We're fond of saying that the 13-inch laptop is so unique it deserves its own category in the laptop family tree. In general, a 13-inch system hits the sweet spot of being the biggest laptop we'd consider carrying around every day, and also the smallest we'd consider using on a daily basis for serious work. It may not be the perfect solution for either road warriors or desk jockeys, but it comes the closest to straddling that line and being universally useful.
As typified by Apple's 13-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro, however, most 13-inch laptops require a certain amount of sacrifice on the horsepower front, especially when it comes to gaming. Hoping to add a little more oomph to a typical 13-incher, Asus has added an Nvidia GeForce 310M GPU to the Asus U30Jc.
But the real bonus is that the system also uses Optimus, Nividia's new switchable graphics solution, which turns your GPU on and off on the fly. Previously, switchable graphics required you to actively turn off the discrete graphics card when you didn't need it. It's a seemingly simple concept, but according to Nvidia, engineering challenges have only recently made it possible.
The upshot is that you get the benefit of a dedicated GPU for gaming, but the battery life of a typical 13-inch laptop the rest of the time, without having to remember to flip a switch.
Coupled with Intel's Core i3 processor, it's an excellent all-around package, with only two flaws. At $899, it's only $100 less than a basic MacBook (and if you're not interested in 3D gaming, you might prefer the iconic Apple laptop), and the U30Jc is bulky and heavy, compared with other 13-inch systems.
|Processor||2.26GHz Intel Core i3 M350|
|Memory||4GB, 1066MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||320GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce 310M + Intel GMA 4500MHD|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.1x9.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.8/5.8 pounds|
This sturdy system is a combination of brushed metal and plastic, which makes it look more upscale than a fully plastic laptop, such as the Toshiba T135, but also not quite as upscale as the full metal body of the MacBook Pro. The end result feels sturdy, but lacks a certain slickness, looking a bit too industrial for design-savvy consumers.
The real problem is the system's weight. At a bit under 5 pounds, this may not be a shoulder-breaker, but it'll certainly feel heaver than a lot of other 13-inch laptops. We've also been spoiled recently by carrying around the 10mm-thick Dell Adamo XPS, which, despite the same screen size, is an entirely different animal.
The black plastic island-style keyboard has a matte finish, which is great for avoiding fingerprints (and the keys have excellent grip). Our main trouble spot is the slightly shortened right Shift key, which always gets in the way of our typing speed. Rather than dedicated media control or quick-launch keys, any extra functions are mapped via the Fn key to the existing keyboard. A nice bonus for a 13-inch laptop in this price range would have been a backlit keyboard. Alas, it was not to be.
The sizable touch pad also has a matte, brushed-metal surface. It supports multitouch gestures such as two-finger scrolling, but the left and right mouse buttons are combined into a single rocker bar, which is one of our laptop pet peeves.
The 13-inch wide-screen display offers a 1,366x768-pixel native resolution, which is standard for most 16:9 laptops this size. It provides for text and icons that are highly readable, and is well-suited for 720p HD video content, but the off-axis viewing angles weren't the best we've seen.
|Asus U30Jc-1A||Average for category [thin-and-light]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi,||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
The ports and connections on the U30Jc are basic, to say the least. Though we like getting an HDMI port, and three USB ports are fairly standard, there's no Bluetooth or eSATA port (something that's becoming so common we recently invested in a 1.5TB eSATA external drive). As a fixed-configuration system, there's no option for adding mobile broadband; you'll need something like a USB 3G antenna for that.
We've quickly become fond of Intel's new Core i3 CPU for its combination of computing horsepower and power efficiency. We'd definitely want it over an ultralow-voltage chip in a system like this, although that might also partially explain the Asus' larger, heavier body. In our benchmark tests, the Asus U30Jc fell a bit behind the latest Core 2 Duo MacBook as well as Sony's Vaio Z116GX/S, which has an even faster Core i5 processor (but is also much more expensive). That said, the Asus handily beat two upscale 13-inch ULV laptops, the HP Envy 13 and the Dell Adamo XPS.
With its Nvidia GeForce 310M graphics, we got 73.4 frames per second in Unreal Tournament III at 1,366x768-pixel resolution. That should make almost any current PC game very playable, although you may have to dial down the detail settings a bit. The best part was that we didn't have to manually engage the GPU; it just seamlessly went from integrated graphics to the Nvidia chip when we launched the game.