The Asus VivoBook U38N is an ultraportable laptop. It looks a lot like the Asus Zenbook UX32A on the outside, but it’s not an ultrabook, because it’s built on an AMD hardware platform.
That’s a bit unusual in a market mostly dominated by Intel driven devices, but the Asus U38N is actually a fairly good notebook, as you’ll find from this review.
It brings the looks and the thin body, an excellent screen and very good multimedia performances. In fact, this is where the AMD powered U38N stands proud: pushes better graphics than the Intel HD4000 equipped ultrabooks of the moment, so it will deal easier with games and movies.
Those being said, let’s jump into the review. One thing you should know though, I’m testing a sample unit here before it was released in stores, so there might be some issues with potential young drivers, thus the final units could actually do better than mine in benchmarks and even in games.
Asus VivoBook U38N video review
Design and exterior
OK, we’re going to start by having a quick look at this laptop and I must say again, it reminds me a lot of the Asus Zenbook UX32A I’ve tested a while ago. It comes with an aluminum outer shell, looks good, feels fairly sturdy and it’s overall light and thin.
In fact, the Asus U38N is a 13.3 incher, measures 326 x 226 x 19 mm and weighs about 1.5 kilos, or around 3.4 pounds. That makes it slightly thicker and heavier than the average 13.3 inch ultrabook, but it’s still a fairly portable device.
The Asus Vivobook U38N is a thin and light 13,3 inch laptop
On top of that, i find it durable and solid, although the aluminum lid cover does bend when pressed a bit harder and the metal finish will scratch quite easily. In fact, the aluminum foil covering the laptop is quite thin, that’s why the laptop flexes, and I believe the inner frame is made from plastic, since the U38N and the UX32A are basically built on the same chassis.
On the sides, the Asus VivoBook U38N packs plenty of ports. You’ll get an USB slot and an SD card-reader on the left (that only eats about half of an SD card and should work with SDHC cards without a problem), plus a small System Status LED, the headphone jack, a mini VGA port (looks like miniDP, but it’s not), full size HDMI output, two USB 3.0 slots and the PSU on the right. Yes, the Ethernet port is missing and there’s no full-size VGA, but Asus will most likely offer adapters for those in the pack (that’s what they do with the Zenbooks).
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Turning the laptop upside down, you’ll notice the aluminum covered underbelly, with a clean design. The battery is not removable and in fact the only things piercing the metal back shell are some cooling grills and the two speakers placed on the left and right ridges.
Those being said, let’s actually lift this notebook’s lid. Inside, you’ll notice the now familiar looks we’ve seen on the Zenbooks lately, with a simple aluminum covered body and a spacious trackpad. My unit comes with a nice purple tint and I’m not sure if its anything specific for this laptop or is also available for the Zenbooks. There’s also a wide trackpad, a keyboard and a small status LED on the upper-right side. And that’s about it.
Classic interior for nowadays Asus ultraportables
However, the screen is not similar to what Asus usually bundles on their ultraportables. It’s completely covered in hardened glass and it’s glossy. And that’s because we actually have a touchscreen on the U38N, as it’s expected from a VivoBook.
The touchscreen integrates great with Windows 8 and the new touch friendly UI and I actually like how Asus managed to squeeze a rather slim lateral bezel on this device, unlike what I’ve seen on other Windows 8 laptops in the past.
But while that looks great, there is a downside: swiping on these thinner bezels might be a bit unresponsive from time to time, as there’s a limited area that you can actually touch in order to activate the wanted gestures.
On top of the display there’s a Webcam, a microphone pin, a light sensor and small LED indicator that let’s you know when the camera is active.
Anyway, back to the screen, this one is actually very good. Asus took the IPS Full HD panel we’ve seen on their premium Zenbooks (the hardware ID is CMN1343, so this is the same panel they used on the UX32VD) and added touch on top, so it keeps the excellent brightness, colors and viewing angles. I don’t have a colorimeter so I can’t actually test them, thus you’ll have to take my word for it.
Yes, the protective glass on top makes the whole thing glossy, thus annoying in strong light, but a matte touchscreen would have been a bigger issue, as matte displays are incredibly difficult to clean.
Also, there’s a little bit of light bleeding on the lower part of the screen that tends to get wider when touching that particular area, but you’re only going to notice that on black static backgrounds. Plus, as I’ve said in my review for the Zenbook Prime UX31A, that’s actually something I encountered on most IPS screens.
Keyboard and trackpad
OK, so while the screen is great, the keyboard and the trackpad on this laptop are not that bad either.
The keyboard is backlit and comes with properly sized and spaced keys, although they are just a bit too shallow and mushy. You will get used to them eventually, but if you plan to do a lot of typing on your laptop, you might want to look elsewhere.
