The ASUS U31SD-A1 is a thin-and-light laptop that knows how to get its game on. That's because this machine packs a 1GB Nvidia graphics card to go along with its Core i3 processor. When you're just surfing the web, the notebook automatically switches to Intel's integrated graphics, enabling the system to last more than 9 hours on a charge. Pretty sweet for $799, right? Read on to find out if this portable has everything you need.
The U31SD-A1 has the same sleek brushed-aluminum lid and two-toned interior as the U31JG and U41JF. The top of the deck is still glossy black plastic with attractive diamond cross-hatching above the keyboard. The palm rest goes for the same brushed-aluminum aesthetic, but it's made of plastic. It's a classic look, but the Lenovo IdeaPad Z370's eye-popping blue design pops more.
Measuring 12.9 x 9.1 x 1-1.12 inches and weighing 4.2 pounds, the U31SD-A1 is nearly identical in size and weight to the Acer Aspire TimelineX 3830TG, and can slide into a messenger bag and be transported for an extended period of time with relative ease. The IdeaPad Z370 is slightly smaller at 12.9 x 8.7 x 0.8-1.3 inches, but has a little more heft at 4.6 pounds.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The U31SD-A1 has a large island-style keyboard with generous spacing between the keys. The large black keys provided decent feedback. There's also plenty of space to type, with the exception of the undersized right Shift key, which led to a number of errors. Unfortunately, the layout exhibited some flex, a slightly annoying ASUS trademark.
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The 3.1 x 1.75-inch Synaptics touchpad on the U31SD-A1 doesn't offer a huge amount of real estate. However, the smooth surface was quick and responsive, making it easy to navigate websites and highlight text. Multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and two-finger rotation were equally responsive, but we had trouble getting rotate and three-finger flicks to work on the first try.
Although we prefer discrete mouse buttons, the bar beneath the touchpad worked fine on the ASUS U31SD-A1.
Ports and Webcam
The right side of the U31SD-A1 has two USB 2.0 ports, a 5-in-1 card reader, HDMI, VGA, and Ethernet. Another USB 2.0 port, a headphone jack, a microphone jack, a Kensington secure lock, and the power jack are located on the left of the notebook.
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The 0.3-megapixel camera captured clear but slightly dark images in natural lighting. We were limited to capturing images and videos at a maximum of 640 x 480 pixels using ASUS LifeFrame software. During our Skype session, our caller reported clear video and audio.
After streaming a Hulu video for 15 minutes, the U31SD-A1 was able to retain most of its cool. The touchpad registered a frosty 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The space between the G and H keys measured 88 degrees while the bottom of the notebook registered a warm 91 degrees. We found the bottom vent to be the hottest area, blowing out an uncomfortable 100 degrees--5 degrees hotter than what we consider comfortable.
Display and Audio
Click to enlargeThe U31SD-A1's 13.3-inch 1366 x 768 glossy display is surrounded by a glossy black bezel. Text on LaptopMag.com was sharp and easy to read, but images were dull and just a little grainy. Watching video on the notebook was disappointing. The night scenes in the 1080p YouTube trailer of Cowboys and Aliens were pixelated, and day scenes were no better, providing muddy visuals. The usually brilliant reds and golds in the Immortals trailer appeared washed out.
Audio on the U31SD sounded hollow and muted. Despite the Altec Lansing speakers located on the front lip of the notebook, the music couldn't fill a small room. We used the ASUS Sonic Focus control panel to make adjustments to no avail; despite adjusting sound levels for vocals, surround sound, adaptive volume and bass, vocals on Sade's "Sweetest Taboo" sounded muffled while the bass on Kanye West's "Flashing Lights" were distorted. Sonic Focus was most effective when using headphones. We especially liked that the software let us choose between small and large headphones as well as earbuds.
The U31SD-A1 won't win any performance awards, but its second-generation 2.1-GHz Intel Core i3-2310M processor and 4GB of RAM ensure that it'll get the job done. On PCMark Vantage, the notebook scored 4,177. That's 1,484 points below the thin-and-light average (5,661). The Acer Aspire TimelineX 3830TG and the Lenovo IdeaPad Z370, both of which have a 2.3-GHz Intel Core i5-2410M CPU, scored 6,228 and 5,124 respectively. During real-world testing, the ASUS was able to juggle multiple tasks, including streaming web video, keeping multiple browser windows open, and running a virus scan.
Booting Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit on the U31SD-A1's 640GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive took a sluggish 71 seconds, well behind the 65-second category average. During the file transfer test, the ASUS duplicated a 4.97GB folder of mixed-media files at a rate of 18.3 MBps, far below the 26.1 MBps thin-and-light average.
The U31SD-A1 took a snail-like 1 minute and 9 seconds to transcode a 114MB video to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder, failing to meet the 0:57 category average. The Timelinex 3830TG finished in 49 seconds, while the IdeaPad Z370 took 45 seconds.
Packed with a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT520M GPU and 1GB of graphics memory, the U31SD-A1 redeemed itself in the graphics department. On the 3DMark06 test, the ASUS scored 5,191, besting both the category average (3,894) and the IdeaPad Z370 (4,578), which has only Intel integrated graphics. Acer's TimelineX 3830TG scored an impressive 8,040, thanks to its Nvidia GeForce GT 540M GPU.
During our World of Warcraft test, the U31SD-A1 averaged 64 frames per second at 1366 x 768p on Good--22 points below the 86 fps thin-and-light average, but still a good questing pace. The Z370 posted 45 fps, while the TimelineX 3830TG shattered the competition with 104 fps. When we adjusted the settings to maximum, the ASUS was even with the average (30 fps), while the 3830TG continued its stellar performance, posting 48 fps.
The U31SD-A1 maintained its solid showing on Far Cry 2 (autodetect) at 1024 x 768p, posting 31 fps, which is just below the 36.2 category average. The IdeaPad gave us 23 fps, while the 3830TG scored 44 fps. On maximum, the U31SD's frame rate dropped to 25 fps and the 3830TG scored 33 fps.
During the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi), the U31SD's eight-cell battery lasted a whopping 9 hours and 39 minutes, nearly twice as long as the 5:06 thin-and-light average. The Acer Aspire TimelineX 3830TG lasted a very good 6:58 but was still far behind.
ExpressGate and Instant On
Similar to other ASUS notebooks, the U31SD has a Linux-based instant-on operating system called ExpressGate which you can use to get online more quickly than the standard Windows 7 OS. Press the button on the upper left of the keyboard deck and the U31SD launches into a rudimentary UI broken down into six panels (Google Chrome, Photos, Calendar, Music, Videos, and Games). The whole setup takes approximately 13 seconds to boot.
Software and Warranty
Click to enlargeASUS bundles a moderate amount of software on the U31SD-A1. ASUS FancyStart let us select which splash screen would appear during boot-up. ASUS WebStorage enables users to upload up to 2GB of files, folders, and applications to the cloud for free. We used Power4Gear to manage our processor power settings as well as screen brightness and sleep mode. ASUS Game Park is a web portal housing a large suite of casual games covering a number of genres, including action, puzzle, and word games.
The ASUS Vibe Fun Center is a multimedia hub that we used to download games, listen to samples of music, and even learn some introductory Chinese. Third-party software includes Google Chrome, Windows Office Starter, Nuance PDF Reader, and a trial version of Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security.
The U31SD comes with a two-year parts and labor warranty and a one-year accidental damage warranty. There is also free two-way shipping and 24/7 tech support. See how ASUS fared in this year's Tech Support Showdown and our Best & Worst Brands report.
Click to enlargeThe ASUS U31SD-A1 is an attractive 13-inch laptop with decent overall performance, good graphics power, and superb battery life. Overall, we prefer the Acer Aspire Timeline 3830TG, which offers even more graphics oomph and a faster Core i5 processor for the same price.
The caveat with the Acer is that you have to give up about 2.5 hours of unplugged time. If you want all-day endurance along with the ability to game between classes or meetings, the U31SD-A1 is a fine choice.