Multimedia addicts in search of a big-screen notebook with a stylish design will find a lot to like in the ASUS N90, an 18.4-inch behemoth with a full HD display, Blu-ray drive, and a massive 1TB of storage for squirreling away libraries of high-definition content. Priced at $1,799, it won’t obliterate your wallet, but this notebook lacks some of the raw graphics power found in similarly priced desktop replacements, and the speaker volume is weak.
The first thing you’ll notice about the ASUS N90, besides its massive girth, is its attractive design; ASUS has taken great care to make certain that this PC screams high quality. The notebook’s lid and base feature a black, glossy Infusion finish with a subtle pinstripe-and-swirl design. Unfortunately, the N90 is a fingerprint and smudge magnet. At 9.4 pounds it’s also quite the haul, but not nearly as hefty as the 13.4-pound ASUS W90, the company’s other 18-incher.
On the right side of the N90, you’ll find a Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on/off switch, dual headphone jacks, an ExpressCard/54 slot, and two closely placed USB 2.0 ports. Built into the left side is a 2X Blu-ray drive, and an 8-in-1 memory card reader.On the back of the PC, you’ll find two more USB 2.0 ports, HDMI, VGA, Ethernet, and a Kensington Lock slot.
Keyboard, Touchpad, and Buttons
The wide base provides plenty of room for comfortable touch-typing on the N90’s “chocolate” keyboard (as ASUS dubs its shape), but there is some light flex. Of more concern, however, are the keys themselves; they offer plenty of travel but lack the springy feedback we prefer. In addition, the right Shift key is oddly undersized. On the upside, ASUS includes a full numeric keypad.
Although the touchpad doesn’t possess the same gloss as the rest of the PC, the attractive pattern extends across its surface, helping it mesh well with the rest of the base. At 3.3 x 2.0 inches, it offers just enough room to navigate the desktop with ease. Beneath it is a large mouse button that’s loud, but gets the job done.
To the left of the keyboard is a strip that houses four neon-blue backlit buttons that let us adjust the visual settings (Vivid, Theater, Soft, Normal, Gamma Correction), enable or disable the touchpad, switch battery modes (Quiet Office, Battery Saving, High Performance, Entertainment), and launch Express Gate, ASUS’ branded version of Splashtop.
Positioned below these buttons is a jog wheel that let us raise and lower the N90’s volume, as well as mute audio by pressing a button in the wheel’s center. We preferred this jog wheel to the futuristic multimedia touch control panels, such as those found on the Acer Aspire 8930G-6448 or ASUS W90.
Audio and Video Performance
The 1920 x 1080 full HD display on the ASUS N90 served up bright colors and deep blacks, which made movies and Web pages pop. The glossy display kicked back a few reflections, but they weren’t as severe as the ones we’ve experienced from other notebooks. As such, we enjoyed wide viewing angles when watching We Were Soldiers. Outputting the movie to a 32-inch Samsung monitor using an HDMI cable resulted in hiccup-free audio and video playback.
You might think that having Altec Lansing speakers with SRS Premium Sound would make movies and music sound as good as they look, but you’d be wrong. While watching the Blu-ray version of We Were Soldiers, the clarity of the sound was a step above the run-of-the-mill notebook, but were disappointed by the relatively low volume. The speakers also sounded weak when we played NOFX in Slacker at full volume.
Above the display resides a 1.3-megapixel webcam that enabled us to video chat with friends using Meebo. People on the other end of the conversation reported seeing video that featured good color replication that, unfortunately, suffered from some motion blur when we moved around. Designed to work in conjunction with the webcam is Lifeframe 3, an application that allowed us to take snapshots at various resolutions (ranging from 160 x 120 to 1280 x 1024), shoot video (160 x 120 to 640 x 480), and add wacky visual effects such as oversized hats, masks, and other effects.
The N90’s 2.66-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9550 processor and a robust 4GB of RAM produced a PCMark Vantage score of 3,568, which was 228 points less than the desktop replacement average. Still, we were able to chat with friends in Meebo, have several tabs open in Internet Explorer 8, and stream music from Slacker without a performance hit.
