ASUS's U30 series of 13-inch ultraportable notebooks has long provided a strong mix of portability and power, from the original U30Jc with its 7 hours of endurance to the snazzy bamboo U33Jc. The ASUS U36Jc ups the ante with a slick 3.8-pound frame, snazzy aluminum-magnesium alloy lid, speedy 2.53-GHz Core i5 CPU, and Nvidia's Optimus switchable graphics. But are its strong specs good enough to justify its price--$1,000--and beat out its competitors?
Super sleek, the 0.76-inch thick ASUS U36Jc's lid is built from a lightweight, raven black aluminum-magnesium alloy, while its matching palm rest is covered in a soft matte material that ASUS describes as "nanometer" coating. Unfortunately, the area near the screen doesn't have the same premium look as the palm rest and lid; its glossy plastic hinges drag down the aesthetic a bit, as does the gap between the screen and the deck.
At 3.8 pounds, the U36JC is quite a bit lighter than the previous generation U33Jc (4.4 pounds), but a little heavier than the Toshiba Portege R700 (3.2 pounds) and the Lenovo IdeaPad U260 (3 pounds). With dimensions of 12.9 x 9.28 x 0.76 inches, this laptop is also slightly larger than the U260 (12.5 x 8.1 x 0.7 inches) and R700 (12.4 x 8.9 x 0.7 inches).
While the top surface of the ASUS U36Jc stayed relatively cool throughout our testing, its underside reached uncomfortably high temperatures. After playing a full-screen video for 15 minutes, we measured the touchpad at a pleasant 85 degrees and the G and H keys at an acceptable 95 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the bottom measured a warm 105 degrees and, while playing World of Warcraft, it reached 110 degrees.
We consider temperatures below 95 degrees acceptable on the top surface of a notebook and temperatures of 100 degrees and below unpleasant but common for the bottom. However, this type of underside heat would make us think twice about placing the U36Jc on our lap while gaming.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The U36Jc's island-style black keyboard has the same look and layout as those on a number of Eee PC netbooks, from the 10-inch Eee PC 1015PN to the 12-inch Eee PC VX6. There's no flex at all, but the keys do feel a little stiff, which led us to a make a few more errors than usual while typing. We also wish the right Shift key were larger.
The 3 x 2-inch touchpad has a pleasant matte surface that matches the palm rest and allowed us to navigate around the desktop with ease. It also supports multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom. Though we would have preferred two discrete buttons, the single mouse bar provided good tactile feedback and was not too stiff.
Display and Audio
The 13.3-inch, 1366 x 768 glossy display provided strong viewing angles with colors staying true, even at 90 degrees to the left and right. However, when playing a video, images started washing out as we moved beyond 45 degrees to either side, though we were still able to watch from 90 degrees. Because of the screen's finish, you may be able to see your reflection if there's a strong light source behind you.
The U36Jc can more than handle 1080p video. Whether we were playing a 1080p QuickTime trailer of Black Death at full screen or streaming a 720p Flash episode of Lie to Me, colors were rich, motion was smooth, and images were both sharp and noise-free.
Unfortunately, the audio quality doesn't match the visuals. Both when we were playing a heavy metal song and a soft jazz tune, music sounded distant, monotone, and completely flat.
Ports and Webcam
The U36Jc has plenty of ports, including one USB 3.0 connector for attaching the latest high-speed hard drives and other peripherals. On the right side are audio in/out jacks, a 5-in-1 card reader, that USB 3.0 port, a standard USB 2.0 port, and an Ethernet connector. On the left side sit both VGA and HDMI connectors, along with another USB 2.0 port.
The 0.3-megapixel webcam provided impressively sharp and colorful images, even in low light. When we made a Skype call from our dark living room, the image of our face looked detailed and motion was completely smooth despite the conditions. In our office cubicle, with dim flourescent lighting overhead, the image looked even better.
With its blazing 2.53-GHz Core i5-460M CPU, Nvidia GeForce 310M graphics, and a 7,200-rpm hard drive, the ASUS U36Jc packs plenty of performance into its tiny frame. On PCMark Vantage, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall speed, the U36JC notched a strong score of 5,008, well above the ultraportable category average of 3,784 and the Lenovo IdeaPad U260 (3,701). However, the older Core i3-powered U33Jc strangely scored a little higher (5,406). The version of the Toshiba Portege R700 we tested (2.4-GHz Intel Core i5-520M CPU) did much better with a mark of 6,657.
The 500GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive took a leisurely 70 seconds to boot the ASUS U36Jc to Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit). However, it completed the LAPTOP File Transfer test, in which we copy 4.97GB of mixed media files, in just 2 minutes and 29 seconds. That's a rate of 34.2 MBps, more than 10 percent faster than the 31 MBps category average.
