Asus U33Jc-A1 BambooPros Nvidia Optimus graphics; affordable; excellent overall performance for its class; unique design
| 2.4GHz Intel Core i3-370M|
500GB hard drive
13.3 inches (1,366x768 native resolution)
Integrated Intel GMA HD, and Nvidia GeForce GT310M (1GB)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Asus U33Jc-A1 Bamboo Review
| Reviewed by: Catharine Smith |
Review Date: July 2010
| Look out, little laptops. With a generous hardware selection and an eye-catching design, the Asus U33Jc-A1 Bamboo is a fierce competitor among budget ultraportables. Its Nvidia Optimus technology balances battery life with graphics performance, making this $999 notebook a top contender in a price arena that most ultraportable models never even get to enter. |
First, an explanation of what Optimus graphics tech is. An emerging trend we're seeing is laptops equipped with both a low-power integrated graphics chipset suitable for undemanding computing tasks, and a more powerful dedicated graphics chip for gaming and demanding 3D tasks. In early iterations, you had to designate manually when to use one or the other, and switching often required a reboot to complete (or at the very least, some user action, such as flipping a hardware or software switch, or pressing a button).
Optimus, on the other hand, offers automatic switching between a laptop's discrete and integrated graphics. It happens in the background, unbeknownst to the user. The Bamboo laptop uses the Intel GMA HD graphics engine, which is integrated into the machine's Core i3 CPU, for times when light graphics processing is all that's needed. The system also has an Nvidia GeForce GT310M dedicated graphics processor (with 1GB of its own memory), and this chip takes charge when you launch 3D games and other graphics-intensive applications. As you might expect, the more powerful GeForce chip taxes the battery more than the Intel GMA HD. Thus, switching seamlessly between the two, Optimus conserves battery life when additional 3D muscle is unnecessary.
The Asus U33Jc-A1 Bamboo’s first-rate interior components are paralleled by its intriguing design. It's sure to turn heads around the office, library, or coffee shop. Asus substitutes 15 percent of the chassis’s plastic with real bamboo, a feature that will appeal to eco-minded shoppers. The dark wood, which feels like plastic and looks like the finish on a paneled 1970s station wagon (in retrospect, probably not the greenest car to emulate), covers the lid and the entire palm-rest area. The black plastic keys are embedded into brushed aluminum, and the screen bezel is a glossy black plastic. The materials contrast somewhat, but the system appears sleek and professional overall.
The Bamboo system weighs 3.7 pounds and measures 1.2x12.9x9.1 inches, a little beefier than some other budget ultraportables we’ve seen. Asus managed to pack this slim frame with its fair share of ports. Along the left side of the chassis, you’ll find a VGA-out port, an HDMI-out port, and a USB 2.0 port. Here, also, is a fan vent, which can blow quite hot. (We don’t recommend resting the system in your lap.) The right side of the chassis sports a flash-card reader (supporting the SD, MultiMediaCard, Memory Stick, and Memory Stick Pro formats), a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 port, an Ethernet port, the power connector, and a cable-locking slot. As for wireless connectivity, the laptop comes equipped with Bluetooth and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi radios.
Above the keyboard, you’ll find a chunky bezel that houses the integrated speaker system. The Chiclet-style keyboard is roomy, and the keys are springy and fairly quiet during typing. Below the keys, a spacious bamboo panel comfortably accommodates your palms. The multi-gesture touch pad and seesaw button below it also sport the same dark wood covering. The touch pad’s decent size and smooth texture afford easy zooming, scrolling, and tapping. We have no complaints about the mouse button; it has nice vertical travel, and it isn't too stiff.
The Bamboo’s 13.3-inch display is sunken into a glossy black bezel and attached to the chassis by two glossy plastic hinges. Embedded in the bezel above the display is a 2-megapixel Webcam that features a tiny switch that acts as a sliding security shade. Despite its sleek looks, the camera captures photos and video in poor quality. In our tests, motion was blurry, audio and video were out-of-sync, and the audio that the microphone captured sounded as if it were recorded underwater. In addition, manually sliding the security shade open and shut inevitably smudged the camera lens. You'll want to keep a polishing cloth handy to keep it clean.
The reflective display has wide-screen dimensions and is LED-backlit for a bright, gorgeous picture. Unfortunately, the display shows up glare readily under bright lighting conditions, and the viewing angles are pretty tight: The picture begins to look washed out at 45 degrees off-center. The 1,366x768-pixel display resolution looks terrific in dim lighting, however. And media was a joy to experience on this screen, under the right lighting conditions. Flash playback via Hulu.com looked smooth and clear, as did streaming video in 720p on YouTube, though the picture quality cannot compare with true HD (1,080p). Local HD video, downloaded from Windows Media Showcase, played perfectly smoothly, and its colors were bright and vibrant. The speakers produced booming sound, despite a somewhat hollow aspect to the audio.
Although neither the Bamboo’s processor nor its price suggests strong gaming performance, we ran the discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 310M graphics through our Company of Heroes (COH) gaming test at the system’s native resolution (1,366x768). When testing DirectX 9 graphics with some eye-candy settings enabled, the machine notched a playable-but-not-fantastic score of 24.7 frames per second (fps). Next, we tested DirectX 10 graphics and recorded a disappointing 13.2fps, which is unplayable. (Turning down the detail levels will enable a faster frame rate.) Normally, budget ultraportables cannot handle any real 3D gaming, and we often see pricier units struggle with COH. That said, the $1,099 Alienware M11x, which is the only other notebook in this class to feature both discrete and integrated graphics, scored far better on our DirectX 9 (67.5fps) and DirectX 10 (20.2fps) tests, so if marrying gaming and portability is your goal, you’ll do much better with that Alienware unit.