We also tested the N90’s performance by transcoding a 5:05 MPEG-4 clip to AVI using Handbrake. Converting the file with no other open applications running in the background took 6 minutes and 11 seconds, which was just 3 seconds slower than the mark shown by the 17-inch HP ProBook 4710s . That system has a slower 2.53-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8700 processor but the same 4GB of RAM. When we converted the file again while compressing a 4.97GB folder of mixed media using jZip, the task completion time ballooned to 13 minutes, almost 2 minutes longer than the HP ProBook 4710s.
Nvidia’s CUDA Technology
Designed to enable the graphics processing unit (instead of the CPU) to crunch video data, Nvidia’s CUDA technology allowed us to transcode the same 5:05 clip from MPEG-4 to AVI (using vReveal, an application designed to take advantage of this technology) in just 4 minutes and 23 seconds—a savings of almost 2 minutes. Transcoding it while compressing the 4.97GB folder took 11 minutes and 46 seconds—almost two minutes less than when we performed the task without CUDA. If you’re a video enthusiast, using CUDA–enabled software is a must for speedy processing.
The Nvidia GeForce GT 130M graphics card (with 1GB of memory) inside the N90 notched a 3DMark06 score of 4,944. That result is more than 1,400 points less than that of the average desktop replacement (remember, high-end gaming rigs populate this space), but was significantly higher than the HP ProBook 4710S’s 2,384 score. However, the N90’s 3DMark Vantage score of 1,680 was one of the lowest we’ve seen in recent months.
Still, the GPU performed adequately when we fired up Far Cry 2. It ran at a decent 26 frames per second in auto-detect mode (1280 x 720-pixel resolution), but dropped to an unplayable 14 frames per second when we bumped up the resolution to 1080p. By comparison, the $1,699 17-inch MSI GT725 tore through the game at 84 frames per second at 1024 x 768, and 44 frames per second at 1900 x 1200. Despite the less than stellar graphics scores, the GPU is solid enough for globe-trotting in Google Earth, which we used to zoom to various locations without any hiccups.
Massive Storage, Slow Boot Time
If you have large libraries of music, photos, and high-definition video, the N90’s 1TB of storage (divided across two 500GB, 5,400-rpm hard drives) should provide enough capacity for your entertainment needs. However, booting the Windows Vista Home Premium operating system took a molasses-slow 1 minute and 27 seconds. The N90 notched a 16.9 MBps data transfer time when we copied a 4.97GB folder of mixed media using our LAPTOP Transfer Test, which was much slower than the 23.2 MBps category average.
Wireless Strength and Battery Life
The 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi radio showcased excellent throughput on our wireless tests. It pushed data along at a rate of 21.1 Mbps at 15 feet away from our access point, which dipped slightly to 20.2 Mbps when we placed the notebook at 50 feet away. Both scores proved better than the 19.6 Mbps and 16.3 Mbps category averages. This allowed us to smoothly stream high-def Hulu content such as Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog at full screen.
As with many desktop replacements, the N90’s battery life isn’t the longest; in fact, at just 1 hour and 51 minutes, it’s about 45 minutes shorter than the category average. Considering this big boy’s size, you probably won’t stray too far from an outlet anyway.
Software and Warranty
Bundled with the N90 is a software package that includes such standouts as Adobe Reader 8, ASUS CopyProtect (to prevent snoops from copying data to a removable storage drive), ASUS Data Security (for encrypting drives), ASUS SmartLogon (facial recognition), LifeScribe (disc labeling), a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office 2007, and WinDVD Blu-ray for ASUS. The company backs the N90 with a two-year global (including one-year of accidental damage), and 30-day Zero Bright Dot to ensure that all of the pixels are functional. Toll-free tech support is available 24/7.
If you’d like to save a couple of hundred dollars, check out the $1,599 ASUS N90SV-A1, which sports the same specs as this model, but reduces the drive capacity from 1TB to 500GB (split across two 250GB drives).
Priced at $1,799, the ASUS N90 offers a huge high-def display for enjoying Blu-ray playback, an attractive design, and a massive amount of storage space. Given that this isn’t a gaming rig, we can live with the so-so graphics performance. But we think a sound system on an 18-inch notebook should offer a lot more volume. If pure performance is paramount, the MSI GT725 packs a 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Quad 9000 processor, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4850 graphics, Blu-ray, and a full HD display for $100 less—if you’re willing to downgrade to a speedy, yet much smaller 320GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive.