Asus W5A Review (pics, specs)

by fsacj Reads (37,501)

by Andrew Johnson, Alaska USA

The Asus W5A has a lot going for it, and in my opinion it is one of the best looking notebooks available.  It is sleek, thin, lightweight, has a bright and shiny 12.1″ wide screen, is well built and is extremely attractive.  The added bonus of a built in web cam, Bluetooth, a slick wireless mouse and an included carry case make the W5A a good value too.

Asus W5A Above view collapsed open (view larger image)

The purchasing process for the W5A is somewhat unique because there are no options.  This makes for an extremely simple buying experience, but might not offer the options some desire.

Priced at about $1650, the W5A is configured as follows:

  • Intel Pentium M 740 (1.73GHz, 533MHz FSB, 2MB L2 cache)
  • Microsoft Windows XP Professional
  • Intel Centrino Mobile Technology with Intel 915GM Chipset
  • 12.1″ widescreen WXGA (1280×800) “Color-Shine” LCD display
  • 40GB 4200rpm hard drive
  • 512MB DDR2 400, upgradeable to 768MB
  • 802.11b/g wireless, Bluetooth , RF mouse receiver
  • 1.3M pixel web-camera
  • 3 X USB, TV-Out, Card Reader, 1394, PCMCIA
  • 4 lbs, 11.7 x 8.7 x 1.2 inches
  • Notebook bag included

Build and Design:

Asus W5A oblique angle view (view larger image)

The Asus W5A is a good looking machine.  The top is painted a slightly sparkly white, and the trim and bottom are painted silver.  There are attractive blue lights to indicate various things such as power, wireless status, and battery.

The screen hinges are well damped and do not wobble.  The screen is thin but sturdy.  It does not show ripples if you push on the back.  It also has a neat design for closing.  There is no latch, it just closes, and somehow stays closed.  I’m not sure if it’s a magnet or just in the hinge design, but I like it.  Latches always seem to be the first thing to break.

The built in 1.3 megapixel web cam can be rotated, but only one direction.  It is not “dummy proof” and seems like if someone tried to rotate it the wrong way they could cause it to break.

The fit and finish is superb, and everything feels stiff and durable.  The track pad has an exceptionally high quality look.  Only after a lot of use did I find a weak spot.  There is a lip where the palm rest area overhangs to meet up with the bottom casing, and this can be grabbed and pulled up to make some flex.  Not much though, I’m just doing my best to find problems!

My other complaint with the design is one I have with at least 90% of notebooks:  The LCD just doesn’t quite look like it fits the shape of the notebook.  The Asus W5A is worse than most here. The bezel is too thick, and it is not symmetrical.  It is very large above the screen, partially to accommodate the web cam.  I think this is something manufacturers do to achieve a smaller thickness spec, but I would prefer a slightly thicker notebook that had a smaller footprint.  I must commend Apple’s 12″ Powerbook for being a marvel in space efficiency.  Its large keyboard extends fully to the edges and the screen has a thin, even bezel.

Finally, the power brick is worth mentioning, just because it’s so small.  The ironic thing is that the coiled wires take up more space than the brick.

Asus W5A right side view (view larger image)

Asus W5A left side view (view larger image)

Asus W5A back side view (view larger image)

The web cam:

Built-in 1.3 megapixel camera/webcam (view larger image)

The built in web cam is great for taking quick snapshots directly to the computer without the hassles of wires or digital camera.  The quality is barely high enough to make OK 4×6 prints, but it’s great for emailing pictures.  It of course supports video, and is ideally positioned for video conferencing.  It can also be rotated 180 degrees to photograph something behind the screen.  Asus includes software that allows time lapse as well as video surveillance.

Heat and Noise:

Thin and light laptops seem to pay a price in the heat and noise department.  The Asus W5A gets fairly warm on the bottom, especially on the right side where the hot air exit is.  This heat drifts up through the keyboard some as well.  Also, the cooling fan seems to run constantly.  It is commendably quiet though, and seems rarely if ever to speed up.  On the positive side, the heat is concentrated away from the palm rest.

Screen:

The screen is a 12.1″ wide screen display with a widescreen movie friendly resolution of 1280×768.  That’s 25% more pixels than standard 12.1″ displays.  This is nice since 1024×768 is becoming too little to work with, but the cost is that everything looks even smaller.  Those with poor eyesight may need a larger screen to use this resolution. 

The Asus W5A uses the increasingly popular glossy type screen.  When it’s black, you can see your reflection in it, but in general it helps increase contrast and makes really rich looking blacks.  Many people complain about seeing distracting light reflections in the screen, but I find I can adjust the angle to eliminate reflections.  On a standard Matte display, bright light will always dull the screen no matter where it is.

Somewhat unique to the Asus, there are a full 16 selectable brightness levels.  Anything above halfway is good for most environments.  Level 1 is a huge jump down from 2, and even appears to turn off one of the two backlights (the left one).  It could be useful on a very dark airplane when you don’t want to wake anyone, or when maximum battery is needed.  Most of the time level one brightness won’t be useful because it’s just too dark.

The viewing angle is a bit odd.  It seems as good as the best notebooks in the horizontal direction, and worse than most for in the vertical direction.  From slightly above the image washes out rapidly.  From below, it gets dark and then colors turn negative from extreme angles.  This is especially noticeable when watching dark movies.

There is only a little subtle light leakage on the bottom of the screen.  It can only be seen if the screen is blank.

Overall the screen is very crisp and bright, with good whites, good blacks, and good saturation, at least when viewed straight on.

