We've fallen in and out of love with more sexy ultra-portable laptops than we care to remember. If we haven't been gazing lustfully at the gorgeous Sony Vaio TX27, we've been hankering for the sumptuous, leather-clad ASUS S6F. So it's no surprise our wandering eye has latched on to the new size-zero hero -- the AU$3,499 ASUS U1. Not only is it the first Vista-powered laptop we've tested, it has the perfect blend of portability and useability.
The mercurial ASUS designers have turned us off as often as they've turned us on, but their latest effort, the U1, certainly falls into the latter category. Its 11-inch screen, 276mm by 28mm by 192mm dimensions and 1.1kg weight promotes a maternal instinct that made us want to protect it from the clutches of curious, fawning bystanders.
Two of the laptop's most notable aesthetic features are its "piano black" lid, which is reminiscent of LG's Chocolate phone, and the matte-black leather that surrounds the keyboard. ASUS says this is genuine cowhide. We can't vouch for its authenticity, but some overtly carnivorous members of the team had to be forcibly restrained from trying to lick it, which speaks volumes.
The chrome U1 badge makes a good contrast next to the leather palm rest
The keyboard itself is covered in glitter, but it's a subtle effect that doesn't detract from the sleek black aesthetic. More importantly, it feels good to type on. The keys are a little on the small size, but they should only prove annoying if your fingers are unnaturally large. Likewise, the mouse trackpad is responsive, and the mouse buttons provide good tactile feedback.
The entire laptop is lined with a glossy chrome outer rim, which is also present around the mouse trackpad. You also get chrome on the ASUS logos on the lid and below the screen, and on the U1 logo below the keyboard.
Looking around the laptop, you'll notice the conspicuous absence of an optical drive. Instead, you get an external DVD rewriter that connects to a USB port and adjacent DC power outlet on the left of the laptop. You get a further three USB ports, one on the left, two on the right, plus a four-pin FireWire port, all of which is reassuring, given that most ultra-portables are light on expansion capabilities.
Other neat touches include a 1.3-megapixel camera above the screen, and a hardware Wi-Fi switch on the right, which is useful when an air stewardess tells you to disable your wireless devices. You also get a single ExpressCard slot, LAN and modem ports, and a fingerprint reader between the mouse buttons. This last inclusion is more a novelty than anything else -- given how prone the lid is to picking up fingerprints, it wouldn't take much for a determined thief to lift your prints using a bit of sticky tape.
The fingerprint reader between the mouse buttons is an interesting addition
Instead of red or blue LEDs, the U1 features a set of white LEDs below the screen. These show hard-disk activity as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth status. To the right of these LEDs is the power button and a small microphone, while to the far left is the increasingly familiar ASUS PowerGear 4 switch, which lets you adjust the laptop's gearing towards performance or battery life as required.
The U1 isn't blessed with the fastest of components, but that's not to say it's feeble. ASUS has managed to cram in a 1.06GHz U2400 Core Duo processor and 1.5GB of RAM, which is more impressive than the typical single-core CPU and 1GB of RAM we've seen in similar laptops. If 1.5GB of RAM sounds like an unusual number, that's because the laptop has 512MB built into the motherboard and a further 1GB of removable memory. If 1.5GB doesn't sound like much, there's always the possibility of adding more memory courtesy of Vista's ability to use ordinary USB keys as system memory.
Don't expect the U1 to run modern 3D games -- its onboard graphics card is rather pathetic. It can run Vista's flashy "Aero" user interface which is a bonus, but you can't run games unless you use ASUS's forthcoming XG Station external graphics card as an add-on to provide more 3D horsepower.
The U1 has an excellent display. It runs at a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels and despite only having 11 inches to display its wares, it's remarkably clear, with good levels of contrast and a wide viewing angle. The only drawback is its glossy coating, which reduces its useability somewhat in brightly lit rooms or when used outdoors.
Storage is in fairly short supply on the U1. The 80GB hard drive is fine if all you want to do is store images and Word documents, but you'll run out of room quickly if you start feeding it thousands of movies or digital audio. As a guide, expect it to hold around 80 DivX files or 15,000 MP3s, not taking into account other applications you may have installed.
We wouldn't have minded the petite 80GB hard drive if ASUS had provided an onboard backup solution. Sadly, all that's included is the aforementioned external DVD rewriter drive. This solution is great for keeping the laptop's weight to an absolute minimum, but having to decide whether or not we'll take the drive with us on our travels is an annoyance. If you've ever been caught between taking or leaving your umbrella you'll know what we're talking about.
Being a Centrino laptop, the U1 comes with full Wi-Fi support. It'll connect to 802.11b/g networks so you can pose in your local Starbucks as you surf the Web, and there's a Bluetooth adaptor that lets you synchronise with your mobile or use it as a modem. We were slightly miffed at the absence of a 3G SIM card for on-the-go broadband connectivity, but it is possible to add a third-party HSDPA card via the laptop's ExpressCard slot.
As part of the U1 package you get Windows Vista Business, a three-cell battery plus a larger six-cell battery, a cloth for cleaning the fingerprints off the lid, and a couple of software titles for running the Webcam. You'll need to buy or download your own office productivity applications.
Windows Vista has received plenty of stick for being a bloated operating system, so we were eager to see how it ran on the diminutive, relatively underpowered U1. To our surprise, the laptop ran like a dream. Not once did its 1.06GHz CPU and 1.5GB of RAM feel sluggish during everyday tasks.
3D gaming performance is a joke, as expected -- it racked up a 3DMark 2006 score of 193, which is nowhere near high enough to satisfy gamers' needs. There's little to worry about if you're not a gamer, however, as the U1 happily chugs its way through minor image editing and other 2D graphics tasks without fuss.
The laptop failed to run our PCMark 2005 and MobileMark battery tests.
On a final note, the cooling fans inside our U1 were prone to whining a little. It's barely noticeable in day-to-day use, but it can become annoying during quiet periods -- don't be surprised if your partner tells you to switch it off late at night.