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Asus U2E-A1B: Style and Usability

5 Featherweight Powerhouse Ultraportables
By , Barry Gerber

Style

The U2E has "executive" written all over it. This ultraportable’s calling card is its leather skin, which gives it a very high-end, professional sheen—like an attaché case, billfold or luxury car interior. After seeing it, you won’t forget it, and after touching it, you’ll know that the leather does more for the computer than add a bit of glam. That’s because, while the leather is a bit stiff—at first it feels like nothing more than a nubbly plastic—it warms to the touch and makes your wrists (the leather extends to the wristpad) feel so much more comfortable than plastic or metal ever has. Leather also breathes, and it smells good too.

Leather isn’t for everyone. The U2E also comes in a brown leather variety, which might appeal to more people, but in general, the leather gives the machine a more masculine look. To truly go ga-ga for the U2E’s style cues, you probably need the kind of ego that necessarily comes with high-paying, high-ranking executive roles (or the aspiration to get one of those jobs).

 
Leather aside, the U2E also has other high-end touches, including gun-metal chrome hardware on the lip of the chassis and at the centimeter-round screen hinge. These bits of hardware are incredibly solid, making the U2E’s build quality feel the least flimsy of all the computers in this tiny-machine roundup. These chrome bits, however, are fingerprint magnets: after a while, the chrome started to look oxidized with the brownish tinge that finger oils can create. To keep the metal looking spiffy, you’ve got to detail these parts like a Mercedes-Benz.

One other complaint about the screen hinge is that it doesn’t bend back quite far enough—only to about 130 degrees. But on the other hand, when you close the lid and then reopen it, you discover that there’s no latch. The lid simply stays shut and lifts open when needed—a classy, clean design.

Ports

 
Asus managed to include nearly every single port one could hope for on a machine of this size, with the exception of a Firewire port. Instead, Asus provides a Micro-DVI and a VGA port (double video output duty) on the left hand side of the machine.

On the left side you’ve also got the power jack, a Wi-Fi on/off switch, a fan, two USB ports, an ExpressCard slot—the U2E doesn’t have a built-in Broadband chip so you’ll need an external device here if you want to go that route—and the headphone and microphone jacks. The headphone provides strong audio output.

On the front of the chassis there’s a 4-in-1 SD card slot, as well as two panels of wheezy and thin speakers pushed over on the right-front side (you’ll want to use the headphone jack instead of listening to anything on them).

On the right-hand side of the computer is the built-in DVD-RW drive—an impressive accomplishment for Asus, given this machine’s slim size. Past that is one more USB port, giving the Asus a total of three—more than any Apple MacBook, all of which are bigger than this unit—a gigabit Ethernet port, and a modem port as well.

Size and Weight

 
The back of the U2E features no ports, just a barely protruding battery. This ultraportable has less junk in the trunk than any other ultraportable in this roundup.

There might as well not be a battery in there; it is the smallest one available for the U2E, and frankly, its performance stinks (see the Battery section below). But in exchange for that miniscule battery life, you get a much more svelte machine. It’s not the lightest in our bunch, but the U2E packs an optical drive and a 120 GB hard drive, and still manages to come in under 3 pounds (2.9 to be exact). The power brick adds another 0.68 pounds, bringing the travel weight to 3.6 pounds. In terms of size and shape, the U2E is smaller in dimensions (at 10.9” length x 7.6” width x 1.1” thickness) than any of the other ultraportables here with built-in optical drives.

Packaging

Ultimately, consumer electronics packaging doesn’t much matter—fancy packaging probably just drives up the price of a machine. But the U2E’s packaging goes beyond what is normally seen: it comes with a multi-tiered, well-designed box with satin pull-tabs for storage, a Logitech re-branded Bluetooth mouse, and a high-quality suede slip-case. You probably won’t want to throw any of this away.

Style Score: 4.5

Usability

Display

With all the convenience that comes with a tiny ultraportable, also comes compromise, and the areas that most bother consumers are a smaller screen size and tiny keyboard. Three of our five ultraportable sport an 11.1” display; for some, this size, especially set to the full 1366x768 widescreen resolution, can cause some squinting. Eyesight and perhaps age may be factors here; for me, 11.1” doesn’t pose a problem, and the Asus LED backlit and glossy screen is extremely vibrant. We wish the screen hinge could bend back further for more viewing angle options, but when viewed head-on, the screen looks better than a full-sized laptop with a matte screen. The display is also sturdier than some of the other ultraportables’ screens, such as the Sony TZ. Like all the notebooks in this roundup, the U2E also has a low-resolution Webcam built into the top of the bezel.

