Want a thin and light notebook that really is thin and light - and really is a notebook, rather than a netbook with a larger keyboard and screen? With a 13-inch screen and a Core i5 processor in a fingerprint-proof chassis that's less than 20mm thick (and only 1.65kg even with an 8 cell battery), the Asus U36j looks like an ultraportable that actually delivers. But with new processors on the horizon, is it little enough but too late?
The style of the U36J is best described as business-like basic black; the looks is utilitarian, with angles that are there to raise the keyboard at the right angle or protect the screen rather than make a design statement. The lid is matte black, as are the case, keyboard surround and keys, which makes the glossy black strip around the shiny gloss screen even more out of place (and annoyingly reflective). Asus promises that it has a “nanometer coating” that will stop the U36J turning into a fingerprint magnet.
More importantly, thin as it is, there's no flex at all on the magnesium-aluminium chassis and little on the thin screen - even the relatively slender hinges that lift the screen away from the main body of the laptop (for cooling, and to put the screen at a better height) are robust. The slope of the chassis and the projection on the base of the battery life the keyboard and give it a reasonable typing angle. It is slightly worrying to see the motherboard through the ventilation grilles on the bottom though; beware damp surfaces.
Unlike the otherwise similar Toshiba Portege R705, the U36J doesn't have an optical drive (but the Portege doesn't have discrete Nvidia graphics). Even without an optical drive, the vents to keep the chassis cool and the stereo speaker grilles along the front don't leave space for many ports, although you get what you really need, including separate headphone and microphone sockets and an SD Card slot. Annoyingly, the power and gigabit Ethernet ports are on different sides of the case; if you use both you'll have cables dangling on both sides. It's always good to see both VGA and HDMI, and one of the three USB ports is SuperSpeed USB 3.0, although the positioning isn't as convenient as it could be (it's easy to mistake the HDMI port for the USB port next to it), probably because of the design demands of the cooling.
The keyboard is the now-common isolated chiclet style, with rounded keys; the layout and spacing is reasonable but wastes half an inch at either side for no obvious reason - we'd rather have more space between the keytops as the spacing, size and rather stiff feel make this less comfortable and accurate for typing than other recent keyboards. We do like the layout of secondary keys though; the inverted-T arrow keys fit neatly between the over-sized Enter key and the standard, logical Asus vertical strip of Home, End, Page Up and Page Down. Having the arrow keys double as the media player controls works well, but the other secondary keys are also the usual Asus splatter of control functions on almost every key, putting the mute and volume keys a long way from pause and play. There are the usual dual power buttons above the keyboard; one for turning Windows on and off, the other for launching the fast-boot ExpressGate environment or switching power modes, which will confuse anyone who hasn't used an Asus before.
The touchpad is also matte black (though with a slightly different colour and feel to the rest of the case); the matte surface means the pointer doesn't leap about all over the place and in fact it's not always quite as responsive as you might like, especially for multitouch gestures like pinch-zoom, rotate and two-finger scroll. For once the three-finger tap to open the application of your choice works, but we had to press so hard to make the three-finger swipe work it wasn't really comfortable - and the touchpad is a little small for more than two fingers anyway.
The rocker switch for the single button has quite a firm action as well but Asus makes excellent use of the usual dead space in the centre for a fingerprint scanner. As soon as you start typing passwords into webpages the software for this pops up, offering to remembering passwords and lock them to your thumb or fingerprint; this means you can use longer and more secure passwords without having to remember them (unless you use another PC of course) and it's nice to see this on a machine that will suit business travellers. The U36J also comes with the usual array of Asus utilities and software (and the ubiquitous Office Start and Windows Live, this time paired with Trend Micro anti-virus).
Display and performance
The 13.3-inch 16:9 aspect ratio screen is glossy enough to have reflections, but not so glossy we'd complain about it; the 1366 x 768 resolution is standard for this size of screen and it's a reasonable bright, crisp and colourful screen but colours could be more vivid and the contrast in darker areas isn't that good. Horizontal viewing angles are excellent, but colours fade out as soon as you push the screen back from the vertical by even a few degrees. The discrete Nvdia graphics switch in and out automatically as required and streaming video at 1080 and 720p is smooth, with clear detail and no artefacts or interruptions. The sound doesn't match that though; volume is on the quiet side, there's little bass and not much clarity or definition to the audio. You'll enjoy videos without complaining about the soundtrack but you won't be using this as your music system. The GeForce 310M also means you can play mainstream games at a medium detail level, which is what we'd expect on an ultraportable system.
Think of the U36J as a mainstream workhorse of a laptop that just happens to be thin and light, rather than a multimedia performer. We're used to seeing Asus's clock speed switching utility on Atom netbooks, where it lets you choose between battery life and better performance for media; here it's paired with a 2.6MHz Core i5 M480 which is a mainstream processor we've been seeing in other 13-inch laptops, but here it's in the kind of ultra-thin lightweight case that used to mean an ultra-low-voltage (AKA slower) notebook instead.
To avoid running down the battery too fast - or heating up the case too much - the Super Hybrid engine utility lets you turn on some aggressive power savings (like disabling the Aero theme, turning off the webcam and USB 3.0 port and throttling the maximum processor speed). We'd suggest experimenting with this to see whether it actually improves your battery life because we didn't see a significant advantage (and with the Optimus integration of the Nvidia GeForce 310M graphics card turning it on and off when programs can get the most benefit from it, you may prefer less complicated power management). The 6-second wait in front of a black screen as the system switches power modes is also offputting to say the least.
If you want to get Asus's suggested 10 hours of battery life, you'll be turning off the Wi-Fi, turning down the screen brightness and tweaking the power settings; but if you leave everything on full power and medium brightness you can be using Wi-Fi continuously for 4 to 5 hours (as with all switchable graphics systems, exactly how long depends on how efficiently programs use the GPU for graphics or hardware acceleration).
Asus has already given the U36J a slight bump in spec, from the Core i5 460M to the 480M (and from 3GB to 4GB of memory). That's not the same as upgrading it to a second generation Sandy Bridge processor but so far those are showing up in 15-inch systems so we wouldn't count this as immediately out of date (and initially at least we're expecting Sandy Bridge to put a price premium on otherwise equivalent specs). Ultraportable alternatives like the IdeaPad U260 rarely have even a Core i5 processor, let alone a decent graphics card, the U36J is only slightly larger and heavier than much less powerful systems; and it doesn't have the sealed battery and poor battery life of the otherwise similar Dell Vostro 130.
Given how powerful the U36J is and how good the battery life is, it seems churlish to speculate about what a different processor might offer when you can have a notebook that's truly portable with very few drawbacks.