3 executive-class laptops: Beauty that's more than skin deep

The newest ultraslim Windows notebooks back up their good looks with power and affordability.

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Asus U36JC A1

If performance and battery life count for more than size and weight, Asus's U36JC fits the bill. This wide-body notebook offers nearly double the performance of the others in the roundup but is the largest and heaviest of the group, and it tied with the Lenovo IdeaPad U260 as most expensive.

Asus U36JC laptop
The Asus U36JC

It's also the most conventional notebook of the three. It has a detachable battery, a hatch for access to memory chips and the choice of any color as long, as it's black. (The silver model pictured on the Asus Web site is not available in the U.S.) Its angular case is in stark contrast to the rounded corners of the IdeaPad.

The front of the U36JC is 0.9 in. thick, but with its bulky eight-cell battery in place, the rear is raised by an extra 0.3 in. for a total of 1.2 in. This gives the keyboard a 5-degree typing angle; the other machines sit flat. Asus also offers a thinner four-cell power pack that makes for a slimmer profile and lighter load. Measuring 12.8 x 9.4 in., the system's footprint is the deepest and widest of these thin notebooks, but it still fits on an airline tray.

Thanks to the rubberized coating on its magnesium-aluminum alloy case, it felt good in my hand. I also liked the looks of the bright chrome company logo and the touchpad's button. Overall, however, the Asus is a plain Jane compared to the design flair of the Lenovo and Dell machines.

With its large battery, the system weighs 3.8 lbs. -- 0.9 lbs. more than the IdeaPad, but still less than most 13-in. notebooks, which generally weigh between 4 and 5 lbs. Adding the AC adapter to the U36JC brings its travel weight to 4.5 lbs., more than a pound heavier than the IdeaPad.

Buried inside is the most powerful mix of components of these three thin systems. The model I tested is built around an Intel 460M Core i5 processor, which runs at 2.53 GHz -- roughly double the speed of the others -- for most tasks. Using Intel's TurboBoost technology, it can speed up to 2.8 GHz when needed. (Other configurations for the U36JC include a 2.53-GHz Core i3 or a 2.66-GHz Core i5.)

Unlike the others, the Asus has four operating modes -- High Performance, Entertainment Mode, Quiet Office and Battery Saving -- that use different component settings to match real-world scenarios. A handy button above the keyboard lets you cycle through the choices, but when a selection is made, the screen goes blank for an annoying six seconds as the changes take effect.

Like the others, the Asus comes with 4GB of memory and no DVD drive; the company doesn't sell a matching external drive but you could buy a third-party model if you need to read or write to CDs or DVDs. The system's storage is a step above that of the IdeaPad and Vostro, with a 500GB hard drive rather than a 320GB one. (Drives ranging from 250GB to 750GB are available.)

Unlike the whisper-quiet Vostro, the Asus has a loud fan. And while I like the system's 19.3mm keys, it can't touch the luxurious feeling of the IdeaPad's padded wrist rest.

The system's 13.3-in. display matches that of the Vostro and is 0.8 in. bigger than the IdeaPad's. It offers a top resolution of 1366 x 768 but isn't as bright as the IdeaPad's screen. Graphics are top-notch with Nvidia's GeForce 310M processor, which is similar to the GeForce 320M that the MacBook Air uses.

Asus U36JC laptop
Side view of the Asus U36JC

As far as connections go, the U36JC includes two USB 2.0 ports and one USB 3.0 port for high-speed data transfers. There are also HDMI and VGA ports, as well as separate headphone and microphone jacks. It has a flash card slot but lacks an eSATA connection for an external hard drive.

On top of 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi networking, the system has an Ethernet port for getting online. It includes Bluetooth but no options for an integrated cell-network data card for go-anywhere data access.

Performance

With the fastest processor of the trio, it's no surprise that the Asus blew the others away in High Performance mode, with a score of 1,095 on the PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark. That's nearly double the score of the IdeaPad or Vostro. In Battery Saving mode, its score dropped to 588.1, the slowest of the bunch.

The U36JC was also able to process and display more graphical elements when running Trainz Railroad Simulator. For instance, it revealed background details such as snow, plants and rock surfaces, which the other machines showed as plain gray.

Its eight-cell battery (the others had six-cell power packs) powered the Asus for 4 hours and 17 minutes in Battery Saving mode, by far the longest-lasting of the bunch. In High Performance mode, it ran for 3 hours and 20 minutes, roughly equal to the IdeaPad and nearly an hour longer than the Vostro. In my Wi-Fi range test, it stayed in contact with my office's router for 125 feet -- 30 feet farther than the Vostro.

Asus has another surprise up its digital sleeve: a two-year warranty on the system, whereas the others cover their machines for half as long. The company doesn't offer a three-year warranty, but if you get the system through Amazon.com and choose the SquareTrade extension, you can get a third year of coverage for $120. Asus also provides one-year accidental damage protection, something the others don't.

My test model came with Windows 7 Home Premium (also available: Windows 7 Ultimate, Professional and Home Basic), Office 2010 Starter and a lot of extra software, including a utility for tweaking the video settings. At $999, this model costs as much as the IdeaPad U260 and about $200 more than the Vostro V130.

Bottom line

The Asus U36JC is the best equipped of the bunch and provides the raw computing power needed to get the hardest tasks done on the road, but its size and weight make it less attractive for frequent travelers. It's the executive notebook to get if you need high performance and don't mind a little extra heft.

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