"Affordable" Multimedia Laptop: ASUS Z83D Notebook Series

Today we would like to talk about the ASUS Z83D notebook family that resembled ASUS A6 series in optimal price/quality and price/performance ratios. It is a tool for people who want a high-performance portable machine with a big enough screen diagonal of 17”. Read more in our review now!

by Alexander Britvin
11/18/2006 | 03:42 PM

Demand creates supply, and the range of available notebooks is growing up at a tremendous rate. Competition in this area may even reach a point of absurdity when one and the same manufacturer begins to offer several series of products that contend with each other. There is tough competition not only among notebooks as a whole, but in every product subgroup (sub-notebooks, gaming, business, value or multimedia notebooks).

 

Today, I’ll consider one such example of two series of notebooks from the same manufacturer competing in the same market sector. The notebooks are made by ASUS, but the Z83D is not on the list of the models ASUS is offering right now. The Z83 is an almost exact copy of the popular A7 series with minor changes like a different color scheme and a few optional components missing. Everything else is just like it is in the ASUS A7D. If they were placed next to each other on the desk, it would be hard to tell which notebook belongs to which series.

This confusion in the naming of different models comes from the fact that notebooks selling under the ASUS brand are not all serially made. There are notebooks that come to market by special orders or contracts with a somewhat cheaper configuration and are referred to as the Z series. The particular model to be reviewed today is already out of production because ASUS has transitioned to a new generation of CPUs. You can only find some remaining samples of that notebook in shops today. That’s sad since the ASUS Z83Db is a very appealing multimedia machine in terms of performance and functionality it offers for its price.

You may wonder why we’ve got an interest in a portable computer that is only available in limited quantities.  There are two reasons for that. First, the A7 series is not leaving the market and its design remains the same save for minor changes. Second, the particular model to be discussed is based on an economical mobile processor from AMD that we have never tested before. It is a Turion 64 MT with a rating of 34. The rating denotes a CPU frequency of 1.8GHz and a typical heat dissipation of 25W which is lower than that of the Intel Pentium M and Core Solo (27W) as well as of the Core Duo (over 30W).

This article has the following structure: I will first take a look at what is inside the notebook box. Then I will examine the notebook’s exterior and interior. And finally I’ll check it out in tests. A notebook from the W2 series would have made a proper opponent to this A7 series model, but the W2 model we tested in our labs some time ago had a much better configuration (for details see our article called ASUS W2Jc Notebook: Mobile Digital Home Solution). That’s why I took an ASUS V6X00J for this comparative test since it is closer to the Z83D (the Z83Db model that will be representing this family in our review today) in a number of parameters, except for the dual-core architecture.

Package and Accessories

The box of the ASUS Z83Db notebook looks unassuming, quite low-end. It is not prettily designed and is rather small, too. There’s a blue band with the name of ASUS on the box and that’s about all. Not much to impress the potential customer with.

The exterior is somewhat misguiding, though. The contents of the box are not scanty at all. The manufacturer didn’t play a miser and included the following, besides the notebook proper: a 4800mAh battery, a power adapter, a phone cable (RJ-45), Quick Installation Guide, documentation (warranty, user manual, list of service centers around the world), a small USB mouse with an ASUS logo in the middle, a bag to carry the notebook around (few manufacturers ever include bags or pouches with their notebooks, by the way), an NTSC/PAL adapter, an antenna for digital TV and FM radio, an adapter for a coaxial connector, a remote control with two batteries, and a set of discs.

The software pack includes:

Let me slow down a little and dwell upon the last disc. Like every other multimedia notebook from ASUS, this one comes with ASUS’ exclusive Mobile Theater software (it is an earlier version than the one we described in our ASUS W2J review).

This utility provides an easy-to-use shell to access the notebook’s various multimedia capabilities, so you don’t have to use different programs for each function.

ASUS Mobile Theater 3.1 offers you the following features.

Coupled with a widescreen 17.1” matrix and a remote control, this makes the ASUS Z83Db an advanced multimedia tool that is ready to entertain you with video and audio as long as you want to.

Design and Ergonomics

With all its impressive dimensions, the ASUS Z83Db doesn’t seem bulky visually. Its body is painted a dark gray. A light gray frame goes around the lid and another such frame encircles the notebook’s bottom that sticks out from under the lid. This difference in the length of the top and bottom halves of the case is used in the A7 series to place the Audio DJ buttons which are missing in this model. Instead, there is a caption there that reads “ASUS WIDE SCREEN 17 INCH NOTEBOOK.”

There are status indicators on the right, just like with A7 series notebooks. They are visible irrespective of the position of the lid and include (from left to right):

Below these, there is a hole of the Consumer Infrared port that provides an opportunity to control and navigate multimedia applications remotely.

It’s not typical of ASUS, but the Z83Db has a lid lock. It is designed as a push-down button rather than a latch as in many other models and is centered on the front edge of the lid, opposite to the ASUS logo.

