Updated: September 29, 2013
You have all been here before. I haz a new tool. It's an Asus VivoBook, specced S300CA, which means 13.3" of touch screen equity, a third-generation i5 processor with middling frequency, and some extra bits. Indeed, this calls for a review.
Now, as you imagine, laptops nowadays ship with the sucky Windows 8 installed, which is supposed to be this marvel of ergonomics not. But every time I praised it, it has always happened on a conventional system without any touch. This time, there is touch, so I will be able to give you a final impression what this operating system is all about. And of course, we will actually review the laptop, as a whole. Because that's why we are here.
All right. For USD599.99, which translates into USD600 for normal people, this medium-sized laptop by Asus can be considerable a moderate bargain. It's actually an ultrabook, which means slim, tightly packed minimalistic design. You get the usual Mac-like keyboard, which I have first encountered on my eeePC beastling, and it's a delight. Probably the best, most feedbacky keyboard on the market.
You also have a 1366x768px screen stretched diagonally across 13.3 inches, responsive to touch, which is a bonus in that you can wipe it clean with a wet towel, unlike most laptop screens, which do not like moisture. Solidly built, with a silver aluminum casing, brushed ever so slightly to look more posh. Or is it posher?
Peripherals wise, VivoBook comes with a solid array of connections, although it is not dazzling, as there is simply not enough room for all the interesting pieces. For example, the DVD tray is out of the question. You do have three USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet port, VGA, HDMI, SD card, audio jack, and Kensington, plus the charger socket. That's it.
The laptop feels heavy, because it is small, but it only weights 1.5 kg. The battery is fused into the case, so you won't be having any fun removing it easily. Likewise, the cover gets dirty awfully quick, and retains fingerprints better than a CSI lab.
The screen is mightily reflective. Above, you can see how well it reflects my mid-section while taking the photo, and that's after running a 100px Gaussian filter so you don't get too excited about my awesome abs and crotch. So overall, a nice piece of metal, with some interesting features, the least important being the screen, that is.
All right, Windows 8, a real test this time. Let's begin with what Asus did with their OEM image. To their credit, they did not load the system with crap, the way most vendors do. Their contribution to the image includes a wallpaper, half a dozen helper utilities, some of which are actually useful, including how to configure the touch pad, view system info, perform updates, and such, a handful of useless games, Adobe Reader, Skype, and a starter package for Office 365. That's it. Really humble, if you think about it.
Then, I tried using the touch screen. Absolutely useless in every sense. There's no point in doing that, especially since you have a kickass keyboard under your fingertips. Moreover, you kind of get tired of swiping your thumbs left and right, and the grease from your fat fingers spoils the clarity of the desktop. It's a double fail really. Internet Explorer in its Metro mode is totally useless. Triple fail. Nothing really works, and you feel like an idiot trying to insert your privates into the hot exhaust pipe of a Fiat 127 while everyone laughs at you. Now, I can officially say that Windows 8, as well as its successor, Windows 8.1, is total nonsense. QED.
Naturally, I immediately commenced about taming Windows 8. So I removed all the stupid apps, and made the Start Screen less noisy. The Classic Shell comes next, and you can actually breathe. A few more tweaks, some msconfig, and we're all set.
Eventually, we are thusly organized:
Well, not all was golden, right. First, the Office offering is a joke.
Then, I had a much bigger issue. I was not able to connect to my G-band WRT54GL router, whereas the almost identical WRT120 worked fine. It turns out the ultrabook comes with Atheros drivers, and accordingly to all kinds of forums posts, the drivers are somewhat crappy. I resolved the problem by downloading and installing the latest bunch of drivers from the official website, after which, my router was all dandy, and Windows 8 had no problems connecting to it. Oh, the built-in Windows help me thingie is totally useless.
Now, this is an important detail. The online spec shows just 3.5 hours of battery life, for some reason. My testing shows a much better result, with 5.5 hours available using the Asus power-saving profile. Jolly good, I must say.
Ah, so you're asking. Indeed, this was my original intention. Wipe Windows 8 clean, start fresh over, install a
favorite distro and enjoy myself, much like I did with Asus eeePC. The little netbook originally came with
Windows 7 Starter Edition, which I killed in favor of UNR 10.04, and recently Xubuntu, which is simply superb. The benefits are huge, including an
almost doubled battery life.
At first, I considered trying a dual-boot configuration, but as you can see from the disk layout above, it would not be easy. The 500GB disk comes with no less than two recovery partitions, an EFI System partition, and the OS, squeezed in between, so resizing and such becomes terribly difficult. Likewise, how do you image this kind of thing? And what about the bootloader. If you use GRUB, does that mean the recovery will be messed up? And so, I decided to go for a full disk destruction, but before that, there's one important thing we need to figure out.
Here's the one part you all dreaded. What does one do when they get a laptop like this, and how they handle the potential problems with EFI partitions, Secure Boot and other issues that might be.
Remember what I said - vendors must allow Secure Boot control in BIOS/UEFI? Well, Asus did just that. You can enable/disable both legacy boot and Secure Boot options, so your system works like any old one, or a new one, whichever you prefer. To be on the safe side, I tried Windows 8 in both modes, and it worked without any issues whatsoever. End of story there. The screenshot below is for illustration purposes only.
Similarly, I tried using Linux in both modes, because recent versions of Linux are supposed to have signed kernels and bootloaders, and to allow booting distros with the Secure Boot turned on. But it turns out, this feature was not what stopped my joy short.
Instead, various Linux distributions decided to cooperate almost erratically. For example, Ubuntu Ringtail, Xubuntu Ringtail and Linux Mint Olivia with the Cinnamon desktop refused to boot past the GRUB menu. On the other hand, the recent Kubuntu and Olivia Xfce worked just fine, and both reached the desktop session after a few seconds of hard thinking. Then, there's the latest version of Fedora 19 KDE, which sort of did not work for me on the old-new T61 test machine, at all, and it failed even to launch its bootloader. At least, in a perverted sort of a way, Fedora is almost consistent in the experience it provides. Now, there.
In the booted live sessions of the two successful attempt, both offered an almost full experience. Everything worked, including the touch screen, except the networking. In both distros, the ath9k driver was loaded, and the ifconfig command showed the Wireless interface up and running. But the network manager would show an empty list of access point, and would not connect to any one, even when manually specified. The network was simply not meant to be. And so I went back to the lousy Windows 8.
I rather hate the fact that I need to use Windows 8 on my Asus VivoBook, but that's the sad reality. Linux disappointed me. But then, I had a similarly bad experience with the T400 machine, which ended up not being a Linux box, and even the HP laptop had some niggles here and there. Tiny ones, but still. Hardly the expected plug & play adventure you would desire. Read my Linux guide thingie on Netrunner.
Now, if we ignore Windows 8 for a minute, then Asus did a decent work with this 13.3" ultrabook, and it offers a solid bunch of technology for a reasonable price. The operating system image is very modest, and it does not contain crap and useless spamware that so many companies like to bundle. So kudos, Asus. For me, this is the friendliest OEM edition that I have seen so far in my life. So overall, the laptop gets 8/10. Windows 8 gets a more than fair 1/10. And as a whole package, it's not a bad deal. I will keep the things as they are, and maybe in the future one day, I might be able to enjoy Linux as I should. We're done.