Pandas, East Asia, wood. Nope, "laptop" hasn't ever been on the list of words we typically associate with "bamboo," but ASUS sure has us willing to tack it on with the introduction of its U Bamboo Series. The company's newest 13-inch U33Jc is covered in one of the most durable and recyclable materials on earth, and its internals are made of equally strong parts. Sure, the laptop looks incredibly traditional, but the $999 machine actually packs an incredible amount of new technology, including a fresh Core i3 processor, NVIDIA Optimus enabled graphics, USB 3.0 and Intel's wireless display technology. It's truly one of the most impressive laptops we've heard about in the last few months, but a few gripes hold it back from being the killer laptop it could be. Intrigued? Bamboozled? Hit the break for our full review.
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ASUS Bamboo U33Jc review

ASUS

U33Jc Bamboo

Pros

  • Stunning bamboo-clad design
  • Great combo of performance and graphics
  • Over five hours of battery life

Cons

  • Cheap feeling keyboard
  • Thicker than other 13-inch laptops
  • No optical drive
Summary



Look and feel

The U33Jc won't appeal to fans of glossy plastics or aluminum, but those that like the look of dark wood and chrome accents will find the laptop to be rather stunning. Actually, there's something about the smoky brown U33Jc that reminds us of a high end piece of furniture, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. While the smooth feeling dark wood only covers the lid and the palmrest, it seems to give the entire chassis a stronger feel than other ASUS systems we've reviewed.

However, while the rig has a really striking aesthetic, there's no denying that we wish it were slimmer and lighter. The 1.2-inch thick and 4.5-pound chassis is a lot like the ASUS U30Jc in terms of size, but doesn't have an optical drive. Seriously, we actually searched the system a few times for a drive – we just expected it would have one with its thicker base. We will admit, the entire system is quite a chunker compared to the Toshiba Portege R705, which we recently fell pretty hard for. The edges of the U33Jc are filled with two USB 2.0 ports, one USB 3.0 socket, an HDMI, VGA, Ethernet, microphone and headphone jack. A five-in-one card reader lives on the right side.

Keyboard, touchpad and screen

Like we said before, the U33Jc actually feels like one of the more solid laptops we've reviewed, save for its plastic chiclet keyboard. The matte keys just don't blend well with the rest of the brushed aluminum deck, and in comparison to the rest of the machine, they just feel cheap. Don't get us wrong -- the keys are comfortable and didn't require any adjustment on our part, though they do make a distinct 'clicky' sound. It's also the type of keyboard you'd expect to have a backlight option, but there's no inner glow hiding underneath the panel.

Conversely, the touchpad gets premium treatment, and ASUS has used a special in-mold decoration process along with a new integrated circuit with proper sensor capabilities to cover it in bamboo to match the rest of the palmrest. Sliding a finger over the smooth wood to navigate the desktop was a rather enjoyable experience, and the lovely-feeling texture of the pad makes up for the single mouse button. Oddly, it doesn't support multitouch gestures, but the right side did function as a scroll strip.

The U33Jc's 13.3-inch, 1,366 x 768-resolution display is bright, and streaming a 720p clip of Salt looked crisp. The display itself isn't overly glossy, but the shiny bezel surrounding it makes the glossiness a bit more pronounced. It's no surprise that we were not thrilled with the viewing angles – tilting the screen back made Angelina Jolie's eyes blend in with the rest of her face. At least horizontal viewing angles were better. Like the Eee PC 1015PE and 1018P, the U33Jc has a latch for covering the 2-megapixel webcam – hey, after hearing about those kids in the Lower Merion school district we'd be happy to see all laptops with this small, helpful privacy feature. The speaker strip along the top of the keyboard produced decently loud and full sound when watching some clips and listening to Pandora.

Performance, graphics and battery life

Internally, the U33Jc is a lot like the U30Jc, but instead of a 2.26GHz Intel Core i3-350M, it has a faster 2.4GHz Core i3-370M CPU. The benchmarks clearly show the improvement, but in our everyday use we couldn't really tell the difference between the U33Jc and some of the other Core i3-powered laptops we've reviewed in the last few weeks. The laptop definitely kept up with our day-to-day routine, including simultaneously running Firefox with over 10 tabs open, Microsoft Office, Skype, Trillian, Adobe Reader and TweetDeck. Our review unit came configured with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Those that may want to swap out the RAM or hard drive shouldn't have an issue doing so with the latch on the bottom of the chassis.

