by Alexander Britvin
05/23/2006 | 08:39 PM
With all the different configurations, materials, interfaces, colorings and ergonomic innovations employed in modern notebooks, you can easily get confused because similar-looking models may turn to be completely different inside or, on the contrary, two visually different models may have absolutely identical configurations. So how should you make you choice?
Before purchasing a notebook you should make up your mind as to what problems you are going to solve with it. This will help you save your money and time. Basing on the latest technological trends, portable computers are categorized into several classes, each class having certain characteristic features:
This classification isn’t too strict. Quite a lot of manufacturers have their own notebook nomenclatures and it’s sometimes difficult just to understand what the letters and numerals in a model’s name actually mean. That was something we had to think about when we received an ASUS A3Vc notebook for our tests. The Taiwan-headquartered ASUSTeK divides its notebooks into six classes:
Easy to see, the ASUS A3Vc, and namely the A3500Vc03 model we will be looking at today, is positioned as a business notebook. But what does the rest of the name mean? The letters Vc mean that the notebook is equipped with a discrete graphics adapter ATI Mobility Radeon X700 with 64MB of dedicated memory and this is where it differs from the previous, Ac model. The last numerals in the name indicate that the notebook comes with a DVD-burner and a 100GB hard disk drive. For example, the numerals 01 would mean a combo optical drive with a 60GB hard drive, “02” means a DVD burner accompanied with a 60GB HDD. There can be other numerals too because the manufacturer’s website declares a wide range of CPU frequencies, from 1.60 to 2.13GHz, besides the varying types of HDD and optical drives. Our sample was based on an Intel Pentium M 740 (1.73GHz clock rate, Dothan core).
The manufacturer positions its A3 and A6 series as business notebooks, so I took an ASUS A6Q00K, based on the Turion 64 processor and equipped with a PCI Express graphics adapter from Nvidia, for the sake of comparison.
The box isn’t remarkable. There’s nothing on it except for the names of the series and the manufacturer.
To my surprise, the accessories to the A3500Vc03 are not many. Besides the notebook itself, the box contains a 4400mAh battery, AC/DC adapter, TV cable, phone cable, documentation (including a 2-year warranty), and a few CDs:
Rather strange for a product from ASUS, the notebook comes without a mouse and bag to carry the notebook around.
Out of the box came a notebook that looks very much alike to the ASUS A3500L we tested earlier in our labs (for details see our article called ASUS A3500L Notebook: Stylish Doesn’t Mean Expensive). This is only a first impression, though, because the A3 series has changed a lot and for the better since the A3500L whereas visual similarity is typical of many models produced by ASUS.
The coloring of the ASUS A3500Vc03 is mostly dark silver against which the light silver latch of the display and the almost white name of the manufacturer on the lid stand out. The sides of the notebook are rounded a little to give it a neat, sleek appearance.
The same color scheme is continued inside the notebook except for the black bezel around the screen (it crawls over to the notebook’s base and serves as the background for the Turn-On button with instant-launch keys). The touchpad is surrounded with a silver frame and one group of system indicators with the Audio DJ buttons on the front panel are silvery, too.
The ASUS A3500Vc03 is equipped with a classic 15” display with a maximum resolution of 1024x768 and an aspect ratio of 4:3 (XGA). The viewing angles, both horizontal and vertical, are subjectively wide enough.
I measured the brightness and contrast of the screen using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. I selected the highest brightness setting before this test, but the screen brightness is considerably lower when the notebook works on its battery switching to power-saving mode. The contrast parameter is rather low as you can see:
AC power source:
DC power source:
There’s an oval grid above the display under which a rather sensitive microphone is placed. The A3 series is optionally equipped with a 1.3-megapixel web-camera, but our sample lacked one.
The touchpad of the ASUS A3500Vc03 is the same as other recent notebook models from ASUS come with, but it is not “wide” and lacks a scrolling zone. The bezel around the touchpad and its two buttons are silvery. The touch-sensitive panel is a bit sunken down; there’s no joystick for scrolling text.