When it came to transcoding video, the U36Jc also showed its muscle by taking just 49 seconds to transcode a 114MB MP4 file to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder. That time is more than twice as fast as the ultraportable category average of 1:53, more than 40 seconds quicker than the Lenovo IdeaPad U260 (1:31), and a few seconds faster than the U33Jc (0:51) and Portégé R700 (0:53).
When we used Cyberlink Media Espresso to convert a 5-minute 1080p to an iPod touch format, the U36Jc finished in 2 minutes and 55 seconds, which was 16 seconds quicker than the IdeaPad U260.
The Nvidia GeForce 310M GPU that the U36Jc uses is great for mainstream games that don't require a lot of graphics muscle. On 3DMark06, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall graphics prowess, the U36Jc scored a respectable 3,518, which is more than double the ultraportable category average of 1,424 and slightly higher than U33Jc (3,398). The integrated graphics-based IdeaPad U260 (1,151) and Portege R700 (1,967) aren't in the same league.
When we played World of Warcraft with the effects at their recommended setting (good, in the case of the U36Jc), we netted a strong 56 frames per second, 13 better than the category average. That number dropped down to a less-than-optimal 27 fps when we turned the effects up to maximum, but that showing is still more than double the category average of 12 fps.
When we tried the more demanding game Far Cry 2, the ASUS U36Jc managed only 22 fps at 1024 x 768 resolution, a little too jerky to be enjoyable but slightly above the 18 fps category average. When we turned the game up to a full 1366 x 768 resolution, we got an unplayable 15 fps, which was still better than the 7 fps category average.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
The ASUS U36Jc lasted a strong 6 hours and 24 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. That's about an hour longer than the ultraportable category average of 5:26 and well ahead of the Portégé R700 (6:01) and the IdeaPad U260 (4:08). However, the slightly slower U33Jc lasted 6:47.
The Atheros AR9285 802.11n Wi-Fi card produced a strong transfer rate of 35 Mbps at a distance of 15 feet from our router. That's 5 Mbps above the category average. However, when we moved 50 feet from the router, its 14.7 Mbps transfer rate was below the 19.8 Mbps category average.
ExpressGate Instant On OS
If you don't want to wait over a minute to boot into Windows 7, hit the ExpressGate instant boot button that sits in the upper left portion of the deck. That loads ASUS's ExpressGate Cloud instant-on OS in a mere 19 seconds. ExpressGate Cloud is a version of the popular Splashtop instant-on OS that we've seen on dozens of computers from ASUS, HP, Lenovo, and others. With this version, you can browse the web, view photos in a photo gallery, or play a few simple games such as BlackJack or Klondike.
Software and Warranty
The U36Jc comes with a standard array of ASUS utilities, many of which are useful. ASUS control deck provides an attractive 3D interface for adjusting settings such as the screen resolution and volume or getting to other ASUS utilities. ASUS Fast Boot enables you to delay the loading of certain apps and services at boot time in order to speed your startups. When we tried delaying all of our startup apps and services, we shaved off about 4 seconds from the boot time. ASUS FancyStart allows you to control the look and feel of the BIOS image that appears when you first power on the computer. ASUS LifeFrame allows you to shoot photos or video with the webcam.
ASUS Power4Gear gives you fine control over the power and performance settings. ASUS MultiFrame is like Aerosnap on steroids, providing an extra widget next to the minimize button in all windows that allows you to snap windows to specific corners and spaces. The ASUS Splendid utility allows you to control the screen's color temperature and put it into Theater mode for better looking video.
ASUS Access is simply a web portal that showcases a number of ASUS-provided or endorsed services such as WebStorage, which sells a variety of paid online storage plans, Boingo for Wi-Fi hotspots, and Trend Micro for antivirus. The pre-loaded GamePark console provides free trial downloads of a number of casual distractions, ranging from card games to space invader-style arcade shoot-em ups.
While most vendors provide only a single year of standard warranty coverage, ASUS goes above and beyond by providing a two-year warranty on parts and labor, along with one year of accidental damage protection. To see how ASUS did on our most recent tech support showdown, click here.
The ASUS U36Jc provides a strong mix of style, performance, and portability that users on the go will find appealing. However, its warm temperatures, stiff keyboard, and mediocre sound quality prevent us from giving it a higher rating. If you're looking for a less expensive ultraportable with lower performance requirements, you should consider the HP Pavilion dm1z or Toshiba Satellite T235. If you want something lighter and more stylish with a great keyboard, the 3-pound IdeaPad U260 may be up your alley--though you'll be sacrificing battery life and graphics oomph. However, those looking for a consumer ultraportable with plenty of power should put the U36Jc high on their list.