Overview and Introduction
This review concerns the ASUS A8Fm which is a budget thin and light notebook computer. It is aimed at students and home users on a budget. Basic specification is as follows:
- Processor: Intel Core Duo T2250 (1.73Ghz, 2MB Cache)
- Memory: 1024MB DDR2-533 RAM
- Hard Drive: 120GB 5400RPM Hard Drive
- Screen: 14.1” WXGA 1280×768 Glare Type Screen
- Graphics: Intel GMA950 Graphics Accelerator
- Optical Drive: DVD Super-Multi Writer
- Wireless: 802.11a/b/g wireless networking, Internal Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR
- Networking: Gigabit LAN
- Camera: 0.3MP (VGA) integrated webcam
- Battery:6 cell 3200mAh (4.5hr) battery
- 4-in-1 memory card reader
- OS: Windows XP Media Centre Edition
- Dimensions: 335 x 245 x 34.8~37.3 mm (13.1” x 9.7” x 1.37”~1.47”)
- Weight: 2.39kg (5.25lbs)
- Accessories: Asus Travel Bag, Wired Optical Mouse
- Software: Numerous Asus utilities, plus Cyberlink PowerDVD and MS Works Suite.
Asus A3F notebook (view large image)
Reasons for Buying
This laptop is a replacement for my girlfriend’s Dell Inspiron 9400 17-inch system. She bought this back in summer 2006 without consulting me and hence wound up with a system totally unsuitable for her needs. The Dell had a great battery life for its size and the specification was sufficient for her needs (basic office use, internet, messaging, music). This time, I lent a hand on the replacement and decided a comparable specification to the Dell at a lower price and size would be just the ticket.
Asus A8F on top of Acer 5021 notebook (view large image)
Having looked in bricks & mortar stores at physical sizes, she settled on 14.1” as the ideal choice and one I consider to be the ideal fusion of screen size and portability.
Next we looked at brands and I was keen to avoid Acer (I own one and am not particularly enamoured with it) and Dell (she dislikes the design). Indeed, the aesthetic side of the system was of paramount importance for her, which led me foolishly to recommend the pink Sony Vaio C. This was a system she fell in love with, but at nearly 900 it was expensive for what it offered. The other system I recommended was the Samsung R20 which at less than 500 has excellent specifications and design. Knowing her penchant for treating technology badly however, the gloss black lid was unlikely to stay perky for long. Having read about Asus systems here on the forums, I was keen to look into them further. To cut a long story short, the Asus A8F was within budget and met all requirements
Included mouse accessory (view large image)
Where and How Purchased
The system was purchased for 580 including shipping from http://www.laptopsdirect.co.uk/ which is a site I have used before for a friend’s system and was very pleased. This was the best deal I could find, and is one of only a few Asus resellers in the UK.
Build & Design
Asus A8F top view (view large image)
As I mentioned earlier, the design of the notebook was critical (fortunately my girlfriend’s aesthetic considerations do not extend to her choice in men). Although the Asus A8F is very plain, it manages to look attractive and understated. Understated being another word for “dull”, which is fine as far as this price bracket goes. The construction is all plastic, yet seems fairly sturdy. Versus my Acer 5021 it seems substantially more rigid and better constructed, though this may be due to the smaller chassis. The weight is very reasonable at 2.4kg and due to the form factor is easy to carry. I find this is a superior arrangement than the heavier 15.4” notebooks so prevalent today. The hinges are sturdy and the base of the system must be held with one hand in order to open the lid; there is very little wobble when the screen is open. There is some flex in the screen frame but I find that this situation very rarely occurs in everyday usage. The plastic used in construction is of a decent quality with a good finish, especially on the lid which fortunately does not collect fingerprints easily. The notebook as a whole is slightly thicker than I would prefer, giving it a somewhat bulky look from some angles. This is exacerbated by the bevelling on the edge of the lid. Some points I’d like to make regarding the design here are as follows:
- Narrow gloss black border surrounding screen apparently improves screen visibility.
- Black Asus logo beneath screen is less distracting than silver found on many other systems.
- Hotkeys/multimedia keys are poorly positioned beneath the screen and are hard to press and locate.
- LEDs for power, wireless and Bluetooth are on edge of palmrest allowing visibility when screen is closed.
Asus A8F next to Acer Aspire 5021 (view large image)
A flaw I would like to mention is the opening mechanism for the screen, which involves a tiny, recessed switch that requires a lot of fiddling to actually open the lid. A similar problem occurs with the optical drive.
