by Kwok Wong, Canada
First laptops are always tricky things to decide on. You can take weeks or even months (or in my case close to a year) to decide to purchase a laptop you’ve already been eyeing for a while. Though in the end, spending a great amount of time thinking about a suitable laptop for your needs is always a wise move. My final decision was based upon my course of study in school, travel requirements, and most importantly my budget. Thus the journey ended with my choice of the ultraportable Asus M5N.
The Asus M5n, no dead pixels yet (larger image)
This review will likely help you if you’ve already decided upon an ultraportable type laptop or “sub-notebook”. Also, if you’re seeking information about the new ASUS Z33a, this is the place to find it. The M5N and Z33a, differ only slightly, and are in fact the same laptops with one having a newer generation processor.
Front (larger image)
Left side (larger image)
Right side (view larger image)
Top (larger image)
Back (larger image)
The unit I purchased was a basic setup; essentially this simply meant as low as the computer shop would go in terms of hardware (and price). The M5N I purchased arrived at the shop as a barebones unit. After an hour of installation the laptop was loaded with the following:
- a 1.7Ghz Centrino processor (the 1.6Ghz has apparently been discontinued)
- 256MB of Micro-SODIMM ram
- 40GB Hard Drive
- Windows XP SP2 operating system
The above additions (except for the ram) are the only things you’ll need to add to a barebones setup to get it running. The laptop also came with a number of software and driver CDs, and a nice messenger bag.
Other internal hardware and features include an Intel Pro/wireless 2000BG connection, button for Power4 Gear Technology to vary power use and processor speed, Kensington lock hole, built-in microphone, internal DVD/CD-RW, standard 2 hour battery, 3 USB 2.0 ports, 1 IEEE 1394, SD/MMC/MS/MSPRO card reader, one PCMCIA 2.1 card slot, a VGA connection for monitors, one LAN and phone line jack, as well as a nice touchpad. All of these features are included in a laptop weighing about 3 pounds (very light), measuring 10.8 x 9.25 x 1.17 inches, with a 12.1″ screen, and 1024×738 maximum resolution. Further in the review I’ll go into more detail on the more important features and specifications.
In the end the final price for the laptop was $1500 Canadian after some good old fashioned haggling with the store owner. For a laptop this small and with as much power as it has, I thought this was a great price.
Style and Design
The Asus M5n compared to a banana, the laptop is about the size of a regular notebook (view larger image)
This laptop is very sturdy, which is to be expected for a notebook of this type that is directed at the travel user. Though it is light, that does not mean it’s flimsy and indeed is strong enough for me to comfortably and confidently carry in one hand. The LCD protection from the lid seems strong as well; I wasn’t able to push my finger into it and create large ripples like other screens.
As a no-frills type of person I took an instant liking to the simplistic design of this laptop. It is an extremely clean design with subtle hints of ingenuity packed in. To start off, the touchpad is integrated smoothly into the covering before the keyboard. There are no indentations in the laptop in or around the pad and the palm rest is not raised unseemly over the touchpad. The best word I can use to describe it is “flat”, though a picture would make my point more clear.
From the picture you can also see the touchpad mouse buttons integrated just as smoothly, and when pressing in the right spot they are incredibly silent.
The keyboard is also well designed, the keys are well placed and took me only a few minutes to get used to, they are also whisper quiet, though watch out for the spacebar.
Suitability; with students in mind
The Asus M5n on campus (view larger image)
Make no mistake this laptop is small, and as such does not have many of the features and advancements as models in the same price range that are larger. However, processor speed and a computer’s graphics card should not be all you are considering when purchasing a laptop, although it’s always fun to be able to play a nostalgic 3D game while in lecture I know. And yes, older games such as “Halo” are all you will be able to play comfortably with this type of laptop.
However, if you are simply a student needing a computer for school, this just might be the right personal computer for you. It is small and light, and fits wonderfully into an assortment of backpacks, even with a protective sleeve surrounding it. With this laptop you will want to buy some sort of protection to protect its glosssy covering. Below you can see the scratch on the lower right corner that resulted from my hesitation to spend an extra $30 on a sleeve. The popular Shinza line of sleeves will fit this laptop, however with the 9-cell battery a larger sleeve would be necessary.
The M5n with a sleeve by Alexxatech
The standard 2 hour battery will not be enough though for those long days and lectures, especially when you have wireless access enabled. The 9-cell battery is a must if you are planning on toting it around campus. Additional caveats include the issue of fan noise while using the laptop. It is incredibly loud for a laptop this size and no matter where you sit you will get those obligatory half-turns from people in rows below you in a lecture hall. There is a solution to this problem, there are numerous free programs which allow you to control fan speed and thus the sound it emits. And there is a balance that you can strike with these programs that allows you to trickle the fan down to a mere whisper while not compromising the CPU. However, the long term consequences of using this program on my laptop remain to be seen. The final annoyance with this computer is the lack of an external volume control, for those times when you startup the laptop in the middle of class and forget to turn off the sound beforehand…and the Windows XP startup sound chimes (and your face goes red as everyone turns to look). If you’re quick you can plug in a set of earbuds to somewhat mute the noise…or just disable the startup sound in Windows!
