At first glance, there’s a lot to like about the thin Asus UL80J-BBK5. A 14-inch screen, Core i3 processor, Nvidia Optimus graphics switching, and a DVD burner suggest a complete package in one of the thinner mainstream laptops we’ve seen, all for $799. There are, unfortunately, some big drawbacks. That Core i3 processor we mentioned is actually a Core i3 ULV, which operates at about half the speed as a normal Core i3. And the Nvidia Optimus graphics technology, which switches on the fly between a dedicated Nvidia GeForce 310M GPU and integrated Intel graphics, is supposed to greatly enhance battery life–and yet, the UL80J didn’t do significantly better than other standard-voltage Core i3 laptops.
For gamers, this could be a strong alternative to an Alienware M11x as a consideration for a compact laptop with some gaming muscle, but for anyone else it’s likely to not offer enough beyond its gaming performance for the money. The Samsung Q430-11 is a Core i5 screamer by comparison, comes with dedicated Nvidia graphics, and costs nearly the same despite outperforming the UL80J in nearly all categories.
The Asus UL80J falls into a familiar line of Asus laptops seen in previous retail laptop roundups, and we’ve always appreciated its slim design. Crisp angles and a combination of black plastic and aluminum give this laptop a sharp but smudge-collecting profile. The thin brushed-aluminum lid has glossy plastic on its interior surrounding the inset screen. A thin strip of brushed metal accents the otherwise plastic lower deck surrounding the keyboard. A chrome bar above the raised keyboard has dual start-up buttons, the left bringing up a Quick Start OS, the right booting Windows 7.
Though the raised keyboard is efficiently laid out and has good key spacing, there’s some major flex during typing. It doesn’t severely affect typing quality, but the flexy feel is jarring enough to put us off the UL80J as a typer’s machine. It’s particularly surprising since we haven’t encountered this level of flex on other Asus UL-series laptops before.
A medium-size square multitouch trackpad shares a slick brushed-metal feel, and though it controls well, it collects smudges, too. Two small, convex buttons beneath have a subtle click strength and are a bit too narrow for our tastes.
The 14-inch wide-screen LED-backlit display offers a 1,366×768-pixel native resolution, standard for 14-inch laptops. Brightness and sharpness on the display were above average in quality, but we found the viewing angles to suffer when tilting the screen to share a video with others. It’s suitable for movies and games, but we didn’t find it exceptional.
Stereo Altec Lansing speakers situated below the keyboard on a front-angled edge projected sound well and had fair range, although they couldn’t hold a candle to the speaker system on the Alienware M11x.
Due largely to its size, the Asus UL80J-BBK5 doesn’t have a whole lot of ports other than the standard trio of USB 2.0 and VGA/HDMI. There’s no built-in Bluetooth, either. It would have been a nice addition, especially for compatibility with wireless mice and game controllers.
Earlier this year we reviewed another hybrid ULV/gaming laptop from Asus, the Asus UL50VT-RBBBK05. Featuring a Core 2 Duo ULV processor and switchable Nvidia graphics, we lamented that the machine didn’t have better performance for its size. Sadly, even though Asus has upgraded to a new Intel Core i3 ULV processor, the UL80J-BBK5 still underperforms for its price and size class. Because the included i3 processor is an ultra-low-voltage variant, it runs at half the speed of standard voltage Core i3s. The speed gap shows up clearly on our benchmarks, where the UL80J-BBK5 finished dead last against its other mainstream peers in this retail batch. That’s not surprising, since the other laptops we’ve looked at all have standard-voltage processors operating at faster speeds. This laptop is functionally fine for video streaming and handling nearly all everyday tasks we could think of: it feels a bit more sluggish than a normal Core i3 laptop, more of an equivalent in feel to a Core 2 Duo machine. It’s a bit misleading for consumers because the sticker on the front of the laptop boasts “Core i3″ without specifying that it’s in fact a slower-functioning variant. In fact, it actually performs slightly more slowly than the aforementioned Asus UL50VT-RBBBK05 in our benchmark tests, despite the higher price.
The good news, however, is that the gaming graphics part of the Asus UL80J-RBBK5 actually overdelivered on our performance expectations. It only packs an Nvidia GeForce 310M GPU, which is a mainstream graphics processor we’ve seen in other laptops, but it has double the video memory–1GB as compared to 512MB on most 310M GPUs. That’s reflected in fast frame rates on our benchmark tests: Unreal Tournament III ran at a surprising 76.8 frames per second at 1,280×720-pixel resolution. For more modern games, we didn’t see quite the same results, but Transformers: War on Cybertron ran at a decent clip and was very playable. Coupled with Nvidia’s Optimus graphics-switching technology, the 310M GPU switches itself on and off when needed to save battery life. We applaud that concept, but in practice we found disappointing results on the battery-life front.
The Asus UL80J-BBK5 has an eight-cell battery, but it only lasted 2 hours and 44 minutes on our video playback battery drain test. This was extremely surprising considering the Asus UL80J-BBK5 uses a low-voltage processor to ostensibly extend battery life, as well as Nvidia’s Optimus graphics-switching, which automatically deactivates dedicated graphics in favor of Intel’s integrated graphics. We achieved far better battery life on the larger Asus UL50VT-RBBBK05. Whether that’s due to the smaller size of this laptop or to inefficient power management wasn’t clear, but the end result is a laptop that won’t perform all day the way we hoped it would.