The color scheme is continued up to the keyboard level, and then everything goes black. There are rubber pads along the perimeter of the display for softer contact with the notebook’s bottom half. Another ASUS logo is placed centered below the screen.

In the top part of the display there is a traditional solution from ASUS, a 1.3-megapixel web-camera in an oval frame accompanied with an integrated microphone.

The screen hinges are located in the cylindrical part that is elevated above the notebook’s bottom half. This solution allows unfolding the notebook by 180 degrees and even a little more.

Like A7 series models, the ASUS Z83Db is equipped with a 17.1” display with a max resolution of 1440x900 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:10 (WXGA+). The vertical and horizontal viewing angles are good enough subjectively, but the “glassiness” of the display may prove to be a trouble under some kinds of lighting. This glassiness is due to ASUS Color Chine technology that is claimed to improve image quality and color saturation and to yield a vivid and colorful image.

Like with a lot of other ASUS notebooks, there are 16 levels of screen brightness here, but the lowest levels are hardly practical as the image looks too dark for anything.

I measured the brightness and contrast of the notebook’s display using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. I selected the highest brightness setting before this test, but it was considerably lowered when the notebook switched to its battery, automatically enabling power-saving mode. The brightness parameter is good, and the contrast ratio is high irrespective of the power source:

AC power source:

DC power source:

Oddly enough, this multimedia notebook doesn’t have a block of multimedia buttons, so you have to use the remote control or keyboard instead. The ASUS Z83Db has an 88-key black keyboard. The Enter button is shaped classically like the letter L. The movement keys are below the keyboard’s baseline, so there’s a smaller 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 (Fn may be unintentionally pressed instead of Ctrl). Numeric buttons and three special Windows keys are available: the Context Menu key is located above the Left Arrow button; the two Windows key are in the bottom row on both sides 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 line with the functional keys (press them in combination with Fn to access their additional functions).

There is a second group of indicators right above the keyboard. There are also quick-launch buttons and a Power button with blue highlighting (from left to right):

Power4 Gear+ 

There is no Scroll Lock indicator here, yet it is not a serious drawback as this function is hardly ever used.

The first pair of stereo speakers are placed symmetrically on both sides of the keyboard. You will find the second pair if you turn the notebook upside down. The notebook indeed sounds better than many other models, thus confirming its positioning as of a portable multimedia station.

The notebook’s touchpad is the same as you can see on a lot of other models from ASUS. The sensitive area is a bit sunken into the case. There is a scrolling zone on the right. The touchpad is framed into a light bezel that transitions into two buttons. There is no scrolling joystick here.

Although positioned as a multimedia station, the Z83Db offers only a standard selection of ports and connectors. Its left panel carries the following (from left to right):

On the right panel there is a power adapter connector and an optical drive with an activity indicator, eject button and emergency ejection hole.

The rear panel of the Z83Db carries the following:

There is a DVI port instead of the LPT in another version of the notebook. The USB ports are placed very densely, which may not very convenient for the user.

The manufacturer put a 4800mAh battery under the notebook, but not in the back (as in the A6 series), but in the front part, closer to the user. There is some none-heating space under the user’s hands as the result.

The following can be found on the notebook’s bottom: CPU, memory, WLAN, TV-tuner and HDD compartments; a battery module with two locks; an emergency shutdown button or a reset hole (in case the Ctrl+Alt+Del shortcut doesn’t work); stickers with the model info and the OS serial number; a holder for the notebook owner’s personal card; two stereo speakers located close to the user.

 

There are two slots in the memory compartment. Each is occupied with a 512MB DDR SDRAM module. It means the default amount of system memory can be doubled if necessary.

Configuration

The most exciting feature of the ASUS Z83Db is that it is based on AMD’s single-core Turion 64 processor from the “cold” MT series and with a rating number of 34, which stands for a core frequency of 1.8GHz and a typical heat dissipation of 25W. This is quite comparable with the corresponding parameters of Intel’s Pentium M and Core Solo processors. This Turion is based on the Lancaster core (it is a mobile version of the San Diego S754, manufactured on 90nm tech process using Silicon-on-insulator and Dual stress liner technologies). The CPU is equipped with a 1MB L2 cache, supports the 64-bit extensions and HyperTransport and has 128KB of L1 cache memory (64KB for data and instructions each). It also supports PowerNow! technology that allows to adjust the CPU voltage and clock rate (by varying its frequency multiplier) and switch it into the additional power-saving state C3 Deeper Sleep similar to the appropriate state of the Pentium M.

The next two screenshots show the parameters of the CPU as reported by CPU-Z in the two test modes that I will describe at length in the next section.

 

This Turion 64 platform is based on the ATI Radeon Xpress 200 chipset that features the following characteristics:

The ASUS Z83Db has a discrete graphics core connected via PCI Express. It is ATI Radeon Mobility X700 with 128 megabytes of dedicated graphics memory. This 0.11-micron chip features low power consumption and supports a number of exclusive technologies like SmartShader HD, SmoothVision HD, 3Dc, HYPER Z HD, VideoShader HD (these are all meant to improve image quality). It also features the fifth generation of the power-saving PowerPlay technology.

