The ASUS S56CA-DH51 is a Windows 8 Ultrabook that's ready for some multimedia fun. It sports a sleek design with an aluminum lid and deck, a fast Core i5 processor and SonicMaster-powered speakers for some audio oomph. Plus, the 24GB SSD lets you get back to enjoying those Windows 8 apps almost as soon as you open the lid. With a price of $649, is this the 15-inch Windows 8 machine to get?
The S56CA-DH51's lid is made of handsome brushed black aluminum with a silver ASUS logo in the center. The lid always felt cool in our hands, but attracted a fair amount of fingerprints. The deck is made of silver brushed aluminum and, like the top of the lid, felt cool to the touch. Black plastic covers the bottom of the laptop.
The power button sits in the top left hand corner. The area around the keyboard is sunken, so the keys sit a few millimeters lower than the power button and the touchpad. Six indicator lights are on the left side of the lip.
At 14.96 x 10.47 x 0.83 inches, the ASUS S56CA is slimmer but wider than the Acer Aspire V5-571-6869, which measures 15 x 10 x 0.9 inches. At 5 pounds, the ASUS is just an ounce lighter than the 5.1-pound Acer. Overall, this is fairly thin and light machine for a 15-inch notebook.
The S56CA has a 15.6-inch glossy screen, which features a native resolution of 1366 x 768. When we watched the 1080p version of the "Skyfall" trailer, we noticed that colors such as the red bars on the British flag and the blue in Daniel Craig's eyes looked vibrant, but fine details such as wrinkled cloth looked fuzzy.
When watching the trailer with the ASUS S56CA positioned 45 degrees to the left and right of us on our desk, colors did not wash out often. When they did, only dark hues were affected.When they did wash out, the reflective nature of the glossy display was somewhat distracting, but not enough to keep us from watching.
The ASUS's display notched a brightness rating of 159 lux, which is below the Acer Aspire V5's mark of 171 lux. Both scores are substantially below the 15-inch notebook average of 232 lux.
The ASUS S56CA sports a pair of hardware-optimized SonicMaster speakers nesting inside a horizontal bar. The bar is lodged within the top of the deck and situated in between the display's hinges. When we listened to "Rico Suave" by early '90's sensation Gerardo Mejia, we were pleased with the richness of vocals, wind instruments along with drums. When we listened to "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses, guitars, drums and vocals all sounded accurate. At maximum volume, we noticed no distortion and the speaker filled our test room with music admirably.
We have mixed feelings about the island-style keyboard on the ASUS S56CA. On the plus side, the keys have plenty of space between them, and we like having a dedicated number pad. However, the travel was lacking, resulting in a mushy feel. When we took the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, we averaged 60 words per minute and a 3 percent error rate. Those are below-par numbers for us; usually we notch 68 words per minute with a 1 percent error rate.
At 4.2 x 2.8-inches, the touchpad built into the S56CA's deck is large and provided an accurate pointing experience. Windows 8 gestures worked well, including swiping in from the right to activate the Charms menu and swiping in from the left to switch apps. Two-finger scrolling in both directions also worked well. The integrated button in the touchpad provided just the right amount of resistance.
After running a full-screen Hulu video for 15 minutes, the S56CA's touchpad, underside and space between the G and H keys registered temperatures of 85, 83 and 88 degrees Farenheit, respectively. We consider anything above 95 degrees to be uncomfortable.
The left side of the ASUS S56CA houses full-size HDMI and VGA ports along with Ethernet, a power jack and a USB 3.0 port. The left side of the lip stores an SD card reader. Nesting on the right are a pair of USB 2.0 ports, an audio/mic 3.5mm combo jack, an 8X DVD-RW burner and a Kensington lock slot.
In natural lighting, the S56CA's 2-MP webcam recorded images that were overly bright. As a result, dimmer features like facial hair and under-eye darkness were not as apparent as they should have been, while lighter details like highlights in hair were easy to spot. Under fluorescent lighting, the camera produced shots that looked grainy.
The S56CA wields a low-voltage 1.7-GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 6GB of RAM and a 750GB 5,400-rpm hard drive paired with a 24GB SanDisk SSD. It earned a PCMark 7 score of 3,130, which easily tops the 2,576 category average as well as the Acer Aspire V5-571-6869's mark of 2,417. The V5-571-6869 has the same processor, RAM and a smaller 500GB hard drive that spins at 5,400 rpm.
The S56CA took a mere 21 seconds to boot to the 64-bit version of Windows 8. That slays both the 51-second category average (comprised mainly of Windows 7 notebooks) and the V5-571's 53-second Windows 7 Professional boot time. Overall, Windows 8 boots much quicker than Windows 7, though the ASUS no doubt got an assist from its solid state drive.
