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Asus G51J Core i7 Mobile Gaming Notebook Review
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Date: Nov 09, 2009
Section:Mobile
Author: Shawn Oliver
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Introduction and Specifications


Windows 7 is upon us, and with the launch of Microsoft's self-proclaimed "best operating system" comes a slew of new desktop machines, notebooks, and netbooks looking to take advantage of its added stability and features. One of the companies that is looking to serve up a number of new Win7-based rigs is Asus, and without a doubt they have assembled an interesting and compelling offering in their G51J-A1 notebook. Hitting the sweet spot between the average-sized 15" machine and the full-on desktop replacement, the refreshed G51 maintains the 15" form factor yet packs enough horsepower to plow through even the latest game titles.



If you'll recall, we reviewed the prior G51 back in August, a machine that went by the name of G51VX-RX05. The G51J-A1 (which we're looking at today) is exactly, spec-for-spec, the same machine except for three huge differences: the processor, chipset, and operating system. At the heart of the G51J-A1 is the brand spankin' new Intel Core i7-720QM CPU, which is clocked at 1.60GHz with a 2.8GHz Turbo Boost function, pared to the mobile PM55 chipset. And of course, Windows Vista has been replaced by Windows 7 Home Premium, an OS that feels more solid and less resource intensive from top to bottom.



What you're left with is a really capable gaming machine with plenty of power to handle day-to-day duties, multimedia playback and pretty much anything else you'd expect from a portable machine. All within a case that's just marginally thicker than "standard" 15" machines. It's a nice package for those desiring high-end performance normally found only within 17"+ desktop replacements, but in an enclosure that won't break your back when lugging it around. So, the only question now is how well does it really perform. Follow us through the pages to come to find out.


Asus G51J-A1 15" Gaming Notebook
Hardware Specifications - As Reviewed


  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • Intel Core i7-720QM 1.6GHz Quad-Core Processor (2.8GHz Turbo Boost)
  • Intel's PM55 Express Chipset (1333MHz FSB)
  • 4GB of DDR3 RAM (1066MHz)

  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260M Mobile GPU
  • 15.6 Inch Glossy Full HD Display (1920x1080)
  • VGA and HDMI Outputs
  • Two (2) 320GB ST9320423AS Seagate Momentus 7200.4 Hard Drives; 7200RPM
  • 8x Super Multi DVD Burner (Hitachi HL-DT-ST DVDRAM GT30N)
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi (Intel WiFi Link 1000 BGN)
  • Integrated 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet, Bluetooth 2.0
  • Integrated 2.1 Altec-Lansing Speaker System (Bottom-Mounted Subwoofer)
  • 2.0 MP Camera
  • 3-in-1 Multimedia Card Reader (SD, MMC, MSPRO)
  • ExpressCard 54 Slot
  • 2 x USB 2.0 Ports; 1 x Mini 1394 (FireWire); 1 x USB 2.0 compliant / eSATA port with PowerShare; 2 headphone jacks; 1 audio input
  • 14.6" x 10.3" x 1.3" - 1.6" - Dimensions
  • 7.2 Pounds - Weight
  • Bundled Backpack And Razer Mouse
  • 6-Cell  Battery
  • Retail (Before Discounts) Price As Tested: $1499
  • 2 Year Standard Warranty, 1 Year Accidental Damage, Free Two-Way Shipping

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Design and Build Quality

At 7.2lbs., Asus' G51J-A1 certainly isn't the lightest 15" notebook on the market. Far from it, actually. And make no mistake--it's no slimmter either at 14.6" x 10.3" x 1.3" - 1.6". All things considered, this is one of the largest 15.6" machines we've ever seen, but then again, it's one of the first to pack a mobile Core i7 chip within the confines of a gaming notebook, so we're willing to cut it some slack there. Intel's newest silicon puts off some heat, so it makes sense to think a little extra breathing room is needed to make everything work without having a meltdown. And speaking of heat, yeah, there's plenty of that, but we'll touch more on that aspect in the Experience section.


