I was never a big fan of laptops. By their very nature they’re almost sealed systems with nearly all of their components being integrated meaning your upgrade options are usually quite limited. Back in the day when upgrades came on a regular 12 month cycle this essentially meant buying a whole new system, something which a then 4 part time job working student like me couldn’t really afford. However as I was required to do work abroad, usually for weeks at a time, a portable computer became something of a necessity and that culminated in me buying a MacBook Pro 2 years ago. I hadn’t replaced it yet since it was still managing to do everything I needed it to do but part of the perks of winning the LifeHacker competition was that I was given a shiny new ASUS Zenbook UX32V to cover TechEd and, of course, take home with me.
Now when I got the MacBook Pro it was among the slimmest and lightest 15″ laptops you could get. Whilst its a far cry from many of the laptops I’ve had to use in the past compared to the Zenbook it’s something of a tank being almost twice the thickness and weight. You can put a lot of this down to the MacBook Air inspired design aesthetic as well as the 2″ smaller screen but even with that taken into consideration its still quite striking just how small and light the Zenbook is. I can quite easily hold it in one hand and type on it with the other, something that I would most definitely not attempt with my MacBook Pro. When carrying it around for long periods of time this weight difference is an absolute godsend as I barely notice it over the regular weight of my shoulder bag.
It’s featherweight status comes from the extensive use of aluminium in the body and top part of the monitor rather than the reams of plastic that’s common in similar ultrabooks. This means it doesn’t feel like something you’ll break if you look at it the wrong way and although its really only been on one trip with me it’s endure enough abuse that I can safely say that it’s just as durable as my older, chunkier MacBook Pro. It’s also quite user servicable too with iFixIt giving it a 8 out of 10 rating much better than many comparable ultrabooks.
What really impressed me about the Zenbook however was the incredible hardware specs that ASUS managed to cram into this tiny form factor. Underneath all that aluminium is an Intel Core i5 processor capable of ramping itself up to 2.6GHz (stock speed is about 1.7GHz). It also comes with 4GB of RAM which would typically be shared with an integrated graphics processor however the Zenbook is the first ultrabook to come with a discrete graphics chip, the NVIDIA GeForce GT620M. The Zenbook also comes with a hybrid drive that has a 28GB SSD cache that backs 500GB of spinning rust which is just the icing on this little powerhouse cake.
Of course since this little beasty was shaping up to the replacement for my current laptop there was one thing it needed to be able to do: play games. I have to admit that I was sceptical at first because I’ve fiddled with a lot of other small laptops like this before and not one of them was able to play games properly, that only seemed to come with systems that would kindly be described as luggable desktops. The Zenbook however managed to run pretty much everything I threw at it without a worry with games like DOTA 2 being buttery smooth at max resolution with all the settings cranked up to high.
One of the minor features that I feel bears mentioning is the amount of connectivity available on them. Now the Zenbook isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of similar models in this regard but the simple addition of an extra USB port (giving a total of 3) is something that I feel has been sorely lacking with nearly every laptop I’ve had. Heck even the semi-modern one I’m typing this on at the moment still only sports 2 USB ports which means that should I want to use my 4G dongle, external mouse and charge my phone at the same time I’m faced with the unenviable position of having to not do one of those things. You might not find yourself in that situation very often but I sure have, especially when I was running around TechEd and using all my devices to their maximum potential.
There’s a minor quirk that I feel bears mentioning which was initially picked up by one of my fellow LifeHacker competition winners Terry Lynch. When you first start up the laptop with its pre-installed Windows 7 OS you’ll get 2 partitions at are of roughly equal size. However should you decide you want to upgrade to Windows 8 and remove all the partitions instead of being presented with 1 500GB volume to format (like you’d expect from these hybrid drives) you’ll instead get 1 28GB partition and another 500GB one. From our testing its clear that the 28GB partition is the SSD and the 500GB is the platter based storage. This is great for splitting off your OS onto the SSD section and leaving the rest for data but it does seem a bit odd since the marketing would lead you to believe it was a single hybrid drive. I’m not sure if this is the case with other hybrids however, so if you’ve had experience with one I’d like to hear what your experience was like.
The ASUS Zenbook UX32V is an amazing piece of hardware combining the best elements of its larger cousins with a form factor that is just sublime. After using it for a couple days I had no issues making it my main laptop and when combined with Windows 8 (something I’ll talk about in depth at a later date) it becomes an amazing little powerhouse that feels like it was designed with this operating system in mind. I had never really considered getting an ASUS branded laptop in the past but now I’m having trouble thinking about going for anything else as it really is that good. If you’re after a portable rig that can still do everything that a regular PC can do then you don’t have to look much further than the Zenbook.
