Asus Z96j Review (pics, specs)

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Asus Z96J Review

Overview and Introduction

With money saved over several years and leftover scholarship awards, I spent a good portion of the summer researching laptops. Personally, I wanted a relatively portable, quiet, powerful, and cool laptop within the 14″ to 15.4″ range. The laptop will be used for moderate gaming, web surfing, music, word processing and whatever apps biomedical engineering throws at me. Core 2 Duo (Merom) support was also another requirement for my notebook. At the same time, I aimed to minimize the costs as much as possible, establishing my spending limit as no more than $1,500 after tax and shipping. As a result, I was left to choose among the HP nc8430, Acer Aspire 5672, Apple Macbook Pro and the Asus z96j. All of these laptops had Core Duo processors, ATi x1600 graphics cards and 15.4″ screens.


Asus Z96J (view large image)

Reasons for Buying:

My laptop would have to last throughout my four years at the University of California, Davis. But after a visit to CompUSA, the Acer Aspire 5672 and Macbook Pro were no longer a viable option due to their respective heat issues. Following difficulties in purchasing the HP nc8430 from a private online reseller, I opted for the Asus z96j as the remaining choice.

Where and How Purchased:

I bought a barebones z96j and Core Duo T2500 processor (2.00 GHz) from Ken at www.gentechpc.com. I was actually referred to this site by several of my friends who also purchased the z96j and s96j. They all praised the excellent customer service Ken provided. However, due to my limited contact with Ken, I cannot provide any meaningful information about GenTech Computer’s service.


Notebook and packaging as sent by GenTech PC (view large image)

The hard drive, DVD burner and RAM were purchased from www.newegg.com while the Intel 3495abg wireless card was purchased from www.amazon.com . I had Ken install the processor and apply AS5 thermal paste on the processor (to help it run cooler) while I installed the hard drive, DVD burner, RAM and wireless card.


Memory, hard drive and DVD burner purchased from NewEgg.com (view large image)

My Z96j specifications are as follows:

  • Intel Core Duo T2500 (2.00 GHz)
  • ATi x1600 256mb
  • 15.4″ SXGA
  • 100 GB Hitachi Travelstar 5,400 OEM HD
  • 1024mb OCZ DDR2-667 RAM
  • 8x DVD+RW Samsung OEM
  • Intel 3945 802.1abg Wireless Card
  • Built-in Camera and microphone
  • Bluetooth
  • No OS

The total came to $1,342.46. However, I paid $1,462.31 after shipping and California tax. At the time of purchase, $18 in mail-in rebates were also available. A free carrying bag was also included.

First Impressions:

My z96j took one week to arrive at my door. I thought it was ridiculous that it took 3 days for GenTech PC to install only a processor. My friends who purchased fully configured Asus s96js and z96js from GenTech PC claimed that their laptops shipped within the same day!

 
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Regardless, UPS was prompt to deliver my new notebook intact. Upon opening the box, I found all the proper documentation and CDs. As requested, Ken included all the screws and brackets for the hard drive and optical drive.

I took off the back panel to inspect the notebook to disassemble and admire its cooling system. I wasn’t satisfied with the messy manner in which the AS5 was applied, especially since it took so long. As a result, I took the liberty of reapplying AS5 and spreading it on the processor die with a credit card. At the same time, I also removed the thermal pad affixed to the GPU and applied AS5. I left the thermal pads on the VRAM since I figured the memory wouldn’t produce much heat anyways. But overall, I felt that the quality of labor that GenTechPC put into installing the CPU did not meet my expectations set forth by their reputation.

 
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Since I purchased a barebones notebook, the hard drive, optical drive, RAM and wireless card were the responsibility of the end-user. Installing the HD was fairly easy as it only involved securing the drive into its caddy. Installing the brackets on the optical drive was a little tricky due to the small size of the screws. Putting in RAM was self-explanatory as it clicked in with ease. Two small screws were also included to secure the wireless card to the notebook. Remember to attach the two antennas to the wireless card too!

In conclusion, anyone with a modicum amount of experience with desktop hardware could manage putting a barebones s96j or z96j together.

After installing the components, I slid the laptop battery into place and plugged it into the AC. While charging, I noticed that the touchpad started to heat up a little. This was the first sign of trouble noted in the Heat and Noise section of this review.