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Externally, the G51J-A1 is sturdy, but not what we'd call "built like a tank." There's an abundance of plastic, with the colorful top lid feeling a wee bit chintzy if we're being honest. We know, it's a "gamer's machine," but since when did gaming machines have to look like they were designed in the early 1990s? We much prefer Dell's sleek, classy stylish on the Studio XPS line to the vivacious design seen here and on Toshiba's Qosmio laptops. Of course, that's all totally subjective, but you won't find a lot of "drab" and "classic" here; it's all "loud" and "vivid."

    
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As has become par for the course on Asus machines, the stickers were out in full force here. The palm rest is splattered with a huge specifications sheet sticker on the left side, a sticker letting the world know the display is 1080p, as well as logo stickers for Windows 7, NVIDIA, Intel's Core i7 and the sound card. Honestly, it's overkill. But hey, it keeps with the design flair that starts on the LCD lid (which has two light-up panels on the sides), so we guess it's to be expected. Not really our cup of tea, but there it is.

    
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As you open the machine up, you'll find a matte palm rest, a nice-sized trackpad, two distinct left/right click buttons and glossy bezels around both the LCD and the keyboard. The keyboard itself is just dreadful. Asus attempted to squeeze a full QWERTY board and a numeric pad onto a 15.6" machine, and the result is a squished, offset keyboard that caused us all sorts of headaches. The biggest problem is just how left-justified everything is thanks to the numbed pad squeezed in there; we continually stumbled over keys and found ourselves fixing typing mistakes due to the odd layout, and while we're sure you'd get used to it with time, you'll undoubtedly not encounter this layout anywhere else. In other words, it's a different feel than any other keyboard--not ideal in the least. And then there's the matter of just how cheap the keys feel; each "chicklet" key is a slick piece of plastic with no texture at all, and the entire keyboard flexes quite a bit when pressed. To top it all off, the keys aren't backlit, so night gamers will have to provide an external light to see where things are. All told, this is unfortunately one of the worst typing experiences we've had on a gaming notebook, and it's quite odd considering just how much we generally like Asus keyboards. Asus tried hard to keep costs down on this machine, and it shows here--a lot of quality was given up on the keyboard, and to us, that's just not an acceptable place to shave costs. Asus should've ditched the number pad, made the keys larger, added some texture and removed some flex (in a perfect world, anyway).


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Moving on, there's the 2.1 Altec-Lansing audio system, which sounds surprisingly great for a notebook audio system. There's a bottom-mounted subwoofer that does a commendable job of keeping the lows going, and the all-around sound is plenty fine for casual listening. The 1920x1080 display is crisp, sharp and just gorgeous. Of course, it's a glossy panel, so things definitely reflect and it's quite difficult to appreciate outside, but it's tough to find a matte 1080p panel on any machine these days (sadly). One thing we did notice is just how large the bezel is around the LCD; at the top, where the 2.0MP webcam sits, there's over an inch of bezel present. That's just entirely too much, and it honestly reminds us of the bezels found on laptops of a decade ago. We can understand a laptop being thick in order to make room for a powerful CPU, but why the need for a huge bezel?


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Around the edges, you'll find a total of four USB 2.0 sockets (two on each side), a DVD Super Multi burner, audio in/out jacks, Gigabit Ethernet, a Kensington lock slot, power input, HDMI socket, VGA output, a mini-FireWire socket, a huge exhaust vent, 3-in-1 card reader (SD, MMC, MSPRO), eSATA connector, an ExpressCard slot and a Wi-Fi on/off toggle switch.

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Software and Accessories

Unlike most average notebooks, but similar to many gaming notebooks, Asus has decided to splurge a little and bundle in a few nice accessories with its G51J-A1. For starters, you'll get a pretty awesome padded backpack (branded with Asus' logo, albeit a subtle one) to carry the machine and your peripherals around in, and the included Razer (wired) USB mouse is also a nice touch. For a sub-$1500 package, having these two things thrown in is great. We'd expect as much when spending over $2000, but for $1500? Kudos, Asus.


