“You’ve got to try this!”
You have probably heard a friend say that about some product or other. Some things just have that extra wow factor. Computer companies are constantly trying to find ways to differentiate their products from the dozens of similar ones on the market, and Asus advertised the Bamboo-clad U33, U43, & U53 notebooks in the hopes of catching that kind of attention. Thanks to the very kind folks at GenTechPC who let me have this longer than a typical review unit, I can let you know if the product fits the hype.
Spec-wise, it’s fairly standard. It’s got a 14” screen with 1366x768 resolution, Core i5-450M processor running at 2.4 Ghz, 4GB of memory, a 640GB Seagate hard drive,802.11n wireless, DVD burner, and Nvidia 310M graphics. But what sets this notebook apart is the look and feel.
Design and Build Quality
The biggest question to someone considering this notebook is about the bamboo. Asus has strongly marketed the bamboo covering as a novelty and also as an environmentally responsible choice since bamboo is a fast-growing renewable natural resource. From my experience, you really have to feel it to understand just how cool it is. I know what you’re thinking: feel a computer? Why do that? The reason is the bamboo cover and palmrest feel like no other material used in computers today. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like smooth oiled wood from a railing next to an old fashioned staircase. It’s incredibly comfortable and maintains its luster easily without getting marked up by fingerprints.
The rest of the machine is designed well also. There is very little flex anywhere and the combination of the brushed aluminum keyboard surround with the bamboo not only looks good but reassures the user that there was time and effort spent into designing this computer and it paid off.
The screen is surrounded by a glossy plastic bezel that is really the only down side to the notebook’s design. The bezel is fairly thick and the notebook in general feels rather large considering the 14” screen. The system is also fairly heavy for the screen size, although the weight is well balanced.
Speaking of the screen, it was a bit of a disappointment after the excellent build quality. While providing perfectly acceptable images when viewed straight on, the glossy screen can easily become unreadable due to the reflections it generates when viewed at an angle. Colors can seem a little washed out at default settings, but the included Splendid utility easily compensates for this by allowing the user to choose from a variety of color presets or to manually adjust levels. Even though most graphic card control panel allow the same type of color adjustment capabilities as Splendid, the Asus utility is easier to use for quick presets.
The 1366x768 resolution is less ideal for a showpiece notebook like the U43Jc and a higher resolution screen would enable the notebook to more easily differentiate itself. Something like a 1600x900 resolution would also provide more vertical space, which can feel limited in the more typical 1366x768, especially when scrolling through long websites.
Keyboard & Touchpad
The chiclet-style keyboard is quick and responsive and exhibits no flex at all, making it a pleasure to type on. Some people may find the slightly shrunken right shift key to be a minor annoyance, but since I typically use the left shift key, it was not an issue for me. Asus has placed the ctrl key on the outside left with this model, which should please those used to desktop keyboards. My only regret with the keyboard is that it is not backlit. The black key colors with white letters would be especially well suited for backlighting. However, Asus’ decision to exclude a backlit keyboard most likely enabled them to maintain the low price point for the unit.
The touchpad is made of the same bamboo that covers the palmrest, and it is an excellent material for that use. The pad is smooth and responsive to both single- and multi-touch interfaces. It includes an Asus-standard rocker bar underneath, which in this model is also made of bamboo. The rocker bar allows for left and right clicks by pressing on the left or right sides of the bar, respectively. There has been a wide variety of opinions about this implementation, with some reviewers liking the minimalist looks such a bar brings to Asus notebooks and others decrying the lack of two distinct buttons and the lack of response when the bar is pushed close to the middle. While using the U43Jc, I did not have any difficulties, but those used to pushing touchpad buttons close to the center may find the implementation annoying. The one difficulty I did have with the touchpad was that there is virtually nothing tactile separating the edges of the touchpad from the palmrest. Since both touchpad and palmrest are made of the same material, this means that one can accidentally be trying to move the cursor with one’s finger on the palmrest and not actually on the touchpad.
The single USB 3.0 port on the notebook’s left side is the highlight here. USB 3.0 devices can transfer information much faster than USB 2.0 devices, and the inclusion of the port allows people who use the notebook to take advantage of such devices. As a side note, it is important to check the BIOS when choosing to plug in USB 3.0 devices because there are two modes to the port and it is in USB 2.0 mode by default. One presumably needs to adjust the BIOS setting before it will transfer at USB 3.0 speeds.
Joining the USB 3.0 port on the left side are a USB 2.0 port, VGA, audio in and out ports, power adapter connection, and the exhaust vent. The right side of the notebook has Ethernet, another USB 2.0 port, a multi card reader, and the DVD drive. There are no ports on the front or back.
The speakers are decent for a notebook. Audio is clear and loudness is acceptable in a small to medium sized room. Audio output from the 3.5mm plug works well but sadly does not include S/PDIF digital output, so if you have digital 5.1 channel speakers like I do, that is a small disappointment.
The U43Jc uses Nvidia Optimus graphics switching and I was able to define which graphics (Nvidia or Intel) to use for each program. However, even when the Nvidia card was running according to Optimus and to the best of my knowledge (I don’t think the Intel card would be getting 30+ FPS in the Street Fighter 4 benchmark, for instance), both 3DMark06 and the Street Fighter benchmark listed the graphics as Intel only. I don’t know if this is just a quirk of the way Optimus works, but it was somewhat frustrating when running benchmarks.
The U43Jc scored 3422 on 3DMark06, which shows that even though the Nvidia graphics card is capable of playing games, it is still a lower end dedicated card and no one should expect to be playing the latest games at high settings. HD movies and video both play smoothly.
The fastest web browser on the U43Jc is Google Chrome, which scored 6133 points in Futuremark’s Peacekeeper benchmark.
The battery lasts for approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes when playing a DVD movie or playing a Netflix video. Casual web surfing use should last longer, with 5 hours or more. These numbers are in line with the type of multimedia notebook the U43Jc is trying to be. It does not last as long as tiny netbooks or machines with CULV processors, but it has a long enough battery life to enjoy multimedia on the road.
Heat and Noise
The fan runs constantly, but is very quiet in typical use. It does spin up louder when the computer is under heavy use, but even then it does not get very loud. Also, the underside of the notebook heats up when under heavy use, but the palmrest and keyboard remain comfortable at all times.
The U43Jc sells for $1100 from GenTech and the overall look and feel of the computer give a very positive impression. It also is powerful enough to run multimedia and some games while still lasting almost 4 hours while playing DVDs on battery power and longer when web surfing. Overall, it is a very good balance of looks, feel, power, and performance for the price.
Asus has made some compromises in order to ensure that the U43Jc can be sold at the desired price point, and while a system with no compromises would have been even better, the resulting notebook would have ended up costing much more. As it is, the Asus U43Jc is a solid and versatile notebook with best-in-class looks that make it appear to cost much more than it actually does.
Buy one if…
*You want people who pass by to stop and admire your computer
*You want a versatile notebook for business and personal needs
*Build quality is more important than sheer performance
Look at others if…
*You want to play the latest games at maximum settings
*You are looking for the smallest and lightest system you can find
*You hate bamboo