If you were to create the ideal thin-and-light notebook, the recipe would look a lot like what was used to make the ASUS U45Jc-A1. This $899 14-inch laptop has all the right ingredients, including zippy performance, Nvidia graphics, and long battery life. We also like the handsome brushed aluminum design, making the U45Jc a tempting low-cost alternative to the MacBook. However, this design looks better than it feels, raising questions about build quality. Is the U45Jc-A1 a solid choice or does it fall flat?
The U45Jc looks a lot like the UL30, a notebook that we loved. Like its 13-inch sibling, it has a silver, brushed-metal lid with a glossy plastic chassis and keyboard deck to match. You'll also find a black, chiclet-style keyboard. Because both the lid and the lower lip narrow toward their edges, the U45 looks lighter than its 4.8-pound weight and 13.5 x 9.6 x 1.1-inch frame. (It's still lighter than the 14-nch Samsung Q430, which weighs 5 pounds.)
While attractive, the U45Jc's build quality could be better. When the notebook is closed, for instance, you can feel the lid depress beneath your fingers if you grip it near the hinge. You can also hear a noise when it depresses, as if it's sticking to the bezel. This isn't a deal-breaker by any stretch, but it doesn't inspire confidence, either.
The U45Jc has a standard selection of ports, including HDMI and VGA output, 3 USB ports, an Ethernet jack, and headphone and mic ports. It also has a 5-in-1 memory card reader. The only thing missing is a USB port that doubles as an eSATA connector, for faster uploads from compatible hard drives.
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As is common nowadays, there aren't many keys above the keyboard, save for the power button and another that launches directly into ExpressGate, ASUS' instant-on operating system (more on that later). Instead, you'll find multimedia keys, such as a Mute button, baked into the top row of function keys. The Skip buttons are located on the Up and Down arrow keys at the bottom of the keyboard.
Keyboard and Trackpad
The U45Jc's island-style keyboard is comfortable to type on, and quiet, thanks to the keys' shallow pitch. Twice in a row, we scored a decent, but not record-breaking 88 words per minute on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test. While typing felt natural, the undersized right Shift key led to a disproportionate number of errors when we tried to type quotation and question marks. This laptop's layout didn't exhibit as much flex as other Asus machines we've tested, but the key feel was a tad soft.
The touchpad was a pleasure to use, both because it offers a low-friction surface and because its bumpy texture means it never feels too slippery beneath the fingers. Although we prefer two touch buttons to a single one, this one proved easy to activate.
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In most spots, the U45Jc runs warmer than other notebooks in its weight class. For instance, we measured temperatures of 94 degrees on the touchpad, 91 at the center of the keyboard, 90 on the underside of the notebook, and a very hot 114 degrees by the vent. To put that in perspective, the average thin-and-light gets as hot as 87, 88, and 93 degrees near the touchpad, central keyboard, and the underside, respectively.
Display and Sound
The U45Jc's 14-inch display has 1366 x 768-pixel resolution, which is typical for a notebook this size and is sharp enough to play 720p video. When we watched Knocked Up on it, the viewing angles were surprisingly wide. Sure, if you dip the screen forward the picture will seem more washed out, but we could still make it out.
The sound from the Altec Lansing speakers was loud when we played music and video chatted, and the quality was rich while listening to songs such as "No Cars Go" by Arcade Fire.
Webcam and Facial Recognition
The U45's VGA webcam takes dull photos and video, even when you set the included LifeFrame software to record fine images. In our sample video, our voice took on an echoed timbre, but at least we couldn't notice the sound of music playing in the background. While the low-resolution camera itself is mediocre, we enjoyed the feature-rich LifeFrame software, which lets users play with filters, frames, and facial accessories. You can even apply, say, a facial accessory, such as a paper bag, with a frame and/or filter at the same time.
You can also use the webcam to enable facial recognition so that you don't have to type in a password when you log in to the notebook, but instead let the computer analyze your face to verify your identity. Using ASUS' SmartLogon Manager, you can register a series of photos to match a user account. (ASUS doesn't let you proceed unless the user account in question has a password.) Enrollment couldn't be easier: Just gaze into the camera while the software automatically snaps dozens of shots. The first time we logged into the laptop this way, it took just a second or two to recognize us and unlock Windows.
Click to enlargeThe U45Jc features a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i3-370M processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB 5,400 rpm hard drive. Its score of 4,791 on PCMark Vantage, a Windows performance benchmark, is almost 300 points above average. That showing bests the ASUS UL80's score of 3,600 (the UL80 makes up for this with longer battery life). However, the Intel Core i5-powered Samsung Q430 and Gateway ID49C08u both performed better, with PCMark Vantage scores of 5,598 and 5,490, respectively. Using the U45Jc, we were also able to convert a 114MB MP4 file to AVI in 53 seconds using Oxelon Media Converter, whereas the average thin-and-light takes 10 extra seconds to do this.
