by Aaron Crist, Tennessee USA
Overview and Introduction
Upon commencing my search for a laptop a little over one month ago, I had no idea how difficult the process would be and how overwhelming it would sometimes feel. Unlike desktops, which are pretty straightforward, one has seemingly endless choices when choosing which laptop is the most suitable for themselves. Do you want a desktop replacement? Ultra-portability? Big screen? Small screen? The list goes on and on and it began to feel like every day my list of possible notebooks was growing, not shrinking. It was especially difficult for myself, a third year college student, because I will be spending the first semester abroad and not necessarily a short drive from a computer store should something go wrong. Eventually, for a myriad of reasons, I settled for the Asus Z63A (or W3A as Asus officially calls it, not to be confused with the more expensive Asus W3V). The Z63A is not an ultra-portable, but definitely falls into the “thin and light” category. At 5.5lbs, it is light enough to tote around, but its 14″ screen size means you don’t have to go blind trying to read the text.
Asus Z63a (view larger image)
Before I go any further, here are the specs for the laptop:
- 1.8Ghz Pentium M
- 1GB PC4200 Kingston RAM
- 80GB 5400RPM Fujitsu MHT2080AH Harddrive
- 14″ Screen with glossy coating
- 8X DVD Burner with Dual Layer capability
- Integrated Video Card
- Windows XP Pro with SP2
Reasons for Buying
While I used a desktop for my first two years in college and liked the speed and relative inexpensiveness of the upgrades, I was forced to buy a laptop since I will be going abroad and cannot lug my Antec case and 21″ CRT (my poor back) across the Atlantic Ocean. I wanted something that would not feel too terribly slow (I had this vision that all laptops were inferior machines to desktops) and would be small/light enough to carry to the local coffee shop to type up a term paper. I felt 15.4″ and bigger laptops were immediately out of the question since they just felt too bulky and big, and settled on something in the 12-14″ range. I fell in love with the X/True/Clear-brite screens, so it had to have one of those along with a widescreen form factor (I like the extra screen real estate and the full-size keyboard). That narrowed it down to a few options, namely the Asus Z63A, W3V, Sony S460, and then HP/Compaq’s and Toshiba’s 14″ laptops. I went with the Z63A because it was the best value and the closest thing to a perfect laptop for myself, and I hope that this review will maybe show you that same thing, or at least prevent you from buying a laptop you will not like.
Where and How Purchased
As I made extensive use of the great forum community at both notebookreview.com and notebookforums.com, I paid attention whenever they recommended an Asus reseller. There were a few names that kept popping up over and over, and one of them was Eddie, owner of Geared2Play.com (G2P). They had the cheapest price for what I was looking for, and since they only charge tax for NY residents, I also could avoid paying a pretty hefty sales tax fee. I went online and customized my laptop using their straightforward drop-down menus. The only thing I ordered separately was 1 stick of 1GB ram from ZipZoomFly, since I felt I could install it myself and the price difference was enough for me to do it at home rather than pay the premium for G2P to put it in. The total for my laptop came out to be about $1350, and that was before the nice 2% discount one can get for being a student. Add in the $100 for the RAM, and I am looking at less than $1450 for a fully featured laptop. The service at G2P is nothing short of spectacular, with the owner, Eddie, constantly on the forums, AIM, etc. He would respond to my emails within a few hours and is extremely nice. I highly recommend the store to anyone who is looking at buying an Asus notebook.
Also, I am not sure if this is an Asus deal or something that varies reseller by reseller, but G2P included a wireless Logitech optical mouse and a nice Asus laptop bag.
Free Logitech wireless mouse included!
Build and Design
Asus Z63a front view (view larger image)
Back view (larger image)
Z63a Underside (view larger image)
This is one of the areas where the Z63A really shines. While some may like the brushed-metal look of the W3V better, the minimalist look along with the off-white/pearl-white battery looks stunning. When my family members and friends saw this laptop, they couldn’t help but ogle it and remark that it looked “better than even the Sony laptops,” and “as good as a Mac.” Heady praise indeed. 🙂 If I had to condense how it looks into one word, it would be “sleek.” This is definitely a laptop that will turn people’s heads and cause them to remark “who made that?” From the magnetic lid (no latch…similar to the Sony S series) to the brushed silver touchpad buttons, this laptop just looks high class.
In my quest for a laptop, I ran the gamut of manufacturers, and was constantly going to CompUSA and Office Depot to look at how the laptops of each of the big companies were built. While the 14″ laptops of HP/Compaq and Toshiba were pretty disappointing in their build quality (large amounts of flex and the screen felt very flimsy), Sony’s 13.3″ S460/S360 felt very sturdy and looked sleek to boot. The only other manufacturer that I can comment about is Dell, as my Dad has a 14″ Inspiron 1100. While this beast is heavy and slow (Celeron processor, ugh), it is built very well. However, I have not used the more recent Dells, so I cannot comment on their current build quality. Thus, with these comparisons in mind, I can safely say that the Z63A ranks right up there with Sony, and even surpasses it in a lot of areas. The keyboard has no flex, the screen feels very sturdy (you can push on the back without the telltale “ripples” appearing on the screen). While the laptop is quite thin, it just feels strong, and I do not have to worry whether it will fall apart if I bump it. My only complaint is the seemingly poor choices Asus made when it came to cooling and airflow (more on that later).
When looking for a laptop, one of the key factors was the screen, especially after I had witnessed the beauty of the latest crop of True/X/Clear-Brite glossy screens that are quite ubiquitous at your local CompUSA or Office Depot. While some passionately claim that the matte screen is better due to fewer issues with glare, I wholeheartedly feel that the glossy screen is the way to go. The colors are amazingly vibrant, and staring at this Word document with a white background and full brightness is almost painful because the screen can get so bright. I have yet to have any issues with glare, and I feel that any I may have in the future is a small price to pay for the vivid colors. Watching Quicktime HD movie trailers is nothing short of stunning, and it really has to be seen to be believed.
Additionally, there are no dead pixels, and there does not seem to be any backlighting issues, although I won’t pretend to be an expert on this. Basically, it looks better than the CRT’s I have owned, and even better than my family’s Planar 19″ LCD.
After reading some threads started by W3V owners who complained about the weak sound output by the laptop, I had consigned myself to the fact that I would probably have to find some USB soundcard in order to power my headphones. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I tested out the sound on the Z63A. Granted, sound output from the built-in speakers is quite weak (poorer than my Dad’s Dell) and sounds tinny, but the output via headphones is very, very good. I think the excellent sound quality is largely due to the Intel HD audio chip that is on the motherboard. So whether the soundchip is different on the W3A/Z63A and W3V or whether it was an issue that was fixed, I do not know. What does matter is that the sound quality/power when using headphones is more than adequate, while using the built-in speakers does leave much to be desired.
Processor and Performance
The only two real systems I have used a lot of prior to buying this laptop was my Dad’s Inspiron 1100 (Celeron 2GHz, 512MB Ram) and our desktop (AMD 2400+, 768MB Ram). The Z63A feels faster than the desktop, without a doubt. While the harddrive is only 5400RPM compared to 7200RPM on the desktop (thus making some tasks like unzipping large files a little slower), the processor is blazing fast when running at 1.8GHz. Also, the 1GB of RAM makes loading programs nearly instantaneous, and altogether it feels like I have a faster computer than the desktop I was replacing; something which I hadn’t really expected. Even though I usually run the processor at 800mhz to save on battery life and keep the heat low, it is more than enough horsepower for my day-to-day iTunes/Firefox/Email/Word use.
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Asus Z63a (1.80GHz Pentium M)||1m 48s|
|Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)||1m 53s|
|IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Pentium M) ||1m 45s|
|Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Pentium M)||1m 48s|
|Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Pentium M)||1m 52s|
|Dell Inspiron 600M (1.6 GHz Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|Sony VAIO S360 (1.7 GHz Pentium M)||1m 57s|
|Sony VAIO S170P (1.5 GHz Pentium M)||2m 07s|
|Sony VAIO S380 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)||1m|
PC Marks: 3178
HD Tune Benchmarks
|Test||IBM ThinkPad X32||Asus Z63a (Fujitsu MHT2080AH HD)|
|Minimum Transfer Rate||11.9 MB/sec||16.7 MB/sec|
|Maximum Transfer Rate||34.6 MB/sec||34.1 MB/sec|
|Average Transfer Rate||38.1 MB/sec||27.6 MB/sec|
|Access Time||17.7 ms||18.4 ms|
|Burst Rate||67.5 MB/sec||62.8 MB/sec|
Keyboard and Touchpad
One of the reasons I decided to go with a 14″ widescreen laptop was the fact that they pretty much all have a full size keyboard. Since this will be my only computer and I am a student, I needed something that I can type with for long periods of time without feeling hampered by a tiny keyboard. The keyboard on the Z63A is stellar, with no flex whatsoever, and the size of the keys is perfect. I have not had any problem typing on it compared to the keyboard that our desktop currently uses, and I don’t foresee any problems using this keyboard to finish that term paper at 4:00 AM on the day it is due. One little quibble is that some genius at Asus decided that not only should the FN and CTRL keys be switched (FN on the outside, CTRL one from the left), but it should be hard-wired into the laptop so the user cannot use any program to switch the key configuration.
