The ASUS N81Vp-C1 is an excellent, attractive thin-and-light that packs best-in-class performance courtesy of a 2.66-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a 7,200-rpm hard drive, and the inclusion of ATI’s new Radeon HD 4650 graphics processor. It’s rare that you’ll find a full gig of dedicated video memory in a system that weighs only 5.6 pounds. Simply stated, ASUS’ 14-inch $1,299 system is one of the best lightweight notebooks available for power users, but some may be turned off by its lackluster endurance.
Design and Ports
Sporting a glossy black, scratch-resistant lid (and hinges) with a subtle raindrop pattern that resembles Matrix code, the N81Vp has a premium look. Surrounding the display is a glossy black bezel, but both it and the lid pick up their fair share of fingerprints and smudges. Keep a polishing cloth handy.
At 13.5 x 10.1 x 1.4 inches and 5.6 pounds, the system isn’t as svelte as the 14-inch Samsung X460-44P, but with the extra girth comes a ton of ports. Its right side has two USB 2.0 connections; the front houses an IR port; the left side contains one USB 2.0 port, ExpressCard/54, FireWire 400, an 8-in-1 memory card reader, S/PDIF, and an 8X DVD±RW drive; the back has two more USB 2.0 ports (bringing the grand total to five), eSATA, HDMI, VGA, and Ethernet and modem ports. You won’t be wanting for connections to hook up your mice, speakers, monitors, and other gear.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The full-size keyboard on the N81Vp isn’t the best we’ve encountered, but it gets the job done. The individual keys offer decent feedback, and the palm rest has plenty of room; however, the keyboard itself suffers from some flex. We also would’ve liked the keys to have a glossy coating to match the other areas of the machine, as seen on the Acer Aspire 6930G.
Below the keyboard resides a spacious touchpad (with built-in scroll strip) that allowed us to maneuver the cursor with ease. Nestled between the two large, loud mouse buttons is a biometric fingerprint reader for keeping unwanted visitors out. Above the keyboard is a black, glossy strip with shortcut keys for switching power settings, toggling Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on and off, selecting a video setting (Normal, Gamma, Vivid, Theater, or Soft), launching the Express Gate “instant-on” solution, and a power button that glows blue when activated; all were very responsive.
Updated Express Gate
The button just to the left of Power activates ASUS’ Express Gate instant-on environment. After pressing the button—a circle with a lightning bolt—the home screen appeared in just 10 seconds. ASUS has updated the look of Express Gate; now, the icons to launch the various applications (Chat, Music Player, Online Gaming, Photo Manager, Skype, and Splashtop Browser) cycle horizontally around a virtual axis; the icon in the center is the largest.
Overall, Express Gate looks a lot more polished than the previous version. The six icons also appear in a dock along the bottom of the screen, along with icons for configuring system settings. Tapping the trackpad while the cursor is hovering over an open app’s icon, the program’s window will either minimize or maximize. It’s a nice feature to keep the desktop from becoming cluttered.
Unfortunately, Express Gate doesn’t remember settings that have already been entered in the Windows environment, such as Wi-Fi passwords. Configuring this software to connect to access points in our office was difficult and much less intuitive than in Vista. Once we were up and running, the Splashtop Browser (which is based on Mozilla) loaded in 20 seconds; the Music Player took 5 seconds to launch. So from a cold boot you can start surfing the Web in 30 seconds, or you can wait for Windows to load, which takes 30 seconds more.
Display and Audio
Upon popping the lid, we were met with a bright and glossy 14-inch (1366 x 768-pixel resolution) display. Its 16:9 aspect ratio reduced the black bars to mere slivers when we viewed a DVD of There Will Be Blood, but the display kicked back a few reflections when we viewed the movie at a slight angle, both horizontally and vertically. The picture looked good when viewed straight on, though.
A 1.3-megapixel webcam above the display provided decent visuals when we chatted with friends using Meebo. Positioned within the front bezel of the system’s base is a pair of high-quality Altec Lansing speakers (utilizing Dolby Home Theater technology) that provided very good, but not great, audio. When we fired up Tom Tom Club’s “Love Wave,” we enjoyed clear sound that had more richness than your garden-variety notebook speakers, but the speakers weren’t terribly loud.
A speedy 2.66-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9550 processor and 4GB of RAM helped power the N81Vp to a very good PCMark Vantage score of 4,151, which is more than 1,300 points higher than the average thin-and-light notebook. In fact, it’s also about 750 points higher than the average for 16- and 17-inch desktop replacements. This was borne out in our hands-on time with the machine, in which we saw folders and windows open swiftly, even when playing a 1080p Terminator 2: Judgement Day movie trailer in the background, Web surfing, and chatting with friends through Meebo.
