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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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