam straight out of 1999. Sporting a mere 0.3 megapixel 640x480 resolution, it will make a mockery out of your face and is put to shame by everything but bargain bin standalone units. On the positive side, it does have decent low light performance but in our opinion this thing has no place on a modern notebook.


Sony Vaio Z left, U36SD right

Once our unit was moved to darker environments and we could actually see its 1366x768 back lit LED screen, things don’t get all that much better. Sure, viewing angles are bordering on decent (seriously though, why would someone sit off center from a notebook screen?) and brightness can be cranked up to retina burning levels but there really isn’t much to compliment about this panel’s quality.

Even after extensive modification using the included software tools, the U36SD’s colour pallet tended to be very cool and almost fluorescent in nature while the contrast remained quite poor. Overall colour accuracy was also lacking but this was partially overcome through extensive trial and error with the Intel and NVIDIA graphics options.


Not everything is doom and gloom though. We found the screen well suited for a notebook in the sub-$1000 category and its text rendering was crisp and clear. White balance was also surprisingly decent considering the tendency of TN panels to over compensate on lighter colours. Would we use this notebook for photo editing? Absolutely not. But it functions perfectly well for text input, web browsing and watching the occasional movie on a long haul flight.


Audio Quality


This is a thin and light laptop so we’d never expect an immersive audio experience since most people will likely just use it with a pair of headphones. However, after hearing what the paper thin –and admittedly expensive- Samsung Series 9 could accomplish, we were a bit disappointed by the U36SD’s Altec Lansing speakers. At lower levels they are decent but sound far too hollow and increasing the volume doesn’t really accomplish much due to a lack of output.

We were left with some mixed feelings in this area but ASUS still ended up pulling off a small audio victory. Regardless of how far the speakers were pushed, they never displayed any distortion and their housings remained rattle-free.


Included Software


Like most other manufacturers, ASUS deems it necessary to include a long list of pre-installed programs alongside their notebooks. Many of these can be considered bloatware since their uses are minimal at best while others like a trial of the incredibly poor Trend Micro Internet Security seem to be included for no reason whatsoever. The end result is 82 processes running on startup which gobble up 1.11GB of system memory but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that every piece of included software is fit for the Recycle Bin…


ASUS uses their own power management system called Power4Gear that cohabitates with Windows’default presets. These can be changed by pressing the upper left button above the notebook’s keyboard while fine tuning for each setting (Entertainment, Quiet Office, Battery Saving and High Performance) can be done in the Power4Gear software. Unlike some clunky applications that manufacturers tend to bundle with their laptops, this one is straightforward and actually works very well. So well in fact that we completely ignored the pre-loaded Windows settings.


[email protected] is ASUS’ mostly weak attempt to create an app store which is well designed but isn’t entirely successful due to a limited selection. It provides a snappy interface with access to some very basic downloadable games and online music channels but that’s about it for the time being.


The Sonic Focus program is a handy lightweight application that takes control over the audio output of this notebook. Using it with the internal speakers didn’t accomplish all that much (speech recognition was improved) but the included settings can make a world of difference for headphone users. We were actually impressed by how a few modifications in Sonic Focus could drastically improve the listening experience with our new Westone 2 earphones.


While we’d love to get into all of the other programs ASUS has included, as you can see above, the list goes on and on and…on. Live Update with its automatic driver downloads can come in handy when it works and FastBoot is basically a cut down version of GameFast which ships on higher end ROG models.
 
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SKYMTL

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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.







The initial system benchmarks show the U36SD posting –for the most part- middle of the pack performance in processor benchmarks. However, its 5400RPM hard drive causes it to suffer in every other test, particularly in the PCMark and Crystal DiskMark suites. Luckily ASUS offers hard drive upgrades on other models of this notebook.
 
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SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.






Once again we are seeing middle of the road performance from the U36SD but we have to remember that it is up against some serious competition in our charts; two of the other notebooks are much larger and sport higher end hardware. It was actually surprising to see these numbers from an ultra portable laptop.

We see that the lowly hard drive doesn’t have too much of an impact upon the results and that the onboard NVIDIA GT 520M allows the U36 to post respectable performance in the Cinebench Open GL test.
 
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SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks / Network Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI to a 1080P HDTV.




With an onboard dedicated GPU, it is no wonder that the U36 does so well in these tests but it is rare to see modern notebooks stumbling in either of these tests.


Network Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.



Truth be told, the wireless performance of the U36SD was a bit of a roller coaster. On one hand it was able to pick up all but one of the broadcasting points but it was only able to successfully link up to and transfer our files to three. This isn’t a poor result by any stretch of the imagination –especially for a notebook in the thin and light category- but it also happens to be the second worst result we’ve achieved in our limited testing.
 
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SKYMTL

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Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11, DX10 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.








These numbers may not seem all that good when compared to the two gaming-grade laptops in our charts but the U36SD has the ability to actually play games at reasonable detail settings. This is quite the accomplishment for a notebook that weighs under 3 lbs and it really says something about the engineering that has gone into this thing.

ASUS’ use of a stand-alone GT 520M is paying off in spades. Even though this GPU on one of the lowest rungs in NVIDIA’s current mobile lineup, it can literally run circles around the integrated graphics processor within the Sandy Bridge CPU core. Granted, in-game options will have to be tweaked in order to get consistent playable framerates but DX9, DX10 and even DX11 applications won’t have any trouble running.
 
