With screen sizes under 14 inches and weight under 4 pounds, ultraportable laptops strike an appealing balance between portability and performance
Packed with features
Many features are poorly explained
Touchpad buttons are almost unclickable
Bottom Line: If you're more interested in power and features than in polish, this ultraportable laptop could be a good choice.
The Asus U36JC ultraportable laptop ($1000 as of May 23, 2011) has lots of tangible benefits: good power from its second-generation Core i5 processor, lots of ports, and features such as a quick-start mode that lets you browse the Web before you boot into Windows. Where the U36JC falls down is in the intangibles--utilities with cryptic explanations, for example, and a poorly designed touchpad.
By definition, ultraportable laptops are supposed to be thin and light, and the U36JC certainly delivers on thin, at just 0.75 inch thick. At 3.8 pounds, however, it's fairly heavy for an ultraportable. Nevertheless, the U36JC is attractive, with a graphite black magnesium-aluminum alloy chassis.
The 2.53GHz Core i5 processor delivered a WorldBench 6 score of 111 in PCWorld Lab's performance benchmark testing. That's a solid score for an ultraportable in its price range. And the laptop's switchable graphics with a discrete Nvidia GeForce 310M graphics card (the same card used on the Asus U33Jc, which we reviewed last fall) produced impressive gaming scores for the category.
The U36JC has lots of connection options, including one USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI connection, and a VGA port.
Video looked great on the U36JC's 1366-by-768-pixel screen--as long as I didn't have a bright light behind me. The screen is highly glossy and reflective, so when I got to a dark scene in Kick-Ass, the experience was a bit like looking in a mirror. But colors popped on the screen, the laptop handled motion well, and the image still looked great when I looked at the screen from an extreme angle. The nicest thing I can say about the laptop's sound is that it's just fine with decent headphones. The built-in speakers sound boxy and thin.
The keyboard on the U36JC felt great. Its Chiclet-style keys had a fairly long travel and supplied good feedback. The touchpad, on the other hand, was a horror show. Though it accepted gestures such as a two-fingered scroll, I often had to repeat the gesture before the notebook would respond. And the button below the trackpad is extremely difficult to use. Clicking it requires the force of a jackhammer, and it's so narrow vertically that it's hard to find by feel.
Asus has loaded the U36JC with lots of utilities. Some are clear and useful, but others are mysterious and undocumented. For instance, when I clicked on Asus VirtualCamera, nothing seemed to happen. I searched the Web and by looking in forums with headings like "Asus Virtual Camera: how does it work because when I click on it nothing happens," I found a page on Asus's site that claims that VirtualCamera permits live simultaneous videoconferencing with up to four people. The page doesn't describe how you'd make that happen with VirtualCamera, and the U36JC's electronic manual doesn't mention the utility at all.
Asus's manual does mention Express Gate, a utility that boots into a simple Linux environment so that you can quickly check e-mail or go to Facebook without booting up Windows. But the mention consists of a reference to the Express Gate User's Manual, which isn't included on the U36JC. Even so, Express Gate is somewhat intuitive. When the laptop is shut down, you can press the Express Gate key above the upper left corner of the keyboard. Within about 10 seconds, I had opened a browser window and started surfing. The interface is utilitarian at best--the windows, fonts, and display anomalies will take you back to the days you spent working on Windows 98. If all you need is a quick inbox check, Express Gate may be useful, but most people today would just use their smartphones for this purpose.
For people who don't want to spend a lot of money on an ultraportable, the Asus U36JC offers decent power, an attractive screen, and good connectivity. But don't expect to find the attention to detail and clear documentation you'd get on more-expensive laptops. Also, given the terrible touchpad and button, you should buy this laptop only if you're willing to use it with a mouse.
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