With the arrival of Ultrabooks, laptops took a leap forward in portability by paring back on features. Where the MacBook Air led, others followed – low-power Intel chips, fast SSD storage and a cutting back of features and connectivity in order to fit the space.
But some recent Ultrabooks have been taking back what was lost, while still fitting into the slim-and-light spec. The Asus S56CA-XX024H is one such laptop.
Like the Toshiba U840-10V, it’s a lower-priced Ultrabook that doesn’t skimp on connections, though it’s a few hundred pounds cheaper than the Toshiba – or almost any Ultrabook we’ve seen – at £499.99 in the UK (around AU$765) or US$699.99 in the US.
But it’s not just the price or connections that make the Asus S56CA stand out. There’s also its optical drive and relatively large 15.6-inch screen.
The DVD drive was one of the first things to go from Ultrabooks, and it’s something that can be a sticking point for many people. Certainly, its inclusion makes the Asus S56CA stand out from the skinny crowd its in.
Most Ultrabooks have a screen that’s between 11 and 14 inches, so the 15-inch one here is a bit of a surprise. As with a few aspects of the Asus S56CA, it pushes the Ultrabook moniker to its limits. With a much larger footprint than the likes of the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A or Lenovo IdeaPad U410, it’s not the most portable of ultra-portable laptops.
It’s actually 380mm wide and 266mm deep, with a thickness when closed of 21mm (15 x 10.5 x 0.8 inches). And at 2.3kg (5.1lbs), it’s not exactly super light, either. It’s more than double the weight of an 11-inch MacBook Air, and weighs around 60% more than the 13-inch Asus Zenbook UX32A.
Inside, it’s fairly typical for Ultrabook specs: a low-power 1.8GHz Intel Core i3 processor and graphics, a 500GB hard drive and 24GB SSD combination, and 4GB of RAM – all used to power Windows 8.
With its large screen, DVD drive and thin profile, it seems to make sense as a home laptop more than something for road warriors – though it does offer a numerical keypad, which smaller Ultrabooks don’t.
As far as looks go, it’s firmly from the ‘Hey, those MacBooks are nice, aren’t they?’ school of design – at least, it is while open. The black keyboard, black screen bezel and silver body all look a bit familiar, but the finish on them is undeniably decent.
When closed, it’s a different matter – the brushed black finish on the lid gives it a low-key look, but it’s reasonably attractive for a budget laptop – it certainly doesn’t feel any cheaper-made than a higher-end Ultrabook.
Also in the Asus S56CA range is the bigger, pricier brother called the Asus S56CA-XX081H, which features a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM and a 750GB hard drive and 24GB SSD combination. That model costs £599.99/US$699 (around AU$918).
The Asus S56CA-XX024H comes equipped fairly lightly in the processor department, as you might expect for its low price.
It features an Intel Core i3-3217U, which is a dual-core chip running at 1.8GHz. It features Hyper-Threading too, meaning that it has four virtual cores, but doesn’t have Intel’s Turbo Boost technology to run any faster than its normal clock speed.
It’s very much an Ultrabook choice of chip, but when you combine the reasonably slim size and low cost of this model of the Asus S56CA, it’s not surprising – there are smaller and lighter Ultrabooks with more powerful options, but they cost a lot more. Similarly, there are more powerful chips in thicker, heaver laptops.
Being an Ivy Bridge chip, the processor is designed to be fairly light on power consumption. It also offers built-in graphics capability, with Intel’s newest HD 4000 graphics chip.
Intel’s 4000 graphics series isn’t exactly a gamer’s dream, but it’s more than adequate for most people. Dedicated graphics cards can produce much higher performance, but they take up a lot of space and use power, so it’s no surprise not to see one here. Intel’s graphics have proven more than satisfactory for this kind of machine in the past.
There’s 4GB of RAM for Windows 8 to play with, which is a perfectly reasonable amount for the price.
As part of Asus’s tight meeting of the criteria to be an Ultrabook, the Asus S56CA features a solid-state drive, but it’s only a small one. There’s 24GB of fast flash storage, paired with a standard 500GB laptop hard drive.
Setups like this are designed to balance size of storage, speed and cost – 500GB of all-SSD storage would likely nearly double the cost of this machine.
As we said, one of the most unusual features here for an Ultrabook is the optical drive – it’s a DVD drive only, though, so you won’t get Blu-ray playback out of it.
There’s plenty more here in terms of connectivity, with Wi-Fi, VGA and HDMI video ports, one USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 connections, an Ethernet port and a headphone/microphone jack. There’s also an SD card reader on the front.
The screen is 15.6 inches, with a resolution of 1366 x 768. This is fairly standard for the price, and while it matches many other lower-end Ultrabooks in terms of pixel count, this screen is a fair bit larger than the 13- or 14-inch affairs you usually get on those.
This means you get more screen to look at, but the image quality won’t be as sharp.
3D Mark 06: 4,381
Cinebench 10: 6,782
For Asus to get the S56CA-XX024H at such a low price point, compromises were necessary, and the processor was first in line.
The benchmarks from the 1.8GHz Intel Core i3-3217U processor put the performance at around two thirds of what’s on offer from high-end Ultrabooks (the Core i7-3517U processor in the Asus Zenbook Prime, for example, scores around 10,000, compared to about 6,700 here).
The bigger, more expensive brother of the Asus S56CA-XX024H, the Asus S56CA-XX081H, features a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor, which was also used in the Asus Zenbook UX32A, where it scored around 9,000 – so you can see where the money goes.
Of course, benchmarks don’t tell the whole story, and in general, the processor in the Asus S56CA is fast enough for general use.