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SKYMTL

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Battery Life / Temperatures & Acoustics

Battery Life


Battery longevity is one of (if not THE) most important aspect of any mobile device which is why we are breaking this section down into three distinct tests. The “Standard Workload” represents relatively light usage with a Flash-enabled web page being refreshed every 30 seconds. Our “Heavy Workload” runs a looped 10 minute automatic script that reflects a professional usage pattern of photo manipulation (Photoshop CS5), word processing (Microsoft Word), drafting (AutoCAD 2011) and file compression (WinRAR). Finally, the “Gaming” test runs a timedemo loop of Far Cry 2 DX9.

All tests are run until the battery reaches 5% with the Balanced battery mode enabled and the screen at 75% brightness. Wireless is also turned on but any backlit keyboard functionality is turned off.



Through the implementation of NVIDIA’s excellent Optimus technology and a massive 8-cell, 83Whr battery, ASUS has been able to really stretch this notebook’s legs. Under a light workload, the U36SD was able to hit nearly seven hours of unplugged life which vastly outstrips anything we have previously tested.

Even under an intense heavy workload that includes a fair amount of GPU-centric processing, it was still able to stay on for a little over three and a half hours. This result is actually quite telling since ASUS’ ultra portable soundly beat the Samsung Series 9; a laptop which costs over $1500 and uses integrated graphics.

The battery life when gaming is naturally much less than in any other scenario but ASUS was still able to squeeze over two hours out of the U36SD. This is likely due to its large capacity battery rather than any real technological achievement but the result is still nonetheless impressive.


Temperatures


Temperature testing is quite straightforward: we load the system with a loop of Far Cry 2 in order to stress the dedicated GPU (if there is one) while the CPU load is handled by a loop of WPrime 32M. Battery power is used during these tests. Temperatures are recorded with HWInfo and GPU-Z. Remember that this is a worst case scenario test so typical usage patterns will result in slightly lower temperatures.

Meanwhile, exterior temperatures are taken with a calibrated Fluke infrared thermometer at various locations on the notebook chassis. For comparison’s sake, we consider exterior readings of under 85°F to be perfectly suitable for on-lap usage while temperatures between 85°F and 95°F will start to feel a bit toasty. Anything above 95°F is uncomfortable and care should be given before placing it on your lap.



CPU and GPU temperatures did get into the upper levels of what we consider acceptable but neither processor showed any signs of thermal throttling. We should also mention that you likely won’t see these kinds of temperatures very often on the U36SD since most ultra portable users will be using their notebooks for less demanding tasks.



Considering ASUS has included a regular voltage mobile processor and discrete GPU in this laptop, we’d call these external temperature numbers quite acceptable. The areas directly over the internal heatsink do get a bit hot but remember that this is only under the most intense conditions anyone could put a system under. On the upper side and around the keyboard, there aren’t any red flags thrown up since the keyboard stays well within comfort levels and the palm rests didn’t rise above 95 degrees.

On the positive side of things, the battery housing is actually the coolest part of this notebook which points towards a well shielded design that should protect your lap against uncomfortable heat.


Acoustical Testing


No one likes a loud laptop so in order to objectively determine acoustical properties, we use a calibrated decibel meter which is placed 16” away from the keyboard. A loop of WPrime is used to load the system and replicate a high usage scenario.

Any result under 35dB can be considered no louder than general background noise and usually won’t be noticed. Between 35dB and 45dB is still perfectly acceptable for notebooks yet will be much more noticeable than lower frequencies and likely won’t be heard over the noise of typing. Finally, we consider any result above 45dB to be unacceptable for a mobile device.



The U36SD may look like one of the loudest notebooks we have tested but it is actually very quiet. With its included hardware and a slim design we would have expected a horribly loud experience but that didn’t happen. ASUS has worked some internal magic here and has kept decibel levels just over the 40 mark when under full load.
 
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SKYMTL

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Conclusion

Conclusion


We’ll freely admit to sometimes beating around the bush with these conclusions but ASUS has made this one easy for us. The U36SD fits perfectly within its intended niche and offers up some surprising performance numbers as well. There really isn't anything more we could possibly want out of an ultra portable.

Believe it or not, at $899 (or less) this is actually the least expensive notebook we’ve looked at thus far but it also boasts some very high levels of build quality. The chiclet keyboard doesn’t exhibit any of the flex seen on other ASUS notebooks, the whole chassis feels rigid and the “nano coating” makes scratches a thing of the past. An air of durability is quite an accomplishment considering how thin and light this thing is.

ASUS’ U36SD has a long list of noteworthy features but its crowning achievement has to be battery life. By leveraging NVIDIA’s Optimus technology, it managed well over three hours during a typical heavy workload and more than two hours under extreme conditions while returning decent gaming performance. Indeed, such a broad mix of possible applications for the U36SD really does highlight its strengths in nearly every scenario.

While we were hard pressed to find any show stopping issues here, there were a few speed bumps on the road to perfection. The trackpad is a joy to use but its two buttons cause an absolute racket when they’re pressed and the screen quality does leave quite a bit to be desired. In addition, on the go users and many professionals won’t appreciate the glossy screen and will likely find its mirror-like bezel very distracting. With a matte finish inside and out, the U36SD could have dominated the ultra portable market but that just wasn’t meant to be.

If you are a student that doesn’t have a ton of money to burn or even someone who just wants an inexpensive, highly portable notebook, ASUS’ U36SD is currently one of the best options available. It has that rare trifecta of portability, performance and price that so many people are looking for these days and for that we give it our Dam Good and Dam Good Value awards.


 
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