The S56CA transferred our 4.97GB mixed media folder (which is stuffed with music, videos and photos) in 2 minutes and 47 seconds. That works out to a 30.5 MBps average, which is 6.5MBps under the budget laptop category average of 37 MBps. The V5-571-6869 transferred the same folder at a rate of 17 MBps.
In our OpenOffice Spreadsheet Test, where we task the machine with matching 20,000 names with their corresponding addresses, the S56CA did so in 5 minutes and 58 seconds. That trails the category average by three seconds (5:55) but still bests the V5-571 by 17 ticks (6:15).
Both the ASUS S56CA and the Acer V5-571 use integrated Intel HD 4000 Graphics GPUs. In our 3DMark11 test, the S56CA scored 627, which is almost half the 1,100 category average but comparable to the Acer Aspire V5's grade of 594.
When we ran "World of Warcraft" on the "Good" setting at 1366 x 768, the S56CA averaged 32 frames per second. That's playable but less than half the 68 fps category average. The V5-571 averaged 50 fps on the same settings, although it was tested before a major update to the game. When we cranked the eye candy to "Full" and kept the resolution at 1366 x 768, the ASUS struggled to the tune of 16 fps.
When we put the ASUS and its 4-cell juicebox through our LAPTOP Battery Test, which consists of continuous Web surfing via Wi-Fi with the display's brightness set to 40 percent, the S56CA took only 4 hours and 39 minutes to croak. That's a fairly weak runtime, as the average mainstream system lasts 5:40. Still, under the same conditions, the Acer V5-571 got an even more anemic mark of 4 hours and 12 minutes.
Windows 8 and Software
The S56CA-DH51 is one of ASUS's first Windows 8 machines, so you'll have to get accustomed to the new OS' tile-based Modern UI, which is where you're placed every time you boot the machine. However, the Classic UI is still intact, save for the all-important Start menu. Getting the hang of the OS and switching between the two UIs will definitely take some time, but we appreciated being able to personalize the Start menu with Live Tiles and receive updates on email, news and more without having to open the apps.
Bundled Windows 8 apps include ASUS Converter, which converts measurements such as Weight, Mass, Length, Volume, Temperature, Data Storage and Area to metric standards. FreshPaint is a painting app with a robust set of tools, like the option to switch between different types of brushes and painting surfaces. This app would really shine and reach its full potential on touch-screen devices, but we enjoyed using it nonetheless. ASUS Calculator improves on the classic Windows Calculator app by giving you the ability to perform complex equations. The Classic UI-based Lifeframe webcam software lets you take shots on a 5- or 10-second timer, adjust simple settings like brightness and contrast, and add preloaded backgrounds and graphics to images.
ASUS' warranty consists of one-year parts and labor, one-year accidental damage, a 30-day zero bright dot guarantee along with two-way free shipping. See how ASUS fared in our Best & Worst Brands report and Tech Support Showdown.
MORE: Top 25 Windows 8 Apps
While the ASUS S56CA can't be custom configured, it's worth noting that there are three options from which to choose. Our review unit, the S56CA-DH51, ships with a 1.7-GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 6GB of RAM, a 750GB 5400 rpm hard drive paired with a 24GB SanDisk SSD, an 8X DVDRW drive and integrated Intel HD 4000 Graphics. The MSRP for this setup is a reasonable $699, though we're already seeing it go for as low as $649.
The S56CA-XH71 gets a 1.9-GHz Intel Core i7-3517U processor, but the RAM count gets knocked down a peg from 6GB to 4GB. This version of the S56CA also doesn't ship with Windows 8, opting to come loaded with Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. TigerDirect is currently offering the S56CA-XH71 for $849.99. Keep in mind that Microsoft offers anyone who purchases a machine with Windows 7 Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate an upgrade to Windows 8 Professional for $14.99. This discounted upgrade offer expires Feb. 28, 2013.
We also found a sibling that's cheaper than the S56CA-DH51. Dubbed the S56CA-WH31, it sports 4GB of RAM and a 1.8-GHz Intel Core i3 3217U. It can be had for $599.99 from Newegg.
The ASUS S56CA-DH51 delivers strong performance, a speedy boot time and good sound inside a slim and solid design. We just wish this system lasted longer on a charge and that the keyboard had a little more spring in its step. If you want to dip your toes into the Windows 8 pool --and you don't need touch -- then the S56CA-DH51 should serve you well for years to come.