We did encounter a few areas where it would slow down, and there were quite a few times when the operating system hung between tasks for longer than you’d expect, but we’re still early in Windows 8‘s life, so the operating system may be the culprit more than the Intel chip.
The SSD helps to keep things fast, and the Asus S56CA does indeed turn on quickly from standby, as you’d expect from an Ultrabook. It’s not the fastest at this, often taking over three seconds in practice, but it still beats almost all similarly priced laptops.
Funnily enough, actually going onto standby is the slow part – it often takes 10 seconds or more before you can reactivate the machine, but this isn’t likely to be a problem very often.
The fact that most non-operating system files are accessed from the hard drive, rather than the SSD, means that actually retrieving files is more like most other budget-conscious laptops – which is to say, not phenomenally fast.
What we noticed most of all about performance, though, was the noise. At any given time, it seems to make whirring or ticking noises, even when in standby. It’s not something that should be a deal-breaker, but we soon missed the silent operation of other Ultrabooks.
The screen is one of the larger problem areas. In itself, it’s pretty standard for a laptop of this price. The viewing angles aren’t great, but it’s easily bright enough. The resolution is the issue, though – lots of Ultrabooks have the same 1366 x 768 pixel count, but over a smaller area.
On the old-style Windows desktop, this isn’t too much of a problem. It’s not great for text editing, but it’s easy to live with in general use. In the Windows 8 modern UI (y’know… Metro), it looks really poor. Text is jagged and thin, and icons look bitty.
It’s all readable and usable, so it doesn’t actively hold you back, but it’s unpleasant.
On the other hand, the keyboard is rather good. Having a numerical keypad on an Ultrabook is either a luxury or excessive (or both), depending on how you look at it. But it’s something the Asus S56CA offers that others don’t.
There are some slightly odd key placements – the arrow keys overlapping with both the keypad and the letters side, for example – but we could immediately touch-type on it at considerable speed.
The key presses are just a little softer than we’d like – a bit more firmness would give better feedback – and there’s a tiny bit of rattle here and there, but it’s still right at the top end of what you’d expect from a budget laptop.
The trackpad is generally pretty good. It’s a nice size, and multi-touch gestures work fairly well.
By default, it has tapping to click turned on, which is a nightmare in the Windows 8 modern UI mode – it often misinterprets you putting two fingers down in order to scroll as selecting something, so we found ourselves constantly opening apps inadvertently, which gets old really quickly.
Another highlight is the battery life. We looped an HD video at full brightness with no power-saving features turned on, and the machine lasted for three hours and 37 minutes. This is above average, and is good for a cheaper laptop – lots of more expensive Ultrabooks don’t do as well.
Though Asus brands this laptop as having SonicMaster speakers, we think the second half of the description is more than a little bit generous – they’re shrill and compressed. They’ll do for watching something, and go fairly loud, but really aren’t worth writing home about.
Oh, and it wouldn’t be an Asus laptop review if we didn’t note the irritating bloatware – mostly McAfee and the Instant On window that hovers in the top corner.
The headline for the Asus S56CA-XX024H is surely its price. Ultrabooks for below £600/$800 are pretty rare, and Asus has somehow managed to get the Asus S56CA down to £499.99/US$699.99 (around AU$765) without sacrificing too much in the feature tick list – and even adding something to it in the form of an optical drive.
Actually, we say "somehow", but it’s easy to spot the weak points. The processor is an obvious one, lacking even the grunt of the Toshiba Satellite U840-10V, which comes in at £650 (around AU$998/US$1,034) – still considered cheap for an Ultrabook.
It’s also much larger and heavier than 13-inch Ultrabooks – so much so that you have to consider something of a perspective adjustment when judging it compared to other Ultrabooks. It’s weightier, chunkier and slower than something such as the Asus Zenbook UX32A, but then it’s also not far off half the price.
It makes much more sense to view the Asus S56CA as a svelte regular home laptop than as a bloated Ultrabook – suited more to sitting on the side of the sofa than in your travelling bag.
There’s no denying that the price of the Asus S56CA is rather attractive. It’s half the price of even mid-range Ultrabooks, so regardless of the compromises, it’s worth looking over if you’ve got a tight budget.
While we’re not sure we’d say we explicitly "like" the optical drive, it’s another feature that massively stands out. If you liked the idea of Ultrabooks, but not the sacrifice of physical media, you’ve something of a stopgap here.
It’s also important to note that Asus hasn’t abandoned usability in its quest to make a cheap Ultrabook. The keyboard is nice, and the trackpad’s multi-touch gestures are easy to use. The battery life is impressive, too.
Despite the good work Asus has done to make the S56C cheap, there’s no denying that it doesn’t feel as premium as other Ultrabooks. The processor is just a little slow here and there, the hard drive means that getting files is slow (even if it turns on quickly) and the screen is low-res and of distinctly average quality.
And it’s all produced a laptop that really is big and heavy for an Ultrabook. It only just squeezes into the specifications, and we can’t help but feel it’s a case of following the letter of Ultrabooks, not the spirit. It’s also annoying noisy, coming in no small part from the optical drive and hard drive.
And it’s sad to see the bloatware menace pervade even on Windows 8. The new interface offers some respite, but going back to the Desktop mode will assault you with just as many needless popups as it ever did.
Let’s get this bit out of the way: Is the Asus S56CA a good Ultrabook? No. It’s too heavy, too large, too noisy and too slow.
But is it a good mid-range home laptop in general? It’s not bad. It packs the waking speed of an SSD, an optical drive and good usability into a body that’s still slimmer than most non-Ultrabook laptops.
If you abandoned the slim form factor, you might be able to find one with a better screen or faster CPU, but it certainly doesn’t seem unreasonable for the price.
By Matthew Bolton, TechRadar