The notebook is equipped with a 2.5” hard disk drive Fujitsu MHV2100AH (5400rpm, 100GB capacity, UltraATA interface) and a Matshita UJ-841S DVD-burner with the following speed formula:

The Z83Db comes with 333MHz DDR SDRAM. The slots are easily accessible and are each occupied by a 512MB module. The maximum amount of memory supported is 2048MB.

I 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 23°C during this test) and got the following numbers:

The table below compares the technical characteristics of the tested notebook with those of the ASUS V6X00J:

Testbed and Methods

The notebook’s hard drive was formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then I 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.

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.

Our tests:

  1. Performance benchmarks: synthetic (SiSoftware Sandra 2005, PCMark 2004), office and multimedia (Business Winstone 2004, Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004), and games (3DMark 2003 3.60, Quake 3, Unreal Tournament 2003)
  2. Battery life tests (Battery Eater Pro 2.60)

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.

Performance

As usual, I will first run synthetic benchmarks.

SiSoftware Sandra 2004 measures the overall performance of the system as well as that of each of its subsystems, while PCMark 2004 benchmarks performance in office and multimedia applications and also produces performance scores for the computer’s main subsystems (CPU, memory, graphical, and disk subsystem).

The advantage of the dual-core architecture is expectable and big. It is also expectable that the results are more than by half lower when the notebooks work on their batteries. The frequency of the AMD Turion 64 MT-34 is reduced by 1GHz in the Max Battery mode whereas the bottom frequency of the Intel Core Duo processor is 1GHz (it is reduced by 0.83GHz). The ATI Mobility Radeon X700 looks much better than the Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 when powered from an AC power source, but slows down dramatically as soon as you disconnect the notebook from the wall outlet. This is a typical behavior of ATI’s mobile graphics solutions, though. The difference in the memory subsystems is noticeable, too. The second-generation DDR SDRAM is faster and more economical (the tests don’t show that, but you should be aware of that difference, too).

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 determines the 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 benchmarks from PC Magazine are not optimized for multi-threaded processors, and the ASUS V6X00J has DDR2 SDRAM. The results of the two notebooks are proportional to their frequencies in the two power schemes. Switching to the batteries, the notebooks lose in performance as much as they lose in CPU frequency, and the ASUS V6X00J whose CPU frequency is 0.2GHz higher is preferable to the ASUS Z83Db then.

The contending notebooks are equipped with discrete graphics cores, ATI Mobility Radeon X700 and Nvidia GeForce Go 7400, so I only benchmarked them in 3DMark03 3.60.

3DMark uses a set of 3D scenes rendered by its own graphics engine to check the capabilities of a computer’s graphics subsystem.

The ATI Mobility Radeon X700 shows its best at first, but loses all its advantage as soon as you disconnect the notebook from the electric mains. That’s how ATI’s power-saving method works. Switching to the battery transforms the ASUS Z83Db from a gaming computer into a rather weak opponent to the ASUS V6X00J.

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

The low resolutions employed in this test allow the notebooks to show their overall best rather than the worth of their graphics subsystem alone. The second-generation DDR SDRAM looks better here. When powered from the mains in the second test mode the ATI Mobility Radeon X700 leaves the Nvidia solution behind for the first time. The results of the notebooks working on their batteries agree with the results of the previous tests.

The Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 beats the ATI Mobility Radeon X700 in the last graphics test, too. Summing it up, the ASUS Z83Db is quite a gaming notebook, but only when powered from the electric mains.

The notebook’s battery life was measured with Battery Eater Pro 2.60. It is going to show if such aggressive power-saving methods applied to the CPU and graphics core are justifiable. The test was performed at the maximum screen brightness in the following modes:

Well, the aggressive power-saving doesn’t seem to be fruitful because the ASUS Z83Db cannot last long on its battery. Its battery life can hardly suffice even to allow you to watch a full-size DVD movie. So, its battery may be considered as an uninterruptible power supply rather.

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

Conclusion

With its optimal price/quality and price/performance ratios the ASUS Z83D resembles ASUS’ A6 series. It is not targeted at people who regard their notebook as a luxurious hi-tech accessory. It is a tool for people who want a high-performance portable machine with a big enough screen diagonal. The ASUS Z83D is nothing else but a multimedia-oriented workhorse with all the necessary and sufficient functionality. This notebook is also going to be appreciated by people whose work place at home or in office doesn’t allow using a full-size desktop computer.

As for AMD’s MT processors, their performance isn’t any worse than that of single-core Centrino solutions, but Turion 64-based notebooks consume too much power to be used on long trips without recharging the battery. Well, the ASUS Z83D is quite a power-hungry machine even you don’t count the platform in.

Highs:

Lows: