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ASUS A7JC mini review

Posted: Sun Nov 12, 2006 7:25 am
by ragnar
ASUS A7Jc 17"WXGA+,ATI X1600,Core2 Duo T5600,2 GB,120GB,DVD±RW,WLAN/BT,TV,MCE

I've just finished a few hours of desktop work on battery and with this power source the computer is a completely different beast. The keyboard is still cold to the touch. The fan is barely audible. Actually, I can't make out if it's on or if it's the HDD spinning. Feels like a bit of a shame that there aren't any settings for making the computer work in the same manner when on power from the PSU. I've done some research, and found that there are in fact ways to force the computer to at it's lowest setting no matter what load. This is by far the best way to keep the computer cool and quiet. When just browsing the web or connecting to other computers through .rdp, 987 MHz is more than enough. When doing more CPU intense work, I've found that dynamic switching is the best, though not as good as I've found AMD's Cool'n'Quiet working on desktop apps.

Part 1, Specification
The computer is a large and heavy piece, weighing in at close to 5 kg. Much as to be expected from a 17" laptop. It should be ideal for some creative thermal engineering.
The screen is of the glossy kind. Native resolution is 1440x900. I think the screen is one of the laptops absolute best features. It's crisp, fast, great contrast, vivid colours.
The keyboard is full sized and the keys have a really good feel when typing. Asus has chosen some weird positions for some of the keys. Where you would normally find the CTRL key, Asus has put their own FN key. This makes for a few weeks of relearning.

Part 2, Installation
After unpacking the computer and starting it up, I got to a sysprepped XP getting into the installation of the OS at the point where you set the regional information. From there on in it was a more or less normal XP installation until I entered the UI of Windows. Asus has, like many other OEM manufacturers chosen to install a lot of programs by default and being careless enough to set the programs to start at startup. This makes for a less than agreeable experience at startup. Knowing which of the preinstalled programs that are safe to tun off isn't as easy as with, say a desktop computer. For instance, I've noticed that CLI.exe, ATIs runtime program, which is really memory consuming and irritatingly slow to start, needs to be turned on for ATIs PowerPlay technology to function.

Asus has chosen format the two partitions in FAT32, probably for making it more compatible than if it had been set up to NTFS.
I spent the better part of two nights trying to get Windows to where I wanted it to be, and I'm not satisfied yet.

Part 3, Applications - energy saving
Asus has made a lot of noise about their Power4 Gear+ program which is supposed to "intelligently adjusts CPU speed according to system load in 8 operation modes. This innovation extends battery life up to 20-25% for reliable and continuous operation power". What the program seems to do is in to act as an additional layer on top of Windows energy scheme managment. I haven't been able to figure out if it's more complex than this or what it would do that Intels Speed step technology couldn't do by itself. The settings inside Power4 Gear+ only indicate it's just a program to shortcut the settings in Windows energy scheme.

The graphics adapter, ATI Mobility X1600, comes with ATIs PowerPlay technology. On paper it seems to mimic the technology found in Intel and AMD cpu:s (namely SpeedStep and Cool'n'Quiet). In addition to lowering clock speeds and voltages, ATIs PowerPlay is supposed to turn off certain functions in the GPU to conserve energy consumption when possible. For this to be turned on, ATIs CLI.exe has to run, which is a shame since CLI.exe seems gastly slow and poorly optimized. It's something I never ran on my desktop computers out of principle.

I've tried to get the most popular ACPI control programs manage the thermal control. Sadly I haven't been successful. There are a lot of tricks around to get SpeedFan or Notebook Hardware control to discover and being able to control fans and voltages. There's a small chance Notebook Hardware Control can handle the motherboard, but for that I

The particular motherboard in the A7JC seems to have very little support in reporting anything about fans or voltages to the ouside world. Not even Everest recognizes anything except temperatures on Core1, Core2 and HDD. Asus makes a point of this in the manual. It clearly states that the user has no control of the thermal system of the computer, which resides in three stages, 1. Passive cooling, where the CPU fan is turned off. 2. Active cooling, where the CPU fan is turned on at different voltages. 3. Critical shutdown. This is when the CPU and/or GPU-fan can't keep the system temperature at a safe level. What would have been nice is to set the thresholds for the different levels, at least 1 and inside 2.

At system startup the CPU fan isn't enabled. There's only a numb hum and some low and unintrusive seek noise from the Seagate HDD. After a few minutes of mild desktop work (Browsing, running rdp etc.) the CPU-fan is enabled. The noise isn't really loud, but it does get noticed since it's at a rather high pitch compared to the mellow 120mm @5V I'm accustomed to from my desktop computers. It strikes me as odd that such mild work needs active cooling. When doing something that strains the CPU more (PS work ripping music, compressing/decompressing .rar) the CPU fan spins up and becomes really irritating. When I play 3d games the laptop noise turns from irritating to very loud and intrusive. When the CPU and GPU fan are on full pull, I wouldn't dream of playing without headphones.

I wouldn't recommend this computer to anyone being picky about computer noise. Maybe it's because I'm used to desktop solutions that I've built with no expense saved in getting maximum noise prevention, but I have a hard time accepting having a fan so close to my ears being on all the time. This together with the lack of ACPI control mechanism makes for a frustrating experience. On the other hand. With it being a 17" screen, I've tried to watch some films on it @2m from the screen. Then the low fan noise isn't at all as intrusive. I might get a laptop cooling pad for the 99% of the time I'm bent over the PC typing.

Posted: Thu Nov 23, 2006 6:45 am
by cloneman
So even with powerplay turned down, and your cpu set to "max battery" in NHC, the fan will come on? Sounds like my dell.

Posted: Sun Dec 17, 2006 2:50 am
by davidstone28
Good write up Ragnar. I also read a couple of reviews on which said the most recent Asus laptops had pretty aggressive fan ramping and it was the only thing that spoiled what otherwise a great laptop.

Do you know if you can turn the fans off using NHC?

Posted: Tue Dec 19, 2006 6:52 am
by ragnar
If I understand NHC correctly your supposed to be able to write your own sourcecode in .net (c# i believe) for systems that aren't "officially" supported. I haven't looked into it since I got a notebook cooler which gave me the desired result without the hazzle of running software for controlling the fans. Besides it seemed like tidy work to write all those static methods - not really nicely modelled if you ask me.

To me it seems better to keep the notebook cool rather than tampering with the fan ramping. The HDD do get rather hot if I don't use the notebook cooler, so I wouldn't feel comfortable setting this down. I currently use SpeedSwitch XP and ATI PowerPlay. I set the ACPI policy to max battery and PowerPlay to Max battery when doing desktop work, and switch to dynamic switching or max performance when playing games.