Ultrabooks may be the current head-turners amongst PC notebooks, but they always come with a premium that is indirectly proportional to their size. Asus’ S56CA illustrates this well. With many of the same components as recent Ultrabooks we have tested, this system is that little bit fatter and quite a bit heavier. But it also comes in at around £600, where Ultrabooks generally leave your wallet as light as the bag you carry them in. Asus is still calling this an Ultrabook, although like Acer's Aspire TimelineUltra M5-581TG it breaks from tradition by packing in an optical drive.
Despite weighing 2.3kg and sporting a 15.6in screen, the S56CA has a very portability oriented specification. The processor is an ultra-low power Intel Core i5 3317U, which runs at 1.7GHz, although Turbo Boost allows a single core to skip to 2.6GHz when needed. There’s also Hyper-Threading at hand to divide the dual physical cores into four virtual ones to squeeze out that little bit of extra performance in multi-threaded scenarios. The processor is from the Intel Ivy Bridge generation, so has the latest enhancements.
Surprisingly for a consumer-focused notebook of this form factor, no discrete graphics are supplied, although there is a version of this notebook that has Nvidia GeForce GT 635M graphics as well (the S56CM). Instead, this S56CA relies on the HD 4000 chipset built into the Intel Core i5 processor. This is pretty capable, but it will mean this isn’t a notebook for the gamer.
The 4GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM, whilst not meagre, is also the minimum we would expect these days in a notebook, particularly as the integrated graphics will be taking some of it for its own usage. You can upgrade to 8GB, and only one DIMM slot is populated, so you could conceivably upgrade at a later date, although care would need to be taken to find a matching module.
Asus has chosen a sensible compromise for storage, with the same strategy as taken for its Zenbook Prime UX32A. There is a solid-state disk on board, but only a small 24GB unit, and it’s not visible as a separate drive you can use for storage. Instead, it acts as a very large cache for the comfortably large 750GB Samsung SpinPoint ST750LM022 hard disk. The latter is a 5,400rpm model, so not the quickest. But the hybrid setup will mean that wakeup from hibernation, boot times, and loading frequently used applications will all be SSD-speedy. Compensating for the S56CA’s size and weight somewhat, it also incorporates a tray-loading Matshita DVD-RAM drive, which as we've already noted is a relatively unusual inclusion in a laptop marketed as an Ultrabook.
The 15.6in screen is a comfortable size, but it only sports the same 1,366 x 768 resolution as most 13in models, where more premium 15.6in offerings such as Samsung’s Series 9 NB900X4C opt for 1,600 x 900 instead. The screen is bright and colourful, but its glossy finish does mar visibility in bright conditions. Viewing angles are decent, even in the vertical direction, but in sunlight reflections detract from this quite a bit. The speakers located just behind the keyboard are capable of a good level of distortion-free volume, but they lack bass, so do a decent but not outstanding job of playing music and film audio.
The island-style keyboard, on the other hand, is rather pleasant to use. Asus has sensibly taken advantage of the extra space afforded by the 15.6in form factor to supply a separate numeric keypad on the right of the main QWERTY keys. The key action is well defined, with a good balance between travel and resistance. The same can't be said of the trackpad, which is essentially the same design as on the Zenbook Prime UX32A. On the plus side, the trackpad is placed to the side, virtually underneath the space bar, which does reduce the chances of you touching it with the heel of your hand as you type. But the trackpad is still overly sensitive to accidental contact, and there are no options to improve this in the driver settings. This is an issue Asus really should address, as it mars some otherwise excellent products.
On the right can be found a combination microphone and headphone jack, twin USB 2.0 ports, the optical drive, and a Kensington lock slot. On the left is the single USB 3.0 port, Gigabit Ethernet, full-sized HDMI, and a standard VGA port. We would have preferred a second USB 3.0 instead of two USB 2.0, but most of the time the S56CA’s port allocation will be more than adequate. There's an SDXC-compatible SD card slot lurking under the front of the notebook on the left-hand side. The expected 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless connections are also available.
Performance is a bit of a mixed bag, too. The result of 2.33 in the rendering portion of Maxon Cinebench R11.5 is decent enough but behind the Samsung Series 9 NB900X4C, which uses the same processor. Similarly, the Maxon Cinebench R11.5 graphics result of 12.34 is around 10 per cent behind the Samsung. The story continues with 559 in 3DMark11 and 4,171 in 3DMark06, which similarly trail the Samsung. So mild occasional gaming will be possible, but nothing more.
Battery life, on the other hand, is quite reasonable. The battery is only a 44Wh unit, although this can go a long way with frugal components, and it is removable, so you could carry a spare if longevity is really crucial to you. The S56C lasted 256 minutes in Bapco MobileMark 2012 1.5, which isn't quite up there with the best. Samsung's Series 9 NB900X4C, for example, lasted a stunning 405 minutes in MobileMark 2007. But it's still pretty good for a 15.6in model, implying you will get over four hours of office application and web usage on the move.
As a very recent release, the S56CA unsurprisingly runs Windows 8, which we’ve noted before isn’t ideal for a device without a touchscreen such as this. So a third-party widget to reinstate the Start button might be essential if you want to continue the mode of working you are used to with Windows 7 and before. But otherwise this is a commendable variation on the Ultrabook theme of the moment. If price is less of a problem, we still think the Samsung Series 9 NP900X4C is about the best 15in Ultrabook on the market, whilst Acer's Aspire TimelineUltra M5-581TG takes the concept of an Ultrabook with added features that one step further with discrete graphics for around £100 more. But you do get quite a lot for £600 with the S56CA, making it a worthy contender if you fancy a slim 15.6in notebook with decent, albeit not outstanding battery life.
The Asus S56CA is available from PC World for £599.99.