With most of the laptops in our Winter 2009 Retail Review Roundup sporting a fairly uniform set of components and features, any entries that break the mold in a significant way have a good chance of standing out from the crowd.
In the crowded Budget category of retail laptops, ranging from $600 to $899, we were pleased to find the $679 Asus X83VB-X2, a 14-inch system notable for its discrete Nvidia GeForce 9300 graphics. Sure, it's no gaming powerhouse, but casual gamers (and World of Warcraft addicts) will appreciate the extra gaming muscle in such an inexpensive laptop.
The trade-off comes from a smaller hard drive than some of the other systems in the same category, and some typically Asus-like design weirdness, such as the quick-launch keys with the virtually invisible labeling.
|Price as reviewed||$679|
|Processor||2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6400|
|Memory||4GB, 800MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||250GB 5,400rpm|
|Chipset||Mobile Intel GM45 Express|
|Graphics||256MB Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||14.1 x 10.4 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.8/6.7 pounds|
The 14-inch chassis of the Asus X83VB-X2 reminded us of the Toshiba A305 line, as both are made of dark glossy plastic, with similar tapered key keyboards and oversized silver mouse buttons. It's fingerprint prone, to be sure, but the back of the lid on the Asus at least had a unique look, with lighter blue speckles against a dark blue background.
While we liked the large touchpad and massive mouse buttons, the row of quick-launch keys above the keyboard was particularly vexing. The tiny keys are hard to hit, and the tiny label above each one is nearly impossible to read. They do, however, cycle between power profiles, change the screen brightness, and turn off and on the Wi-Fi antenna. Our review unit also came loaded with proprietary software and desktop advertising shortcuts, including Asus' Webcam and facial recognition tools, and come-ons for Lojack for Laptops, a Geek Squad online support service, and a casual games service from Best Buy.
The 14.1-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,280x800 native resolution, which is standard for a screen this size. The display's thick, glossy bezel is a little distracting, but the screen itself is actually less glossy, (although far from matte), which makes it easier to see in a well-lit room.
|Asus X83VB-X2||Average for category [mainstream]|
|Video||VGA-out, HDMI||VGA-out, HDMI|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||5 USB 2.0, mini-Fire-Wire, SD card reader, eSATA port||4 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 WWAN|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
The five USB connections is great for a budget system, but we're concerned that Bluetooth is becoming the first thing PC makers cut when trimming costs in sub-$1,000 laptops (Dell, Toshiba, and others are equally guilty of this omission).
Most of the systems in the Budget section of our Winter 2009 Retail Roundup (covering laptops from $600 to $899), have Intel's 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T6400 CPU. Performance among the Intel-based systems was virtually identical, but the Asus X83VB-X2 was consistently faster by (if only by a matter of seconds) than most of the competition. The two AMD-powered systems in our lineup, the HP dv4 and HP dv7, fell more significantly behind the pack.
Any of these T6400-powered systems are perfectly adequate for basic Web surfing, working on Office documents, and media playback--although running too many applications or opening too many windows at once can lead to some slowdown.
The included Nvidia GeForce 9300 isn't going to satisfy hardcore gamers, but if you're willing to turn down the resolution, you can get a playable experience from many current games. We only got 16.4 frames per second in Quake IV at 1,280x800, but turning down the graphics options anecdotally improves that. The new Quake Live online shooter is also a good option.
The Asus X83VB-X2 ran for 2 hours and 49 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, which is a bit shy of our recommended 3-hour minimum battery life for 14- and 15-inch laptops, putting it right in the middle of the pack of budget retail laptops.
Asus includes an industry-standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system. The company's support Web site has improved much over the past few years, and includes easy-to-find driver downloads and a brief FAQ section. Retail stores offer a variety of extended warranty plans with your laptop purchase, but they're generally expensive and hard to use, so we do not recommend them.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)