No matter how inspired a laptop design, chances are it is made of either glossy or textured plastic, or, in some upscale cases, aluminum or magnesium. There's nothing wrong with that, but there's certainly room for some creativity around the margins, and that's exactly what Asus brings to the table in the new U33Jc-A1. This $999 13-inch laptop is partially clad in actual bamboo, creating a unique upscale look and feel that we find greatly appealing to our mid-century modern design tastes.
Beyond the look and feel, this Intel Core i3 system also works in some useful features, including Intel's Wireless Display technology (for beaming the video output to an external display), and a discrete Nvidia 310M GPU.
This is the first time we've seen Wireless Display and an Nvidia GPU in the same laptop; they're normally incompatible. The clever workaround Asus uses requires Nvidia's Optimus technology, which can automatically switch between integrated and discrete graphics on the fly. Optimus disengages the Nvidia GPU when it's not needed (which is most of the time) and that tricks the laptop into only seeing its integrated Intel graphics chips -- which in turn allows the Wireless Display software to launch (you'll still need a sold-separately $99 Netgear adaptor to connect to your external display).
On the less positive side, though the U33J is thin, it's not nearly thin enough to justify the omission of an optical drive, which is still a rare move for a 13-inch laptop. But, if you think you can survive without one, this is one of the sharpest-looking laptops we've seen this year. If you'd rather swap in an optical drive for the discrete graphics, check out the Toshiba Portege R705 (also with Wireless Display), which happens to be $100-$200 less expensive.
|Price as reviewed||$999|
|Processor||2.4GHz Intel Core i3 M370|
|Memory||4GB, 1066MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GeForce 310M / Intel GMA HD|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.9 x 9.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.5/5.3 pounds|
Though reasonably svelte for a mainstream 13-inch laptop, the Asus U33J is neither exceptionally thin nor light. In fact, the largely comparable Toshiba Portege R705 manages to be both slimmer and lighter, while still working in an optical drive.
The most notable physical feature on the U33J is its bamboo-accented chassis. The back of the lid and the interior wrist rest, along with the touch pad itself, are all covered with a thin layer of wood. Asus says it spent a good deal of time working out the right way to bond the bamboo to the system in order to avoid splitting, buckling, or warping, and the final product really is flawless. The dark wood looks fantastic, feels great under the fingers, and makes this a very upscale-looking system.
The rest of the body is composed of glossy black plastic and gray brushed metal, and the entire package feels solid and sturdy, and likely to stand up to serious road abuse. The keyboard is the typical Asus island style, with flat-topped, widely spaced keys. The all-important right shift key is slightly shortened, but we appreciate the standalone page-up and page-down keys along the right edge of the keyboard.
The touch pad is built into the same bamboo strip that makes up the rest of the wrist rest. The wooden surface works fine as a touch pad, although it lacks the multitouch gestures found in most other current laptops. Still, it's impressive that even with the wood covering, the touch pad is as responsive and accurate as any other we've tried. Below the touch pad is a thin rocker bar for the left and right mouse buttons. Also covered in bamboo, it's too small to use easily.
The Asus U33J includes more than its fair share of preloaded software, ranging from its own Web cam and display setting apps to promotional links for Skype, eBay, and others. The most interesting is the Asus Control Deck, which takes the typical dock-style list of apps and settings found on systems from Dell or Apple and turns it into a scrolling 3D overlay, rotating each category (brightness, power settings, etc.) into the foreground with a click of the up or down arrow buttons. It's very tactile, but still probably not something you'd use all the time.
The 13.3-inch display has a 1,366x768-pixel native resolution, which is typical for nearly every current laptop screen between 11 and 15 inches. It's a good middle ground that gives you enough screen real estate and allows 720p video content to play natively without making text and icons too small to see. Though still glossy, the screen on the U33J isn't as glare-inducing as many we've seen. Directly above the display, a 2.0MP Web cam has an on/off switch that physically covers the lens when set in the off position.
|Asus U33Jc-A1||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||VGA, 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, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Most of the expected ports and connections can be found on the Asus U33J--including Bluetooth, which has become something of a rarity lately--and we were also pleasantly surprised to find a USB 3.0 port (you can tell from the blue pin connector). Its practical application may be minor for now until more compatible devices are available, but USB 3.0 offers better throughput for data and more power for USB-connected hardware. The question is: does that make up for the lack of an internal optical drive? Not having one hasn't hurt the utility of Netbooks or ultrathin laptops such as the Dell Admao XPS or MacBook Air, but on a standard-size laptop, it's an unusual omission.
The man component difference between this system and the physically similar Toshiba Portege R705 is that the former has Intel Wireless Display and an Nvidia GPU, whereas the latter has Wireless Display but only integrated Intel graphics, along with an optical drive.
Like other recent laptops with Intel's Core i3 processor, the Asus U33J is a capable performer, and in fact was slightly faster in our benchmark tests than many comparably systems. In general, the Intel Core i3 provides the right mix of performance, price, and size for attractive portable laptops under $1,000. That said, we did run into some occasional slowdown on the system, usually while performing mundane Windows tasks--but between Wireless Display, the Optimus graphics switching, and Asus' own custom dashboard apps, there are a lot of background processes going on at once.
The Nvidia GeForce 310M graphics chip is the usual mainstream choice found in today's non-gaming laptops, and works fine for basic 3D tasks. In Unreal Tournament 3 at 1,280x720-pixel resolution, we got a respectable 46.8 frames per second, but don't expect to play the latest games with the graphics detail setting cranked all the way up. Coupled with Nvidia's Optimus graphics-switching technology, the 310M GPU can turn itself off and on automatically as needed, so it shouldn't affect battery life.