The illumination level can be adjusted manually, with the FN+ F3/F4 keys, or can be set on Auto. Also, the power button is masked as the Top-Right button, so you might accidentally press it when looking for the Delete key, which actually puts the computer to sleep. Is not a big issue, but it’s annoying nonetheless.
Decent keyboard, a bit too mushy though
The trackpad, made by Elan, is spacious and most of the time accurate. It also handles gestures quite well, including those embedded with Windows 8, but the click buttons were absolutely horrible on my test unit, as they were very very stiff.
I’ve seen similar trackpads on other Asus ultraportables before and none were that annoying, so there might be an issue with this particular device I have here. We’ll see.
Accurate trackpad, but way too stiff
Hardware and performances
While on the outside the U38N doesn’t really stand out from the other Asus portable laptops, it does so with the hardware inside. This one is built on an AMD Trinity platform and offers an AMD A10-4655M APU, with 6 GB of DDR3 RAM and a 128 GB SSD for storage.
Not an ultrabooks, since it runs on an AMD APU
The APU bundles a quad-core processor clocked at 2.0 GHz and an AMD 7620G graphics chip. For the memory, there’s a 4 GB module and another 2 GBs soldered on the motherboard. The SSD supports Sata III 6 GB/s speeds and looks like a 2.5″ 7 mm drive, but I can’t say anything for sure before actually opening the laptop, which unfortunately I’m not allowed to do, since this is a lease. More details about the hardware are available in the snap-shots below.
When compared to Intel’s ULV platform, the AMD APU lacks the raw processing power and is a bit more energy hungry (25 Wh TDP), but packs significantly faster graphics, runs cooler and is more affordable, which could make it an ideal option for those of you looking to play games from time to time on your ultraportable computer.
I’ve tried a couple of titles myself, including Skyrim, Dirt 3 or the latest Need For Speed, just to see how this one can handle them. I’ve put together an entire clip just on this laptop’s gaming abilities, so go ahead and check it out.
And here are the numbers (based on an average I got after running the tests several time; they were recorded with FRAPS, so in reality you should expect around 1-3 extra fps in each case):
- Starcraft 2 – 30+ fps (1920 x 1080 px resolution, High details, Low shaders, (the video is here))
- Civilisation V – 16 fps (1280 x 768 px, Low details)
- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 – 35 fps (1280 x 720 px, medium details, no AA)
- Dirt 3 – 24 FPS (1280 x 720 px, medium details, no AA)
- Skyrim – 28 fps (1280 x 720 px, medium details, no AA, 4xAF)
- Crysis 2 – 24 fps (1280 x 720 px, gamer mode)
- Fifa 2013 – 48 fps (1280 x 720 px, medium details)
- Need for Speed Most Wanted – 16 fps (1280 x 720 px, low details)
If you’re wondering if the laptop gets throttled when dealing with games, I’d say NO, based on the logs. I couldn’t push the stress test though so I can’t say what’s going to happen in that case.
On the other hand, I was expecting better results. And probably you did too. Not sure what the issue was here, but I’m throwing the blame at immature Windows 8 drivers, although I had the latest version installed. I’ll be looking for some other results around the web, hopefully others will be able to get their hands on this one.
I’ve also ran a couple of synthetic benchmarks on the AMD A10 APU and the results are below.
- 3DMark 11: E1624, P1020;
- 3DMark Vantage: E8506, P3083;
- PCMark 07: 1919;
- PCmark Vantage: – (couldn’t make it run);
- CineBench 11.5: OpenGL 14.57 fps, CPU 1.59 pts.
I’ll also compare these numbers with what I got on the Core iX powered ultrabooks I’ve tested in the past, but that in a future post. You can draw your own conclusions in the meantime, here are some reviews for Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 laptops (careful though, some come with SSDs and some only with hybrid storage).
However, you might wonder how this laptop deals with everyday activities. Well, I can’t complain. The laptop boots in under 20 seconds and I did notice some occasional stuttering when multitasking between apps, but most of the time the Asus U38N was pretty snappy.
Browsing, watching movies and listening to music, editing texts, chatting with friends and all other sorts of daily activities are easy tasks for it. However, when dealing with CPU intensive chores, like editing videos or running programming software, the AMD powered Asus U38N tends to be significantly slower than the Intel ULV driven alternatives, especially when put next to the Core i7 options.
As for how well you’ll get along with Windows 8… well, that depends on how willing you are to learn a new OS, because a lot of things have changed over the previous Windows versions. There’s a lot of focus on gestures and the new touch-friendly UI, plus the apps you could get on the Windows Store, that should make that touchscreen more useful. Right now however the store is still young and quite barren, but in time it should get better.