The U45Jc's hard drive copied a 4.97GB file in 3 minutes, or at a rate of 28.3 MBps, whereas the average notebook this size completes the same task at a rate of 24.25 MBps. That's faster than the Samsung Q430, ASUS UL80, and Gateway ID49C08u. Unfortunately, though, the U45Jc booted in 1 minute 16 seconds, whereas it takes the average thin-and-light 1:02. We blame the heavy load of preinstalled software (more on that later).
The U45Jc combines an integrated Intel GMA HD graphics card with discrete Nvidia G310M graphics, which has 1GB of dedicated video memory. The system also boasts Nvidia's Optimus technology, which automatically uses either the battery life-saving Intel graphics card or the high-performance Nvidia card, depending on how graphically demanding your current tasks are. So if you're just reading e-mails and typing out Word documents, the U45Jc will know to rely on the integrated Intel graphics card.
Thanks to that discrete GPU, the U45Jc's score of 3,451 on 3DMark06 placed it 700 points above the category average. However, we can think of at least three 14-inch laptops that cost about the same but had better performance: the ASUS UL80 (3,463), Samsung Q430 (3,921), and the Gateway ID49C08u (7,230).
The U45Jc has some decent gaming chops, but only when you set the resolution to low. For instance, the notebook managed 141 frames per second in World of Warcraft (the average is 31 fps) and 40 fps in the more demanding Far Cry 2 (the average there is 27 fps). At native resolution, the laptop notched a still-playable 29 fps (the average is 20 fps) in WoW but only 15 fps in Far Cry 2 (the average being 13 fps).
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
Click to enlargeThe U45Jc is one of the few notebooks we've tested that lasted longer than the manufacturer said it would. While ASUS estimated the U45's eight-cell battery would have a battery life of less than six hours, it lasted 8 hours 4 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test. When we tested it again, not in the labs, but in an editor's apartment, it lasted 6:46. While both of these scores trump the Samsung Q430 (3:17) as well as the Gateway ID49C08s (4:37), ASUS' UL80 lasted longer (9:17).
The Atheros AR9285 802.11n wireless card inside the U45Jc delivered fast Wi-Fi speeds, but only at close range. We saw throughput of 38 Mbps at 15 feet, above the thin-and-light category average (30.3 Mbps). The laptop didn't excel at longer distances, turning in a data rate of 15.8 Mbps from 50 feet. The category average here is 20.51 Mbps.
Thanks in large part to its battery life, the U45Jc is more energy efficient than other thin-and-lights. It charged to 80 percent in 2 hours 3 minutes, and fully recharged in 3:15. When we divide the battery life by the total watts consumed while charging, we get the LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Index (the lower the number, the better). The notebook's score of 19.8 is slightly better than the category average of 22.87. However, the U45's energy efficiency index drops to a less impressive 23.58 if you take into account the battery life test result of 6:46.
Click to enlargeInstead of launching into Windows 7, the U45 can also load ExpressGate, a Linux-based operating system that's ready to use within seven seconds of pressing its dedicated power button on the keyboard deck. The benefit is that users can get online faster, since they don't have to wait the nearly two minutes for Windows to load.
With ExpressGate, users can surf the web with a browser that's based on Firefox; chat on Skype and a variety of instant messaging clients, including AIM and Google Talk; view photos; and play music and games. While the browser doesn't support add-ons, you can personalize it with bookmarks. Although there are no tabs at the bottom of the screen, as there are in the fully launched Windows, it's possible to have multiple programs opened at once. For instance, we had Skype open in a small window with Firefox running at full screen behind it.
Warranty and Other Software
The U45Jc's list of bundled software is slightly more extensive than other notebooks', including Amazon Kindle for PC, Cyberlink LabelPrint and Power2Go, Google Chrome, Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, Skype 4.2, Times Reader, and Windows Live Essentials. You also get trials of Microsoft Office 2010 and Trend Micro Internet Security, plus a host of ASUS-branded software governing everything from the webcam software to the notebook's facial recognition.
The U45Jc comes with a generous two-year warranty that includes 24/7, toll-free phone support and, impressively, one year of accidental damage support (e.g., damage from drops). To see how ASUS fared in our most recent technical support showdown, click here.
The ASUS U45Jc-A1 ($899) is one of the better thin-and-light notebooks we've tested this year, thanks to its long endurance, strong performance, and slick design. However, the less-than-stellar build quality prevents us from giving this laptop a higher rating or an Editor's Choice award. Although it's not as powerful and doesn't last as long on a charge, the 14-inch ASUS UL80Jt-A1 ($849) offers a sturdier chassis. The Gateway ID49C08u ($849) and the Samsung Q430 ($829) deliver better performance than both of these ASUS machines but don't last as long on a charge. We like the U45Jc, but we don't quite love it.