Aside from these hindrances to using the laptop as a university student, it is a wonderful computer to be able to tote around. With its diminutive size and weight it is easy to carry it in a backpack with a few textbooks. At 1.7GHz, the speed is more than enough word processing, powerpoint slides, and anything else academically related.
One caveat though, if you are in a course requiring the use of spreadsheets such as Statistics, a widescreen laptop would probably be preferable. The Dell 700m is one such laptop that retains many of the features and qualities of the M5N but with a wider screen.
I also recently entered the wonderful hobby of photography, and the laptop is more than enough for image processing, specifically using Photoshop for tasks such as colour correction. However beware of opening more than a hundred photos at the same time…as your M5N will likely slow to a crawl and your only option will be to use CTRL-ALT-DELETE to end the program.
The standard battery for the M5N is horrible in terms of longevity. It will not be enough even for the most conservative user. With the LCD at a comfortable brightness and wireless internet access enabled the battery will likely last less than an hour. To get around this problem sacrificing the wireless (i.e. disabling it with the Fn key) and lowering the LCD’s brightness (also with the Fn key) will probably get you those promised 2 hours of life and a bit more. An additional step to be taken is to manually lower the processor speed via the power-saving or Power4 Gear button located on the top left of the keyboard. If spending a few dollars on one of the other 2 optional batteries isn’t feasible the previous steps will hopefully hold you over, but make sure to carry the AC adapter when you do take the laptop out.
However the AC adapter itself does have a problem of its own, with the extra prong for grounding, finding a suitable power outlet is a bit of a problem. However the 9-cell, 6 hour battery would likely rectify this problem.
The three-pronged power adapter
Battery life may be the most important aspects of a laptop in terms of portability; there is little use in a state-of-the-art laptop if it can’t live up to the true purpose of a portable PC and can’t live off a battery for more than an hour. Asus tries to rectify this problem by implementing its Power4 Gear technology into the M5N. With a press of the button a picture pops up on the LCD that corresponds with the profile of applications you with to run. Essentially you control the processor speed with this technology. On the lowest setting (the figure of a man), processor speed slows down, the LCD turns to a lower brightness, and the battery indicator displays 2 hours as promised by Asus. On higher settings (level 3 is as high as you can go on battery power) the battery is quickly drained as the processor speeds up and LCD brightens up. With any of these profiles you still retain the ability to modify the laptops settings.
The Power4 Gear button
Power4 Gear settings
Charging the battery is quick and fast…at least when the laptop is turned off. A half hour of charging is more than enough for the stock battery. Be prepared to wait though if you plan on using the laptop while it is charging, as it takes significantly longer.
Take note, the M5N does not have the same precautions as other laptops regarding switching from AC to battery power while the laptop is still turned on. In fact, the Power4 Gear technology lowers CPU speed itself when it detects the switch to battery power; conversely it also raises CPU speed when AC power is detected.
Of course all your problems will disappear if you decide to invest in the optional 9-cell battery, simply lowering the LCD brightness a few notches will give you 7 hours of computing fun, more than enough for a day of use at school for myself.
With the Asus M5N you get a host of well placed ports that would satisfy the average user. Indented beside every port of the computer are words and figures for identification.
For starters, you get the AC adapter connection, small and unobtrusively located on the rear of the laptops body, aesthetically located below the right LCD support. Opposite from it, located below the left LCD support, is the firewire port, the only one, but enough for the PC user.
The firewire port
There are 3 USB 2.0 ports accompanying the laptop, one located on the left, near the front of the laptop; perfect for easily plugging in my mp3 player, and for any lefties that want to use a wired mouse. Adjacent to it are the PCM and SD/MMC card readers. The 2 card reader ports also come with plastic dummy cards to protect the interior of the ports.
The PCMCIA slot and SD/MMC card reader
Between the 2 card readers and the standard Ethernet and phone line ports (located near the rear of the laptop) is the stock combo CD-RW/DVD drive.
The Ethernet and phone line jacks, and DVD/CD-RW combo drive
Located on the right side of the laptop is another selection of various useful ports, ideally placed for most users. Nearest the front of the laptop are located the headphone output and mic input ports. Going towards the rear, is the grill for the output of the fan, the 2 remaining USB 2.0 ports and the CRT output port. Lastly the Kensington lock hole is located at the rear-right corner.
