Desktop replacement laptops such as the A7J aren't normally based on Intel Centrino technology. They tend to be big, power-hungry brutes that use vast amounts of electrical energy and have a short battery life -- a concept diametrically opposed to the Centrino mantra.
Asus has chosen to buck this trend by incorporating the latest Centrino (codenamed Napa) technology in the A7J -- which is unusual, seeing as many big vendors, Sony included, still churn out new ultraportables with old Centrino chips.
The A7J is a hefty beast. This is all due to its large 17-inch widescreen display, which is a viable alternative to a dedicated desktop monitor, but a hindrance to portability. The rest of the laptop doesn't make a particularly good first impression. Its gunmetal-grey finish is a welcome addition in many small laptops, but it doesn't always work in larger models such as this, which tend to come across as old fashioned.
The laptop's run-of-the-mill aesthetic continues when you open the lid. There's a standard-sized black keyboard sitting proudly in the middle, with good-sized stereo speakers on either side. We've found laptop speakers to be fairly ineffective, no matter what their girth, so we'd prefer to have seen a larger keyboard -- one which also incorporates a dedicated number pad.
Below the main keyboard there is a set of audio buttons for launching and controlling music CDs. Like many multimedia laptops, this feature can be accessed independently of Windows XP, so you can listen to tunes without having to boot the operating system. Just above the keyboard is another set of shortcut keys. One alters the brightness preset of the screen (gamma correction, vivid, theatre, soft and normal modes are available); and another, known as the Power4 Gear Key, cycles the laptop between a set of performance modes.
A DVD rewriter drive can be found on the right side of the AJ7. On the left-hand side, there are LAN and modem ports, a single USB port, line-in, mic and SPDIF audio sockets, a four-pin FireWire port, and a hardware Wi-Fi switch that gives you instant on/off control of the wireless adaptor. You'll also find an ExpressCard slot and a memory card reader that supports MMC/SD/Memory Stick and Memory Stick PRO formats. Plus there's a very intriguing audio/visual port in which you can connect a TV aerial, and RCA-connected devices such as a video recorder via an 1/8-inch RCA adaptor.
Along with its Napa backbone, the A7J uses an Intel Core Duo T2400 CPU, clocked at 1.8GHz. This dual-core chip is reinforced by 1GB of DDR2 533MHz memory, and rather than use the standard integrated Intel graphics chip, Asus has gone for a discrete solution. In this case it's a Radeon X1600 XT chip, ATI's flagship mobile adaptor. While the A7J has a wide aspect ratio mouse touchpad, gamers will be pleased to note the inclusion of a separate USB mouse.
The machine's apparent focus towards visually demanding applications is highlighted further by the inclusion of an integrated 1.3-megapixel camera at the top of the screen. There's a built-in microphone that sits just to the right of this, so the pair are ideally positioned for video conferencing. Asus has also bundled some video security software, which detects movement and makes recordings in your absence -- but this doesn't upload the captured images to a secure Web server, so you'll have no access to the image if someone steals the laptop.
The A7J uses the Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) operating system. This is an extension to the standard Windows XP interface designed to be used from a distance via remote control. It provides quick and convenient access to your collection of movies, digital photos and music, and in some cases, can turn your PC into a television receiver. The A7J doesn't miss a trick -- it includes both analogue and digital TV tuners, so you can choose to watch Freeview broadcasts, or if you live in an area with poor digital reception, standard analogue TV.
The A7J's 17-inch widescreen display runs at an impressive 1,400x900-pixel resolution. This makes use of Asus' Color Shine LCD coating, which provides improved contrast and clarity -- ideal for watching TV or DVDs. Unfortunately, the A7J doesn't include a Microsoft-approved MCE remote control. Instead, Asus has bundled a poorly designed substitute remote that lacks the recommended MS Start button for easy MCE navigation.
More bizarrely, Asus has chosen to include a rather puny 60GB hard drive, in our review unit at least. Considering business latops such as the AJP M555N-E are equipped with drives twice this size, this is pathetic. Larger drives are available (we found the laptop for the same £1,399 online with a much more generous 100GB drive), so we suggest you opt for a model with at least 100GB of storage. If you choose not to, you'll be making regular use of the TSSTCorp TS-L532u DVD rewriter. It's a dual layer offering, so you can copy up to 8.5GB of data per compatible disc.
The A7J put in a strong overall performance in most of our tests. It achieved a PCMark 2005 tally of 3,825 -- which is slightly more than we've seen for any laptop that uses a similar specification. Its dual-core processor will chomp its way through most applications without much slowdown, and it's especially adept at running several applications at once, so you can safely perform video encoding while you surf the Internet.
Its gaming performance was also admirable. It clocked up a 3DMark 2006 score of 1,963, which again is the highest we've seen on any laptop using the same graphics card. It's not as fast as the all-conquering, but it ran Doom 3 at a very respectable 66.1 frames per second at a resolution of 1,024x768 pixels, and only dropped to 39.7fps at a resolution of 1,280x1,024 pixels.
Despite its Centrino backbone, the A7J doesn't last particularly long away from the mains. In our tests it lasted 46 minutes before keeling over -- which isn't bad for a desktop replacement, but it's far from ideal if you're often on the move.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide