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Customer Review

324 of 342 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good for casual user, better for advanced users. Great price., November 29, 2012
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This review is from: ASUS S56CA-WH31 15.6-Inch Ultrabook (Personal Computers)
Overall, this is a decent to good Ultrabook, providing fantastic value at the price point the i3 version is being offered for ($500 at time of purchase). I'd rate it at 3.5 stars. It's a handsome looking notebook and I bought this to replace a tiny netbook my wife had been using; the price of this Ultrabook is only a couple hundred more than a difficult to use small, brand new netbook, while having good functionality (good luck typing on a fancy, more expensive tablet, or sub 11" notebook), more processing grunt than tablets and most netbooks, all within a slim, relatively lightweight profile that is suitable for travel.

There are a lot of pros and cons to this ultrabook, but some of are non issues to casual users, while others make this ultrabook better suited to advanced users (or advanced users who set it up for a casual user).

The quality and appearance is great. The aluminum body and top lid are very sleek looking. The darker brushed aluminum on the top does tend to discolor and pick up fingerprints with ease. It's not terribly heavy and while the base is very sturdily built, the screen lid feels a bit flimsy. The top lid appears to be a combination of flimsier plastic, with a very thin brushed aluminum overlay. Lightly pressing on parts of the lid causes the LCD screen to have fluctuations. Despite the notebook being light, you'll want to resist picking up the notebook by the lid/screen, as it may risk damaging the LCD.

The glossy screen is clear, but has very poor viewing angles. 1366 x 768 resolution is merely adequate. Minor backlight bleeding on right and left edges. Colors are bright, vibrant, with a lot of contrast, but actual gamut (range of natural colors it can reproduce) is only average. This isn't a graphics workstation replacement nor intended for photographers/graphic artists who will be using this notebook for producing color perfect prints, so it's mostly a non issue.

The large touchpad seems to have fairly high dpi sensitivity, which is a very good thing. Swiping and navigating with the touchpad is fairly smooth, although I did experience an occasional stutters. Two and Three finger multitouch work as advertised. There is an easy to understand short manual showing users how to take advantage of the touchpad features. One of the nicer ones is to swipe in from the right edge to bring up the Windows 8 "Charms" bar.

I'm a big fan of island style keyboards and having a full numpad. Keyboard feels very good to use and will have no problems for users who need to do a lot of typing and numerical input with it.

The speakers are pretty unique and are actually integrated into the laptop's battery and produce a fantastic range of sound for a laptop. Among the best I've heard. UPDATE: Apparently, they're in the laptop. The battery has a faux speaker cover looking applique.

The i3 provides a nice balance between power consumption and speed. The i3 is not slow by any means and the Intel integrated graphics aren't either. While you won't be able to play the newest games on high settings on this, many games are completely playable at low-mid settings. 1080p videos play flawlessly (when output to a higher resolution screen). The Intel integrated graphics share graphics memory with the computer-- if you add another 4GB of RAM (~$25), you can, through the BIOS settings, increase total graphics memory allocation to 512MB. I was able to play Shogun 2: Total War on decent quality settings after a small memory upgrade. The graphics power is around that of the Nvidia GT 610M or GT 630M (with max 512mb memory allocation).

This ultrabook has an integrated 24GB mSATA SSD (short type) on the motherboard and a 500GB 5400 rpm secondary hard drive, where both operate in tandem as a hybrid HDD (via Intel IRST). This provides relatively quick boot up and loading of most programs, but the 5400rpm hard drive a big crutch and despite any marketing, these 5400rpm drives are always a crutch and I've had a bit of slowdown on this notebook solely due to the 5400rpm drive. I swapped it out for an SSD, but it was a lot of work, which I'll get into later. This Ultrabook operates much faster and more reliably with an SSD in place of the 5400rpm mechanical drive.

A nice amount of ports, USB 2.0 and 3.0 work at advertised speeds, HDMI and VGA out is nice, although I do wish it had an eSATA port. The camera is not very good and produced a very grainy picture. It's a typical low end webcam. Bluetooth, which was included in my model, has adequate range. I am surprised that a DVD drive can fit in this form factor, squeezing one in might have resulted in some QC issues with mine-- the eject DVD button works strangely, requiring a abnormally hard button press to get the DVD tray to eject. The DVD drive motor is also incredibly loud. DC Power jack seems pretty reinforced and feels like it won't be the first thing to go, as opposed to some of the other laptops I've owned.