The notebook has an 88-key black keyboard. The movement keys are a little below the keyboard’s baseline to minimize the risk of your pressing them accidentally. The Fn button is located in the bottom left corner, not quite conveniently for people who are used to shortcuts like Ctrl+C or Ctrl+V because Fn may be accidentally pressed instead of Ctrl. Numeric buttons and three special Windows keys are available: the Context Menu key is in the bottom row on the left of the spacebar; the Windows keys are in the same row. The functional keys are smaller; Home, PgUp, PgDn and End make up a vertical column on the right. Pause, Print Screen, Insert and Delete are placed in the same line with the functional keys (press them in combination with Fn to access their additional functions).
There’s the first group of system indicators on the left and above the keyboard. It includes (from left to right):
Above this group there is a Turn-On button and a few instant-launch buttons:
The second group of indicators and the Audio DJ buttons are placed on the slanted edge of the notebook’s bottom part. The player buttons are covered when the lid is down and you can’t use them without lifting it up. The indicators remain visible when the lid is closed, but not too easily. The Audio DH block includes:
The indicator to the right of the player turn-on button shows that the Audio DJ is started.
The second group of indicators includes (from left to right):
Another difference of this notebook from older A3 series models is that the numerous ports and connectors are not only sufficient for work but are also placed in a convenient way. USB ports are not huddled together on the back panel as they used to be.
The left panel of the ASUS A3500Vc03 carries the following:
One the right panel of the A3500Vc03 there is only the tray of the optical drive with an activity indicator, eject button and an emergency eject hole.
And here’s what you can find at the notebook’s back panel:
Like every other A3 series model, this notebook comes with a 4400mAh battery.
On the notebook’s bottom there are:
Two slots can be accessed in the memory compartment. One is occupied with a 512MB module; the other is empty. The maximum amount of memory supported is 2048MB, so you can easily upgrade the notebook’s memory subsystem by plugging another module into the empty slot.
The ASUS A3500Vc03 is based on the Intel Pentium M 740 processor (1.73GHz clock rate, Dothan core manufactured on 90nm tech process with strained silicon technology, and 2MB cache memory). The processor supports Enhanced Intel SpeedStep technology that allows the notebook to lower the CPU frequency at low loads.
The notebook is an implementation of the Sonoma platform. The Intel 915PM chipset supports Intel High Definition Audio technology, a graphical PCI Express port for an external graphics card, up to 2GB of DDR2-533 or -400 SDRAM with single- or dual-channel access, and Serial ATA hard drives.
Instead of using the integrated graphics core, the A3500Vc03 offers a discrete ATI Mobility Radeon X700 controller with 64MB of dedicated graphics memory. This is a mainstream GPU with higher performance than the X600 and not much slower than the X800 series. The 110nm RV410 chip has fewer execution units than more advanced chips and thus requires less power. Besides the traditional power-saving methods like reducing the core clock rate or screen brightness when working on the battery and varying the GPU frequency depending on load, PowerPlay 5.0 supports Dynamic Lane Count Switching technology to vary the number of PCI Express lanes used to transfer data between the CPU and the graphics controller.
The notebook employs a 2.5” Fujitsu MHV2100AT hard disk drive with a spindle rotation speed of 4200rpm and a storage capacity of 100GB.
The Matshita UJ-841S DVD-burner in this notebook has the following speed formula:
The notebook uses DDR2 SDRAM which is more economical than DDR1. Both the memory slots are easily accessible. One is already occupied with a 512MB module; the other is free. So it is easy to extend the memory subsystem up to the supported maximum of 2048MB.
