In an era of thin laptops and Ultrabooks, to be thin is starting to feel like less of a novelty and more of a requirement. Thin, however, is relative: are you talking about the razor-thin world of Ultrabooks, or the not-quite-as-slim world of thin full-size laptops? In the case of the Asus U46E, thin means "normal-size, but pleasingly compact"--like the Dell XPS 14z, this is a full-fledged 14-inch laptop with an optical drive, but it's only about 0.1 inch thicker than a MacBook Pro.
The U46E is part of a family of thinnish Asus laptops that I've been bullish about for years, going back to the UL30A. The U46E-BAL6 continues the trend while throwing in tons of power under the hood of a pretty compact computer: a dual-core Core i7 processor, a 750GB hard drive, and a whopping 8GB of RAM.
What price would you pay for such a laptop? The U46E-BAL6 goes for $829 at retail, and that's a pretty good value for what you're getting--especially compared with the similar 13-inch MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,199, or the $999 Dell XPS 14z, which has a slower Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. In the word of Windows laptops, $600 is becoming a more commonplace midrange price. Still, this Asus has extras that make it well worth the extra investment. Really, all it lacks is dedicated discrete graphics.
A sturdy keyboard, Bluetooth, and a WiMax antenna round out the package. Even in a crowded market, the Asus U46E-BAL6 manages to stand out from the pack as an excellent powerhouse 14-incher.
|Price as reviewed||$829|
|Processor||2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620M|
|Memory||8GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||750GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Intel HD 3000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.1x 9.6inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||14 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.8 pounds / 5.6 pounds|
Asus laptops are like a box of chocolates: you never know what the next one will look like. The U46E-BAL6 is rock-solid and reasonably attractive. With its thin aluminum-covered lid etched with a concentric-ring design, and an island-style keyboard with elevated palm rest inside, it resembles a stylish business laptop. With the lid open, revealing the keyboard and screen, it could be a Sony Vaio. A funny back lip sits behind the screen hinge, thick enough to rest some breath mints or pocket change on. There's also a battery bulge on the bottom, which doubles as a keyboard riser. Despite the relative thickness of the back, no ports reside there, although the AC adapter plug is in the back. I appreciated that this design kept the power cord out of the way of side USB ports and the DVD drive.
My favorite laptop keyboards are those by Apple and Lenovo. This Asus comes awfully close to the Apple experience, with similarly sized rounded-edge, raised keys, which respond naturally and with just the right amount of travel. I'm not fond of the column of right-side Page Up/Page Down keys that cramp access to the Enter/Shift keys, or of the direction arrows that are wedged in, reducing the Shift key on the right to a shred of its normal self, but this is otherwise a very good laptop for typing. Typing this whole review on the Asus was a breeze and a joy.
Above the keyboard, a thin lozenge of a power button sits on the top right, and a key of similar size is on the symmetrical left. That key controls battery modes while in use (high performance, entertainment mode), but I'd rather have a button for WiDi. Intel Wireless Display 2.0, which mirrors your HD audio and video on a nearby TV, is included on this laptop, but its presence is invisible unless you discover the feature yourself--and you need a compatible receiver box for your TV.
A recessed multitouch touch pad has highly polished mirrored buttons underneath. The pad, designed by Elan, not Synaptics, can still do what most touch pads do, such as pinch to zoom, but I found it a tad less responsive.
The 14-inch glossy display on this Asus is recessed in a black bezel that's a little rubbery to the touch. Its 1,366x768-pixel resolution is standard for the size. Though some may prefer edge-to-edge glass, there's a certain practicality to having a screen recessed with rubber bumpers on the bezel, as is the case here. It's a good screen; it's reasonably bright, and movies and videos look nice. I didn't think the colors were leap-out wonderful, and picture quality deteriorated quickly from off-axis vertical viewing angles. Horizontally, however, the picture held up well even when viewed from the side.
Built-in front-firing speakers are hidden under the laptop's palm rest on the bottom of the chassis. Oddly, the speaker volume only came from the right side--even after I tweaked the settings--suggesting that the speakers are grouped there. It didn't bother me when watching Hulu videos or movie trailers, but for music or more immersive entertainment it would become annoying quickly. The maximum volume is loud enough to share in a room; audio quality is what you'd expect in a laptop, no more, no less. The 1.3-megapixel Webcam is good enough for Skyping.
|Asus U46E-BAL6||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||1 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, WiMax||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
I appreciated the no-compromise approach to features on the Asus U46E-BAL6. Again, Bluetooth, WiDi 2.0, USB 3.0, and even a WiMax antenna are all included. Toss in the included optical drive, and you aren't likely to regret missing any features.
The included 8GB of RAM and 750GB 7,200prm hard drive are generous for the price. The equivalent, more expensive Dell XPS 14z only has 6GB of RAM and a 500GB HDD for $999, and a Core i5 versus a Core i7 CPU; the $649 Samsung QX411-W01UB is less expensive, but also has a less powerful Core i5 CPU, a smaller hard drive (640GB), and less RAM (6GB).
The included dual-core 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620M CPU is a step up from most mainstream laptops in this price range. No, most people aren't likely to notice the difference in ordinary use, but for extra oomph when video editing or engaging in heavy media creation, it could come in handy, as would the extra RAM. The U46E edged out laptops like the Toshiba Portege R835-P56X in benchmark tests, but was a little slower than the $1,299 version of the Dell XPS 14z outfitted with a slightly faster 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-2640M CPU. For everyday use and even more-intensive tasks, this should laptop should provide an excellent computing experience.
The only thing the Asus U46E-BAL6 lacks is dedicated graphics for gaming or advanced GPU performance. Included integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics are enough for basic gaming and most everyday needs, but Street Fighter IV ran at a middling 18.1 frames per second using the native-resolution benchmark at 2x AA. If you're a gamer, you'll notice the difference.