Asus W5fe review

15 Feb 2007

Windows SideShow is a fascinating distraction, but even without the supplementary screen the W5fe is impressive.

Price when reviewed: 
1,191(£1,399 inc VAT)

Of all the nifty new features in Windows Vista, there are few with as much potential as SideShow. For some, it may be enough to prompt an upgrade not just to Vista, but an upgrade to their whole notebook. Essentially, SideShow allows you to access certain data on your system without needing to turn it on, boot into Windows and search for the application you want. You can get access to your email inbox, music collection or upcoming appointments - with much more to come. In this case, the SideShow window is built into the back of the notebook's screen, but in the future you'll see SideShow screens as standalone units, remote controls, digital photo frames and on LCD panels.

So in spite of the W5fe's svelte 305 x 220 x 31mm dimensions, it was the SideShow window on the back of the TFT lid that initially attracted a curious crowd in the PC Pro office. At 2.8in diagonally, the 320 x 240 pixel screen itself is about the same size as that on a new digital camera, and is bolstered by seven control buttons, plus an on/off switch and a reset button. The screen and its accompanying electronics, including 1GB of flash NAND memory, are all cocooned under a slightly unsightly bulge.

In practice, its integration with Windows Vista is flawless. SideShow is controlled via an applet in the Control Panel, and it runs tiny applications called Gadgets, in a similar fashion to the mini-applications run by Windows Sidebar. Gadgets included with Vista are Windows Media Player and Windows Mail Inbox. There will, in the future, be more Gadgets to download, but currently you're limited to a beta of Picture Viewer and a gadget that ties in with Outlook 2007, providing contact and calendar information.

While SideShow works well, it isn't entirely cut off from Windows and will need to fire up your PC to, for example, download. So, at a preset time (ranging from every 15 minutes to once a day), SideShow fired up the W5fe to check our inbox. The Windows Media Player also requires the notebook to be running, although the built-in Music Player gadget can play back music you've copied into the NAND storage.

Everything is powered by a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5600 and 1GB of RAM - an eminently sensible configuration given the inclusion of Windows Vista. Our review sample was supplied with the 64-bit version of Vista Ultimate RC1 code, so we didn't run our full set of benchmarks. You can be confident the W5fe will be among the very fastest notebooks, though, except when it comes to gaming performance - the Intel GMA 950 GPU drove Vista's Aero effects perfectly, but is inadequate for all but the oldest 3D gaming titles.

Storage is ample. The 160GB hard disk is extremely generous for a notebook, and there's a memory card reader on the side whose only notable omissions are CompactFlash and xD. The optical drive is a DVD writer, capable of writing to everything but DVD-RAM.

The W5fe is portable at 1.8kg and comfortable to use. The screen is well sized at 12.1in, although the 1,280 x 768 resolution doesn't lend itself to many jobs beyond normal internet browsing, email and word processing. It's certainly bright, though, and offers uncommonly good viewing angles, remaining almost perfectly viewable until your eye line is virtually parallel to the screen. Our only reservation is the glossy finish on the screen, which makes the W5fe hard to use if there's a light source behind you. The glossy finish does help to ensure vibrant colours in photos and films, though.

The keyboard feels solid, but few in the office were converted to the faux carbon-fibre trackpad. Overall, the W5fe is durable - reassuring for a notebook that's the perfect size to slip into a shoulder bag for a commute on the train (and it's backed by a two-year collect-and-return warranty too). We did experience reduced battery times on our review model, but Asus was keen to stress the pre-production nature of our sample. The final version will come with a 7,200mAh battery, which we'd expect to last for around four hours under light use and less than two hours under strain.