Optimus hybrid graphipcs; portable proportions; HyperThreading; USB 3.0.
Battery life isn't great; unfriendly to dual-head USB cables; mediocre at games.
In and of itself, the Asus N61J wouldn’t normally enter our radar. Let’s face it: A $900 16-inch desktop replacement is wholly pedestrian—an affront to the sensibilities of most power users. But the N61J has the distinction of boasting one unique feature that, at the time of this writing, wasn’t available in a more enthusiast-class rig, but which most enthusiasts are sure to take interest in: Nvidia’s brand-new Optimus technology, which changes the landscape of hybrid graphics.
To summarize, hybrid graphics make it possible to switch between a notebook’s integrated graphics and discrete videocard based on need. The concept is hardly new, but Optimus streamlines it. Rather than the user having to shut down applications, manually enact the switch, and then reboot—a nuisance no matter how you slice it—Optimus intuits the correct graphics solution for the task at hand and implements it seamlessly.
A glossy screen, rubberized palm rest, and chicklet keyboard lend upmarket touches to this budget notebook.
In our experience with the N61J, the technology worked as advertised. When running our gaming benchmarks, the discrete card kicked in without any effort on our part. Unfortunately, Optimus couldn’t elevate the N61J’s gaming performance beyond middling. The notebook’s GeForce GT 325M might be based on a new GPU architecture using a smaller 40nm process, but the mainstream card is still an amateur compared to the older GTX 260M in our zero-point notebook. Moderately demanding games like Far Cry 2 are playable, to be sure, but only when run at the notebook’s native 1366x768 resolution with quality set at medium, which yielded 36.75fps.
The N61J is more impressive at productivity chores. Its 2.26GHz Core i5-430M is part of Intel’s new Arrandale family of mobile processors. It’s built on the same 32nm process as Intel’s Clarkdale desktop procs, which include an integrated graphics chip in the CPU. There are numerous other improvements the Core i5 chips offer over the Core 2 Duo, with integrated memory controller, better power management, and HyperThreading among the most noteworthy. So, despite its 800MHz clock disadvantage, the Core i5-430M performed slightly better than our zero-point’s 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo Mobile T9900 CPU in all the content creation benchmarks that are multithread-friendly. Photoshop shows no such bias, leaving the older Core 2 Duo out front.
Still other features that make the N61J attractive are a multitouch touch pad, a speaker that doesn’t suck as much as some notebooks’, one-touch volume controls, HDMI, eSATA, and integrated USB 3.0 in one of the notebook’s three USB ports. Sadly, the two USB 2.0 ports are not close enough together to accommodate dual-head cables without use of an extension cable.
For its size, the N61J is quite manageable. It’s fairly thin, and its lap weight of six pounds is half that of our 15.4-inch zero-point. Part of the weight savings might come from the N61J’s battery. Given that the notebook features two power-saving technologies in Optimus and Arrandale, we expected a relatively long runtime, but the N61J barely surpassed the two-hour mark in our battery-rundown test, suggesting that its 8-cell battery is not all that burly.
If you want a desktop replacement that truly does everything, there are more powerful portables to be had, albeit at a higher price. But if you’re looking to save some dough, and you’re not a fanatic about gaming, the N61J is a pretty good bargain.