I’m pretty fiscally conservative when it comes to my own cash, agonizing over purchases for sometimes weeks at a time before I take the plunge. It’s enough to outright kill some purchases entirely like the Motorola Xoom that I was convinced was worth at least having around just for the “tablet experience” but couldn’t seem to pass my financial filter. There are however times when my inner geek becomes so impressed with something that it overwhelms any sort of fiscal responsibility and I’ll find myself in possession of my object of desire well before I realize that I’ve taken my credit card out of my wallet. The Samsung Galaxy S2 is a brilliant example of this as I had been looking for a new phone for a while (and the Windows Phone 7 handsets available weren’t wowing me) and a quick trip to the specification sheet had me deep in geek lust, and 3 days later I had one in my hands.
The Galaxy S2 is really another world away from any other handset that I’ve had the pleasure of using. It’s quite a wide unit with the main screen measuring an impressive 4.3″ (10.92cm) across the diagonal but it’s also incredibly slim, being only 8.49mm thick. It’s also incredibly light weighing in at a tiny 116g which you’d think would make it feel cheap when compared to other similar handsets (the iPhone 4 is much more meatier) but the construction of the handset is very solid despite it being entirely plastic. The front screen is Gorilla glass which is incredibly resistant to scratches. I haven’t had a single scratch on it despite dropping it a couple times and putting it in my pocket with my keys by accident, something that would’ve ruined a lesser phone. To say that the first impressions of just holding the handset are impressive is putting it lightly, it’s simply an incredible device to hold.
In fact coming directly from an iPhone to the Galaxy S2 I can see why Samsung is in hot water with Apple over this particular device. I’ve covered the TouchWiz interface being strikingly similar to iOS in my Android review but the handset itself is also very Applesque, sporting the same single physical button on the front right in the same location that Apple has. Although its hard to accuse them of outright copying Apple since you can only get so creative with large touchscreen devices, especially when some of the required buttons are dictated by the underlying OS.
Under the hood of this featherweight device lies immense processing power, a multitude of connectivity options and enough sensors to make privacy nuts go wild with lawsuits. To give you an idea of just how jam packed the Galaxy S2 is here’s a breakdown of the specifications:
As you can see it actually stands up quite well when compared to my Sony. The video and picture quality is very comparable, especially in well lit situations. However it does fall down in low light and any time there’s motion due to the smaller CMOS sensor and lack of image stabilization. The LED flash on it is also incredibly harsh and will likely wash out any low light photo you attempt to take with it, but it does make for a decent little flash light. It won’t outright replace my little pocket cam any time soon but it’s definitely a good stand in when I don’t have (or don’t want to carry) it with me.
The everyday usability of the Galaxy S2 is also quite good for someone like me who has large hands (…ladies 😉 and used to struggle somewhat with the smaller screens on other handsets. However one gripe I do have with the handset is the lack of physical buttons for the options and back buttons for Android. The Galaxy S2 opts instead for 2 capacitive buttons either side of a the physical home button which does give the device a much sleeker look but can also mean accidental button touches should you brush against them. Samsung has also opted to put the power button on the side of the handset instead of the traditional placement on top near the headset port, which takes a little getting used to but is quite usable.
Where the stock Galaxy S2 falls down however is in its battery life. With moderate usage the battery wouldn’t make it through a second day requiring me to keep it plugged in most days whilst I was work lest it die on me overnight when I went home. This could have been the deal breaker for this phone as whilst I’m not the forgetful type I do like to be confident that I can make it through the day without having to watch the battery meter like a hawk. Thankfully the guys over at XDA Developers came to the rescue again with their custom ROM for the Galaxy S2 called VillainROM. After going through the process of doing the upgrade my battery now lasts about twice as long as it used to, only needing charging once or twice a week. I’ve yet to run Advanced Task Killer to attempt to squeeze even more battery life out of my handset, but it’s good enough for the time being.
It should come at no surprise then that this has been a wildly popular handset with both the tech and non-tech crowd a like. In the 3 months since its release the Galaxy S2 has sold a whopping 6 million units and just anecdotally it seems nearly every single one of my friends who was looking for a new phone has got one as well as almost half of my workmates. I used to laugh at anyone who touted any smartphone as an iPhone killer but with the Galaxy S2 not even being available in the USA yet and already garnering such a massive reception it might be the very first single phone that will be able to come close to touching Apple’s numbers. Of course I don’t believe for a second that any single Android handset will be able to take down the iPhone, not for a while at least.
The Samsung Galaxy S2 has set the bar as to what smart phones should be capable of and it will be the gold standard with which all are compared to for a long time coming. The combination of elegant design, incredible power and features galore make the Galaxy S2 stand out from the crowd in a big way, so much so that buying any other handset seems illogical. For many it has the potential to replace several other devices with its top notch multimedia components, further improving the overall value that you can derive from this handset. Overall the Samsung Galaxy S2 is a wonderfully impressive device and if you’re in the market for a new smart phone I really can’t recommend it enough.