The 7,200-rpm, 320GB hard drive not only provides plenty of real estate for storing documents, photos, music, and video, but it’s also fairly speedy; it saw a data transfer rate of 18.9 MBps on the LAPTOP Transfer Test (duplicating 4.97GB of multimedia files), which is 1 MBps faster than the average thin-and-light machine. The N81Vp booted into the Windows Vista Home Premium operating system in 1 minute and 2 seconds, which is typical for a thin-and-light machine.
But the most newsworthy aspect of the N81Vp is the inclusion of AMD’s ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4650 GPU (with 1GB of video memory), which is designed for high-performance processing and, according to AMD, doesn’t significantly wear on battery life. The GPU made mincemeat of our 3DMark03 graphics benchmark by achieving an outstanding score of 18,483, which crushed the 2,738 thin-and-light average by more than 15,500 points. The N81Vp’s excellent graphics muscle was also demonstrated on our 3DMark06 benchmark, in which the notebook notched a score of 6,045; that blew away the thin-and-light average of 1,227—as well as the desktop replacement average of 5,353. The next closest 14-inch notebook, the Lenovo ThinkPad T400, mustered just 2,557.
Gamers on the go will be happy to know that the powerful graphics performance translated into blistering frame rates. F.E.A.R. ran at an incredibly smooth 104 frames per second in autodetect mode (1024 x 768), which dropped to a very playable 84 fps (1366 x 768) with the settings bumped up to maximum; these were light-years ahead of the 36-fps and 14-fps thin-and-light averages. The hyper-detailed visuals of Far Cry 2 moved at a brisk 77.9 fps in autodetect, and dropped to 49.5 fps with all of the visual effects activated. These scores compare favorably to a dedicated gaming machine such as the MSI GT627, which blew through F.E.A.R. at 119 fps and Far Cry 2 at 42.9 fps with settings at their max.
Video editors will see excellent performance. The ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4650 GPU transcoded a 2-minute-and-16-second 720 x 480-pixel resolution video from MPEG to AVI in 2 minutes and 28 seconds. When we ran the same file conversion with a DVD playing in the background, the completion time increased by only 5 seconds, which means you can perform multiple graphics-intensive activities without suffering a major performance hit. We were also able to output the 1080p Terminator 2: Judgement Day clip to a 32-inch Samsung monitor via HDMI without any audio or video hiccups.
Wi-Fi and Battery Life
The N81Vp’s embedded Intel WiFi Link 5100 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi radio pushed data along at a rate of 20.3 Mbps at 15 feet away from our access point, and 17.7 Mbps at 50 feet; these scores both topped the category averages of 18.6 Mbps and 15.1 Mbps. Web pages loaded quickly, and we didn’t experience any excessive buffering when streaming content from Hulu or Slacker.
The one tradeoff with all this graphics muscle is in a lack of endurance. The LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi) revealed that the N81Vp’s six-cell battery lasted just 2 hours and 20 minutes, which is almost half the thin-and-light average (4 hours and 26 minutes). Considering the high-powered GPU that’s included in the system, the skimpy endurance is expected, but we wish that ASUS made a nine-cell option available.
Software and Warranty
Preinstalled on the N81Vp is Adobe Acrobat Reader 8.0, CyberLink Power2Go Express, Microsoft Office 2007, Norton Internet Security 2008, and a number of ASUS’ own homegrown utilities including SmartLogon, which let us log into the PC using just our mugs. The notebook is covered with one of the most thorough protection plans (ASUS 360), which includes a two-year global warranty, one-year accidental damage protection (covering drops, spills, fire, and electricity), a 30-day dead-pixel policy, free two-way overnight shipping, and 24/7 phone tech support.
ASUS does not offer any configurations of the N81Vp other than the model we reviewed. However, the company thoughtfully packages the N81Vp with a messenger-style laptop case as well as a small travel mouse. These are extras usually associated with the company’s higher-end models, such as the $2,699 U2E.
ASUS N81Vp-C1 Verdict
No other 14-inch thin-and-light is as powerful as the ASUS N81Vp-C1. Prospective buyers looking for a relatively inexpensive and portable machine that will allow them to perform many, if not all, of the same graphics-intensive tasks as desktop replacement systems would do well to consider this system. While its 16:9 display isn’t as high-resolution as larger systems, this $1,299 notebook can be easily output to a much larger display in a home office. The N81Vp-C1’s battery life is mediocre, but if you want strong GPU muscle in a travel-friendly design, this notebook is a very good choice.