Saturday, 10 September 2011

Asus U46SV Review

I knew going into buying my latest laptop that I wanted something light, portable and powerful, a combination which is never easy to balance. I had the following objectives/ limits that I imposed on my choice of machine.

- A fully fleged mobile processor - I didn't want a low power model, or another Atom, this time I wanted something meaty. i5 or i7, Dual not Quad for battery reasons, and something that supported Vt-x

- A long battery life - My last notebook, My Mini 311, strugled to get past 4.5 hours even with its extended battery. I wanted something that would give me near all day battery life when surfing the web or taking notes.

- A low weight & small size - Coming from an 11.6" notebook, I knew that whatever I bought would feel big and heavy in comparison. So I decided to aim for either 13.3" or 14" with a weight below 2.0kg.

- A mobile GPU - As much as the Intel HD 3000 is a large step up from their older graphics chips, I wanted a mobile GPU that I could run some classic titles on. I initially aimed for an Nvidia GPU as it would allow me to write and test CUDA code on the go, but eventually settled for considering other options.

- A good screen - My Mini 311 had an 11.6" 1366x768 display so I knew that anything else with the same resolution ran the risk of feeling cramped. I Ideally aimed for at least a 1600x900 panel, and would have liked an IPS panel if it were possible, but laptops with good screens are a very rare thing.

- less than £1500 all in - At the end of the day this was for Uni and I'm not made of money, I was saving, and that 1500 had to include any upgrades I would do myself.

And so I began considering my options. Scouring the internet I found many laptops that all checked various boxes but few that ticked them all. When I first started looking the model of choice was the 2010 Sony Vaio Z series. In its best spec, this had an i7 620M, Geforce 330M, 8GB DDR3, 128GB SSD, 13.1" 1600x900 IPS display, 8hour battery and weighed about 1.7kg. PERFECT you would think, but it was not to be. The 2010 Z series was discontinued just at the time where I had saved enough money to buy one. There were a few refurbished models available but it's termination coincided with the release of Intel's new Sandybridge mobile processors. Fast as they were, there were few models that were quick to the market, and those that made it in swiftly, were quickly recalled on account of the Sandybridge Chipset flaw.

With my beloved Z series realistically out of the picture I had to investigate other options. Asus were producing some nice 13.3 and 14" laptops with 10 hour battery life and Nvidia GPU's (520M's - 13.3 and 540M's - 14") I couldn't find anywhere in the UK with stock of the 14 inchers so contacted Asus and was told that they didn't sell their 14" models in the UK "because it wasn't a popular size" Damn.
I explored various other options including dells, Toshibas, HPs, many brands and was still no closer to what I wanted. Acer had however produced a 13.3" Timeline Notebook with a 540M GPU and i5 2410M which was initially appealing, but on closer inspection it turned out the cooling wasn't up to prolonged stress and the CPU would throttle after a few minutes load.

It was shortly after this that Sony announced the replacement Z series and the S series. The new Z series unfortunately took more of a Desktop replacement route than a complement route, somewhat spurred I fear, by the arrival of the Macbook Air (which I had ruled out on the basis of their poor battery life when running Windows. It was incredibly light and thin, but bereft of any Discrete GPU built into the chassis, instead, Sony had built a dGPU into the external optical drive and connected it with LightPeak. While a neat option, I would have my fully fledged desktop at home, so wanted a complement rather than a replacement.

The S series on the other hand was available in two varieties, both 13.3", The SA and the SB. The SB was a more budget orientated machine with a Radeon 6470 GPU, lower end CPU's, and a 1366x768 display, so was overall a lot lower spec than the previous generation Z series. The SA series on the other hand had much higher performance specs. Starting at over £1000, the base spec had an i7-2620M, a 6630M GPU and a 1600x900 display and as such was much more in line with the performance of the previous Z series. There was also a slice battery available for an extra £100 and warranty extensions from the standard 2 years.

Weighing up the options I intended to get a Vaio SA, with Slice Battery, 3 year warranty and upgrade the machine myself with an extra 4GB of ram and a 120GB SSD. I went to my local Sony store to go and play with one but I was told they were only available online and they didn't keep a show model in the stores. So I played with an SB series (which has a very similar chassis) and noticed that the fan vent was at the back behind the screen, which was blocked when the screen was opened. This oversight led me to Google some user reviews to which I found there were many angry users claiming if put under load for more than 20 minutes the CPU would reach it's thermal threshold and throttle itself to 800MHz. As I intended to use my Laptop for some light gaming, I decided this wasn't acceptable so looked around again.

I then found that ASUS were trialling a 14" laptop in the UK market, the U46SV. It's a 14.0" 1366x768 laptop, i5-2410M, GT 540M, 4GB DDR3, 500GB 5400RPM, 8 Cell Battery with WIFI N & BT 3 weighing in at 2.0Kg. The specs ticked most of my boxes apart from the screen resolution which was unfortunately low, as well as the CPU being not *quite* as high as I would have liked. With a retail price of £699 it offered a significant saving over the Vaio SA so I decided to take the plunge and go for one.

The online pictures make it appear to have a cream coloured chassis which simply isn't the case. The model has an all aluminium case with a lightly contoured pattern around the touchpad and a smooth surface around the keyboard. It's black underneath and has a well sized opening for easy access to the inside. The battery at the back protrudes out from under the laptop slightly lifting the laptop above a surface allowing good airflow to the underneath. With it's <1" thick chassis the specs defy the size, it's a compact laptop with great specs and I quickly powered it on.

