Traditions of Classical Notebook Building: Asus A8J Series Review

ASUS has presented its vision of a classic product in modern format. The A8J notebook family is not only portable, but also very advanced with high-performance components under the hood. The three constituents of its success are an appealing, even though simple, exterior design, very high performance in any applications, and mobility you can expect from a notebook. Read more now!

by Alexander Britvin
03/14/2007 | 09:42 AM

New things often turn to be just well-forgotten old ones. Every now and then Fashion looks back and tries to sell us something old in a modern setting. When it comes to the notebook market, it all started up with 14” and 15” models and these screen diagonals have come to be regarded as classic.

 

And today we’ve got a representative of the relatively new A8 series of notebooks from ASUS. This series brings back the classic 14” notebook but with one remarkable difference. Following the recent notebook-making trends, the A8 series is equipped with a widescreen display. Thanks to its size/weight parameters (335x245x38mm and 2.4kg) the notebook is ready to start on a long journey with its owner. The exterior design, even though somewhat simplified, will make it a stylish-looking high-tech accessory in the hands of a businessman while its high-performance hardware configuration will easily crunch through any task given.

We’ll test the ASUS A8Jp following our traditional methods. First we’ll take a look at its exterior design, then at its internal configuration. And finally we’ll benchmark its performance in comparison with the ASUS W7J model which has a similar configuration (for details see our recent article called New Powerful Alternative to Asus W6 Series: Asus W7J Notebook Review).

Let’s get started now.

Package and Accessories

The package of the ASUS A8Jp lacks any special luster, but who cares about such one-time pomp? The box has the natural color of ordinary cardboard, resembling the related A6 (see ASUS A6Jc Notebook: New Reincarnation of the Popular Family) and F3 series. The manufacturer’s name is printed on each side. Blue rectangles are painted on the bigger sides, the name of the product series and the slogan “Wire-Free Video Communication on the Go” populating the largest rectangle. It’s not quite clear why the notebook’s video capabilities are emphasized. This machine is actually capable of much more than video communication on the go.

This big box contains a smaller one (with the notebook and small accessories) and a bag to carry the notebook about.

ASUS’ notebooks have always brought a lot of extra stuff with them. So, we were not at all surprised to find the following in the box, besides the notebook proper: a 4800mAh battery, a power adapter with LED indicator, a modem cable, a TV cable, documentation (Quick Installation Guide , 2-year warranty, a list of authorized service centers around the world, a user manual), a small USB mouse with ASUS logo, a bag to carry the notebook, and a set of discs that included:

Design and Ergonomics

Typical ASUS traits stand out in the appearance of the A8Jp model. The light-silver lid has rounded-off corners that add even more compactness to the small body of the notebook. The display hinges area at the back of the lid is marked with a black insert. The notebook’s body is black except for a narrow silvery band at its top.

The manufacturer’s logo is proudly placed in the center of the lid.

The display lock resembles the one on the ASUS F3Ja model. It is designed as a Push button in the middle of the notebook’s body. The notebook won’t open up on your touching the button accidentally thanks to the springs in the display hinges. Besides just pushing the button, you have to apply some effort to lift the lid up.

There are two stereo speakers on both sides of the Push button. They are placed as near the user as possible.

The sound volume can be adjusted by pressing Fn in combination with F10, F11 and F12. This is indicated on the screen in the following manner:

The exterior color scheme is continued inside. The keyboard and the insert between the hinges are the only black objects in this ocean of silver. An ASUS logo is centered at the bottom of the black screen bezel. There are rubber pads scattered on that bezel for softer contact between the lid and the notebook’s body.

In the top part of the bezel there is a built-in 0.35-megapixel web-camera for making ordinary photographs and for video conferencing.

The display fastening is the same as is used in other inexpensive models from ASUS. The hinges stick out of the notebook’s body and allow unfolding the notebook by a full 180 degrees and even more as is shown in the photograph below:

The ASUS A8Jp is equipped with a widescreen 14” LCD matrix that has a maximum resolution of 1440x900 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:10 (WXGA+). The viewing angles are quite wide both vertically and horizontally. The display has a glassy coating which makes the image more saturated, but also reflects any well-lit object or light source behind your back just like a mirror. So, you have to take care about proper lighting when you sit down to work with this notebook. The matrix is manufactured using ASUS’ Color Shine technology which is the reason for that “glassiness”. ASUS claims that the use of a special polymer coating ensures an exceptional image quality and color saturation, thus resulting in a vivid and colorful image.