Keyboard

Aside from netbooks like the Acer Aspire One, the Asus’s keyboard is one of the smallest put into an ultraportable—those of you with large or even average-sized hands will complain. I have small hands, and the U2E’s keyboard requires some economy of movement from me, but I don’t lose any accuracy while typing on it. This probably has more to do with the quality of the keyboard than its size. The keys have the traditional slanted-sides shape, even though they are small; visually, they sparkle, due to a metallic coating. They’re not slippery, but slightly grainy, which I like in a keyboard, since texture improves accuracy. The individual keys have a nice spring to them, but the keyboard as a whole does not bounce during typing—many small notebook keyboards sink quite a bit when even just one key is depressed. They keyboard is solid, even over the optical drive on the right-hand side.

Trackpad and Buttons

The trackpad on the U2E can’t compete with the keyboard in terms of quality; it is coated in some kind of brushed metal, which makes it feel striped. Texture on keys feels good, but texture on a trackpad, especially when inconsistent, is confusing. When running my index finger up and down this trackpad I felt lines, which occasionally made me feel like I had reached the top or bottom of the trackpad when I hadn’t. And even when I turned the trackpad sensitivity all the way up, the cursor still seemed to move slowly and cover little ground. My fingernail also got caught on the metal strip that separates the trackpad from the mouse buttons below. I would try to click the strip, thinking I had reached the button, but I wasn’t there. The buttons themselves are solid, once you actually reach them. They are small enough to depress fully from any part of the button, and they require a hearty click to activate them. I appreciate that last aspect—few unintended clicks here—though some folks might find that their fingers are working too hard for each click.

The U2E’s keyboard chassis doesn’t include any multimedia buttons; all controls are operated by the blue function icons activated by the Fn key. Other than the power button, there is one other button on the chassis, on the left opposite side of the power button. This button features an icon of a little running man, and can be configured to operate various power management settings on the U2E. It’s not incredibly useful, and the lack of other hardware controls saves space on this already space-strapped machine.

There is a very small fingerprint scanner on the right hand side of the keyboard chassis. Most consumers seem to eschew this type of security, but in many corporate settings it is de rigueur for protecting sensitive data. It also fits with the "executive" theme of this notebook.

Noise, Heat, and Power

The U2E makes virtually no noise when plugged in, but when running on battery, its fans get rather loud. Keep in mind, though, that the point of this ultraportable machine is to use it without wires. The noise level doesn’t appear to be tied to what applications the computer is running.

The top of the computer stays cool, but the underside is always warm to the touch; again, when running without power, the bottom can get hot. Some of the heat and noise can be attributed to the U2E’s underpowered CPU (the weakest in this roundup), which strains occasionally, though almost never during basic Web browsing, word processing, or emailing. With such a low-power processor, this machine is bound to stay pretty cool to the touch most of the time.

During basic computing tasks I never noticed an obvious sluggishness with the U2E, but don’t even bother asking this machine to play games with near-modern graphics, render photos or encode video. Even though our review unit has more RAM on board than any of the others in our roundup (3 GB), the extra gig didn’t seem to help. How bad could this machine have been with only 2 GB RAM? See the Performance section for more information about where the U2E may struggle.

Usability Score: 4

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  • 0 Hide
    enewmen , October 27, 2008 11:50 AM
    I like to read about these notebooks. They still exist and useful while other more exciting categories are around. (MID, UMPC, Netbook, and ultra gaming notebooks)
  • 0 Hide
    waffle911 , October 27, 2008 11:48 PM
    Quote:
    The unit’s dimensions are 10.8” wide by 7.7” deep, and 0.88” thick, which is thinner than the Apple MacBook Air.

    No it's not. The MBA is at no point thicker than 0.79", and Apple makes a point of it on the product design page.

    Otherwise, good article. But I think I'm not the target consumer for these products, so I'm going to be getting the new MacBook Pro. I need that extra performance for graphics-intensive applications. Then again, that would be a primary computer. If I had the extra cash, I would go for a MBA as a secondary, because I can't stand the smaller keyboards and screens but a laptop more portable than the MBP would be nice to have sometimes.