Speakers:

The speakers are ideally placed on the screen, so they are always pointed at the user.  Unfortunately they are not very good.  They actually get loud enough without distortion to be useful for a few people to watch a movie, but they are very tinny sounding.  While the sound is crisp, they just don’t play low enough to make voices sound very good.  They are a little worse than most laptop speakers.

Processor and performance:

Equipped with the efficient Intel Pentium M CPU running at 1.73GHz, the W5A is fairly speedy and snappy and should outperform higher clocked Pentium 4 computers.  The slow 4200rpm hard drive is a bottleneck though, at least for loading programs.  A 5400 or 7200rpm drive would have been preferred, because they truly make a noticeable difference with little to no impact on battery life. 

Another bottleneck, depending on the application, could be the 512MB of RAM.  Unfortunately this is only upgradeable to 768MB, which is more than enough for most tasks, but might limit photographers and video editors.  For most people though, 512MB is plenty.

Benchmarks:

The W5A is not aimed at gamers and would not score very high in 3D benchmarks, so I didn’t even run any.  For this notebook, general office task speed and battery life are probably more important.  The popular Super Pi  benchmark for this site gives a rough approximation how it stands up to other notebooks:

 Notebook Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits
Asus W5A (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 43s
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:  Used to measure hard drive performance.  Hard drive performance with the Asus W5A is measurably slower than notebooks with faster 5400 or 7200 rpm drives.

   Asus W5A (4200 RPM)  Dell 9300 (7200 RPM)  Gateway M460XL (5400 RPM)
Min:  12.7  17.1  17.2
Max:  28.0  39.9  37.1
Average:  21.5  28.1  27.9
Burst:  78.3  69.1  75.4

Access Time (lower is better)

 19.0  14.9  19.1

Video: 

The Intel GMA 900 graphics card will not satisfy gamers who play new games, but it is more than suitable for other tasks.  One nice feature not always found on smaller notebooks is that it can drive both the LCD and an external monitor simultaneously.  It even supports resolutions to 2048×1536.

Keyboard, touchpad and mouse:

The keyboard has great tactile feel and full sized keys.  There is only slight flex if you type like a maniac, and it shouldn’t bother most people.  It also uses the added width of the notebook to include the Home/PgUp/PgDn/End keys along the right, and the delete key is in the best place:  The far upper right.  I have to complain though because the backspace, enter, and right shift keys are too small.

The touchpad really looks cool, because it is the same finish as the rest of the notebook, and it is surrounded by sleek brushed aluminum.  It is totally flush with the palm rest, which may bother some because this makes it slightly easier to accidentally bump while typing.

Asus also includes a wireless RF optical mouse, which is really slick because the receiver is built into the notebook.  This is really handy since it frees up a USB port, and there is no receiver to forget or loose.  I enjoy laptops more because they are small and free of clutter than the fact that they are portable, and the wireless mouse gets me even closer to a completely clutter free desk.

Ports:

The port layout is really nice.  There’s a USB port on the left, right, and back.  The modem, network, Firewire, and SD flash card slot are out of the way on the left, along with the CD-RW / DVD drive.  The back also has the S-video port and the power plug.  On the right is the PC Card slot, volume control, and headphones/mic ports.  Unfortunately the VGA port is also on the right.  It would be better suited for the rear, but the battery takes up most of the space there.

Wireless:

The Asus W5A is very wireless ready, with 802.11 b/g wireless, Bluetooth, and the wireless mouse receiver that works with most popular brands.  The notebook connected to all wireless networks without a problem.

Battery:

The battery is rated at 4 hours, although I found this hard to achieve, even with their included power schemes for maximum battery saving, which drop the processor to 400MHz.  Under more normal usage and moderate screen brightness, 3 hours is easy though.  There are definitely better alternatives, and the real shame is the battery extends out the back of the notebook.

Things improved with DVD Playback, which lasted an impressive 2:20 with brightness at a bright 80% and sound all the way up.  Many notebooks battery life will be cut in half or worse when playing a DVD, but not the Asus W5A.  The may be because unlike other notebooks, the W5A is able to throttle all the way down to 400MHz when playing DVD’s.  This shows how overpowered modern computers are for normal tasks such as DVD playback.

Operating system and software:

Asus includes Windows XP Pro, and almost no “annoyware.”  The preinstalled software is limited to the Asus utilities and software for the built in camera.  Some other programs such as video editing and DVD playback software are included on separate discs.

Conclusion:

The Asus W5A is a fine small notebook, with sturdy build quality, good looks, and good performance.  It’s a good value and very portable due to its size and build quality. 

Although there are many alternatives that are worse, I am not very impressed with the battery life, especially considering it doesn’t really “fit” inside the notebook.  Also, the screen has too limited a viewing angle, so it can take constant readjusting, especially for movie viewing.


Pros:

  • Very attractive design
  • Good performance
  • Nice fit and finish
  • Good value
  • Lots of extras:  web cam, wireless mouse, carrying case, Bluetooth
  • Keyboard has good feel, but some keys are reduced to accommodate extra keys
  • Tiny power brick

Cons:

  • Screen has too narrow a vertical viewing angle
  • Battery life not as good as competing models
  • Battery extends out the back
  • Not as upgradeable or customizable as competing models.
  • Even for a small notebook, speakers could be better

Pricing and Availability

In the US the W5A is available from various independent retailers, following are three we can recommend:

There are many other commendable Asus resellers, ask around in our Asus discussion forums to find more: http://forum.notebookreview.com/forumdisplay.php?f=19


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