While this apparently makes the keyboard unusable for some people, I am all but used to it now, and it does not bother me anymore.
The touchpad is quite good, and feels solidly constructed. It looks very nice as well, and the little scroll-sensor used to scroll down web pages comes in extremely handy.
Input and Output
The notebook comes equipped with the usual gamut of outputs and connections. Below is the official list:
- 3 x USB 2.0 ports — Nice to see instead of only 2 that some manufacturers use
- 1 x VGA port/Mini D-sub 15-pin for external monitor
- 1 x IEEE 1394 port
- 1 x Card Reader — Unfortunately, no CompactFlash reader
- 1 x 32-bit PC CardBus 1.0 architecture
- 2 x Audio jack: Audio out (SPIDIF) /Mic-in
- 1 x Type II PCMCIA slot
- 1 x RJ11 connector fro Modem
- 1 x RJ45 connector for Ethernet
- 1 x TV-out (S-Video) — Nice for when you want to hook it up to a TV
Right side ports
Left side ports
The wireless reception on the laptop is very good, and it allows me to log onto our home network (Netgear router) without a hitch. In fact, the reception is stronger than the PCMCIA wireless card we use in the Dell laptop, so that was pleasantly surprising. Unfortunately, there is no built-in Bluetooth, but I don’t have any BT devices, so that was not an issue for me.
I will admit that I was pretty apprehensive about the battery life on the Z63A after hearing that it could barely go over 3 hours. While this may not seem too shabby, I was hoping for a bit more. However, with sensible management of the processor speed (I recommend downloading Centrino Hardware Control instead of Asus’ PowerGear software as it is much more robust), and a little less brightness in the screen, one can easily surpass 3 hours and even get about 4.5 hours or more.
Along with the second battery I got for $95, this will be more than enough for my computing sessions away from a wall outlet.
OS and Software
In order to save some money I decided to buy the operating system myself, so the notebook came without one. It did come with a CD which included an OEM copy of Nero Burning Rom. Also, there were a few CD’s filled with various Asus utilities and programs, but since I preferred my own media players and such, I didn’t even bother to install them.
While I have yet to need any sort of technical assistance or customer service (knock on wood), if my past interactions with Eddie at Geared2Play are any indication, I am in good hands. As for Asus’ technical support, I know even less. My only run-in with them was a year or two back when I called to get some help with one of their motherboards.
Heat. Without a doubt, this is the one weak spot of the laptop. Hey, you weren’t expecting it to be perfect, were you? One of the reasons (besides price) I steered away from the Sony S series was the heat people kept complaining about. After feeling it in the store, I also agreed that it was a little too much. Thus, after not hearing many complaints about heat in the W3V/Z63A line, I felt pretty good. However, the heat can be pretty annoying. It is not a deal breaker, and while it will probably make your leg sweat if you have it in your lap, it is not painful or anything. The heat on the right palmrest is not bad, and it only gets mildly warm. It is underneath where things really heat up. In the front-middle portion of the underside, there is the spot for the harddive. Whether due to poor cooling or some other factor, this area gets really, really hot.
I have the laptop on my lap, and I am listening to some music in iTunes while typing this in Word, and Centrino Hardware Control pegs the heat of the harddive at 50C! When lowering the processor speed to 800MHz, it may go down a few degrees, but not much. The CPU is only like 45C at that point, so that is not a problem. I wouldn’t really mind the heat if it were not for the fact that the harddive’s max operating temp is 50-55C. With Centrino Hardware Control set at the default of warning you if the temp goes past 55C, it is very worrying to see that little popup saying “Warning, Temperature past 55C” when you are only installing programs or defragging the harddrive.
I love this laptop, I really do. And I can wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone except those that are picky or sensitive when it comes to the heat issue. If you felt the Sony S series was too hot, then you probably won’t like this laptop any better. However, if you are going to be using this on desks, tables, and other non-human surfaces most of the time (i.e. your legs), then the heat won’t be an issue unless it shortens the lifespan of the harddrive. Aside from that one issue I say that this laptop has got it all: beautiful looks, nice battery life, amazing performance, and all in a small, compact package.