We were much more satisfied with the Bamboo’s results on our 3DMark06 test, which we use to test overall graphics-acceleration performance. The Bamboo scored a whopping 3,755 at a resolution of 1,024x768 and managed 3,293 at its native resolution. These scores are far above what we typically see in this notebook class, with the exception of the Alienware M11x, which scored 4,528 (at 1,024x768) and 4,071 (at native). Nonetheless, this is an impressive score and should allow for light-duty gaming, and it contributes to the positive media experience we observed above.
To test the system’s 2.4GHz Intel Core i3-370M CPU, we ran three processor tests. The first was Cinebench 10, which taxes all the available cores on the CPU. The Bamboo exceeded our expectations with its scores of 6,678 on the test’s 32-bit version and 7,986 on the 64-bit version. (We test at both bit levels for comparison purposes, since not all notebooks come with a 64-bit operating system.) These scores are some of the best we’ve ever seen from a budget laptop and are second only to the $1,899 Sony VAIO Z-Series’s scores of 6,774 (32-bit) and 8,290 (64-bit). We attribute that to Intel’s Core i-series processors in general. Even though the Core i3 is the least powerful of the three Core families (i3, i5, and i7), its performance has consistently beat out even the best processors from 12 to 18 months ago.
The second CPU test was our iTunes trial, in which the CPU converts 11 MP3 files to AAC format. The Bamboo raced through this test in 3 minutes and 55 seconds, handily beating the 6:22 average we have seen among ultraportables. The few laptops that beat this score (the Toshiba Portégé R700, two HP EliteBooks, and the Sony VAIO Z Series) all cost more than $1,500.
During our third and final CPU test, the Bamboo converted a standard test video file via Windows Media Encoder (WME) in a snappy 4 minutes and 5 seconds. The Alienware M11x's Core 2 Duo processor was no match and managed only 5:38 (in the iTunes test) and 8:43 (in the WME test). This balance makes the Bamboo better suited to regular folks (as opposed to hard-core gamers) and business users, who will require more CPU power than graphics power for crunching numbers, surfing the Web, and general multitasking.
The Bamboo system continued to impress on our PCMark Vantage test, which measures overall performance across a range of everyday applications. Its 32-bit score of 4,984 and its 64-bit score of 5,292 outstripped all other ultraportable systems priced under $1,000 that we’ve tested. Even the Alienware M11x’s scores of 3,608 (32-bit) and 3,682 (64-bit) were put to shame. The Bamboo’s PCMark Vantage scores also come close to those of pricier laptops like the $1,629 HP EliteBook 2540p (6,028).
An eight-cell removable battery sits flush with the bottom of the Bamboo's chassis. This battery lasted for a middling 3 hours and 39 minutes on our strenuous battery-rundown test, during which we stream video wirelessly with both display brightness and volume set to half-power. While the Bamboo’s battery life trumps the HP EliteBook 2540p’s 3:19, it falls well behind the similarly priced Alienware M11x’s 5:50. However, the Bamboo comes equipped with a utility called Super Hybrid Engine (SHE), which adjusts the system’s clock and bus speeds to boost either performance or battery life. Setting SHE to Power Saving mode (and performing less demanding tasks than the continuous wireless video streaming we did) pushed the battery life to 4:16 on our test. Do note, however, that this energy-saving option will slightly reduce the performance. We suggest using the SHE option only when you really need to eke out as much life as possible.
In addition to strong performance, Asus sweetens the pot by including one year of free online storage (500GB) with the Bamboo. The bundled software, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. While we’re pleased to see Adobe Reader, Microsoft Windows Live Essentials, and Asus utilities like Power4Gear Hybrid (an overclocking and underclocking tool), Splendid Video, and Virtual Camera, you also get some bloatware (notably, trial versions of Microsoft Office 2010 and Trend Micro Internet Security). Furthermore, the inclusion of CyberLink's Power2Go disc-burning software is odd, considering the system has no optical drive.
One other nice (albeit, latent) perk: The Bamboo supports Intel's WiDi technology, which enables you to transmit wireless HD video from the laptop for display on a TV set. It does require the purchase of a $100 WiDi receiver, however. Still, that, rounded out by Asus’s ample warranty offerings, makes for an impressive package. Asus has one of the best warranty and support structures in the business: With the Bamboo, you get a two-year worldwide hardware warranty; one year of protection against accidental damage; a year's guarantee on the battery; and a 30-day warranty on the LCD screen, should one or more pixels go bad. On top of that, Asus allows for free two-way shipping for repairs and service, and provides 24/7 toll free technical support. That's a very robust plan for a $999 laptop.
The high-performance, feature-rich Asus U33Jc-A1 Bamboo is, hands down, the best ultraportable $1,000 can buy. Our biggest quibble is the battery life, which could be a deal-breaker for frequent travelers. You can choose longer-lasting ultraportables, but you will pay for it in terms of price, performance, or portability. If you can stomach the battery life, the Bamboo is thin enough, light enough, and powerful enough to meet the needs of home or small-business users who need a light laptop.
Price (at time of review): $999 (mfr. est., as tested)
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