The Stock OS was rather full of rubbish. I ran some preliminary tests on the stock OS but soon fitted a 120GB Corsair Force 3 SSD and did a clean install. I also fitted another 4GB of Corsair DDR3 1333MHz RAM.  Before my fresh install I created the recovery CD's which took 5x 4.7GB DVD's and took over an Hour! I decided not to even use these and installed the OS from scratch from an OEM Windows 7 Pro 64* DVD. The Install was smooth and fast and the driver install was painless, I used the supplied Driver DVD and de-ticked the options for installing all of the unnecessary gubbins that was included.  

Within a few hours of the install I started getting some weird hard drive timeouts (the mouse would go slow for ~ 30 seconds and nothing would respond). Eventviewer reported IAStor errors and the problem was similar to one I had with my previous laptop, so I used the same steps as before and uninstalled the new Intel Storage driver and returned to the stock microsoft one. This seemed to work and the lag stopped immediately. However it introduced a BSOD or freeze on wake issue which I couldn't seem to fix. So after some investigation I reverted to the most recent Intel Rapid Storage drivers and made some changes to the registry which have so far, stopped the problem reoccuring. And sleep seems to be working fine too.  

The Performance of the machine however is Incredible. The CPU being a fully fledged Dual Core Sandybridge is lightning quick, even when heavily throttled. The CPU is a 35W model which Turbo's to 2.9GHz when under one core's load, 2.7GHz when loaded on two cores and 2.3GHz as standard. Under maximum load the temperatures would just break 90C which is jointly because of the quite compact chassis and the soft fan profile which keeps noise to a minimum while stopping temperatures from spiralling out of control.

The Optimus GPU setup works well, better than I expected to be honest and the performance of the GT 540M 1GB is absolutely brilliant for a compact mobile chip. It heats to a max of 88C and it's 96 SP's gives it performance in the region of a 9600GSO desktop chip which is sufficient to run any game at decent settings at the stock 1366x768. I tested Dirt 2, BFBC2, Crysis Wars, Just Cause 2, Burnout Paradise and From Dust and it blasted through all of them with no problems. It runs Just Cause 2 on a mixture of Mediums and High's with 4x AA and is brilliantly smooth! It was the same story with the others with the performance being surprisingly good.  

The 1366x768 screen is of average quality, it's a pretty standard LED TN panel with predictably meh vertical viewing angles but I guess it has a hinge for a reason. On my old laptop and desktop I would adjust the digital vibrance in the Nvidia control panel to give a more vibrant (but not overly saturated) picture. However because the display is connected to the Intel GPU, I have to use the Intel display options to adjust the colours manually. I've found a happy medium now which is fine, but sometimes when the machine switches to the 540M it doesn't use the same colour profile, which apart from anything, results in everything having a bluish tint. It's not the end of the world, but it's something that could do with some work.

The Keyboard is nicely laid out with a good feel even though it's not backlit, The Mousepad however is exceptional. It uses an Elan Devices Corporation Touchpad which supports multitouch and my god is it good. The two finger scrolling is superb and the three finger side swipes for forward and back feel natural and work perfectly. This is simply the best trackpad I have used bar the Macbook one. It is well sized and has a good feel to it. The buttons are shiny (which I'm not so keen on) but their motion is good and their not too noisy. All in all, these are some seriously good HID's.

The SSD itself has had really great performance, when it works, scoring 7.9 in the WEI and having read speeds of over 550MB/s. I was worried that Asus would have had the internal SATA port connected to the SATA 2 controller which would have hampered performance somewhat but luckily this wasn't the case. The machine boots really quickly and applications fly open, It's noticeably quicker than the F60 SSD in my desktop, and I'm definitely considering buying a 256GB and doing some reorganising.

Battery life is generally impressive. With Minimum Brightness, Wifi + BT off, In Battery Saver mode (which locks the CPU in it's x8 Multiplier) and just idle on the desktop, or working on word documents it really does get 10 hours of battery life. On the other end of the scale when gaming it gets about an hour and 20 minutes, mainly due to the 35W CPU + 35W GPU and 88WH Battery. Battery Scales from there with it getting 6 - 8 hours when playing videos or browsing the web.

I noticed before and after the reinstall that there were some issues with stuttery sound while watching videos which was slightly strange. This sometime got to the point where the machine would restart during particularly bad stuttering. This was concerning of course so I started googling and deploying tools. DPC latency checker identified that there was indeed an issue with a driver with the DPC latency rising to over 15000ms! (below 500 is ideal). This was exacerbated by opening Resource Monitor which proved a useful way to narrow down the faulty driver. By disabling devices I discovered it was the Gigabit LAN Driver that was causing the issue. By Disabling it when it's not in use the problem is gone and hasn't raised its head since. Still working with Asus on coming up with a full fix.

I've now begun travelling with the notebook and have found it to be light and practical. The Power supply is a 90W model, has a Blue LED and gets quite hot when charging or powering the machine, but I've yet to see it become unstable. It's of average bulk and size and of normal length and the power tip locates firmly with a 90 degree tip. The Battery seems to wear at a standard rate and came with 1% wear as you'd expect.

I've installed Ubuntu 11 under VirtualBox for my Programming and it works rapidly thanks to the VT-x Support. I'm also intending to use Office One Note for taking notes in lectures and have set up my Outlook and suchlike. The spec of the machine means it can handle Win 7 64* with no problems and with an SSD the boot times fly.

Overall I'm really happy with the machine, The build quality is solid and the price is very competitive. The Keyboard is nice and the Trackpad is immense. The performance is awesome and the spec is very good for the money. The size is just right and the machine looks very smart and definitely worth the cost. I'd advise anyone to get one without any hesitation, but maybe don't use a Sandforce SSD if you're upgrading :P