    Then again, I'm a Mac lover, so my views are undoubtedly skewed towards almost anything that runs OSX and has a giant Apple logo plastered on it. :p 
  • 0 Hide
    tim851 , October 28, 2008 7:55 AM
    This article is full of logical mishaps where the author contradicts herself, e.g.

    "I never felt this machine get warmer than room temperature, nor make any noise at all. That’s surprising given the U110 has a weak hard drive (only running at 4,200 RPM)"

    [a weak hard disk should make it NOT suprising]

    or

    "...the bottom can get hot. Some of the heat and noise can be attributed to the U2E’s underpowered CPU (...) With such a low-power processor, this machine is bound to stay pretty cool to the touch most of the time."

    [the second sentence is correct but (rightfully) contradicts the first one]

    Those two aren't the only ones. The article should be reworked.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 28, 2008 9:32 AM
    Pity not to see the very lovely Samsung Q210 in this list. I've gone for the Q310, simply out of preference for something a little more tangible, but the spec and build quality on both of these are super, not to mention the reasonable prices!
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 28, 2008 12:28 PM
    Finally, I was wondering when Tom's would review an Asus based laptop considering they've been around for years. I actually like Asus's designs and own an ancient Z33ae ultralight from years ago although recently I've begun to wonder if the leather in the new laptops isn't overkill. :)  Still considering the heavy use / abuse I've put my Asus laptop through while only suffering from a burnt out power button light, I have to admire it's durability. Sure they do cost a little more but the build quality is what makes up for it. My experience with Toshibas so far is that they're cheap and they work extremely well. Just don't expect anything special, they seem mass produced. Sony's I've had breakdown on me unfortunately. They have admirable design but it's something I'm reluctant to touch.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 28, 2008 1:27 PM
    The Thinkpad X200s and X200 should have been part of this review. They use the newer Centrino 2 Montevina platform with the faster X4500HD GPU that can run Blu-Ray and with the Intel 5300 WiFi.
    The X200s goes for about $2K but there will be sales. The X200 has already been on sale with a $1300 pricetag for a full config.

    X200s Review (with link to X200):
    http://www.laptopmag.com/review/laptops/lenovo-thinkpad-x200s.aspx


    X200s: 11 hours battery with WiFi LED backlit 1440x900 display 3.2 lbs 12" with full sized keyboard, same as in larger "T" series. Full sized 2.5" hard drive or SSD 64 GB or 128 GB. 1.86 GHz SL CPU

    X200: 8 hours battery with WiFi CCFL backlit 1280x800 display 3.6 lbs and same options as X200s. CPU 2.26 GHz or 2.4 GHz. Fast!

    Both laptops have two smaller battery options for less weight.
  • 0 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , October 28, 2008 4:07 PM
    tim851This article is full of logical mishaps where the author contradicts herself, e.g."I never felt this machine get warmer than room temperature, nor make any noise at all. That’s surprising given the U110 has a weak hard drive (only running at 4,200 RPM)"[a weak hard disk should make it NOT suprising]or"...the bottom can get hot. Some of the heat and noise can be attributed to the U2E’s underpowered CPU (...) With such a low-power processor, this machine is bound to stay pretty cool to the touch most of the time."[the second sentence is correct but (rightfully) contradicts the first one]Those two aren't the only ones. The article should be reworked.

    Thanks for your comment, Tim851.
    Here's what I meant about the U110's weak hard drive. I've found that when a machine has a weak hard drive, the drive tends to spin almost constantly even during basic computing tasks. When this constant spinning occurs, the machine typically gets hot. But on the U110, even though the hard drive was only 4200rpm, the hard drive at least didn't cause the machine to get warm--it didn't seem to strain or spin constantly as one would expect. Does that make more sense? Yes, a lower powered processor would help to keep things cool, but a severely underpowered hard drive could make things hotter, too. Happy to discuss further.

    All the best,
    Rachel Rosmarin, Editor of Tom's Guide
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 28, 2008 9:03 PM
    The TZ series is still available for purchase. Possibly not that particular model but overall the recall did not kill the entire product line.
  • 0 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , October 28, 2008 9:06 PM
    anon3265467The TZ series is still available for purchase. Possibly not that particular model but overall the recall did not kill the entire product line.

    Hi Anon,
    Can you provide a link to Sony's site showing a TZ available for purchase? If so, I'll amend the article. Thanks.

