Choosing a laptop is rife with compromises. Small and portable, or big and powerful? Cheap and chintzy, or spendy and sleek? Anemic battery miser, or brutal battery devourer? Asus promises the middle ground on all of the above with the U30Jc. It’s one of the first notebooks from Asus to use Nvidia’s Optimus technology for automatically switching between integrated Intel graphics to save battery and discrete Nvidia graphics for power. Neither too big or too cramped, too expensive or too flimsy, too powerful or too weak, Asus has carved out what may be one of the most practical and least objectionable laptops to come through our doors, and a great value to boot.
Features and Specs
Asus’ marketing for the U30Jc makes an effort to shoehorn it into the popular thin-and-light class, but in truth the U30Jc packs a lot more muscle than its stripped-down competitors, and bears some of the bulk to show for it. At 1.2 inches thick and 4.8 pounds, it can’t compete on specs with a token thin-and-light like Acer’s Timeline 3810T, which measures only 0.9 inches thick and 3.6 pounds. That costs it some aesthetic wow factor, but we travelled extensively with the U30Jc and can say that fractions of an inch there and a pound there don’t really add up to much from a practical perspective.
Redemption comes on the hardware side, where the U30Jc blows any of those lightweights apart. Where thin-and-lights typically hobbled low-voltage Core 2 Duo processors, Asus’ U30Jc gets the potent next-gen Core i3 chip clocked at 2.26GHz. Where they use integrated graphics, the U30Jc sports a brawny GeForce 310M with 512MB integrated RAM and Nvidia Optimus to intelligently switch it on and off when needed, preserving precious battery life. Where they pare out optical drives to gain fractions, the U30Jc retains an 8x DVD-RW drive.
If anything, you might most closely compare the U30Jc to Apple’s 13-inch MacBook in specs. That machine also has some fractions on the U30Jc (4.7 pounds to 4.8, 1.08 inches thick to 1.2) but the U30Jc manages to one-up it all over the map with a next-gen Intel processor, a better GPU that doesn’t share memory with the main system, more total RAM (4GB to 2GB) and a bigger hard drive in the base configuration (320GB to 250GB), all for $100 cheaper.
Design and Build Quality
Asus has made a number of goes at wrapping notebooks in aluminum rather than building them from it, and while a thin veneer of brushed metal can never match the unibody build of Apple’s MacBook Pros, the U30Jc pulls a respectable impression for the money. Both the lid and palmrest wear clean aluminum sheets, and though the area around the keys gets faux silver plastic instead, it’s clean and sturdy enough to forgive. The dreaded gloss black plastic only crops up around the bezel, where we can tolerate it given how easy it is to avoid inadvertently splotching it up with fingers. The same cannot be said of the right and left mouse button, which Asus still nonsensically insists on building from tacky mirror-finish chrome.
The LCD display on the U30J does trade away a bit of strength for its knife-like thinness, but it’s nowhere near as spongy and weak feeling as Sony’ Vaio Y Series. Pinching the gloss black bezel and aluminum lid apart does let you peek in on the guts around the webcam at the top of the screen, though, which feels like a fairly significant chink in its otherwise substantial armor.
Although a DVD drive sets it apart from most others in the thin-and-light category, the selection of ports on the U30Jc very closely resembles most others in that class, including three USB ports (two on the left, one on the right), HDMI and VGA out for video, an Ethernet jack, headphone and microphone jacks, and of course, a power jack. A five-in-one card reader up front rounds out the average-but-adequate view from the sides.
The U30Jc sports a typical Asus chiclet-style keyboard in a charcoal grey, with eggshell lettering and functions printed on unobtrusively in baby blue. You won’t find backlighting or any other frills, but it flexes very little and offers a quiet, comfortable typing experience that should make most owners happy to tap away on it indefinitely.
Asus really steps up its game with the touchpad, which easily ranks among the top examples in the notebook biz. Like Apple’s MacBook touchpads, it consumes a giant patch of palm rest, making it easy to flick from one corner of the screen to the opposite with one uninterrupted stroke, and supports multi-touch gestures. Recessed only a hair from the aluminum around it, the touchpad surface also sports a silky feeling that offers just the perfect amount of friction for fingers and matches the rest of the notebook style spot on. We’re not as fond of the fingerprint-collecting chrome bar below, which serves as a right-click button on end and a left-click on the other. We could almost excuse the lack of forethought for the clean look it has when it’s not all mottled up, but that’s pretty much never.
Asus has never been shy about loading up its PCs with an assortment of utilities – some useful, some not – and that’s still the case with the U30Jc. An eManual on the desktop? Great, much easier than digging out the paper version. A shortcut to eBay? Uhh, not so much. Asus Power4Gear Hybrid for switching between different power modes? Even easier to use and more comprehensive than the Windows 7 tool, but why is such an important utility buried in the Start menu while Boingo Installer gets prime desktop real estate?
The short story: Asus actually includes some cool levers and knobs, but mixes in just enough bloatware to obscure many of them. You’ll need to spend some time sifting through the Start menu, and likely deleting some debris off the desktop, to find the most useful ones.