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On the software front, you'll find Windows 7 Home Premium onboard, as well as lots of basic freeware (and unfortunately, too much bloatware for our tastes). Our machine came loaded with Adobe Reader 9, AI Recovery Burner, Asus Data Security, Asus FancySmart, ControlDeck, Trend Micro Internet Security (a real annoying piece of software, we might add), Splendid Utility, SmartLogon Manager and LifeFrame. All of the bundled Win7 software was here (IE 8, Windows DVD Maker, Windows Media Center, etc.), as well as a suite of Asus Utilities, CyberLink's Blu-ray Disc Suite (even though a Blu-ray drive isn't even an option on this machine), Creative audio utilities, Express Gate (the instant-on OS), and the Microsoft Office 2007 Suite (trial).


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User Experience

Using the Asus G51J-A1 was a curious experience. On one hand, we felt like we were behind the wheel of a very potent machine, while on the other, we felt like we were using a low-end machine meant for the bargain market. Despite our general dislike for how flashy the exterior is (it's quite nice if you're "into that," though), the inside was a mixed bag. The trackpad was great, with a nice texture and a large size, not to mention two left/right click buttons with fantastic travel. But there was no multi-touch or gesture-based functionality to speak of, which even some of Asus' Eee PCs have. No multi-touch on a $1500 machine? Strange.


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Then there's the keys. We appreciate the effort of trying to get a full QWERTY keyboard and a numeric pad on here, but the execution was just lacking. Our typing experience wasn't one we'd want anyone else to have; the left-justified nature of the keys led to us continually mis-type and start on the wrong keys, while the arrow keys were impossible to find without eying the keyboard. The arrow keys actually run directly into the number pad, making the fingering that much more confusing. The keys themselves were seemingly constructed from low-grade, texture-less flat plastic that saw our fingers slip off of them far too frequently for comfort, and the amount of flex in the overall board was amazing. We've seen less flex on $300 netbooks, even ones from Asus. If you're planning on using this as a mobile LAN party rig with an external keyboard, you'll be fine, but we wouldn't want to have to type anything of any length on this.


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Transporting the machine was a breeze; sure, it's 7.2lbs., but it's well distributed. We never felt burdened by the machine, and the thickness was acceptable given the raw horsepower. We mentioned a heat issue earlier in the article, and yes, the machine blows out a lot of steam. But that's completely expected given the high-power CPU and GPU. Honestly, the palm rest remained relatively cool, but the edges and bottom didn't take long to get toasty. The fans remained on almost constantly, even while doing simple desktop work and browsing the web. Again, nothing out of the ordinary for a gaming notebook, but we'd just like to point these things out for anyone expecting a "normal" 15" laptop experience.

    
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Without a doubt, this thing is a desktop replacement shoved into a 15.6" frame. Everything about it screams "over-the-top," though the actual interface components were decidedly low quality. We were also a bit let down with the Windows 7 experience. Boot up took a bit longer than expected (around 46 seconds), while the initial bootup took around 5 minutes. Waking from sleep could take up to 20 seconds, and while application loading was generally snappy, we still managed to encounter a bit of lag from time to time. We're guessing the dual HDD setup isn't exactly tuned for high performance; you'd need an SSD for that.


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Gaming performance, however, is where this beast really shined. Asus built this thing to destroy 3D titles, and obliterate it did. Our gaming tests went off without a hitch, and we saw frame rate numbers that were downright staggering. Playing high-end titles at 1080p was a real thrill, and the NVIDIA GPU combined with the crisp panel made for a highly enjoyable experience. Again, we'd recommend using an external keyboard and mouse, but the hardware is plenty capable of pushing the pixels. At the end of the day, the unit felt most comfortable when gaming, and we guess that's perfectly fine. When playing back multimedia or helping you frag someone, the G51J-A1 was a real winner; in other areas, it just seemed a bit lost or out of place. But hey, it's a gaming machine--we wouldn't expect a netbook to feel at home in Far Cry 2, so we can't reasonably expect a Far Cry 2-machine to seem at home in all other areas.