The Core i3 processor and integrated graphics is fine for basic HD playback, but the U33Jc's NVIDIA GeForce 310M GPU with 1GB of VRAM gives the system some real graphics muscle. Thanks to NVIDIA's Optimus technology, the GPU automatically kicked in when we fired up Batman: Arkham Asylum, and within minutes we were throwing punches at 28fps. Similarly, when we queued up a 1080p clip, the 310M card automatically turned on. While most of the graphics switching is completely automatic, NVIDIA's control panel does allow for manually turning on and off the GPU. NVIDIA's newest Verde driver, which displays the status of the GPU, didn't come preloaded -- we're told it will be compatible with the U33Jc within the next month.

Update: We noticed that the 3DMark06 scores on the U33Jc was lower than that on the U30Jc despite having more VRAM. Both LAPTOP Magazine and PCMag report in its reviews that the GPU on the U33Jc is actually underclocked (from 625 MHz to 606 Mhz) and that ASUS is using slower memory in this version.


PCMarkVantage 3DMark06
Battery Life
ASUS U33Jc (Core i3-370M, NVIDIA 310M) 5574 1860/3403 5:10
ASUS U30Jc (Core i3-350M, NVIDIA 310M) 4841 1739/3686 4:10
Toshiba Portege R705 (Intel Core i3-350M) 5024 1759 4:25
Acer TimelineX 4820T (Intel Core i3-350M) 4926 1724 5:04
Dell Vostro V13 (Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300) 2687 556 2:39
ASUS UL50Vf (Core 2 Duo SU7300) 3724 827/3438 6:10


We happen to like Optimus a lot because it alleviates the need to have to think about turning on and off the GPU, but we also like it for it's battery life benefits. The 310M card remained powered down when we ran our standard definition video rundown test, and in turn the U33Jc's 84Wh eight-cell battery lasted for 5 hours and 10 minutes with brightness set to 65 percent. That's an hour longer than the U30Jc and Toshiba's Portege R705, but not quite as long as ASUS' predicted eight hours. With the GPU on it ran a loop of HD videos for 3.5 hours. Still, both of those numbers are on the extreme end -- when we used the laptop to write this review, listen to music and intermittently watch some YouTube clips, we didn't have to plug in for about six hours. That's some decent runtime for this category.

Wireless Display Technology performance

NVIDIA said it was possible, and the U33Jc is a testament that a laptop with a discrete GPU can be coupled with Intel's WiDi or Wireless Display Technology. However, the GPU must be switched off for the wireless display feature to function, so there was no NVIDIA graphics power when streaming video from the U33Jc to our 40-inch HDTV. Also, don't forget that you've got to have a $99 Netgear Push2TV box to get the whole WiDi thing going. While you still can't stream full 1080p video, the technology is pretty awesome, and we enjoyed watching an episode of Mad Men on the big screen rather than on the 13.3-inch screen. There's still about a three second delay, so it's just not going to cut it for gaming or real productivity.

Software

We can't put this any other way: it sucks that when you boot the U33Jc for the first time you're greeted by a desktop that looks like that. So many ASUS utilities and other miscellaneous software is preloaded on the U33Jc that we don't know where to start. Some of it -- like the shortcut to eBay's website -- is totally useless and should be deleted ASAP, however other things like Kindle for PC and Times Reader may save some the step of having to download the apps at a later date. You can also boot ASUS's ExpressGate Cloud instant-on OS by hitting the button above the keyboard. Like we found on the new Eee PCs, the new interface is attractive, yet seems slower than the previous version.

Wrap-up

The U33Jc may be on the bamboo list now, but it's much more than a bamboo laptop. The wood certainly makes you feel like you're buying a unique device, but the draw of the machine for most will be its superior blend of graphics, performance and battery life. We still have to knock the U33Jc for its lack of an optical drive, the cheap feeling keyboard quality, and it's thicker chassis -- if you're in the market for a really light 13-inch machine we have to recommend Toshiba's $899 Portege R705 -- however, for $999 the ASUS U33Jc is a incredibly strong choice, just like the material that covers it.