(Click through the pictures to get to a Flickr set with larger versions. You may want to keep that page open in a second tab for ease of reference.)
The basic specs of the ASUS X5EAE is bog-standard, but it seems to have the best of its class for the price, as we will see. It runs an Athlon II 2.1 GHz dual-core processor that should provide enough oomph for any standard computing tasks. Though not essential, it definitely helps to have a dual-core chip if you plan on multitasking. And most people do, with typical use mandating a web browser, media player and maybe text editor open simultaneously. 3GB RAM is provided, a decent amount for the included 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium. Some computers have only 2GB, but I prefer 3-4 GB for smoother operations.
The 15.6" LCD panel has back-lit LED technology and runs at WXGA resolution (1366 x 768). This is the 16:9 "cinema standard", optimised for watching DVDs. Personally I think that's all it is good for. 1024 vertical pixels is preferable for reading documents and web pages. But good luck finding anything other than 16:9 in this market sector. This is a compromise I grudgingly had to make.
Entry-level computers depend on graphics chips on the motherboard, as opposed to separate dedicated cards. Those running Intel processors are stuck with under-powered Intel graphics. One of the advantages of an AMD processor is that you can get one paired with the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4200, optimised for HD video decoding (watching 1080p is no problem) and perfectly decent for gaming. It supports DirectX 10.1 and will run newer games on modest settings. Apparently older titles (Half Life 2, say) are capable of maximum resolution. (I have not tested this yet.)
After unpacking, this is what you find: the computer itself, AC adapter and battery -- small these days, aren't they?
The manual is minimal, without even enough information to qualify as a Getting Started guide, which is a shame. Newbies deserve more of a helping hand. There is also a warranty card, driver disk and cable tie (huh?).
The first thing one must do is put in the battery. The bottom of the computer has an easy-access panel for this in the lower-left, as well as a second screw-access panel, presumably for the hard drive and RAM. The two-part power adapter has a handy long cord. Plug this in and wait until the computer is fully charged before turning it on. I am not too sure how to tell when it is fully charged, so I simply left it over-night. It is prudent to keep the computer plugged in through the initial boot up and configuration process. There are some steps at which losing power would be rather calamitous. (Why doesn't the manual at least give these little tips?)
Let's have a look at the rest of the physical unit while waiting. On the right-hand side we have mic in socket; headphone out socket; two USB 2.0 ports; a standard VGA port (15-pin D-sub) for connection to an external monitor or projector; an RJ-45 LAN port (Ethernet) to connect to your home network; the DC power input.
On the left-hand side are two more USB 2.0 ports; a flash memory card slot (Alcor AU6433 unit), compatible with SD, MMC, MS and variants; the DVD rewriter (TSSTcorp make).
The rear of the computer has a Kensington lock port, for physically securing your computer; an HDMI port for connecting to your digital TV or gaming thingie; air vents, which you should not block, unless you want your computer to go all melty.
The front of the computer is very minimal, which I appreciate. The speakers are on the lower side. Having these placed on the front makes a lot of sense, but do not expect anything listenable from them. You can also see three small lights: hard drive activity, power and WIFI. And finally, on the bezel above the screen there is a 1.3 megapixel video camera (Chicony make).
How does this stack up against the competition? In the rush to cut costs, the Lenovo G555 has only 2GB of RAM, 3 USB ports, no HDMI and no memory card slot. The Acer Aspire 5732Z lacks HDMI and has only 2 USB ports. While HDMI is a non-issue for me, I can't see working without an SD slot, but then again I have about four devices that use them. Carrying around a mix of USB cables for file transfer is for the birds.
This generation of laptops are missing the expansion possibilities of an ExpressCard or PCMCIA slot and have no FireWire. This makes them impossible to use in several industry applications. For example I have a FireWire digital audio interface and so would have to purchase a different class of machine, at significantly higher cost. But my daughter will never miss these extras. However, this computer has no BlueTooth, which would be handy for mobile phone transfers, and no gigabit Ethernet, which would certainly help the more connected youth of today. And aren't they all?
The overall design is very clean, free of those extraneous buttons and lights I hate. The build is solid. The finish is a glossy black that is visually appealing but not so practical (fingerprints). ASUS has an "IceCool Palm Rest" which is marketing speak for keeping the area near the touch-pad, where your hand sits, cooler than the rest of the computer. Marketing aside, this is a clever and desirable feature -- laptop burns are so passé.
The X5EAE is about the same size as other computers and, at 2.8kg, about the same weight. It has rounded corners -- woop! The "Chocolate Keyboard" apparently won a reddot design award (so says a sticker) and is certainly nice to use. I miss having larger Enter and Delete keys but like the full cursor pad. I have no idea why it should win an award, but it's certainly nicer than some. The truth will be known after a year of use.
The two-button textured touch-pad (Elantech make) feels nice and is a lot better made than some fragile counterparts. But the buttons are very clicky. And the response is a bit slow, though no doubt that can be fixed in Control Panel. More interesting, it supports certain gestures: tap with two fingers to double-click, tap with three to right click, drag with two to scroll. Space-age!
The 320GB Western Digital hard drive is thoughtfully divided into a C partition for the operating system and applications and an empty D drive for data. There is also a hidden recovery partition that can be accessed during boot-up to fix a toasted install. Bravo for this intelligent solution!
The ASUS has the expected 802.11 b/g/n WIFI (Atheros chipset) which has worked perfectly in my usage so far. This is not a given; we have an older ASUS in the house that has rubbish wireless connectivity.
The computer comes with a one year warranty, standard in this market segment. You can find "support" from ASUS, even though there is no mention of the unit anywhere else on their website. However, such support consists only of the same manual and drivers that you already have on the provided disk.
You will be happy to hear that the two big stickers come off easily, leaving no residue. I have not tampered with the two smaller ones, since these are likely more trouble.
The ASUS X5EAE-SX047V cost €520 delivered, which included a bonus laptop bag (decent) and a cheap-ass mouse. It is highly recommended based on its spec, build, aesthetics and initial usability tests. However, it is a bloat-ware monster. In my next article I will discuss what apps I removed and added, plus provide some simple benchmark info.