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Test Setup and 3DMark 06 CPU


 
  
HotHardware's Mobile / Test Systems
Covering the bases
Asus G51J-A1

Intel Core i7-720QM
(1.6GHz)

4GB DDR3

1GB NVIDIA GTX 260M

On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio

2x320GB Hard drives
7,200 RPM SATA

Windows 7 Home
Premium (64-bit)

15.6" Full HD Display
(native 1920x1080)


Dell Studio XPS 16

Intel Core 2 Duo P8600
(2.4GHz)

4GB DDR3

1GB ATI Mobility Radeon 4670

On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio

1x500GB Hard drive            
7,200 RPM SATA

Windows Vista Home
Premium SP1 (64-bit)

16.0" Full HD RGBLED Display

(native 1920x1080)
Toshiba Satellite A305-S6845

Intel Core 2 Duo T8100
(2.1GHz)

3GB DDR2-667

512MB ATI
Mobility Radeon HD 3650

On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio

2x200GB Hard drives (non-RAID)
5,400 RPM / 4,200 RPM SATA

Windows Vista Home
Premium SP1

15.4" WXGA Display
(native 1280x800)



 Performance Comparisons with 3DMark06
 Details: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/

The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.



This machine marks the first time in a notebook review that we've been able to see just how much of a difference the mobile Core i7 makes. Clearly, it makes a huge difference. The Studio XPS 16 is still a "new" system, with a rather impressive set of specifications. That said, the 1.6GHz quad-core Core i7 in the G51J-A1 handily beat it in this test, with a 3DMark 06 CPU score nearly 1000 points greater. It's been awhile since we've seen such a huge leap in performance, but we guess that's what you get when you go from two cores to four. Here's a look at the full scorecard:


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Futuremark PCMark Vantage

We ran the Asus G51J-A1 through Futuremark‚Äôs latest system performance metric built especially for Windows 7, PCMark Vantage. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.



One thing that you'll notice immediately about the scores put up by the Asus G51J-A1 is just how badly it beats the Asus G51VX, a Core 2 Duo-based machine that was released just a few months ago with a higher clocked CPU. This really, really shows off the true power of a quad-core Core i7 processor, even at "just" 1.6GHz. It also stomped the powerful Studio XPS 16, and even with compared to the desktop rigs at the bottom of the chart, it definitely holds its own.


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3DMark Vantage and SiSoft Sandra


Futuremark 3DMark Vantage
Synthetic DirectX Gaming


3DMark Vantage

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark Vantage, is specifically bound to Windows Vista-based systems because it uses some advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 10, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows.  3DMark Vantage isn't simply a port of 3DMark06 to DirectX 10, though.  With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, in addition to support for the latest PC hardware.  We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark Vantage's Performance preset option, which uses a resolution of 1280x1024.


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When compared to the Asus G51VX-RX05, which is equipped with a 1GB GeForce GTX 260M GPU, 4GB of RAM and a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 processor, the Core i7-equipped G51J-A1 smokes even that beast in terms of sheer 3D performance. 3DMark Vantage stresses the GPU by running a multitude of tests, and just for reference, the aforesaid G51VX notched an overall 3DMark score of P4059. The G51J-A1, which boasts a 1GB NVIDIA GTX 260M, notched a score of P5214. What's crazy is that the G51VX was considered amongst the top-of-the-line just a few months ago, and now the G51J-A1 is launching with an MSRP of $200 less than that very machine. As we stated earlier, the only 2 things that changed on the G51J from the G51VX were the CPU (from a 2GHz Core 2 Duo P7350 to a 1.6GHz Core i7-720QM) and the OS (from Vista to Windows 7). Even with identical GPUs, the CPU/OS combo pushed the score here over 1000 points higher.

Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
Synthetic Benchmarks

We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant.  We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks). All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speeds of 1.6GHz with 4GB of DDR3-1066 RAM running in dual-channel mode.

 
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge


CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge


Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge


Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge

Overall, the G51J-A1 performed like a champion in our testing. The memory test showed that it wasn't perfect, but the HDD and CPU testing demonstrated that it was only beat out by desktop-level processors and solid state drives. All told, the G51J held its own quite well, particularly for a $1500 machine.

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Gaming Performance

 Performance with Half-Life 2 Episode 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
Gaming Performance

To touch on gaming performance, we chose two games that draw moderately on system resources, Half-Life 2 Episode 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. We then ran a pre-recorded demo of each at a resolution of 1280x800 and also at a higher resolution of 1920x1080 (the panel's maximum). The resulting performance achieved is indicated in frames per second in the graph below, and we tossed in benchmarks from Asus' G51VX -- which includes the exact same 1GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260M GPU -- for reference.



It's pretty tough to believe that we were fairly impressed with the FPS numbers put up by Dell's Studio XPS 16 just last month. With a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo CPU and a 1GB ATI Radeon HD 4670 GPU, it was about as good as it got for the money. Here we are a month (and a major Intel platform) later, and a whole new bar has been set. The 1.6GHz Core i7-720QM, assisted by a 1GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260M GPU, plowed right through our two major gaming tests. The numbers speak for themselves, but during our real-world testing, we found both titles to be buttery smooth at Full HD (1080p) with all detail options maxed. In other words, both of these titles are no match for the hardware within the G51J-A1. Of course, Far Cry 2 is an entirely different matter, requiring much more potent innards in order to play back smoothly. So, we tested this rig with that title as seen below.

FarCry 2
DirectX Gaming Performance


FarCry 2

Like the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations. We benchmarked the graphics cards in this article with a fully patched version of FarCry 2, using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the "Ranch" map. The test results shown here were run at three different resolutions (1280x720, 1600x1024 and 1920x1080), DirectX 10 enabled,  4x Anti-aliasing, and identical render quality settings.


As we suspected, Far Cry 2 really put a strain on the system. With 4X AA enabled and all other settings set to "High," we couldn't break the 30FPS barrier at the panel's native resolution. At 1280x720, the game was just playable, while the two higher settings were noticably jumpy at times. You could definitely make things more playable by disabling AA or stepping it down to 2X. Just to give you an idea of what a difference the CPU and OS make, have a look here. You'll notice that the Asus G51VX, which shares the exact same 1GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260M GPU as on this machine, had nearly identical frame rate numbers when we tested that rig in August with Far Cry 2. The difference? It had to run at 1366x768 to reach those figures, whereas we were able to reach as high as 1080p and still not dip below 25FPS. Impressive, to say the least.
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Battery Performance

And now comes the part where we collective take a breath and exhale with: "Ouch." The G51J-A1's battery life is nothing at all to brag about; in fact, it's probably the weakest point of the whole system aside from the lackluster keyboard. We asked Asus what this 6-cell battery was rated for in terms of hours, and they were quick to point out that they don't rate their batteries save for a few Eee PCs which they feel get great enough life to gloat about. On one hand, we appreciate that approach as it doesn't give buyers a false impression of what to expect. On the other, it's sort of like lying-by-silence. By not giving buyers any indication whatsoever of what to expect, you're essentially leaving out a vital specification that may make them look elsewhere for a better machine. Of course, that's why we're here--to clear up these ambiguities once and for all.