The A8Jp also features Splendid Video Enhancement which allows adjusting the onscreen image by switching between preset modes (you can control this technology with a special Splendid button).

The notebook’s display offers 16 grades of brightness, but you can’t use the computer at the lowest brightness settings because it’s virtually impossible to discern anything in the screen then.

We measured the brightness and contrast of the notebook’s display using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. We selected the highest brightness setting before this test, but it was considerably lowered when the notebook switched to its battery, automatically enabling power-saving technologies. Note that the brightness values are quite acceptable, but the contrast ratio is low:

AC power source:

DC power source:

This notebook is equipped with an 87-key black keyboard. The Enter button is shaped like the letter L. The movement keys are on the same level with the keyboard’s baseline, so there’s a higher risk of your pressing them accidentally. The Fn button is located in the bottom left corner, which is not convenient for people who are used to shortcuts like Ctrl+C or Ctrl+V who can accidentally press it instead of Control. Numeric buttons and two Windows keys are available: the Context Menu key is placed over one key to the right of the spacebar; the Windows Logo key is over one key to the left of the spacebar. The functional keys are smaller than others. Home, PgUp, PgDn and End make up a vertical column on the right. Pause, Print Screen, Insert and Delete are placed in the same row with the functional keys (you should press them in combination with Fn to access their additional functions). The letters are painted white and the functional keys are painted blue.

There is a tiny port of the built-in microphone on the left of the keyboard. It is thus close to the user and cannot be obstructed with anything.

The touchpad is shifted a little to the left from the center. It merges into the silvery color of the notebook’s body and is surrounded with a small depression you can easily feel with your finger. A dedicated scrolling zone is on the right of the touch-sensitive panel which is flush with the notebook’s surface. There is no scrolling joystick, though. This touchpad has a special feature earlier implemented on the ASUS F3Ja and ASUS S6F: there is no separating line between the two touchpad buttons so you can get an impression there is only one button here.

Our sample of the A8Jp doesn’t offer a special button or key combination to block the touchpad, although the Fn+F9 combination is supposed to do that.

There are two groups of system indicators on the notebook. The first group is placed in the front part of the notebook’s body, on the left panel. These indicators are visible even when the lid is down and their labels are duplicated on the edge of the lid. This group includes:

Another group of indicators is placed above the right part of the keyboard and includes:

The notebook offers five instant-launch buttons (from left to right):

Power4 Gear+

The notebook’s Power button is located under the right display hinge and is highlighted with a green LED.

Putting aside the lack of the optional Bluetooth interface in our sample, the A8Jp boasts as many ports, interfaces and connectors as few notebooks of its form-factor do.

Its left panel offers the following (from left to right):

On the notebook’s right panel there are two USB 2.0 ports and an IrDA port.

The following is located on the notebook’s rear panel:

The rectangular 4800mAh battery resembles Acer’s rather than ASUS’ batteries. It has a large foot that serves as a support for the notebook itself. The battery is located under your right wrist, so your right hand won’t feel hot at work.

The following can be found on the notebook’s bottom panel: a CPU & memory compartment, a HDD compartment (its cover has a few feet the notebooks rests upon), a battery module with a spring-loaded lock, stickers with model information and the OS serial number.

There are two memory slots in the CPU & memory compartment. Each slot is occupied with a 512MB module, which means that you can double the amount of system memory (the max amount of memory supported is 2048MB).

Configuration

The A8Jp notebook features the new Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 processor with a clock rate of 2.00GHz. This CPU is based on the 65nm Merom core and has 4 megabytes of shared L2 cache memory.

The Core 2 Duo supports Intel’s 64-bit extensions to the x86 architecture and also features Intel Wide Dynamic Execution technology which means more decoders and execution units in the CPU core. The speed of processing SSE and floating-point instructions has been increased, too.