Headphone and mic output, and fan grill
2 USB 2.0 ports, CRT output, Kensington lock hole
The one glaring omission that might be expected for this type of laptop, ports-wise, is the S-Video Out port. However, most users will not miss this option, and if necessary a converter for the CRT port could be supplemented to make up for the lack of S-Video Out.
The underside of the Asus M5N
In terms upgrading possibilities, this is a category where the laptop, when compared to other similar types, could do better.
Upgrading the ram in most laptops should be a breeze, push a stick of SO-DIMM in and you’re well on your way to a slightly better-performing laptop. Depending on where you acquire your ram this should not be a pricey task. However the M5N uses a rarely used and relatively expensive type of ram, micro sodimm. It is likely that you will have to get a store to put in an order for you as they would likely not have this type of ram on hand.
If you do decide to upgrade the ram, to a specified maximum of 768MB, the processor up to 2.0 GHz, or the hard drive, doing so is a cinch via the panels on the laptops underside.
Worthy of Mention
The touchpad with its creative design is also highly configurable. With the provided Synaptics software, the touchpad can be programmed so that specific sections of the pad can be tapped to launch any program you like or you can choose from a host of other functions. You can also choose to have the mouse move “off-pad” so that on-screen the mouse continues to move even though you’ve reached the end of the pad. In addition you can choose to scroll horizontally and vertically with the pad as well. The one problem I have noticed is that the pad gets oily quickly and should be wiped down regularly to prevent an unseemly and shiny sheen. Wipes typically used for glasses is effective for this task.
The 9-cell optional battery is a god-send. It is more than I need for a day of in-class use; however it is a monster in terms of size. However it can still fit in my regular school backpack and my sleeve as well.
Batteries, standard towards the bottom, 9-cell at the top
The speakers are nice and loud and are located unobtrusively near the underside of the laptop. Though at their highest volumes the quality is severely degraded, and you get a feeling that you have wax in you ears…
Super Pi Results
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Asus M5n (1.7GHz Pentium M)||2m 02s|
|Dell Latitude X1 (1.1 GHz ULV Pentium M)||2m 40s|
|IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 45s|
|Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 48s|
|IBM ThinkPad T41 (1.6GHz Banias Pentium M)||2m 23s|
|Compaq R3000T (Celeron 2.8GHz)||3m 3s|
|Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|IBM ThinkPad X41 (1.50 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||2m 02s|
HD Tune Results
|IBM X32 ||Asus M5n|
|Minimum Transfer Rate ||11.9 MB/sec ||0.4 MB/sec|
|Maximum Transfer Rate ||34.6 MB/sec ||29.8 MB/sec|
|Average Transfer Rate ||38.1 MB/sec ||18.9 MB/sec|
|Access Time ||17.7 ms ||40.4 ms|
|Burst Rate ||67.5 MB/sec ||22.3 MB/sec|
|CPU Usage ||5.8% ||11.8%|
|IBM X32 (1.60GHz)||Asus M5n (1.7GHz)||Dell Latitude X1|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / File Compression||3.07 MB/s ||3.2 MB/s||2.0 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / File Encryption||23.30 MB/s ||24.5 MB/s||16.26 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / File Decompression||20.71 MB/s ||21.6 MB/s||14.43 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Processing||9.58 MPixels/s ||10.0 MPixels/s||6.5 MPixels/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Virus Scanning||1550.60 MB/s ||1437.5 MB/s||1309.7 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Grammar Check||2.37 KB/s ||2.6 KB/s||1.79 KB/s|
|File Decryption||47.11 MB/s ||49.3 MB/s||32.66 MB/s|
|Audio Conversion||2160.95 KB/s ||2297.3 KB/s||1495.55 KB/s|
|Web Page Rendering||4.57 Pages/s ||4.6 Pages/s||3.39 Pages/s|
|DivX Video Compression||42.83 FPS ||40.3 FPS||78.81 FPS|
|Physics Calculation and 3D||31.43 FPS ||60.7 FPS||65.05 FPS|
|Graphics Memory – 64 Lines||232.16 FPS ||241.1 FPS||374.57 FPS|
|Futuremark 3DMark05 Scores|
|3DMark Score||NA ||119 3DMarks||NA|
|CPU Score||2478 CPUMarks||2668 CPUMarks||NA|
- poor stock battery life (2 hours with the LCD brightness at its lowest and wireless turned off)
- poor upgradeability
- gloss easily rubs off if not cared for properly
- oily residue possible if touchpad is not cleaned regularly
- no S-Video
- limited card reader
- substantial fan noise (most important, but fixable)
- much heavier and bulkier with 9-cell battery
For students or frequent commuters that require a modestly priced portable personal computer, the M5N is the sub-notebook to choose. I have been extremely pleased with it and thus far any issues that have popped up have only been minor annoyances that have been solved to my satisfaction. It is light, relatively powerful and indispensable (I carry it to school everyday).
Purchase info and Availability: