by Dustin Sklavos
When I picked up my HP Pavilion dv6258se early this year, around February, I bought it because I lived thirty miles from school and wanted to have a sort of portable workstation for editing video and playing the occasional game. It's a fifteen incher, big and beautiful. Mainly big.
I had no idea I'd wind up getting a job that came with an apartment on campus just a few months later. Suddenly the mobile workstation wasn't really necessary; my desktop computer was always in walking distance from class.
So I set out to find a thin-and-light or ultraportable for a reasonable price. I used to have a Sony VAIO TR2A that I still miss dearly, and I wouldn't mind something easy to cart around.
Dell's XPS M1330 would've been my first choice, but it was out of my price range. My school (UC San Diego) sells a Sony SZ series for $1,049 that I heavily considered, but I just hated the keyboard on it. Too clicky and loud, and not very comfortable. And then I saw the ASUS F9Dc on NewEgg. Specced out like crazy and for a remarkably low price ($939 with free shipping). After weighing between the known quantity - the SZ - and a notebook with very little word of mouth attached to it - the F9Dc - I splashed out and picked up the ASUS.
In many ways the gamble paid off. In others...not so much. The F9Dc is much like an Ewok. It's small, adorable, but can only be enjoyed for about two hours, when the movie (battery) ends (dies).
There's a lot of computer here for under a grand, and it performs like it. I bought an additional 1GB stick of DDR2 and brought it up to 2GB maybe days after I received the notebook. For the price, a corner had to get cut somewhere, and the memory seems to have been it, but at least ASUS was graceful enough to leave a slot free to make it easy to upgrade to dual channel.
Oh, and by the way...
Goodies! (view large image)
It comes with a Targus carrying case and a Logitech USB notebook mouse! Nice inclusions that really spruce up the notebook and push the value for the price way over the edge.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The build is simultaneously pleasing and disappointing. While certainly the notebook is fairly attractive (I'm sick to death of gray and black, I really am), the size of the body and the bezel around the screen really detracts from the "thin and light" nature of the unit itself. Without the webcam, it probably could've fit a 13.3" screen without much trouble.
Other than that, I find the black with silver accents to be fairly pleasing if unremarkable. It's not an eye-popper, but it's not at all unpleasant to look at.
ASUS F9Dc-A1 glamour shot. (view large image)
The build quality of it as a whole is very solid with three exceptions:
1. I'm going to start referring to these as "ASUS hinges." I had an A8Jm not too long ago that had the same loose hinges that resulted in some wobble for the screen. While these are still pretty tight, they're definitely looser than I'm used to.
2. The 6-cell battery sticks halfway out the back of the unit. For a standard battery, this is almost inexcusable and really messes with the aesthetics. Not only that, it just makes me generally nervous. For what it's worth, though, it's fairly snug and locks in well.
3. The optical drive's bezel slants down and is a bit loose (as these often are). This is something you should probably just avoid gripping the computer by.
Past these, the notebook is very solidly built.
One thing that's really cool about it is the way the entire bottom panel comes off.
The belly of the beast. (view large image)
From here you can access, well, just about everything - including the processor. VERY cool. Makes you wonder why ASUS doesn't sell these as whitebox units.
Glossy and beautiful. (view large image)
It seems like every review of a notebook screen is "my screen is gorgeous! Best I've ever seen!" I've used more than a few notebooks, and I can tell you that the screen on the F9Dc is not noteworthy. It's beautiful, with solid contrast and excellent brightness levels. Sparkling is virtually non-existent. Viewing angles are a little tricky, at least vertically, but that really does pretty much come with the territory as far as modern notebooks go.
Truthfully this was a major concern of mine in picking up this notebook. My last ASUS was the A8Jm and that had a HORRIBLE screen. Nasty viewing angles, dull colors, low brightness, and terribly sparkling. How anyone could've found that screen appealing was beyond me. So when I powered on my F9Dc, I was relieved to see it didn't share the former notebook's problems in this department.
Speakers are built into the screen bezel. (view large image)
Let's be realistic here. It's a 12.1" notebook, and the speakers are built into the screen bezel. How do you think they sound?
They're tinny with no bass. Just use the headphone jack.
PROCESSOR AND PERFORMANCE
I'm not gonna lie to you, AMD isn't winning any awards for performance right now, and the dedicated graphics are 64MB above the weakest you can buy in a modern laptop without going integrated.
That said, a 1.8 GHz dual core is still a 1.8 GHz dual core. The 128MB GeForce 8400M G is a surprisingly capable part for being so stripped down; I was able to push Unreal Tournament 3 at 1024x640 at medium detail very playably, which really just comments on how powerful modern hardware actually is. You're not gonna be playing Crysis on it, but if you run Bioshock on low settings (the only game in this year's spat of AAA titles actually worth playing for an extended period of time) you'll be alright.
The 3DMark06 score is about 1,100, and the GPU really does perform fairly admirably on older titles. Doom 3 runs playably at 1024x640 Medium, I maxed out Guild Wars with a little AA (which means WoW players should totally be in the clear and pretty happy with themselves).