Besides Intel’s traditional Enhanced SpeedStep technology that gives the notebook’s software and BIOS control over the CPU frequency multiplier (to reduce it under low loads), this CPU supports Dynamic Power Coordination (the power consumption of the cores can be independently adjusted depending on the current load; one core may even slip into Deep Sleep mode with the lowest power consumption possible) and Dynamic Cache Sizing (unused segments of the CPU cache can be turned off to save power). For more information about Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors refer to our Centrino Duo Mobile Platform Review.

This implementation of the refresh version of the Napa platform also incorporates an Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG adapter and an Intel Calistoga 945PM chipset. This chipset supports DDR2 SO-DIMMs, thus offering more memory bandwidth at lower power consumption, and a PCI Express x16 interface for an external graphics card. The ICH7-M chip is used as the chipset’s South Bridge. Connected to the North Bridge via a special-purpose Direct Media Interface, the South Bridge supports one Parallel ATA port, two Serial ATA ports, eight USB 2.0 ports and Intel High Definition Audio. It also offers six PCI Express x1 lanes to connect external devices. For more information about the platform, visit the manufacturer’s website.

This powerful configuration is complemented with a discrete graphics core ATI Mobility Radeon X1700 with 256MB of dedicated graphics memory. This core can be allotted another 256 megabytes from system memory by means of HyperMemory technology.

The ATI Mobility Radeon X1700 is nothing else but an improved Mobility Radeon X1600. It is still the same 157-million-transistor chip manufactured on 90nm tech process with strained silicon technology. This improves its power consumption characteristics.

The manufacturer claims the ATI Mobility Radeon X1700 transforms the notebook into a high-performance Windows Vista-ready workstation and gaming machine as well as a mobile entertainment center. Providing multi-threaded rendering technology for a wide range of 3D applications, the ATI Mobility Radeon X1700 also incorporates the improved Avivo video engine that accelerates HD-DVD/H.264 playback. The GPU also features PowerPlay 6.0 technology for a longer battery life. Running a little ahead, we should say that the graphics subsystem’s power-saving mode is set up rather too aggressively. When the notebook works on its battery, its graphics performance becomes closer to that of an integrated graphics core rather than of a full-featured discrete GPU. For more information about the graphics core’s characteristics, follow this link .

The notebook comes with a Fujitsu MHV2120BH PL hard disk drive (2.5” form-factor, 5400rpm spindle rotation speed, 120GB capacity, Serial ATA interface) and a Matshita UJ-850S DVD-burner with the following speed formula:

Writing:

Reading :

The ASUS A8Jp comes with DDR2-667 SDRAM, the fastest memory type available on the Napa platform. Both slots are easily accessible, and each is occupied by a 512MB module. Your upgrade opportunities are limited to replacing both modules with 1GB ones. Memory works in dual-channel mode as is indicated by the next screenshot:

We measured the temperature of the hottest spots on the notebook’s 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 next table lists the technical specs of the tested notebook in comparison with its opponent ASUS W7J:

Testbed and Methods

The notebook’s hard drive was formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then we installed Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2 with DirectX 9.0c, system drivers (from the included disc), and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 with Windows Media Player 9.0. We also installed Windows Media Player 10.0 for such tests as PCMark 2005 and SYSMark 2004 SE.

The following settings were used for the tests:

There were two exceptions: we returned to the Windows XP desktop theme for PCMark 2005 since the program required that. And for SYSMark 2004 SE to work normally, we had to roll each parameter back to its default (as they are set right after you install Windows).

Two power modes were used. First, we selected the Always On power mode for maximum performance and the shortest battery life. Then we switched to the Max Battery mode for the maximum battery run-down time.

Our tests:

  1. Performance benchmarks: synthetic (SiSoftware Sandra 2005, SiSoftware Sandra 2007, PCMark 2004 1.3.0, PCMark 2005 1.2.0), office and multimedia (SYSMark 2004 SE, Business Winstone 2004, Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004), and games (3DMark 2003 3.6.0, 3DMark 2005 1.2.0, 3DMark 2006 1.0.2, Quake 3, Quake 4, Unreal Tournament 2003)
  2. Battery life tests (Battery Eater Pro 2.60)

There are three test modes in Battery Eater:

We 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) we played a DVD movie.

Performance

As usual, we will first run synthetic benchmarks.