    Rachel Rosmarin, Editor of Tom's Guide
  • 0 Hide
    Xajel , October 30, 2008 2:53 AM
    hell no, the first time I saw lenovo in the pics I thought ( when does Dell Studio becomes an Ultra portable notebook ? )

    Lenovo just copied Dell's design and made some changes !!
  • 0 Hide
    spiralsun1 , November 1, 2008 3:47 PM
    Here we go again... who would ever buy a notebook of any shape or size at any price with only 2-3 hours of battery life? That's basically UNUSEABLE. They talk like it's acceptable. A dead computer has NO performance, NO style, NO value! Cross country trips? what country -- Leichtenstein? WORTHLESS! I am still waiting -- please make a USEABLE portable device with at the very least 4-6 hours battery time, preferably 8-10 hours or more. I would like to be able to surf, show the kids a movie, do some work, play a game etc. on a trip and then watch another movie myself after that and show people pictures of my family. IF YOU MAKE IT, I WILL BUY IT IMMEDIATELY. I don't want to have to constantly watch and worry about the battery, and people use their computers for EVERYTHING these days -- THATS WHY WE WANT PORTABLE ONES NOW! Is my life supposed to stop in 2-3 hours? COME ON! I am getting upset about this, I KNOW I'm not the only one who feels this way. What's wrong with these people? Make a useable laptop that I can use all day (8-12 hours) and can plug in overnight. End of story.
  • 0 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , November 1, 2008 4:55 PM
    spiralsun1Here we go again... who would ever buy a notebook of any shape or size at any price with only 2-3 hours of battery life? That's basically UNUSEABLE. They talk like it's acceptable. A dead computer has NO performance, NO style, NO value! Cross country trips? what country -- Leichtenstein? WORTHLESS! I am still waiting -- please make a USEABLE portable device with at the very least 4-6 hours battery time, preferably 8-10 hours or more. I would like to be able to surf, show the kids a movie, do some work, play a game etc. on a trip and then watch another movie myself after that and show people pictures of my family. IF YOU MAKE IT, I WILL BUY IT IMMEDIATELY. I don't want to have to constantly watch and worry about the battery, and people use their computers for EVERYTHING these days -- THATS WHY WE WANT PORTABLE ONES NOW! Is my life supposed to stop in 2-3 hours? COME ON! I am getting upset about this, I KNOW I'm not the only one who feels this way. What's wrong with these people? Make a useable laptop that I can use all day (8-12 hours) and can plug in overnight. End of story.

    Thanks for your comment, SpiralSun. Okay, you're right--there's no tiny computer that lasts 8-12 hours. We just aren't there yet, technologically speaking. But, most of the computers in our round up can easily last 4 hours, and the Sony will definitely last more than 6 hours. Keep in mind that our BatteryEater test maxes out a machine's power consumption. In normal use, all of these machines would last more than 2 hours.

    Thanks,
    Rachel Rosmairn
    Editor, Tom's Guide
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , November 2, 2008 5:33 PM
    Instead of considering these laptops, I'd rather go at BenQ X31. Extra inch on the display but monsterous graphics(8600GT) for a 13 inchers, and this means hell more performance and more plausible productivity. Have a look

    http://benq.com/products/joybook/?product=1302&page=specifications
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , November 5, 2008 6:04 PM
    I love the idea of an ultraportable, but Tom's Guide and I have different requirements. I'm old enough that a larger screen means more to me than a DVD drive. I'm more likely to work on the plane than I am to watch a DVD. I almost never use the optical drive on my laptop other than to load software. Most people would consider me a road warrior, but my computing needs are very simple: internet, Word Processing, simple spreadsheets, email and presentations. Light weight, long battery life and a screen big enough that I don't have to spend more time scrolling than reading. I've loved my Fujitsu Lifebook S-6231, but it's now a little long in the tooth. the only problems have been short battery life and it's 4 lb. weight.
  • 0 Hide
    hellwig , November 5, 2008 8:16 PM
    Couple things confused me. First, there's a button on the Sony that can launch multimedia without booting? Does this mean the machine can act like a DVD/MP3/MP4 player without booting into Windows? To me that would be an incredible Plus, watching videos on a plane without Windows running/eating up more power.

    Second, what does Windows Vista Business w/ XP Pro Recovery media mean? Makes it sound like the manufacturer put the wrong DVD in the packaging. Is this supposed to mean you can revert to WindowsXP with the media they included (in addition to restoring Vista if necessary)?
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