For media work like what I do, well...honestly, a thin-and-light with a 12.1" screen probably isn't ideal, but for what it's worth it performs just fine for that as well.
KEYBOARD AND TOUCHPAD
Attractive, yet functional. (view large image)
Not much needs to really be said about the touchpad, it's actually one of my favorite parts of the notebook. Very easy to use, and the buttons are an attractive sort of brushed aluminum.
The keyboard, on the other hand, is gonna make or break it for some of you. There's no flex, but the keys feel a bit small and cramped compared to other notebooks I've used, and the way the entire keyboard is recessed into the notebook...it's not HUGELY different from how other notebooks are, but it's different enough and something about the experience just seems off. It's something you can get used to pretty quickly and easily and it won't make you rip your hair out in clumps like the keyboards Sony uses on their notebooks, but it's not on par with the keyboards I've used on HP's notebooks, let alone something like a Thinkpad.
INPUT AND OUTPUT PORTS
Left side: VGA, HDMI, vent, USB port, memory card reader, and ExpressCard. (view large image)
Right side: DVD-RAM drive, optical/headphone jack, mic jack, phone jack, gigabit ethernet jack. (view large image)
Rear: 2x USB, AC power jack, Kensington Lock (view large image)
There are no ports on any other faces of the notebook.
The HDMI port is a nice inclusion that's really gaining popularity as of late, and was one of the reasons I picked up the notebook. HDMI port and a USB TV tuner with Windows Vista...hop skip and a jump from a media center you can take with you. Sounds good to me.
There's a major omission that doesn't sit well with me, though, and that's the lack of a FireWire port. I get the sense these are starting to be phased out, but I still use FireWire pretty regularly and to not have it here...well, don't assume every notebook has one. For most people it won't matter, but without an eSATA port FireWire is still the best choice for external hard drives.
Other than that, the placement of the ports is actually really nice, and having the vent on the left side is only going to piss off those diabolical lefties, so I approve. The USB port on the front left is actually really convenient, and should just as well have been marked "flash drives go here."
Wireless switch. (view large image)
Honestly, this kind of connectivity in a sub-$1000 notebook is a nice find. While it doesn't include wireless-n, I can't be the only one out here who isn't noticing a real penetration of N anyhow.
I'm also happy to see the wireless chipset used here is Atheros instead of Broadcom. While Broadcom is usually plenty functional, driver availability has always been really hit and miss.
I haven't personally used the bluetooth connectivity, but I appreciate its inclusion. Bluetooth is one of those fancy new-fangled technologies I haven't gotten on board with or played with, but for the rest of you it's gonna be a nice find.
BATTERY AND HEAT
Heat is surprisingly good for a notebook this size with this much power. While the AMD chip isn't doing us any favors, the unit dissipates heat remarkably well though the underside can get nice and toasty.
The battery life, however, is straight up criminal. I can peak at a little over two hours with wireless on and brightness two steps above darkest (which is still plenty readable, actually). But for a notebook with a tiny screen, portable processor, and a low-powered GPU, a two hour battery life off of six cells is not acceptable.
The whole point of a four pound notebook is being able to be off the cable. The damn battery juts out the back and still, here are your two hours sir, thank you, come again.
OPERATING SYSTEM AND SOFTWARE
So it comes with Windows Vista Home Premium and little in the way of crapware - always one of the nice things about ASUS notebooks. Comes with their Power4Gear software, which is VERY nice, and has a good UI for all of the functions.
So. Windows Vista Home Premium. Would it surprise you after my two articles about my hatred for it to learn I've come around to it?
This computer - once upgraded to 2GB of RAM - actually handles pretty well under Vista. Well, provided you kill Sidebar and disable UAC. But I have few complaints with Vista here. Runs well, performance isn't the atrocity it was when Vista just came out.
I did do a clean install of Home Premium using the key that came with the notebook, though, just out of habit really. But yeah, not bad at all.
CUSTOMER SERVICE AND SUPPORT
This is kind of a mixed bag. My experience with ASUS has generally been positive on this front; when I lived in Northern California and was a hop skip and a jump away from their office in Fremont, you could actually straight up drive out there, drop off your notebook (in this case my old A8Jm), kill some time at Fry's, and then come back and pick it up same day. They even called me repeatedly to make sure they were fixing it to my specs. AWESOME.
The F9Dc also comes with a one year accidental damage warranty on top of two years standard parts and labor. At this price, that's incredibly good, and I think it speaks well for them.
On the other hand, driver availability for the F9Dc on their site is strangely...not so good. Vista only and minimal support there. Disappointing.
For regular customer service, though, I've been really happy with ASUS.
If the battery life is something you think you can live with, then honestly, this notebook really is a steal. I know it sounds like I've kvetched a lot about the unit, but it's a very solid machine. If my classes this quarter hadn't almost universally banned laptop use (barbarians!) I might've actually picked up one of those one-size-fits-all batteries to cover that. I may still.
The important thing is that it's powerful and versatile, and is really a hell of a lot of bang for the buck.
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