4 min read

Asus U36S

This pretty, portable notebook has everything you need and more--assuming you're not an audiophile

If you’re looking for a pretty, portable notebook, Asus’s U36S is pretty darn close to perfect. This super-thin ultraportable has everything you need and more–assuming you’re not an audiophile. The speakers, unfortunately, leave something to be desired.

Our review model, which costs $870, is packed with a second-gen Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM (upgradeable to 8GB), a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 520M graphics card, and a 640GB hard drive spinning at 5400RPM. It also features built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and it runs a 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium. 
But the U36S’s specs aren’t what’s impressive–what’s impressive is the pretty, skinny case design, light-yet-sturdy construction, and the excellent battery life. At its thickest, the U36S is just 1.1 inches thick. This is a bit misleading, because it’s not really that thick. Most of the notebook is much slimmer at just 0.75 inches thick. The 1.1-inch thickness comes from the battery, which has a little bump less than an inch wide that juts out of the bottom of the computer.

This “jutting out” only happens if you have the 8-cell extended life battery, which Asus says will last for 10 hours. In our lab tests, the U36S doesn’t perform quite as well, with 7 hours and 40 minutes of battery life. Still, this is a decent amount of time for an ultra-portable; an hour more than most of our recently-reviewed laptops in this class. With the 8-cell battery, the U36S weighs in at 3.7 pounds.

The U36S is also an extremely attractive notebook. Not only is it slim, but it’s got a smooth matte-black magnesium alloy cover, simple chrome accents, and an extra thin screen. Inside, the U36S has a black chiclet-style keyboard with light blue accents, as well as two buttons atop the keyboard: a power button and a button for switching between power-saving modes. This button also allows you to switch quickly between the U36S’s integrated Intel HD graphics and discrete Nvidia graphics card.

Port-wise, the U36S is average for the ultraportable category. There’s no optical drive, but Asus does include Cyber-Link Blu-ray Disc Suite software, in case you want to hook up an external drive. There are threeUSBports (including one USB 3.0 port) VGA and HDMI out ports, an Ethernet port, microphone and headphone jacks, and a Kensington lock slot. There’s also a 5-in-1 memory card reader. 

Now, I do mean what I said earlier–that the U36S’s specs aren’t the impressive part. In PCWorld’s WorldBench 6 benchmark tests, the U36S scores 114. That’s not awful, but it’s also not excellent–not even for the ultraportable category, which is notorious for sacrificing performance in favor of sexy slimness. The average World Bench 6 score for the past five ultra-portable laptops we’ve reviewed is 122, though individual notebooks scored considerably higher. For example, the Sony VAIO SB Series managed a score of 144, which is excellent (of course, that particular configuration costs a whopping $2500). 

The U36S’s keyboard and trackpad are pretty basic. The keyboard features small-ish, chiclet-style keys, which are easy enough to type on, if a bit stiff at times. The trackpad is smooth and supports multi-touch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, and has a wide plastic chrome-accented rocker bar below it. The rocker bar feels a tad cheap, but it’s big enough and easy enough to press that I don’t really mind.

The U36S isn’t awful, performance-wise, it’s just not near the top of the pack. Its graphics performance is pretty good for this class, however, thanks to the discrete Nvidia graphics card. In PCWorld’s Far Cry 2 graphics tests, the U36S manages a frame rate of 45.6 frames per second. For the sake of comparison, the average frame rate of the five most-recently reviewed ultraportables for the same test is 39.9. Of course, the aforementioned Sony VAIO SB Series managed a frame rate of 75, but I repeat: it’s more than twice the price of the U36S.

Thanks to the switchable graphics, multimedia playback on the U36S is good. It’s not excellent–there’s some blocky artifacting in darker scenes–but it’s great for an ultraportable. The 13.3-inch glossy screen, which has a native resolution of 1366 by 768, is also a pleasure to look at. It’s super-bright, which is definitely a good thing (after all, ultraportables aren’t meant to be kept in the perfect lighting of your living room), and it does color and contrast very well. Occasionally scenes look a little washed out, but there’s nothing that I can really complain about.

Sound on the U36S is another story. I don’t expect too much from the speakers on an ultraportable laptop–they’re usually cheap, small, and shoved under the chassis. The U36S’s are no exception. The speakers are located on the bottom front curve of the chassis, which makes them difficult to hear if you happen to have the computer on your lap. And, well, even if you don’t have the computer on your lap they’re still pretty quiet.

Audio representation is absolutely awful on the U36S: voices sound muffled and far away, and music is full of weird echoes. I’m not sure what’s going on with these speakers, exactly, but they’re very painful to listen to. Occasionally the U36S tries to do some faux-surround-sound, and so voices end up sounding even farther away. For example, imagine listening to a TV that’s in your neighbor’s garage. That’s pretty much what these speakers sound like.

Despite the Asus U36S’s speaker issues, this is an awesome machine. It’s pretty, slim, and light, and it has excellent battery life and good graphics. Plus, it’s got a bunch of little features you’ll love: USB 3.0, Blu-ray disc software, Bluetooth, and switchable graphics. It’s not horrible performance-wise, either. Heck, if Asus could put some real speakers in this thing it would basically be perfect.

PCWorld (US)