ASUS says it worked closely with Taiwanese musician, actor, and director Jay Chou to create its latest thin-and-light notebook, the N43SL Jay Chou Special Edition. (For those scratching their heads, he was the guy opposite Seth Rogen in "The Green Hornet.") Featuring a flashy design that's unusual for the typically staid manufacturer, this limited-edition 14-inch entertainment system laptop seems to have been built as a tribute to the pop superstar - a fact that Chou's legions of fans will doubtless appreciate. But underneath its odd veneer, does the $999 N43SL have what it takes to compete against the best thin-and-light laptops? Read on to find out.
The ASUS N43SL Jay Chou Special Edition represents a collaboration of two Taiwanese titans - PC manufacturer ASUS and superstar Jay Chou. Chou, a musician, actor and film producer, rose from humble beginnings as a contestant on the Taiwanese talent show "Super New Talent King" to become one of the most influential artists in the Mandarin-speaking world. Chou has also been celebrated for his songwriting abilities, and has both acted in and directed feature films in Taiwan. He only recently crossed over to the U.S. in terms of appeal.
Click to EnlargeWhile the overall design of the N43SL is similar to the 15-inch N53S, every surface has been customized to pay homage to Chou's storied career. The glossy black plastic lid sports a copper-colored, baroque circular design. Among other motifs, the design features musical notes and clefs, as well as the French playing card suits (diamond, hearts, spades and clubs). An "incredible J" logo rests at the top left of the lid.
The keyboard and deck feature a black matte finish. A selection from the sheet music to Chou's "Secret" runs along the bottom of the deck, as well as the artist's signature at the bottom right palm rest. Even the letter J on the keyboard features a font reminiscent of the Old English typeface.
Click to EnlargeA large speaker grille, sporting the same copper color as the circular design on the lid, can be found at the top of the deck.
At 13.8 x 9.5 x 1.3 inches, the N43SL falls between the sleek Dell XPS 14z (13.2 x 9.2 x 0.9 inches) and the HP Envy 14 (14 x 9.3 x 1.2 inches), although its thickness makes the N43SL feel much larger than its dimensions would suggest. The laptop's weight doesn't dispel this sense of chunkiness - at 5.4 pounds, the N43SL weighs quite a bit more than the XPS 14z (4.4 pounds) but just a hair less than the Envy 14 (5.6 pounds).
Keyboard and Touchpad
The black matte keyboard on the N43SL features a traditional layout. Although the spacing is a bit cramped, the keys offered just enough travel and friction on the fingertips to make typing a pleasure. The standard function key can be found along the top row. For $999, however, we would have appreciated it if the N43SL featured backlighting - especially considering that both the comparatively priced HP Envy 14 ($1,079) and Dell XPS 14z ($999) both boast this feature.
Click to EnlargeThe 3.2 x 2.2-inch ELAN touchpad on the N43SL allowed the cursor to glide smoothly and accurately across the screen. Although multitouch gestures such as two-finger scrolling worked without any stutters, we were surprised by the lack of the pinch-to-zoom feature so common on other notebooks. Also, the touchpad on the N43SL is smaller than the clickpad on the Envy 14 (4.3 x 2.6 inches) or even the touchpad on XPS 14z (3.9 x 2.1 inches) - despite the fact that the XPS 14z itself is smaller than the N43SL.
Nevertheless, the mouse buttons on the N43SL offered the perfect amount of give and depressed quietly.
Display and Audio
Click to EnlargeA glossy black bezel surrounds the N43SL's 1366 x 768, 14-inch LED display. Although the display is somewhat dim (162 lux) compared to the 170 lux category average, it's still a tad brighter than the Envy 14 (157 lux). Moreover, the N43SL offered crisp images and generous viewing angles, both side-to-side and vertically. Watching the HD trailer for "The Hobbit" on YouTube, the vivid greens and blues of Middle Earth popped off the screen. Still, we would have appreciated an option for higher resolution display.
As one would expect from a laptop designed with the assistance of a singer-songwriter, the N43SL Jay Chou Special Edition boasts some serious audio chops. The top-facing speaker easily filled a small room. ASUS's own SonicMaster technology and Bang and Olufsen ICEpower further boost the audio without sacrificing crispness. Listening to Radiohead's "Reckoner," Thom Yorke's high falsetto rang out almost as clearly as if we were listening to the track on a stereo system.
As an added touch, the N43SL boots up with a short piano tune composed by Jay Chou, and comes preloaded with a selection of Chou's songs, handpicked by the artist himself. The playlist contained a nice mix of Chou's work, from the ominous strings of "Opening" to the furious piano solo in "Secret." We particularly enjoyed his ambient tracks - although our inability to understand Mandarin probably led to our ambivalent feelings about Chou's pop songs.
After streaming "Parks and Recreation" on Hulu at full screen for 15 minutes, the N43SL remained cool. The touchpad registered only 84 degrees Fahrenheit; the underside and space between the G and H keys were even cooler, registering 83 and 82 degrees, respectively.
Ports and Webcam
Click to EnlargeThe left side of the N43SL houses ports for Ethernet and HDMI, two USB 2.0 ports, and jacks for a microphone and headphones. The right side features a USB 2.0 port, USB 3.0 port and Blu-Ray/DVD combo drive. The power and VGA ports can be found on the back of the laptop. An SD Card slot is on the front right side.
During a video call on Google Chat, the 2-megapixel webcam offered substandard performance. Our caller said that quick motions such as shaking our head or waving our hand resulted in blurred images. The caller also reported that the color in the images looked somewhat washed-out.
