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Editors' note: This review is part of our , which covers specific fixed configurations of popular systems found in retail stores.
A funny thing happened on the way to the store this year: Asus went ahead and produced two very similar-looking, similarly priced and named, but subtly different, laptops for this year's retail roundup. We note this because they both belong in the mainstream category, and they are within $100 of each other. The Asus U50F-RBBAG05 features a new Intel Core i3 processor and costs $649. It's an excellent deal, especially when compared with the Asus UL50VT-RBBBK05, which also has a 15.6-inch screen and switchable Nvidia graphics, but costs $729 and has a slower, ultralow-voltage processor that isn't as new or as fast as a Core i3.
The U50F seems like a slightly newer design than the UL50 we've seen before, with a larger touch pad and a glossier, curved-edge look. And, even though it's not technically a "thin-and-light," the U50F manages to be only 0.3 inch thicker than the UL50VT.
Which one is for you? For most mainstream users, being "ultrathin" isn't as important as simply being fast and good, and the U50F manages to offer up a nice set of speedy laptop specs that should satisfy most general computer users at a price that's quite reasonable. On the other hand, if extra design, portability, and gaming graphics power are important to you, check out our UL50VT review. In short, what we really wish is that Asus had offered up a combination of these models that had both a new Core i3 processor and dedicated graphics, but then again, the cost for such a beast would be more than either of these two laptops. For a great basic value, it's hard to do better than the Asus U50F-RBBAG05.
|Price as reviewed||$649|
|Processor||2.1 GHz Intel Core i3 M330|
|Memory||4GB, 1066 MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD HM55|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||15.2 x 10.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||5.4 / 6.2 pounds|
From initial outer appearances, the Asus U50F looks like the somewhat plastic budget laptop it is. With a dark brown glossy lid and matte black plastic trim featuring an understated Asus logo, the design doesn't aim to be eye-catching, but it's also not an eyesore.
Inside, an attractive matte brown finish surrounds a raised keyboard and number pad, while a simple speaker grille and two discrete buttons--one for power and one for Asus' quick-launch operating system--line the space below the U50F's curved hinge. A six-cell battery is tucked in the space between the left and right hinges, angling upward and allowing the U50F to have no bulge underneath, which creates a slimmer feel. Like some Sony Vaio models we've seen, the U50F's charger port is located in the right end of the circular hinge, although it's not clearly labeled as such.
We generally liked the raised chiclet-style keyboard on the U50F, although the keys felt a little more closely spaced than on comparable laptops. The right-side number pad, though a nice addition, is compressed and narrow and could be awkward for number-crunchers. The directional arrow keys are oddly located halfway between both parts of the keyboard, with the right-directional key the lowermost button on the number pad. At first glance, this wasn't intuitive at all. A big plus in this laptop's favor when compared against the similarly sized UL50VT is the larger touch pad included here. It's nowhere near MacBook Pro-sized, but the smooth surface and more generous multitouch real estate is a good step. Unfortunately, the narrow, chrome, plastic, rocker-type button bar beneath is tiny, stiff, and hard to press accurately, ruining the ergonomics.
The U50F, like its UL50-series cousins, seems as if it has two power buttons on the above-left and right of the keyboard. In fact, one boots Windows 7, whereas the other launches an Express Gate Splashtop OS environment, a quicker-booting mini-OS with a pared-down Web browser, e-mail, and other essential programs. The idea of Express Gate is to offer a faster start-up for quick tasks without booting Windows 7, but we usually keep our laptop in sleep/hibernate mode, and it doesn't take too long to resume what we were doing, so we don't use this feature very often around the office. Many casual users with quick-launch OS options on their laptops don't even know they have them. The ExpressGate button activates the switching of power-saving modes when the U50F is already booted in Windows 7.
The 15.6-inch glossy 16x9 LED screen on the Asus U50F-RBBAG05 has a 1,366x768-pixel native resolution, which is passable but could be better--we would have preferred full-HD, but at this price that would be a surprise. Still, images and videos looked crisp and bright in our office tests. The speakers, which are now above the keyboard instead of below, as in the case of the UL50VT, sound even louder than before and are perfectly good for most uses, although they lack the defined bass and character of any serious audiophile-level speakers.
|Asus U50F-RBBAG05||Average for category [Mainstream]|
|Video||VGA-out, HDMI||VGA and HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, 1 eSATA port, multiformat memory card reader||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/CD burner||DVD burner|
Although the Asus U50F isn't that much bigger than its "slim" cousin the UL50VT, it makes the most of its added space with some key port extras. An eSATA port and an ExpressCard slot aren't that common nowadays--or, some may argue, even needed at all--but they're nice options to have that can free up a USB port or two. There is no Bluetooth built into the U50F-RBBAG05.
The Asus U50F's Intel Core i3 M330 CPU, a newcomer and part of Intel's new processor lineup for 2010, has impressed us with its speed and overall multitasking performance, especially for the price range in which it's being slotted. Just $629 for the performance this Core i3 offers is a great value, and one of the chief advantages of the U50F. This is one of the more affordable Core i3 laptops we've seen, and though the U50F doesn't have dedicated gaming graphics, its video playback and video-streaming capabilities are well above par, and are great for any user--and just because it can't play high-end games, that doesn't mean it can't run a large range of Web-based and casual games, of which there are countless good ones. The U50F should be adept at handling any media needs. Its retail neighbor, the UL50VT, does have dedicated graphics for games, and is worth looking into for that option, but we prefer the U50F for nearly every other need--every need, that is, except long battery life.
|Mainstream (Avg watts/hour)||Asus U50F-RBBAG05|
|Raw kWh Number||43.44|
|Annual Energy Cost||$4.93|
The Asus U50F-RBBAG05 ran for 2 hours and 41 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included six-cell battery. That's lower than expected, especially with a more power-efficient Core i3 processor; other mainstream laptops we tested generally had better battery life, including models with Core i3 processors. Though you'll certainly get longer battery life under less strenuous usage conditions than our battery drain test represents, we still would have expected more than 3 hours of life from this laptop. Perhaps the thin chassis of the U50F created some compromises, but this is a computer you'll want to use with a charger and a power outlet nearby.
Asus includes a one-year warranty on parts and labor with the U50F. E-mail and Web support are also available, and Asus' Web site has become easier to use in recent years, but it's still far from ideal. Help is also available through a toll-free number for tech support, which is available Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. PST.
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