The notebook was rather quiet and cool at work. I measured the temperature of the hottest spots on its surfaces with an infrared thermometer after it had worked for half an hour in the Classic test mode of Battery Eater Pro 2.60 (the ambient temperature remained constant at 22°C during this test) and got the following numbers:
The table below lists the technical specs of the ASUS A3500Vc03 and compares them with those of the ASUS A6Q00K:
The notebook’s hard drive was formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then I installed Microsoft Windows XP Professional with DirectX 9.0c, system drivers (from the included CD), and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 with Windows Media Player 9.0.
The following settings were used for the tests:
Two power modes were used. First, I selected the Always On power mode for the maximum performance and the shortest battery life. Then I switched to the Max Battery mode for the maximum battery run-down time.
There are three test modes in Battery Eater:
I used the first two modes as they are in Battery Eater, but in the Idle mode (when the test utility doesn’t put any load of its own on the notebook) I played a DVD movie.
As usual, I will first run the synthetic benchmarks SiSoftware Sandra 2004 and PCMark 2004. The former benchmark measures the overall performance of the system as well as that of each of its subsystems, while PCMark 2004 measures the performance of the computer in office and multimedia applications and also produces performance scores for the main subsystems (CPU, memory, graphical, and disk subsystem).
It’s easy to explain the results: the ASUS A6Q00K has a faster hard drive and a slightly higher CPU clock rate, so it wins the CPU and HDD tests, but the A3500Vc03 is better in the memory and graphics subsystem tests because it features a more advanced graphics solution and DDR2 SDRAM. The performance of the reviewed notebook is almost two times lower when it works on its battery because the CPU frequency is half the default one in the battery saving mode due to Enhanced Intel SpeedStep technology.
The Business Winstone 2004 test runs scripts of the following real-life office applications, several scripts at a time: Internet Explorer, Outlook, Word, Excel, Access, Project, PowerPoint, FrontPage, WinZip, and Norton AntiVirus Professional Edition.
The Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 test determines the performance of a computer in the following multimedia applications: Windows Media Encoder, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere, NewTek LightWave 3D, Steinberg WaveLab, Dreamweaver MX, and Director MX.
The results of these two tests are presented below:
It is the CPU that bears the biggest load in the Winstone tests. This is why the ASUS A6Q00K with a higher CPU clock rate and with a larger amount of graphics memory, even though of an older variety, wins here. The CPU frequency is two times lower in the power saving mode, so the performance of the notebooks drops down accordingly.
The A3500Vc03 and A6Q00K have discrete graphics solutions from ATI and Nvidia, respectively, and I am going to test them in 3DMark03 3.60.
3DMark03 uses a set of 3D scenes rendered by its own graphics engine to check the capabilities of a computer’s graphics subsystem.
The newer graphics solution from ATI – Radeon X700 – enjoys a perceptible advantage even when the notebooks work on their batteries. The same is true for other graphics tests, by the way.
I tested the notebooks in two modes in Quake 3 :
As you see, the ATI Mobility Radeon X700 is better irrespective of the power source.
The results of Unreal Tournament 2003 agree with what we’ve seen in the previous graphics tests. So, the ASUS A3500Vc03 seems to be a good enough gaming computer. The Sonoma platform plus ATI’s graphics look better than the Turion 64 with Nvidia’s graphics, partially because Intel ships a whole platform whereas AMD gives the notebook manufacturer an opportunity to vary the configuration.
The notebook’s battery life was measured with Battery Eater Pro 2.60. The test was performed at the maximum screen brightness in the following modes:
The ASUS A3500Vc03 is better in this test than the ASUS A6Q00K because its components require less power in total. 198 minutes in Reader’s mode looks quite impressive for the rather powerful configuration.
And here are the battery discharged diagrams for the different operation modes:
The ASUS A3Vc has very appealing price/quality and price/functionality ratios. Designed in a stylish, remarkable way and equipped with a large matrix, fast processor and discrete graphics, this notebook is surely going to be a success among the users it is targeted at – that is, among businessmen. Bluetooth interface is missing, but this is the only disappointment. The notebook supports wireless networking and, coupled with the impressively high battery life, this will give you the wireless freedom Intel advertises so hard.