11 March 2009

ASUS N81Vp Review

The 14.1” ASUS N81Vp is a multimedia notebook designed to handle anything a user can throw at it; be it the latest games or decoding HD video. ASUS packed this notebook with 4GB of RAM, an Intel Core 2 Duo T9550 processor, and an ATI Mobility 4650 graphics card with 1GB of GDDR3 memory. ASUS doesn’t directly target the gaming market segment with this system, but given its specs we see no reason why it couldn’t be one of the best performing 14.1” notebooks.

ASUS N81Vp Specifications:

* Windows Vista Home Premium (SP1, 32-bit)
* Intel Core 2 Duo processor T9550 (2.66GHz, 6MB L2 Cache, 1066MHz FSB)
* 14.1 " TFT Widescreen display with LED backlighting (1366x768)
* 4GB PC3-8500 DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz System Memory
* ATI Radeon Mobility 4650 1GB GDDR3 Memory
* 320GB 7200RPM SATA Hard Drive
* Dual Layer CD/DVD Recordable
* 1.3 megapixel integrated camera
* Atheros AR928X B/G Wireless and Bluetooth Version 2.0 + EDR
* Weight: 5lbs 11.1oz
* Dimensions: 13.5 x 10.1 x 1.6”
* Warranty: 2-year system, 1-year accidental damage
* 6-cell 11.1v 4800mAh battery
* Retail Price as configured: $1,399

Build and Design
The N81Vp has a very low-key design that looks classy from the outside, without any bright colors or graphics that stand out. The exterior has glossy black and dark bronze metallic paint with a vertical broken-line pinstripe pattern. Inside the color changes to an ash-gold finish with the same pinstripe pattern on the palmrest and trim with chrome touchpad buttons and a black keyboard. I think the design looks nice, being very similar to what HP has done with notebooks in the DV series.

Build quality is above average with solid and durable plastics used throughout the chassis. Fit and finish is excellent with no rough edges or panel overhang. The chassis feels very rigid with little flex carrying it by the corner of the palmrest. The screen cover gives the display a good amount of protection, showing no ripples even with strong pressure from my fingertips on the backside of the LCD. The cover also does a good job of spreading out an impact from heavy taps, showing no pressure points on the perimeter of the LCD.

The underside of the notebook allows users to upgrade all the user-serviceable components through two access panels. Neither panels were marked with “warranty void if removed” stickers.

The 16:9 ratio 1366x768 screen is pretty good compared to other systems, with excellent color saturation and contrast from the glossy surface. Backlight levels are high and bleed is minimal around all the edges. The screen would be quite usable outdoors as long as you are in some shade to prevent direct glare from the sun. Viewing angles are average with the screen quickly inverting at lower angles and washing out at higher angles. Horizontal viewing angles are good with minimal distortion as you move to the far edges of the screen.

Connecting the N81Vp to my Sony HDTV through the HDMI connection worked without any problems. I tested its performance at 1280x720 and 1920x1080, which works just fine handling normal activities and HD movie decoding.

Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard is full-size without any condensed keys around the border. The key arrangement could be better considering this is a gaming notebook ... ASUS strangely placed the function key on the far left, instead of control. The keyboard is comfortable to type on with little pressure needed to activate the individual keys. The keys have a matte finish which gives them a slight bit of traction compared to glossy keys found on many other notebooks. Keyboard support is very good with minimal flex under strong pressure, a big plus for frequent typists.

The large Synaptics touchpad is easy to use and very responsive. Sensitivity is good after a bit of adjustment putting the sensitivity to the lightest touch setting. The matte surface texture is easy to glide your finger across when sweaty after longer use. The touchpad buttons require more pressure than what is normally required to click which does get annoying after a while. They provide shallow feedback and give a loud positive click when pressed.

System performance with the Intel Core 2 Duo T9550 and ATI Mobility Radeon 4650 is well above average for a notebook of this size; even holding its own against larger machines. The system handles all modern games at its native resolution, Crysis not included unless you tweak the settings. The 7200RPM Seagate drive and 4GB of system memory keep the system humming along without any hiccups and keep load times to a minimum. Boot and shutdown times are excellent, and the speed of the system helps with everything from zippy software installation to fast level loads in games.

Ports and Features
Port selection is fantastic. ASUS managed to cram an optical drive, 5 USB ports, eSATA, HDMI, VGA, LAN, modem, audio ports, and a FireWire connector onto the N81Vp’s 14.1” chassis. Most 17” notebooks don’t even include five USB ports and ASUS did this without a combo eSATA port. The notebook also includes a SDHC multi-card reader and ExpressCard/54 slot for expansion.

Front: IR reciever, speakers
Rear: TV antenna (if equipped), AC power, 2 USB, VGA, HDMI, eSATA, LAN, modem, Kensington lock slot
Left: SDHC multicard slot, optical drive, 1 USB, FireWire, ExpressCard/54, speakers/mic
Right: 2 USB

ASUS includes a couple freebies with the purchase of the N81Vp, including a USB mouse and basic computer case. The mouse isn’t all that great, but it is free, portable, and works just fine if you are in a pinch. The free case is very basic and provides moderate protection for the notebook. It has a single carrying handle or shoulder strap for transport and two pockets for storage. I think the included case is a great idea since it keeps the notebook safe until you get a better case or it can be used by itself.

Speakers and Audio
The speakers sound average for a 14.1” notebook without anything that really sets these speakers apart from the crowd. Volume levels are acceptable with bass and midrange audio leaving a bit to be desired. With ASUS targeting this notebook to the multimedia segment it fully supported HDMI digital audio out to a TV or home theater receiver.

Battery life isn’t that good compared to other 14” notebooks, but most don’t have an Intel T9550 processor or ATI 4650 graphics card. With the display brightness set to 70%, wireless active, and Vista on the “Balanced” profile the N81Vp remained on for 2 hours and 20 minutes before going into standby mode with 3% remaining. The idle power consumption fluctuated between 19 and 21 watts.

Heat and Noise
System noise is managed very well under a higher system load, pushing a good amount of air without making a lot of noise. Under normal activity the system fan is either off or spinning very low, and quiet enough that it shouldn’t be noticed in a classroom. Heat is a no concern what-so-ever while gaming even with the small size combined with the powerful processor and GPU. The cooling system keeps enough air flowing through the system that the chassis stays cool under stress. Under normal situations the system doesn’t get that hot, in line with many other standard 14.1” notebooks.

The ASUS N81Vp is hands-down the fastest 14” notebook we have reviewed and easily holds its own against other larger notebooks. Even though it is technically targeted towards multimedia users I think it would be a perfect mobile gaming rig. Build quality is great, with most of the chassis’s strength coming from the fact that so much stuff is crammed into a small space there is no open cavity to flex. Battery life is one aspect that is well below average, but we don’t hold it against ASUS since the Intel T9550 and ATI 4650 are far from energy efficient. The price is great for the features you get, but if you can live with a larger laptop you can get a full-size gaming rig for the same amount.

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