Screen:

The price difference between the s96j and the z96j is completely justified by the 1680×1050 SXGA screen. Personally, I find this resolution perfect for word processing and web surfing. Some may find the resolution too small for daily usage, but this can be remedied by increasing the DPI. The glossy screen complements the high resolution of the screen as colors seem brighter and more vibrant. I did not notice much glare with the screen, but you will see your reflection when it’s powered off. There are zero dead pixels on my laptop screen. The dead pixel policy for GenTechPC requires 5 pixels for an exchange. Gentechpc also honors Asus’s zero bright pixel policy.

Graininess. To be honest, the z96j does have the graininess “issue” — where certain shades of grey and white have a grainy appearance. From my understanding, this is common a problem plaguing most laptops with the ATi x1600 graphics card. As for the cause of this issue, there is much debate regarding the culprit of the graininess, ranging from the ATi drivers to the actual LCD. The graininess issue is usually visible under two conditions: viewing angle and colored display. When viewing the screen from a vertical angle, the graininess can be seen on off-white colors. Under these circumstances, the graininess creates a “brushed metal” effect for these colors. No graininess is visible when viewing from horizontal directions. But overall, it is difficult to notice when viewing the screen head-on. (You’d actually have to have your nose touching the screen to see the graininess from a head-on viewing angle).

Speakers:

The speakers on the z96j are mediocre at best. Bass is non-existent. The volume on the z96j is disappointing and quiet. Fortunately, there is no distortion in sound quality as you increase the volume with the z96j. But then again, the volume doesn’t really go that high anyways. Headphones or external speakers function just fine.

I am not that picky about sound. Actually, I would prefer the underpowered speakers to avoid annoying my roommates.

On the other hand, the webcam worked with the drivers. Picture quality isn’t very good and it cannot swivel 180 degrees like other notebooks. For the most part, the webcam is a mere novelty item.

Processor and Performance:

Despite the recent release of Core 2 Duo, I have no regret in settling for the Core Duo T2500. The z96j can be upgraded to Core 2 Duo with a bios flash.

 
WoW screenshot on Z96j (view large image)
 
Warcraft 3 screenshot on Z96j (view large image)
 
CS:S video stress test (view large image)
 
CS:S screen shot on Z96j (view large image)

As a mid-range gaming notebook, the x1600 performs amiably as shown in its ability to run CS:S and WoW comfortably at native resolution. Warcraft III will run at native resolution through a registry hack.

CPUz Screen shots:

 
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Benchmarks:

Scoring a respectable 1min 19sec in SuperPi, the T2500 is still a powerful processor. The z96j benchmark scores are within the range for other similarly configured notebooks. This system was configured with Windows XP Pro SP2 and Omega Drivers v.3.8.273. Dynamic switching and hard drive audio management were enabled through Notebook Hardware Control.

Super Pi Comparison Results (calculating Pi to 2 million digits of accuracy)

Notebook

Time

Asus Z96j (2.0 GHz Intel T2500)

1m 19s

Asus W3H760DD (2.0 GHz Pentium M)

1m 33s

Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.0GHz Core Duo)

1m 16s

Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)

1m 18s

Toshiba Satellite M100 (2.00GHz Core Duo)

1m 18s

Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo)

1m 29s

Dell XPS M140 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)

1m 41s

Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)

1m 53s

IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)

1m 45s

 

PCMark05 Benchmark:

HD — XP Startup

5.717 MB/s

Physics and 3D

167.86 fps

Transparent Windows

180.189 fps

3D — Pixel Shader

84.990 fps

Web Page Rendering

3.072 pages/s

File Decryption

49.848 MB/s

Graphics Memory — 64 Lines

1027.991 fps

HDD — General Usage

3.895 MB/s

Text edit

102.815 pages/s

Image Decompression

23.721 MPixels/s

File Compression

7.101 MB/s

File Encryption

19.043 MB/s

HDD — Virus Scan

26.482 MB/s

Memory Latency — Random 16 MB

9.096 MAccesses/s

 

3DMark05 Results and comparison:

Notebook  3DMark 05 Results

Asus Z96j (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)