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We should first clarify (once again) that this machine is a gaming rig. There's a Core i7 CPU in here that's probably faster than your year-old desktop CPU, and the NVIDIA GPU is a power drain in and of itself. For all intents and purposes, you can think of this as a desktop within the shell of a notebook. That said, the battery life is just abysmal. On the Core 2 Duo-powered G51VX that we reviewed in August, our Battery Eater test--which does a great job of mimicking "real-world" use on a notebook while tracking the drain down to the second--found that it could last 104 minutes, or just under two hours. The more powerful CPU in the G51J-A1 obviously hurts the battery life, as we could only squeeze out 89 minutes under "real-world" circumstances.


Folks, that's not even 1.5 hours. Of course, you could stretch that number somewhat by disabling Wi-Fi, dimming the screen and not doing much of anything on your laptop, but then what's the point? The bottom line here is that you shouldn't expect the G51J-A1 to last long away from an AC outlet, but honestly, you probably never were expecting that. If you need a machine to last awhile on your road trip, snap up a cheap netbook (or five extra batteries for this thing).


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Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra testing, the G51J-A1 showed that it was a strong performer when compared to other notebook hardware, and only lagged behind certain desktop components. Gaming was a breeze, with the potent 1GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260M GPU handling Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Half-Life 2: Episode 2 at 1920x1080 with no problems at all. Far Cry 2 strained the system as expected, but it was still very playable with AA turned off and the resolution cranked down a bit. Multimedia playback was also no problem with this rig, though the lack of a Blu-ray Drive option is curious. The G51J-A1 is a real performer; the hardware is top-notch, but its the supporting cast of components gives us some pause.



For those that skipped out on the Asus G51VX in anticipation of Intel's next move: congratulations, your patience has paid off. By waiting just a few months, you can now select the Asus G51J-A1, a machine with Windows 7 already loaded on and a very powerful Core i7-720QM under the hood. Oh, and did we mention that the MSRP has been lowered by $200? Because it has. Asus has done a commendable job of shoving a desktop replacement into a 15.6" shell. The 1080p panel looks gorgeous even on a screen of this size, and we never had any issues with eye strain along the way. The hardware list here is no joke; this thing is built to blast through 3D titles and multimedia, and it does that job very well.


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Still, we can't wrap this up without explaining some of the corners that were cut in order to product a Core i7 mobile gaming machine below the $1500 price point. For starters, the keyboard is real low point. The flat, slick keys were a pain to type on, and the left-justified nature resulted in lots of missed keys and making lots of errors. Then there's battery life. The 6-cell will only last around 1.5 hours in normal circumstances, and far less if you're gaming or watching a DVD the whole time. Third, there's the optical drive. It's an aged 8x DVD burner on a machine with Blu-ray ambitions. Why give a unit a 1080p panel, and no movie playing device to really take advantage? We know that a BD drive would've likely added at least $100 to the MSRP, but an option would've been nice for those willing to pay the premium.


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All in all, the G51J-A1 is great at being itself, but not so great at being your "do-it-all" 15" notebook. The keyboard is just too lackluster to be used for daily typing chores, note taking, etc., and the battery is too poor to use on the road for any real length of time. It's a portable gaming rig in a form factor that's smaller than those gigantic 17" and 18.4" machines out there and that's about it. If you're willing to deal with the fact that this can never be your "everything" machine, great--you'll love it. The gaming performance is excellent, and it's really not that bad to lug around. If you're looking for a machine that you can comfortably type e-mails on and watch BD movies when you're done fragging, you'll have to look elsewhere. We'd say this is a niche machine at its finest: it's great at one thing, but far from being the Jack of All Trades. Take this "Recommended" rating as "Recommended with Reservations." If you're a hardcore gamer, it'll suit you just fine; if you plan on doing other tasks more than gaming, we'd suggest you select a different notebook.

     
  • Blazing Fast Core i7-720QM CPU
  • Great Value At $1499
  • Backpack And Mouse Included
  • Top-Notch Specifications
  • Amazing Gaming Results

 

  • Gets Warm During Normal Use
  • Awful Battery Life
  • Lots of Preinstalled Bloatware
  • Polarizing Design
  • Not Well Designed Keyboard
  • No Blu-ray Drive Option

 



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