Asus has a track record of releasing innovative laptops. We've seen gaming laptops with flashing lights, ultraportables with leather finishes, and glossy, super-light laptops that will have you swooning from 20 paces.
Its latest endeavour takes advantage of SideShow, one of Windows Vista's most dramatic new features. The W5Fe features a standard 12-inch screen, but more interestingly there's an auxiliary external display that can be used to view images, access audio, review emails and more, without you having to switch the laptop on.
The W5Fe's most exciting feature is definitely the SideShow display. We like to think of it as a giant PDA welded to the lid of the laptop. It has 1GB of flash memory and runs a slimmed-down version of the Windows operating system, which runs mini-applications known as 'gadgets'. They're all designed to fit on the 71mm (2.8-inch), 320x240-pixel display that juts out of a mound at the top of the laptop.
The SideShow screen in all its gadgety glory
Out of the box, gadgets include a music player, the confusingly-named SlideShow player for browsing pictures, a battery-status indicator and a Windows Mail inbox viewer. The latter doesn't fetch new emails, but having access to old messages can be useful. It's possible to add new gadgets, or to create your own if you're handy with the C++ language and have the appropriate software-development kit.
The keys you need for controlling the gadgets are located next to the display. There's a four-way cursor button for scrolling through the menu system and self-explanatory menu, on/off and back buttons -- it's all laid out in an intuitive manner, so you shouldn't be too baffled when you first see it.
The rest of the W5Fe is fairly compact. It's comparable in size to a large Filofax and is pretty portable, thanks to its 1.7kg chassis.
Nothing stands out as being unusual inside. There's a Wi-Fi switch for activating the wireless features and a PowerGear 4 button for cycling through the laptop's various battery life or speed-promoting power modes.
What are different are the shortcut keys along the right bezel of the display. These let you activate or deactivate the microphone and rotatable webcam, which sits atop the screen.
We like W5Fe's comfortable keyboard, and the logical layout of its various ports. Unlike most laptops, whose USB ports sit side by side or are stacked one on top of the other, the W5Fe has an individual port on the left, right and rear of the laptop. This makes it easier to connect more than one USB peripheral, particularly if they're quite bulky.
The shortcut buttons for the Webcam
are an unusual addition
Is SideShow a good thing? The jury's still out. The main problem is it can't access information on your hard disk when the laptop is off -- instead it syncs certain information when you turn it on. It's a pain because if you haven't remembered to sync the music you want, you're stuffed until you turn the laptop on again.
The only use we found for it was checking emails (once we'd already received them) using the Windows Mail Inbox gadget, although what we really want is something that can check our live email accounts for anything new. We didn't find viewing images or playing MP3 files all that useful. It's possible to install new gadgets by visiting the Vista Gadget Gallery Web site, but at the time of writing we couldn't find anything of interest.
Inside, the W5Fe has a pretty powerful set of components. The laptop uses an Intel Core 2 Duo T7400 processor clocked at 2.16GHz -- which is only a couple of rungs off the top-spec 2.33GHz chip. You also get 1.5GB of RAM -- 1GB on a standard SODIMM module and half a gigabyte soldered directly on to the motherboard.
Games with 3D graphics are a no-no because of the integrated Intel graphics card, but the W5Fe is definitely more powerful and well kitted-out than most laptops its size.
The 160GB hard drive is generous considering the W5Fe's bias towards business users. It's big enough to stash a couple of hundred DivX movies should you be that way inclined, or to hoard over 45,000 audio tracks. Unsurprisingly, the laptop has an integrated DVD burner -- this is the dual-layer variety so you can burn up to 8.5GB of data to compatible DVD-R media. You also get a multimedia card reader supporting most popular formats.
The rotating volume knob next to the
audio ports is a great addition
One of our least favourite things about the W5Fe is its screen. It's big enough at 12.1 inches, and its 1,280x800-pixel widescreen resolution provides a good blend of screen real-estate and visibility. But it's not quite bright enough, the contrast level is a tad low, and the vertical viewing angle is limited. You'll need to have the screen at just the right angle or you won't be able to see a thing.
There's nothing exciting bundled with the laptop software-wise -- basically, you're stuck with Windows Vista Home Premium.
Don't be fooled by the W5Fe's size. It packs a potent CPU and enough RAM to put it in line with most high-end laptops. It racked up a strong PCMark 2006 score of 2,318 -- which indicates it'll cope happily with any current piece of consumer-oriented software.
It's less impressive in gaming terms, however. Its 3DMark 2006 tally of 199 makes it useless for modern 3D shooters, although you can get away with playing older titles like the original Quake and less graphics-intensive games such as Football Manager.
A far more important issue is battery life. The W5Fe's stick-like 3-cell battery doesn't look as if it could hold much charge, and indeed it cannot. The laptop lasted 1 hour 48 minutes in our tests, which is okay for watching a movie on your travels, but we'd recommend buying an extra battery if you're away from a power outlet for any length of time.
The W5Fe is a good laptop. It looks a tad dull, but let's not forget the SideShow screen that lifts it way above the ordinary. If you reckon you can make use of this auxiliary display, perhaps when some better gadgets have been written, then its worth picking up.