 3,843 3D Marks
Apple MacBook Pro (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB)  2866 3D Marks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60 Nvidia GeForce Go7800 GTX)  7,078 3DMarks
ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz, ATI X300 64MB graphics)  727 3DMarks
 Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI Radeon Mobility x700 128 MB)  2,530 3D Marks
 Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)  2,273 3DMarks
 HP dv4000 (1.86GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)  2,536 3D Marks
 Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)  4,157 3DMarks



3DMark06 Results and comparison:

Notebook  3DMark 06 Results

Asus Z96j (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)

 1,735 3D Marks
Apple MacBook Pro (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB  1,528 3D Marks
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)  794 3DMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60 Nvidia GeForce Go7800GTX)  4,085 3DMarks
 Asus A6J (1.83GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB)  1,819 3D Marks

 


Heat and Noise:

Similar to the s96j, cooling in the z96j is handled by a single fan. The CPU and GPU have their own heat sinks and follow separate paths to the fan. The vent for this fan is located on the back right of the notebook. When under battery power, the fan remains off and no air is blown out of the vent. When plugged in, the fan is very quiet and cannot be heard. In fact, under typical usage, the speakers will drown out any sound from the fan. The fan only becomes a slightly audible as it spins faster to expel heat while gaming.


Cooling system of the Z96j (view large image)

The CPU has an idle temperature of 52 degrees Celsius. The hard drive has an idle temperature of 42 degrees Celsius. Under load, the CPU increased up to 65 degrees and the hard drive up to 47 degrees. While I do not recommend using this notebook on the lap, it is bearable and not uncomfortable. The temperatures were taken using Notebook Hardware Control with AS5 on the CPU and undervolted to 1.100v.


Screen shot of temperatures recorded by Notebook Hardware Control program (view large image)

I was somewhat disappointed with the z96j in terms of the detectable heat it produced. As expected, the left palm rest gets warm because of the hard drive underneath. The right palm rest is warmer than the left palm rest and increases with CPU load. Generally, the heat around the palm rests is tolerable.

During my research of the z96j, I did not see any complaints regarding the touchpad. But much to my chagrin, I found the touchpad to be very warm, even warmer than the palm rests. I am willing to vouch that the touchpad and the surrounding area gets as warm as the touchpad found on the Acer Aspire 5672, which is notorious for heat issues! I believe the Northbridge / Southbridge and poor ventilation in that area are to blame since the CPU and GPU are directly below the keyboard. Nonetheless, the heat has not affected the performance of this laptop.

Keyboard and Touchpad:


Asus Z96J keyboard and touchpad (view large image)

Similar to the speakers, the keyboard and touchpad are only mediocre. The keyboard does not have any flex. But like many Asus notebooks, the position of the Ctrl and Fn keys are switched. It is also physically impossible to remap the Fn key since it uses a different voltage compared to other keys. But my main problem with the keyboard is the noise. The keyboard produces a rattling sound, which conveys a sense of “cheapness” in its quality. Otherwise, the keyboard performs its function just fine.

The touchpad is responsive and easy to manipulate. The right side of the touchpad is marked off to serve as a scrolling wheel. Similar to the keyboard, the clickers on the touchpad are noisy and convey a sense of “cheapness” in quality. The loud clicking noise can be muffled by pressing the top right corner on the left click and top left corner of the right click. This isn’t so much an issue for me since I prefer to tap the actual pad on the touchpad to simulate a left click or take advantage of an external usb mouse.

Input and Output Ports:


Asus Z96J left side view (view large image)


Asus Z96J right side view (view large image)

The z96j has a unique configuration where the optical drive and hard drive caddy are located on the left side while the input/output ports are located on the right. The placement of the ports on the right side poses the potential problem of interfering with the mouse.


Back view of Asus Z96J (view large image)

There are two USB ports on the back of the laptop next to the battery and vent.


Asus Z96J front view (view large image)

Headphone, mic jack, and SD card reader are on the front.


Bottom view of Asus Z96j (view large image)

Wireless:


Intel wireless card secured in place (view large image)

The Intel 3495 wireless card from www.amazon.com installed without any issues. The drivers CD provided by Intel allowed me to connect to my wireless network. The integrated Bluetooth was a little more difficult to configure since Windows XP had issues recognizing Asus’s drivers.