Underside of Asus A8F (view large image)
Lord of the Rings on Asus A8F screen (view large image)
The screen is a glare type which is commonplace on consumer notebooks these days; you either like them or loathe them. I prefer the matte look, but accept the greater contrast is nice in some conditions. The resolution is a standard 1280×800 which is a nice resolution on this size of screen. Fortunately there are no dead pixels and I found the screen as a whole to be a step up from those on Acer laptops. Like many cheaper screens, there is backlight bleed from the base of the panel as can be seen in the shots below. This is only really noticeable when viewing a very dark or black image however so in everyday use does not pose much of an issue. The main problem with the panel in this system is the backlight control: there are 16 steps but they are not evenly spaced in anyway. It appears that 3 steps are virtually identical then a large jump to the next step. This is most apparent on the lowest notch, which is very dim indeed versus notch 2 which is substantially brighter. I would go as far to say that the lowest brightness is unusable in all but the darkest environments. Viewing angles are standard for a glossy screen, with colours quickly fading in the vertical. The situation is better horizontally. The integrated webcam is acceptable for use with instant messengers and the like, being of VGA quality. It is very unobtrusive in the screen bezel, which I much prefer to showy designs.
The sound, as on almost all laptops, is poor from the speakers and lacks any bass. The vocals however are clear and would suffice for when some background music is required. The line out is on the left side of the system, which I find to be a superior location than on the front. Through high quality headphones, the integrated audio sounds acceptable with a fairly low noise floor. An external sound card would be recommended for those with higher demands however.
Processor and Performance
The specification on this system is at the low end of the spectrum, but the dual core processor ensures all standard operations are done with acceptable speed and little lag. Out of the box boot time was around 55 seconds to the desktop, with another 5 seconds for all tray programs to be loaded. After I tweaked the system by removing obvious bloatware, that time was reduced to 42s and 45s respectively. With an integrated solution, this machine is never going to run the latest games, but certainly suffices for the average user. Unfortunately the GMA950 graphics borrow some main system memory resulting in 980MB of usable RAM. This does not seem to impact performance so far however, with the system coping with all (admittedly tame) tasks I have thrown at it. The great thing about dual core is the lack of application hanging. Coming from my single core processor, being able to run a virus scan and still have a usable system is a great improvement. The 5400rpm hard drive is also a big improvement over the 4200rpm I use: this may be one of the biggest improvements a user could make to their end experience. The crux of the issue with this laptop is that it performs with sufficient speed to appear fast to the end user, despite the fact it lags behind in benchmarks. The intangible “snappiness” of a system is hard to define, though this A8F certainly has it.
PCMark05 Benchmark results
PCMark05 is a synthetic benchmark tool that measures overall system performance. Here is the score the Asus A8F received and a comparison to other notebooks:
|Asus A8F (Intel Core Duo 1.73GHz, Intel GMA 950)||2,804 PCMarks|
|HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270)||2,420 PCMarks|
|Toshiba Satellite A135 (Core Duo T2250, Intel GMA 950)||3,027 PCMarks|
|HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)||4,234 PCMarks|
|Fujitsu LifeBook A6010 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo, Intel GMA 950)||2,994 PCMarks|
|Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)||3,637 PCMarks|
|Toshiba Tecra M6 (1.66GHz Intel T2300E, Intel GMA 950)||2,732 PCMarks|
|Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400)||3,646 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo)||3,427 PCMarks|
HDTune Benchmark Results
HDTune measures the hard drive performance of a system. Below are the results when run agains the 5400RPM hard drive in the A8F:
(view large image)
Heat and Noise
From my perspective this is one of the main strengths of this system. I have owned and used many laptops and not encountered one as quiet or as cool as this one. The fan has 4 levels (off, slow, medium, fast) with only the last one being particularly intrusive. The base stays cool, with only the area underneath the hard drive generating any heat at all. Even after a 2 hour Orthos stress-test, the system was cool. Nevertheless, having seen the benefits of undervolting on my own system, I decided to do this on the Asus. I attained stable voltages of 0.950V and 1.000V for the 6x to 13x multipliers down from 1.262V stock for both (unusual I know). Here is some data regarding temperatures before and after undervolting using a 20 minute run of Orthos:
|@800Mhz||Before undervolting:||58-degrees||After undervolting:||37-degrees|
|@1700Mhz||Before undervolting:||64-degrees||After undervolting:||48-degrees|
As you can see, this a substantial improvement, and given the stability of the undervolts I fail to see why anybody would not do this on their own system.
Running on battery power and writing this review, the system’s fan remained off for the entire duration – the system was so quiet I could hear the CPU fan spin up and down. Similar activities on AC power resulted in the fan spinning at the low setting.
