Asus U31 review: Asus U31

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The Good The compact Asus U31SD-A1 has surprisingly good graphics and robust battery life tucked into a 13-inch laptop.

The Bad The design is uninspiring and lacks common higher-end ports and features, and a laptop this size should have an optical drive.

The Bottom Line The Asus U31SD-A1 is a compact 13-inch laptop that should appeal to back-to-school shoppers, especially with its impressive combination of graphics and battery life, despite some cut corners.

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7.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 9
  • Support 8

The term "thin and light" has flexible meaning in the laptop world. Currently, to be truly thin, a PC must be in the same range as the MacBook Air. Still, plenty of 13-inch laptops survive in a thicker range that would have been considered thin a few years ago, but which seem merely normal today. The Asus U31SD-A1 is just that sort of laptop. Its thickness is more akin to a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro, but Asustek Computer's laptop lacks an optical drive. We reviewed a nearly identical Asus U31JG laptop a few months ago, noting that it was a solid computer but lacked an up-to-date Intel processor. The U31SD-A1 has a second-gen Core i3-2310M CPU and improved Nvidia GeForce 520M graphics, along with a markedly better battery life than the U31JG. It's an improvement in every way.

But all of this is packed into a chassis that feels uninspired and is topped off with a middle-of-the-road screen and speakers. If you can live with that--and a lack of higher-end features such as USB 3.0--then the U31SD-A1 might be right for you.

At $799, it's a solid performer, but considering that similar laptops like the Toshiba Portege R835 can be had for the same money, this doesn't seem like quite the bargain it's cracked up to be. However, for back-to-schoolers who need all-day battery life, the U31SD-A1 could be a sweetly sized and priced purchase.

Price as reviewed $799
Processor 2.1GHz Intel Core i3-2310M
Memory 4GB, 1,333 MHz DDR3
Hard drive 640GB HDD, 5,400rpm
Graphics Nvidia GeForce 520M / Intel HD 3000 (Nvidia Optimus)
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 12.9x9.2 inches
Height 1 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 4.2 pounds / 5.2 pounds
Category 13-inch

The Asus U31SD-A1 has the same design and body as the U31JG-A1 we reviewed back in March. Our design impressions remain the same. While the U31SD-A1 is a compact laptop, it's not really a looker. Its brushed-aluminum lid and palm rest are reminiscent of those on the Asus UL30A that we reviewed years ago, but times have changed: laptops like the Apple MacBook Air and the Samsung Series 9 have redefined thin, making this laptop seem comparatively chunky. In fact, it is surprising that this 13-incher lacks an optical drive: similarly thin laptops such as the Sony Vaio S and the Toshiba Portege R835 include one.

Glossy black plastic surrounds the keyboard and upper screen while the keyboard deck and touch pad have a brushed silver metal finish, giving the laptop a two-tone look. It's not a look that stands out. While this may seem like we're being sticklers, design is a big factor in what makes a portable laptop comfortable and easy to use, and the slightly bulky chassis just isn't eye-catching. At 4.2 pounds, this laptop's just light enough to feel travel-friendly, but it's heavier than the Sony Vaio S and Toshiba Portege R835.

The raised-key keyboard has comfortable spacing between keys, but a slightly mushy key feel. A row of Page Up/Page Down buttons on the right side squishes and pushes the Enter and Shift keys in a bit, making them hard to find by feel.

An inset multitouch touch pad is smaller than average, making two-finger gestures a bit harder to pull off. The textured surface had mixed responsiveness in our testing. A mirror-finish plastic rocker button-bar beneath feels much like those of other Asus laptops; we'd prefer easier-to-click discrete buttons. The terrible mouse button bar is a long-standing Asus issue that never seems to get fixed, no matter how many times we knock it.

Above the keyboard, it looks like there are two symmetrically laid-out power buttons on the upper left and right sides; however, the one on the right is the actual power button, while the one on the left launches the Quick Start OS, a pared-down, faster-booting collection of applications that includes a Web browser. Quick-start OSes are meant for the impatient, and are a poor attempt to offer up what speedier-booting systems such as the iPad and MacBook Air already do far better. We never find ourselves using quick-start OSes; we'd rather boot Windows 7 and put our laptop to sleep between sessions. Need to quickly check e-mail or a Web link? That's what a smartphone is for.

The 13.3-inch, 1,366x768-pixel-resolution glossy display is inset from the upper lid, forgoing any edge-to-edge glass. This makes for a bit less glare, but the display's clarity and viewing angles are average at best. Text and images are very readable, but colors aren't ultravibrant. It's a middle-of-the-road display.

The same can be said for the U31SD's speakers: the Altec Lansing stereo speakers don't live up to their high-end branding. They push their sound through narrow grilles at the front edge of the laptop, under the palm rest. Maximum volume isn't particularly loud, and we found the sound quality leaned toward the tinny. They'll do in a pinch, but headphones are a better bet. The included Sonic Focus equalizer software helps adjust levels for movie watching.

The included VGA Webcam comes with Asus' LifeFrame camera software, offering a variety of settings for recording video and snapping pics, including gimmicky Photo Booth-like backdrops and effects. Maximum resolution is a measly 640x480 pixels, with light sensitivity and contrast suitable for basic Web chats.

Asus U31SD-A1 Average for category [13-inch]
Video HDMI, VGA VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone and microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 3 USB 2.0, SD card reader 3 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion None None
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None DVD burner

There aren't any surprise bonus ports or connections in the Asus U31SD: in fact, its no-frills feature set lacks Bluetooth and USB 3.0, along with the aforementioned optical drive. That will be a turn-off for some. At least the included 4GB of RAM and roomy 640GB hard drive are a little above standard for the size and price.

The U31SD-A1 we reviewed has a 2.1GHz second-generation Intel Core i3-2310M processor. The performance of this Sandy Bridge Core i3 CPU is rock-solid for everyday work, but it's notably slower than the Core i5 processors we've seen in recent, similarly priced laptops such as the Toshiba Portege. Performance benchmarks show the Asus U31SD-A1 falling into the middle of the pack of notebooks with identical Core i3-2310M CPUs such as the HP ProBook 5330m.

Interestingly, the Asus U31SD-A1 comes with pretty decent Nvidia discrete graphics, too. The GeForce 520M GPU has Optimus automatic switching and performed well enough in our game testing to suit most mainstream games. Street Fighter IV ran at 44.3 frames per second in full-screen native resolution with 2x antialiasing. It's an odd disconnect for discrete graphics to be paired with a lower-end Core i-series CPU, but these step-up graphics are one of our favorite features on this laptop, so we won't quibble.