Battery:

With Notebook Hardware Control’s maximum battery profile, 50% brightness, Wi-Fi on and Bluetooth off, the z96j barely passes 2hr 30 minute with its 6-cell battery. Supposedly, a battery life of around 3:30hr can be achieved with Wi-Fi off and 30% brightness. But under those settings, I only managed to get another 30 minutes of battery life. A 9 cell battery is available upon request from online vendors when configuring the z96j. With the 9 cell, the z96j achieves a battery life of roughly 5 hours. However, I did not opt for this upgrade since it sticks out the back of the notebook and adds unwanted weight.


Battery results for screen at 50% brightness and Wi-Fi on (view large image)


Battery results for screen at 30% brightness and Wi-Fi off (view large image)

Operating System and Software:

My z96j did not ship with any OS. Consequently, I was forced to load my own operating systems.

Originally, I installed Windows Vista Beta 2 (Build 5384). The actual installation process was a lengthy 1 hour and 2 minutes. Performance was decent but not good. Counter-Strike Source only ran at 25 fps with ATi’s Catalyst Beta 2 drivers while on Windows XP, Counter-Strike Source ran at 45 fps under the same conditions. Windows was very good with detecting and installing the proper drivers for most of the components of the laptop. However, I was not able to get the webcam, microphone and Bluetooth to function. In addition, I had issues running World of Warcraft. All the nice eye candy such as Aero works fine with the z96j. PF usage for Windows Vista while idling was an unacceptable 673mb. Hopefully, this will improve with the pending public release of RC1.

As a result, I reformatted with Windows XP Pro SP2 for the purposes of this review. Compared to Vista, Windows XP Pro installed in less than 30 minutes, including the time it took to do a quick format of my hard drive. The barebones z96j includes Asus’s multimedia software and a drivers CD. The OEM DVD burner I purchased included a copy of Nero 6 suite. Since this is essentially a self-built notebook, there is zero bloatware.

Customer Support:

The z96j is not part of the VBI (verified by Intel) program. As a result, the one year warranty is handled by the reseller instead of Asus or Intel. In this case, GenTech PC would be responsible for the warranty for the barebones laptop. Based on the numerous praises for Ken and Gen Tech PC, customer service shouldn’t be an issue. Yet, given the inherent hassle with negotiating with online vendors, I desperately hope that I will never have to resort to the reseller’s warranty. I also probably voided my warranty with GenTech PC by applying my own AS5 on the CPU and GPU.

The warranties for the individual parts purchased for the notebook are handled their respective manufacturers. As a warning, OEM parts may not be covered by warranty by their respective manufacturer because of branding issues. Fortunately, www.newegg.com has a wonderful 30-day return policy.

Conclusion:

To my knowledge, there is no such thing as a perfect laptop. Despite the flaws, I am happy with my purchase. According to Eddie from Geared2Play, the z96j has an official weight of 6.8lbs when fully configured with the 6 cell battery. But due to the manner in which weight is distributed, it subjectively feels lighter than my 14″ Compaq Presario 700, which has an official weight of 6.3 lbs. As a result, I perceive the z96j to be around the 6.3 lb range. If I wasn’t interested in the SXGA LCD, I would have settled for the Acer Aspire 5672 instead of an Asus s96j given my experience with the warm touchpad on the z96j. But as I stated earlier, I believe that the price difference between the z96j and the s96j is justified by its 1680×1050 SXGA screen. If was given the choice again, I would have still purchased the Asus z96j, but preferably from another online vendor since I did not find any reason to spend more money on customer service. On a subjective grading scale, I would rate the Asus z96j an 8.25 out of 10.

Pros:

  • Cheaper than other similarly configured 15.4″ notebooks with SXGA screens
  • Decent performance with the Core Duo T2500 and ATi x1600 256mb
  • 1680×1050 resolution of SXGA 15.4″ LCD
  • Quiet cooling system
  • Solid construction. No flex in the case.
  • Manageable weight
  • Ease of access to components and Core 2 Duo compatibility

Cons:

  • Grainy screen
  • Very warm touchpad
  • Mediocre keyboard, touchpad, speakers, and battery life


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