You’ll need some time to get used to Windows 8
Of course, the laptop also comes with the classic Desktop Mode and runs all the software you’re familiar with from your older computers. For that though, the touchscreen is not going to be any good and you’ll have to get back to the classic touchpad, or even better, to a mouse.
Noise, heat, speakers and others
Moving on, let’s focus a bit on the details that can make or break a modern laptop.
Temperatures under load – running benchmarks
As I mentioned before, the Asus U38N runs cool pretty much all of the time. Even when gaming, the palm rest or the keyboard won’t get more that mildly warm, while the bottom is nowhere barely gets warm either, but not HOT as on the Intel powered devices. I can’t measure the exact temperatures though, I still haven’t bought an IR thermometer.
However, the device is rather noisy. There’s a constant fan roar with this laptop, no matter if it’s in idle or heavily pushed.
From what I can tell, the fans (there are two of them) mostly spin at constant speed. And they are easy to hear from the moment you’re turning the computer ON, especially in a quiet room. They do tend to accelerate a bit when running games, but the actually noise difference is hardly noticeable unless you’re paying attention.
The laptop runs cool, but it’s rather noisy
So this laptop never becomes excessively loud, but it’s also never completely silent, not even when in idle. I do hope this is an issue with my unit, or hopefully it’s something that could be addressed with a later software patch.
The speakers on the U38N aren’t bad. They punch good quality sound for a thin laptop like this one, but I would have appreciated if they were a bit louder too.
The Bang & Olufsen audio sistem is quite good for an ultraportable
As for the wireless performances, I did not encounter any issues while playing with this laptop. The embedded Broadcom BCM43228 adapter also comes with Bluetooth, but there’s unfortunately no WiDi included.
And then there’s the battery life. Like I mentioned above, the AMD APU is not as efficient as the Intel platforms. However, that really depends on what you’re doing on this laptop.
So you will be able to get between 3 to 5 or even 6 hours of life from the 45,640 mAh battery inside the Asus U38N.
Below you’ll see how much battery life per hour a couple of everyday activities will drain:
- 7.5 Wh (close to 6 hours of life) – very light use, on Power4gear Energy Saving mode, with the screen at 30%, while editing texts;
- 11.5 Wh (nearly 4 hours of life) – loading 6 heavy webpages each 2 minutes, on Power4gear Energy Saving mode, with the screen at 50%;
- 14.5 Wh (about 3 hours of life) – looping several HD and FullHD movies, on Power4gear Energy Saving mode, with the screen at 50%, using WMPHC;
- 16 Wh (under 3 hours of life) – running a 720p Full screen clip on Youtube, in Chrome, on Power4gear Energy Saving mode, with the screen at 50%
- 12.5 Wh (around 3.5 hours of use) – performing everyday tasks (light browsing, editing texts, some youtube, some music) on Power4gear Energy Saving mode, with the screen at 50%.
All these are measures with BatteryBar v3.5.4 , so take them as they are, I can’t really vouch for their accuracy. Frankly, I was expecting the platform to be more efficient while running movies. Still, the screen is very bright so while indoors, you could use it at 30% and earn some extra battery life this way.
Daily average battery life isn’t impressive: only around 3 hours and 30 minutes
Pricing and availability
As for the prices, the Asus VivoBook U38N is available right now in Europe starting at around 800 euros.
That’s for an AMD A8-4555M configuration with only 4 GBs of RAM and a 500 GB hard-drive.
The top config, the one listed here, with the A10 processor, 6 GB of RAM and he 128 GB SSD will sell for around 1000 euros.
That should translate into 900 to 1100 dollars when the VivoBook U38N reaches the US, although prices might even get lower by then.
All in all, ultrabooks like the Zenbook Prime UX31A still hold the upper hand when it comes to raw power and the thin and light form factor. But the U38N is not a lot thicker or bulkier and for multimedia and games, it could be a more suitable laptop than those Zenbooks. And it’s also more affordable.
So in the end, the VivoBook U38N is not the perfect ultraportable, but for a certain category of buyers, it might be. And I for one am glad to see AMD finally making a noticeable step in this segment of thin and light notebooks. Hopefully, it’s not too little, too late.
The Asus VivoBook U38N is overall a good multimedia ultraportable
But while I’m overall happy with the VivoBook U38N, I wish it would be quieter when idle or lightly used, that part really bugs me off. Also, I was expecting the platform to be more efficient when dealing with various everyday tasks, especially those that use the graphics. Only 3.5 hours of casual use isn’t enough these days, so I hope the final units will actually do better.
Because, like I said from the beginning, this a pre-release sample, so you should take some of the results accordingly. Hopefully, I’ll manage to get my hands on a final unit somewhere in the future, but I can’t promise anything.
Anyway, that’s about it. I’m looking forward to your comments and questions, if any, so drop them below. Cheers.
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