Part of the ASUS family of customizable notebooks, the C90S can hardly be considered a bare-bones system. This full-featured gaming laptop lets users easily upgrade vital hardware such as the CPU and graphics card, as well as other components. The idea behind ASUS' Barebone notebook line is to enable users to update components that were previously considered non-upgradable. Our configuration didn't provide much in the way of 3D muscle, but we were generally pleased with its performance and liked the concept behind this system.
Priced at $1,499, our C90S review unit arrived in a piano-black chassis sporting an embedded wave-type pattern, similar to HP's latest designs. The system measures 14.4 x 10.6 x 1.4 inches and weighs in at a hefty 7.9 pounds. Protruding from the rear of the notebook is an enclosure housing four fans, two USB ports, and a power jack. The fans were whisper-quiet and did a good job of dissipating interior heat. The left side of the system is loaded with connections, including gigabit Ethernet and modem jacks, an additional USB port, a FireWire port, an e-SATA (external serial ATA) port, and an ExpressCard slot.
The silver keyboard deck looks bland and boring, and the black keys with sea-foam green accents seem odd. But the full-sized keyboard is well spaced and responsive, although touch typists may find the L-shaped Enter key a bit too large. The scrolling touchpad and two-button mouse provided just the right amount of sensitivity. The system lacks dedicated multimedia keys but comes with buttons for accessing the Web, opening e-mail, enabling and disabling the touchpad, and entering a display power-saving mode, which lowers the screen's contrast and brightness settings. A fingerprint reader is sandwiched between the two mouse buttons.
You'll also find a nice selection of A/V connections such as VGA, S-Video, TV tuner, and HDMI ports, as well as microphone and headphone jacks. An 8-in-1 card reader and an IR sensor adorn the front bezel, and a removable optical drive resides on the right side of the notebook. ASUS claims that a DVD-RW drive is standard equipment on this system, but our review unit was equipped with just a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive. Fans of high-def will be pleased to learn that ASUS offers Blu-ray (an extra $750) and HD-DVD ($380) drives as an option.
Under the lid sits a glossy 15.4-inch display with a stunning 1680 x 1050-pixel resolution. The brightly lit screen delivered a very clear image with good color quality and a wide viewing angle, which made watching DVDs a pleasure. As is the case with most laptops, the C90S' underpowered speakers produced mediocre audio output. A rotating two-megapixel webcam and two small microphones are integrated into the screen's top bezel, and the notebook comes with a camera utility for capturing still images and setting up image filters. The camera's image quality was slightly better than the typical 1.3-MP variety and is fine for video chats, but still images looked somewhat grainy.
Our review system was equipped with a 1.86-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 chip (a Conroe-based desktop processor) and 2GB of DDR2 RAM. The system's FSB (front side bus) runs at 1,066 MHz rather than the typical 800-MHz notebook clock speed. What makes the C90S stand out is that you can easily change out the processor without sending the unit into a service center. In fact, gaining access to the notebook's innards is simply a matter of removing four screws and a cover.
The system will accept CPU models up to and including Intel's Core 2 Extreme X6800 (2.93-GHz). Also, the Nvidia GeForce 8600 graphics adapter uses the MXM (Mobile PCI Express Module) interface, which lets you easily upgrade to newer, more powerful versions as they become available. According to ASUS, you can buy the components at third-party e-tailers, such as Newegg.com and TigerDirect.com. While we didn't find anything for the C90S specifically, we saw that a 2.3-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 processor costs $643 on Newegg.com.
The C90S was equipped with an 802.11n wireless adapter, which is also user upgradable, as is the hard drive and optical drive. As with all notebooks, you can also upgrade the system memory, but only to 3GB (we would have preferred 4GB).
Bundled with the C90S is a utility called Turbo Gear, which lets you change processor and FSB frequencies on the fly from within Windows. Turbo Gear has four settings: Power-Saving (700-MHz FSB, 1-GHz CPU), Standard (default), Gaming (boosts CPU and FSB by 10 percent), and Overclocking (boosts CPU and FSB by 15 to 20 percent). We found the utility a bit buggy, however; on several occasions the Overclocking and Gaming modes were inaccessible, but rebooting the system seemed to fix the problem each time. Advanced users can also tweak clock speeds via the BIOS, but make sure you know what you're doing to avoid overheating or frying your components.
The C90S turned in mixed results on our benchmark tests. The PCMark05 score of 4,029 was decent, and its 3DMark03 score of 9,144 was good but not as high as gaming notebooks we've reviewed. Our F.E.A.R. gaming tests resulted in an impressive frame rate of 61 frames per second in autodetect mode, but when we set the tests to maximum resolution, the score dropped to 23 fps, well short of the required horsepower serious gamers demand. Those users will want to upgrade the graphics card, pronto, presuming they can find one.
Nevertheless, the system handled Vista's Aero interface smoothly, and we played a DVD movie while running a full background virus scan without experiencing any choppiness or stuttering. Wireless throughput was quite good, averaging 20 Mbps while positioned 50 feet from the access point. The battery lasted a disappointing 1 hour and 21 minutes on our DVD rundown test.
ASUS covers the C90S with a standard one-year warranty and will pay two-way shipping if the unit needs to be shipped to a repair center during the warranty period. Telephone support is available 24/7, but the call isn't toll-free.
All in all, the ASUS C90S is a capable performer that lets you future-proof your purchase. We think performance hounds will appreciate the ability to take advantage of new processors, graphics solutions, and wireless technologies as they come along.
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