I would also like to note that the optical drive is incredibly quiet both when reading and writing a disk.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard is acceptable, though not spectacular. It has the dreaded fn/ctrl key swap (fn in the bottom left) however this would only be a problem initially I imagine. There is slight flex around the WASD keys on the left, but nothing major compared to other vendor’s systems. Keyboards are a very subjective piece of equipment so it is difficult to comment objectively, but for my money I disliked typing on it. I found it slightly spongy, if that is the correct terminology. I discovered I had to press quiet firmly on the keys for them to register but this may be a symptom of the newness. On the plus side, the keyboard is very quiet indeed. For most users the keyboard will be fine and I am probably being quite harsh in my judgement.
The touchpad was definitely a negative for this system to me. It is one of the flush designs with only a slight gap around the perimeter to separate it from the wristrest. The buttons are directly below, and consists of what essentially amounts to a rocker switch. Press the left of the bar for a left click, and the right for right click. Unfortunately it is very difficult to know which button you are going to press or indeed, if you press any button at all. Separate buttons and a more defined touchpad would be an improvement.
Input and Output Ports
Asus A8F right side view on top of Acer 5020 notebook (view large image)
Asus A8F left side view on top of Acer 5021 notebook (view large image)
The A8F has a decent number of ports. On the left (front to back) we have headphone (SPDIF), microphone, firewire , USB and finally the optical drive. On the back we have power, modem/Ethernet/VGA/S-Video and 2xUSB. On the right we have another 2xUSB, centrally located. The location of the USB ports is somewhat unusual but provides decent scope for your peripherals since there are 5 of them. I am not sure right handed mouse users will enjoy their location, nor the air vent at the right side. The ExpressCard ensures compatibility for future cards. The optical drive is fairly standard by all accounts, the only notable features being its silence and Lightscribe abilities. The card reader works fine, however has a poor design. I actually got my MemoryStick stuck in the slot since the cards are literally consumed in the space. A knife was my eventual solution in getting the card out though this may because I was using a ProDuo to full-size adaptor. If you use memory cards frequently, this may be a problem for you.
The notebook comes with built in a/b/g Intel wireless and performs very well on my home network – nothing unusual to report. Bluetooth is provided by Toshiba and also works without incident with my Sony Ericsson K800i.
This is the other main strength of this system (along with heat/noise) and combined with the weight makes the A8F an excellent budget orientated travel companion.
There is no definitive way to measure battery life due to the variations in each user’s specific needs, but here are some times I took. I used brightness’s that were just sufficient for the operations performed. I am not entirely sure why having wireless off has so little effect:
|Notebook settings and usage||Resulting Battery life|
|Wireless On + Brightness 2/16 + Word/Internet||3 hours 57 minutes|
|Wireless On + Brightness 2/16 + Word/Internet||3 hours 27 minutes|
|Wireless Off + Brightness 8/16 + DVD (Return of The King)||2 hours 45 minutes|
|Wireless Off + Brightness 2/16 + Word/Internet||4 hours 27 minutes|
The AC adaptor is the smallest I have seen, and is very light. This makes travelling with it very easy indeed. It is about the size of a small mobile phone, and about twice as thick.
Operating System and Software
My girlfriend was neutral over XP vs Vista, but my own research told me that to get similar performance using Vista requires better specifications and thus higher cost. Thus XP was chosen, with MCE being the only available option from the retailer. Asus includes a recovery partition in addition to a destructive restore disk. Software installed is minimal, with Symantec & Nero being the only notable ones. However, there was a plethora of processes on start-up (over 70!) using over 700MB in commit charge. Naturally, I pruned these down to a much more respectable 30, with a commit charge of 300MB. I also uninstalled Symantec and installed AVG for virus scanning. Microsoft Works 8.5 is included on CD, leaving the user to decide whether to install it or not. I found this useful since I prefer to use Office 2003.
I have no experience with tech support at this time (obviously due to the short ownership time). No extended warranty was purchased.
The Asus A8F is an excellent choice for people on a relatively tight budget looking for a portable system to do general office tasks. Power users and gamers should avoid it, as should those looking for something to carry around constantly. This notebook computer is most comfortable with general computing tasks and flies through them all without a hitch. The long battery life and silence make it the perfect choice for students looking to work in a lecture or in the library. The included Asus carry bag and optical mouse are nice touches for first time users. There are certainly cheaper options for this specification, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.
- Relatively lightweight
- Good battery life (4.5hrs)
- Good build quality
- Integrated webcam
- Virtually silent operation
- Cool running
- Annoying touchpad design
- Fiddly screen opening mechanism
- Relatively expensive for specification
- Poor card-reader design