The SiSoftware 2007 suite features an updated enhanced-functionality interface, runs on three platforms (Win32 x86, Win64 x64, WinCE ARM), contains 13 tests and 34 informational modules, and supports a large range of devices thanks to the developer’s collaboration with Intel, AMD, ATI, SiS and VIA. The program is supported in six languages and has a free Lite version for personal and educational purposes.

PCMark 2005 carries on the tradition of complex benchmarks of the series and uses fragments of real-life applications as tests. This makes it somewhat more relevant for end-users as opposed to fully synthetic benchmarks. After running a series of 11 tests on the different components of the system, the program calculates an overall performance score in units called PCMarks. PCMark 2005 can check a computer out at processing HD video and encoding audio, and offers enhanced tests of the CPU and hard disk under multi-threaded load. The overall score is calculated by the formula: PCMark Score = 87 x (the geometric mean of the basic tests) , where the geometric mean is calculated as (Result 1 x Result 2 x…)/the number of results.

The two competing notebooks – the tested ASUS A8Jp and its opponent ASUS W7J – are both based on the same Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 processor on the Merom core. That’s why their performance is nearly identical. The CPU clock rates are reduced by half in the battery mode to save power. The Merom’s SSE units have become 128-bit ones, and the Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 processor delivers far higher performance in SiSoftware Sandra’s multimedia tests than the Intel Core Duo on the Yonah core.

The notebooks have identical hard drives and, consequently, identical scores in the disk subsystem tests. The ASUS A8Jp performs better in the graphics and memory subsystem tests as it is equipped with a mainstream ATI Mobility Radeon X1700 and 667MHz memory as opposed to the W7J’s entry-level Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 and 533MHz memory.

The Business Winstone 2004 test runs scripts of the following real-life office applications, several scripts at a time to simulate multi-tasking: Internet Explorer, Outlook, Word, Excel, Access, Project, PowerPoint, FrontPage, WinZip, and Norton AntiVirus Professional Edition.

The Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 test evaluates performance of a computer in the following multimedia applications: Windows Media Encoder, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere, NewTek LightWave 3D, Steinberg WaveLab, Micromedia Dreamweaver MX, and Micromedia Director MX.

The following table and diagrams show the outcome of these tests:

It’s no secret that PC Magazine ’s benchmarks put most of their load on the CPU. The notebooks have identical processors, so they have similar results here. The CPU clock rate is reduced in the battery mode to save power and performance of each notebook is greatly lowered then.

SYSMark 2004 SE is intended to reveal a system’s performance under different types of load. It simulates a user who is solving practical tasks in a few popular applications. Multi-threading is taken into account. The benchmark issues a few ratings that are indicative of the system performance under different loads. SYSMark 2004 SE is mainly positioned as a tool for testing desktop systems and includes applications that are not often run on mobile computers. That’s why the results for each test load are shown separately:

The 3D Creation script simulates a user who is rendering an image into a BMP-file in 3ds max 5.1 and is also working on web-pages in Dreamweaver MX. After these operations are done, a 3D animation is created in a vector graphics format.

Most of the SYSMark 2004 SE tests are CPU-dependent. The 3D Creation test is among them and the notebooks deliver similar performance as they have identical CPUs. They both suffer an almost twofold performance hit when they switch to the battery, proportional to the CPU frequency drop.

The 2D Creation script simulates a user creating a video out of a few RAW-format fragments and audio tracks in Premier 6.5. Waiting for the operation to complete, the user is also modifying an image in Photoshop 7.01 and then saves it to the hard disk. When the video clip is ready, the user edits it and adds special effects in After Effects 5.5.

The notebooks have identical results again just because their configurations are so similar.

The next test simulates the work routines of a professional web-master. The user unzips the content of a website while using Flash MX to open an exported 3D vector graphics clip. Then the user modifies it by including more pictures and optimizes it for faster animation. The resulting clip with special effects is compressed with Windows Media Encoder 9 to be broadcast via the Internet. Next, the website is compiled in Dreamweaver MX while the system is being scanned for viruses with VirusScan 7.0 in the background.

This test is CPU-dependent, too. The minor difference can be explained by different driver versions, among other reasons.

The next script simulates an ordinary user who’s receiving a letter with a .zip attachment in Outlook 2002. While the received files are being scanned for viruses with VirusScan 7.0, the user looks through his e-mail, enters some comments into the Outlook calendar, and then opens a corporate website and some documents with Internet Explorer 6.0.

This test needs high overall system performance rather than just a powerful CPU. The ASUS W7J shows that its overall performance is somewhat higher.

In the Document Creation script the user is editing text in Word 2002 and is also using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to convert an audio file into a text document. This text document is then converted into PDF format with Acrobat 5.0.5. And finally, the document is employed in a PowerPoint 2002 presentation.

The test runs fast on the Merom core and is clearly CPU-dependent.

The final script from SYSMark 2004 SE includes the following: the user opens a database in Access 2002 and creates a few queries. Documents are archived with WinZip 8.1. The results of the queries are exported into Excel 2002 and are used to construct a diagram.

The performance hit in the battery mode is proportional to the CPU frequency drop. So, this test depends on CPU performance, too.

The notebooks are both equipped with discrete graphics cores, ATI Mobility Radeon X1700 and Nvidia GeForce Go 7400. We tested them in three versions of 3DMark: 3DMark 2003 3.6.0, 3DMark 2005 1.2.0 and 3DMark 2006 1.0.2.

Compared with the previous version, 3DMark 2005 uses Shader Model 2.0x/3.0 instead of Shader Model 1.x, provides full compatibility with Shader Model 2.0, includes more complex tests (over a million polygons per each frame), and employs normal maps. 3DMark 2006 brings support for HDR, Uniform Shadow Maps, and multi-core CPUs. It is overall oriented at Shader Model 3.0, but two out of its four graphics tests work within the Shader Model 2.0 framework.

The difference in the notebooks’ graphics performance is remarkable. The ATI Mobility Radeon X1700 shows itself as a rather fast GPU when powered from the mains (it is also aided by the high-frequency system memory). But as soon as the notebook is disconnected from the wall outlet, it suffers a fourfold performance hit. Note that the CPU tests from 3DMark 2003 and 2005 depend on GPU performance whereas 3DMark 2006 benchmarks the CPU only.

You can also note that the A8Jp didn’t pass the Shader Particles Test. It is because the ATI Radeon X1000 architecture doesn’t support the vertex texture fetch feature, which is only available on the GeForce 6 and 7 architectures.

Next, we tested the notebooks in two modes in Quake 3 :

And in one mode in Quake 4 :

There was no standard demo record in Quake 4 , so we had to create one by ourselves. We will use it in every following review of notebooks on our site so that different notebooks could be compared under identical conditions.

Again, the ATI Mobility Radeon X1700 is very good when powered from the mains, but not from the battery. Nvidia’s GeForce solutions do not suffer a big performance hit on switching to the battery even in Quake 4 , which is not tied to CPU performance. ATI’s solution behaves differently. It slows down greatly to save more power, and even the faster system memory of the A8Jp cannot help it here.

This graphics test is performed at a not very high resolution, and it is overall system performance that matters here.

Our verdict about the Mobility Radeon X1700 is simple. This graphics core is indeed fast when the notebook is powered from the mains, but the aggressive power-saving options make this GPU very slow in the battery mode.

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:

It takes the A8Jp only two hours to eat all its battery in the Max Battery mode at the highest screen brightness. So, with this notebook you have to choose between high performance and a long battery life.

Here are the battery discharge diagrams for the different operation modes.

Conclusion

ASUS has presented its vision of a classic product in modern format. The A8Jp notebook is not only portable, but also a very advanced computer that has high-performance components under the hood. The three constituents of its success are an appealing, even though simple, exterior design, a very high performance in any applications, and mobility you can expect from a notebook. It is not easy to combine the latter two properties in the same computer, but the A8 series with discrete graphics from ATI achieves that goal. The notebook’s only downside is the short battery life, but that’s natural considering the advanced configuration.

By the way, if the aggressive power-saving options of the ATI graphics core do not satisfy you, you may want to consider the A8Js model which features the GeForce Go 7700 graphics core from Nvidia. Its PowerMizer technology doesn’t slow the graphics subsystem much when in power-saving mode.

Highs:

Lows: