Top ultraportable laptops

With screen sizes less than 14 inches and weights less than 4 pounds, ultraportable laptops strike an appealing balance between portability and performance

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Asus U36S

Asus U36S Review, by Sarah Jacobsson Purewal October 18, 2011



Attractive, thin, and light
Excellent graphics

Touchpad could be better
Speakers sound terrible

Bottom Line: This attractive, superthin laptop has everything you need and more--assuming that you're not an audiophile.

If you're looking for an attractive, portable system, the Asus U36S is pretty darn close to perfect. This superthin ultraportable laptop has everything you need and more -- assuming that you're not an audiophile. The speakers, unfortunately, leave something to be desired.

Our review model, which costs $870 (as of October 18, 2011), is packed with a second-gen Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM (upgradable to 8GB), a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 520M graphics card, and a 640GB hard drive spinning at 5,400 rpm. It also includes built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and it runs the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium.

But the U36S's specs aren't what's impressive -- the truly impressive features are the appealing and slender case design, the light-yet-sturdy construction, and the excellent battery life. At its thickest, the U36S measures 1.1 inches. That is a bit misleading, though, because it's not really that thick. Most of the laptop is much slimmer, at just 0.75 inch thick. The 1.1-inch thickness comes from the battery, which has a bump less than an inch wide that juts out of the bottom of the computer.

That jutting-out happens only if you have the eight-cell extended-life battery, which Asus says will last for 10 hours. In our lab tests, the U36S didn't perform quite as well, producing 7 hours, 40 minutes of battery life. Still, that is a decent amount of time for an ultraportable -- an hour longer than the battery life of most of our recently reviewed laptops in this class. With the eight-cell battery, the U36S weighs 3.7 pounds.

The U36S is also an extremely attractive laptop. Not only is it slim, but it also sports a smooth matte-black magnesium alloy cover, simple chrome accents, and an extra-thin screen. Inside, the U36S has a black Chiclet-style keyboard with light blue accents, as well as two buttons -- a power button and a button for switching between power-saving modes -- atop the keyboard. The latter button also allows you to switch quickly between the U36S's integrated Intel HD graphics and its discrete Nvidia graphics card.

Ports-wise, the U36S is average for the ultraportable category. It has no optical drive, but Asus does include CyberLink Blu-ray Disc Suite software, in case you want to hook up an external drive. The laptop offers three USB ports (including one USB 3.0 port), VGA and HDMI-out ports, an ethernet port, microphone and headphone jacks, and a Kensington lock slot. You'll also find a five-in-one memory card reader.

I do mean what I said earlier: The U36S's specs aren't the impressive part. In PCWorld's WorldBench 6 benchmark tests, the U36S earned a score of 114. That isn't awful, but it isn't terrific -- not even for the ultraportable category, which is notorious for sacrificing performance in favor of sexy slimness. The average WorldBench 6 score for the past five ultraportable laptops we've reviewed is 122, though individual notebooks scored considerably higher. For example, the Sony VAIO SB Series managed a score of 144, which is excellent (of course, that particular configuration costs a whopping $2500).

The U36S's keyboard and touchpad are pretty basic. The keyboard features fairly small Chiclet-style keys that are easy enough to type on, if a bit stiff at times. The touchpad is smooth and supports multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom; a wide plastic chrome-accented rocker bar sits below it. The rocker bar feels a tad cheap, but it's big enough and easy enough to press that I don't really mind.

The U36S isn't horrible, performance-wise; it's just not near the top of the pack. Its graphics performance is pretty good for this class, however, thanks to the discrete Nvidia graphics card. In PCWorld's Far Cry 2 graphics tests, the U36S managed a frame rate of 45.6 frames per second. For the sake of comparison, the average frame rate of the five most-recently reviewed ultraportables for the same test is 39.9 fps. Of course, the aforementioned Sony VAIO SB Series produced a frame rate of 75 fps, but I repeat: It's more than twice the price of the U36S.

The switchable-graphics feature also benefits multimedia playback on the U36S. The results aren't excellent -- some blocky artifacting mars darker scenes -- but they are great for an ultraportable. The 13.3-inch glossy screen, which has a native resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels, is a pleasure to look at. It's superbright, which is definitely a good thing (after all, ultraportables aren't meant to be kept in the perfect lighting of your living room), and it handles color and contrast very well. Occasionally scenes look a little washed out, but there's nothing that I can really complain about.

Sound on the U36S is another story. I don't expect too much from the speakers on an ultraportable laptop -- they're usually cheap, small, and shoved under the chassis. The U36S's speakers are typical, as they're located on the bottom front curve of the chassis, which makes them difficult to hear if you happen to have the computer on your lap. And, well, even if you don't have the computer on your lap, they're still pretty quiet.

Audio representation is absolutely awful on the U36S: Voices sound muffled and far away, and music is full of weird echoes. I'm not sure what's going on with these speakers, exactly, but they're painful to listen to. Occasionally the U36S tries to do some faux surround sound, and voices end up sounding even farther away. For example, imagine listening to a TV that's in your neighbor's garage. That's pretty much what these speakers sound like.

Despite the Asus U36S's speaker issues, this is an awesome machine. This ultraportable is attractive, slim, and light, and it has excellent battery life and good graphics. Plus, it has a bunch of little features you'll love: USB 3.0, Blu-ray Disc software, Bluetooth, and switchable graphics. Its performance isn't bad, either. Heck, if Asus could put some real speakers in this thing, it would basically be perfect.

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