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he first laptop to take advantage of Windows Vista’s much-hyped SideShow feature, the Asus W5fe lets you read e-mail, play music, and access photos and other content via a secondary 2.8-inch, full-color display integrated into the outer lid of the laptop. The idea is a good one: SideShow offers a quick window to your data, without requiring you to boot up your laptop-or even open it. Between the module’s less-than-elegant navigational interface and relative dearth of functionality, however, the W5fe suggests that SideShow is not yet ready for prime time. More importantly, the W5fe falls short of delivering a compelling ultraportable experience.
At 12 x 8.6 x 1.3 inches, the W5fe’s case is average sized for a laptop with a 12.1-inch display; at four pounds, it’s portable enough for regular travel, though there are plenty of lighter models in its price range. The keyboard is a bit spongy and cramped, but the keys are roomy enough for reasonably comfortable typing. The W5fe’s small, textured touchpad is serviceable, but the little mouse buttons are overly sensitive, and we experienced a number of clicking misfires.
The W5fe’s primary 12.1-inch widescreen display, featuring a standard 1280 x 800 native resolution, delivers bright, crisp images and passable DVD video quality. There’s enough screen real estate for most productivity tasks, including editing documents side by side and working in multiple windows.
The SideShow concept shows promise. The secondary display, with a 320 x 240 resolution, is more than adequate for checking your calendar, reading e-mail (Windows Mail only, a new feature that comes with Vista), checking stock prices, and playing music files from Windows Media Player 11. Unfortunately, we found the interface somewhat clumsy: The enter, back, and menu buttons, the On/Off switch, and the four-way rocker switch are all intuitive enough, but navigating through the menus is confusing and inefficient. The selection of downloadable gadgets for SideShow is pretty slim at the moment, but we hope that improves soon.
The two stereo speakers, placed directly below the display, deliver the thin, weak audio typical of most ultraportables, and when playing audio files via SideShow (with the lid closed), the sound quality is nominally worse. That said, we appreciate the external volume-control wheel on the W5fe’s right edge, though the laptop lacks a full set of dedicated multimedia controls.
For an ultraportable, the W5fe comes equipped with a solid assortment of multimedia features as well as a standard batch of ports and connections. On top of a dual-layer DVD burner, which can read and burn all of the major DVD and CD formats, the W5fe has three well-distributed USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, S-Video and VGA outputs for connecting to an external display, one ExpressCard slot, and a 4-in-1 media card reader (as well as an expansion module that supports another four media card types).
In addition to Windows Vista Home Premium (our test unit came preloaded with Vista Ultimate), Asus throws in some nifty software and utilities including MultiFrame, which shuttles windows to whichever quadrant of the display you choose, and LifeFrame, a useful application that lets you easily record still photos, video, and audio clips with the built-in, pivoting 1.3-megapixel webcam. Better yet, the webcam has a row of dedicated buttons that let you instantly zoom in, take photos or video, or record audio.
The W5fe’s built-in networking features include Ethernet and modem jacks, 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR. Also on board is a wireless on/off switch, handy for preserving battery power when out of range of an Internet signal. The W5fe’s throughput of 6.2 Mbps at 15 feet and 5.6 Mbps at 50 feet was far below average, however, so you’ll want to travel with an Ethernet cable as much as possible.
Our $2,199 test unit included a robust array of hardware components, especially impressive for an ultraportable: In addition to a high-end 2.16-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7400 processor, which provides two processing cores for improved multitasking performance, the W5fe comes equipped with 1.5GB of DDR2 RAM (the maximum for this system) and a gigantic 160GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive. The W5fe turned in a 3,589 on our PCMark05 benchmark, which isn’t bad for an ultraportable, and a 1,047 on 3DMark03-proof that it can handle most standard productivity tasks. Its integrated GPU handled Vista’s Aero interface, but this system doesn’t have the muscle for gaming and demanding graphics work.
Unfortunately, the W5fe’s competent processing was overshadowed by mediocre endurance: The W5fe’s six-cell battery (it comes with an additional three-cell battery) lasted 2 hours and 35 minutes while playing a DVD. You should expect close to four hours of runtime when performing regular productivity chores, but that’s still an hour less than the average ultraportable.
We’re pleased with the idea of SideShow and that Asus has managed to be the first on the market with a reasonable platform for it, but at this stage the W5fe doesn’t live up to its potential. This notebook is certainly innovative, but it’s not the best ultraportable you can buy for the money.
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