It's no lie, we're fans of thin 13-inch laptops; so much so, we feel like they're nearly the perfect size for the average portable computer. Unfortunately, the 13-inch landscape is a bit of a minefield for the average consumer: some options have underpowered processors, others lack optical drives. We loved the thin Asus U35JC-A1 when we reviewed it in October, finding it a perfect mix of size and performance. The $999 U36JC-A1 is an update with a few new features, including a faster Core i5 processor, a sleeker design, Nvidia Optimus 310M graphics, and a high-speed USB 3.0 port, making it arguably even better than its predecessor.
Those specs are solid, but this thin laptop still lacks Intel's new Sandy Bridge processors, and its battery life suffers in comparison with other thin laptops. While that may not bother some, it can't hurt to wait a few months and see what updates might be around the corner, especially since our initial tests of Sandy Bridge laptop CPUs show a great deal of promise, and even some graphics prowess, that could make the successor to the U36J an even better buy. Nevertheless, the U36JC-A1 is a step up from its predecessor, albeit at a slightly higher price. Compared to the Toshiba Portege R700 series, which won a CNET Editors' Choice, an equivalent CPU, hard drive, and RAM can be had for a similar price. The Portege, however, has an optical drive and lacks discrete graphics; the Asus U36JC-A1 has discrete graphics, but no optical drive.
|Price as reviewed||$999|
|Processor||2.53GHz Intel Core i5 460M|
|Memory||4GB, 1,066MHz DDR3 RAM|
|Hard drive||500GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce 310M + Intel GMA HD (Optimus)|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.9x9.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.8 / 4.5 pounds|
Clad in a matte black magnesium shell with a smooth finish, the U36JC adopts an all-black, angular look that's clean and instantly attractive. In several ways, the formal lines resemble those of the Alienware laptops or Asus' Republic of Gamers laptop, the Asus G73.
It's also similar in size and design to the Toshiba Portege R700 series, but, as mentioned above, without an optical drive. The upper lid swings open on two raised hinges, floating slightly above the base, and a thick raised back lip partially contains the U36JC's eight-cell battery. The U36JC is nearly as thin as the recently reviewed ultracompact Lenovo IdeaPad U260, but it has a wider and deeper footprint.
The thin design is admirable and the chassis has a strong, lightweight feel, but the extra-thin body does have its compromises. You can actually see the internal circuit boards through venting grilles on the bottom--this isn't a laptop you want to accidentally place down on a small puddle. Also, the heat vent on the left side is pushed to the front, resulting in blasts of very warm air on your left palm while typing.
Speaking of typing, the U36JC-A1's keyboard feels as great as the previous U35JC-A1's, thanks to solid, raised Chiclet-style keys with very little flex. The keyboard's not backlit, but it's perfectly sized and runs nearly edge-to-edge. A right-side column of Page Up/Down function keys, increasingly common on some laptops, makes finding the Enter and Shift keys more challenging than normal. For other functions such as volume or screen brightness, you'll have to rely on function-combination keys along the top of the keyboard, as opposed to any dedicated keys.
The multitouch touch pad beneath has a smooth response, but is not a more modern-looking click pad. The old-fashioned chromed plastic button bar below isn't our favorite type of click hardware, but then again we tend to touch-tap on the touch pad anyway. The pad could have been larger, though, and feels last-gen.
Also last-gen, in a matter of speaking, is Asus' insistence on having two separate power-buttonlike buttons above the keyboard. One actually boots up the U36JC-A1 in Windows 7, as normally expected; the other launches a "quick start" OS for those who don't have the patience for a full boot of Windows. We never could figure out why quick start is even needed: compared with an iPhone or iPad it's not a quick start at all, and the weak applications rendered in reduced pixel resolutions aren't worth the effort. Putting your laptop to sleep instead is the easier and faster answer.
The 13-inch glossy 16:9 screen on the Asus U36JC-A1 has a native resolution of 1,366x768, which is standard for this size. Text and pictures looked reasonably bright and crisp; viewing angles were wide horizontally, but vertically--as in, when opening and closing the laptop lid--the image degraded more quickly. It's more than serviceable, but isn't standout.
Integrated stereo speakers offer medium volume but hollow, tinny definition. They're fine for basic video playback, but aren't great for music. The integrated Webcam has an LED light to show when it's operating--a nice touch--but the 640x480 maximum resolution and grainy picture quality won't make fans of heavy Web-chatters.
|Asus U36JC-A1||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||VGA-out, HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Other than a high-speed 7,200rpm 500GB hard drive, the other notable feature of the U36JC is its USB 3.0 port, marked in blue. We haven't used many of the high-speed drives and peripherals intended for USB 3.0, but it's a nice forward-looking feature to have.
The 2.53GHz Intel Core i5 M460 CPU in the U36JC is an upgrade from the Core i3 in the U35JC-A1, and unlike in some thin laptops, it's a full standard-voltage processor. Multitasking and general application performance are excellent, on par with most mainstream to high-end laptops. Unfortunately, this isn't one of Intel's next-generation Sandy Bridge processors, which promise even greater boosts in performance.
Our initial tests of Sandy Bridge CPUs seem promising, and could also have a positive impact on battery life. For this reason, we'd recommend waiting until upgraded Intel CPUs become more widely available, if you can--otherwise, don't worry: this system still provides excellent performance compared with what's out there.
This laptop also has automatic-switching graphics courtesy of a dedicated Nvidia GeForce 310M CPU with Optimus, which auto-detects which programs require advanced graphics and switches as needed between the dedicated GPU and integrated Intel graphics. Bottom line: basic gameplay is possible, but this is an entry-level graphics processor.