Featuring a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5 2430M processor and 6GB of RAM, the N43SL performed well on almost all of our benchmarks. Its Geekbench score of 6,214 exceeded the category average of 4,790, as well as the Dell XPS 14z (2.8-GHz Core i7 2640M and 8GB of RAM) and HP Envy 14 (2.3-GHz Core i5 2410M and 6GB of RAM), which scored 5,985 and 4,903, respectively. The N43SL did not perform as well on PCMark07, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall performance. Its score of 2,029 fell short of the category average (2,084) and well below the Dell XPS 14z (2,329) - although it beat the HP Envy 14 by nearly 60 points.
The N43SL performed similarly well in the Open Office test, matching 20,000 names and addresses in 5 minutes and 22 seconds. This handily beat the category average of 6:08, as well as the Envy 14's time of 5:47. Only the XPS 14z (4:26) turned in a better time.
The N43SL suffers from a slower than average boot time. The laptop's 750GB, 5400-rpm hard drive loaded Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit in 1 minute and 24 seconds, more than 20 seconds longer than the average and much slower than the XPS 14z (60 seconds) and Envy 14 (49 seconds). On the LAPTOP File Transfer Test, the N43SL copied 4.97GB of mixed-media files in 2 minutes and 52 seconds, a rate of 29.6 MBps. This barely exceeds the category average transfer speed (28 MBps), and falls below the Envy 14 (33 MBps) and XPS 14z (39 MBps).
When it comes to graphics performance, the N43SL outshines the competition. Featuring both discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 540M graphics and Intel integrated graphics, the laptop can switch seamlessly between the two depending on the demands of the application. When using its Nvidia GPU (with 1GB of VRAM), the N43SL scored consistently higher than the HP Envy 14, the Dell XPS 14z, and the category average.
On 3DMark06, the N43SL turned in a score of 8,879, trumping the category average by more than 4,000 points. This score easily beat the 5,461 turned in by the XPS 14z (Nvidia GeForce GT 520M with 1GB of VRAM) and even exceeded the lofty score of 7,240 achieved by the Envy 14 (AMD Radeon HD 6630 with 1GB of VRAM).
Not surprisingly, this ASUS laptop handled video games with ease. Playing "World of Warcraft" with auto-detected settings and a resolution of 1366 x 768, the N43SL averaged 62 frames per second, which fell below the category average of 68 fps but just edged out the Envy 14 (61 fps) and XPS 14z (60 fps). After increasing the graphics in "World of Warcraft" to Ultra, the N43SL fared much better than the competition, averaging 55 fps. This beats the category average by 25 fps, and both the Envy 14 and XPS 14z by 24 fps.
Even when playing the more graphically demanding "Far Cry 2," the N43SL barely seemed to break a sweat. Playing the game at 1366 x 768 and with Very High settings, the laptop churned out an average of 47 fps; the category average, by contrast, is 23 fps, while the XPS 14z (26 fps) and Envy 14 (35 fps) fared little better.
As impressive as its graphics performance is, however, the N43SL couldn't handle "Batman: Arkham City." Attempting to play the game even on auto-detected settings resulted in an unplayable 21 fps, and bumping up the settings to Very High resulted in an abysmal frame rate of 10 fps.
Express Gate Cloud
The N43SL, like many ASUS notebooks, features Express Gate Cloud, ASUS's version of the Linux-powered Splashtop instant-on environment. The button to launch Express Gate Cloud is located just above the Escape key; our system took 23 seconds to fully boot into the environment.
Once inside, users can surf the Internet using Google Chrome, access social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, listen to music, browse photos, and play a variety of games such as "Ghost Man" (a "Pac-Man" knockoff) and "Space Invaders."
Unfortunately, the environment suffers from decreased functionality for all of its applications (Chrome cannot be minimized, for example, and you can't manipulate photos). While we appreciate Express Gate Cloud's super-fast boot speed, it seems likely that most users will opt to browse the Internet and listen to music in Windows 7.
Click to EnlargeIn a welcome change of pace from other laptop brands, ASUS has not overloaded the N43SL with preinstalled software. Instead, the notebook features only a handful of utilities, bundled into the ASUS Tools folder. The modest suite of programs includes a backup utility, PDF Reader, and webcam tool. Also included is the ASUS Vibe Fun Center, a portal for games, music, and other multimedia entertainment and ASUS WebStorage, the company's online backup and sync solution.
Like every other Windows 7 machine, the N43SL comes preloaded with Microsoft Office Starter 2010. Users can purchase Office 2010 online or off the shelf to unlock the software, or - if they're feeling thriftier - can simply use Microsoft Office Starter 2010 for free.
Despite excellent audio and visual quality and impressive graphics performance, the N43SL falls flat when it comes to battery life. The laptop's six-cell battery lasted only 4 hours and 32 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi). That's about half an hour less than the Envy 14 (4:57), almost an hour behind the XPS 14z (5:23) and more than an hour and half behind the category average (6:09).
In keeping with Jay Chou's status as a one-of-a-kind artist, the ASUS N43SL Jay Chou Special Edition does not come in other configurations.
Click to EnlargeAlthough the ASUS N43SL's ostentatious design will turn off some, Jay Chou's many fans may love the personal flourishes the superstar added to the laptop. Regardless, the $999 N43SL outperforms both the HP Envy 14 ($1,079) and Dell XPS 14z ($999) in both graphics and performance. Only its battery life is lacking. If you're an admiring fan of the artist, the N43SL offers top-of-the-line performance at a reasonable price.