I get close to 5 hours with regular use which is more than adequate, considering how slim the battery is. Not as high as other ultrabooks, but this ultrabook is also less expensive.

Not too heavy on bloatware, as compared with other manufacturers. Only had about 6 unnecessary programs to remove, albeit some of the Asus apps may be useful for the casual user (as they can provide easy file swapping options for connecting smartphones, working with the webcam, and setting up power options).

RAM is pretty easy to add another 4 GB. I also do like that it is just one single panel to remove (2 screws) to access both the HDD and the extra RAM slot. If you want to remove both sticks, you will need to remove the entire bottom cover/enclosure (about 16 screws). The BIOS is very lacking in options, which is unusual for Asus. There are no options to remove the Asus boot logo, nor are there options to select which boot device to use. It doesn't appear that this ultrabook allows booting from a USB thumbdrive, as I tried several bootable thumbdrives when I was trying a clean install, each time met with failure. It does allow booting from DVD, but I would feel better knowing I could boot from USB in case of DVD drive failure. Additionally, regarding the BIOS, this uses Secure Boot and an SLIC BIOS, which for the layman, automatically loads licensing data and prevents "unsigned" bootable DVDs and thumbdrives from loading/booting. This is why the laptop has no Windows License sticker. This was a big issue for me as I tried doing a clean install of Windows 8 Pro, but the SLIC BIOS automatically kept loading up the manufacturer keys for Win 8 Standard OEM during install, preventing me from using my own Windows 8 license. I was ultimately able to do a clean install Win 8 Pro, but it required some very hacky methods and backwards logic that I'll detail in the comments.

Replacing the slow 500GB HDD with an SSD and installing an OS on it is a little tricky due to the integrated onboard mSATA SSD. If you're doing a clean install you'll have to reinitialize the mSATA SSD to restore the Intel IRST functions (Fast Boot, Fast Resume, Instant On, etc). You can also liberate and get full use of the onboard 24GB mSATA SSD as a conventional drive, alongside your own drive by deleting the GPT partitions and creating new volumes...but I recommend making a backup of all factory partitions+data from the 24GB mSATA SSD so you can return the laptop to factory settings, if necessary. The 24GB mSATA SSD is removeable, but it uses a short card; the longer, larger capacity standard size mSATA SSD cards, while they will fit, have no screw standoff to secure it. I'll be adding a laptop screw standoff so I can swap the 24GB integrated mSATA SSD with a 128GB mSATA SSD. Or you can completely remove the mSATA SSD and just have a single drive notebook. The wireless network card can be removed, but there may be a hardware lock that prevents other wireless network cards from working on the motherboard. For now, I'm happy with the Atheros card that's in there, as it's compatible with some penetration testing software I have. There's a limited amount of tinkering that can be done on this Ultrabook, and I do feel some is necessary to get the most out of this notebook (replace HDD with SSD).

Despite some of its flaws, the underlying common denominator that makes this worthy of a purchase is it's price. You get a lot of Ultrabook for not too much money. With some tweaks, such as replacing the HDD, and maybe reintigrating the Start button via the $4.99 Stardock Start 8 program, it can be a great Ultrabook for casual and advanced users alike.
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Tracked by 6 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 45 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 29, 2012 1:34:04 PM PST
K. Jancaitis says:
Nice review. Could you let us know if the outside of the DVD tray lies flush with the side of the laptop, or protrudes out slightly like it does on my unit?

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2012 2:28:11 PM PST
Michael M. says:
Last I checked it was flush, I'll have to have another looksee when I get home. It's kind of finnicky on mine to get the DVD tray to even pop out, seems to require an abnormally hard button press as light dvd eject button presses don't seem to register. I'm not sure if it's just my unit, since I got mine was a refurb Amazon Warehouse Deal for $423, likely a return from that one star, one sentence reviewer.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2012 9:02:10 PM PST
Michael M. says:
I just checked- yes it sticks out about 1mm, definitely not flush.

Posted on Nov 30, 2012 10:25:37 AM PST
SCets says:
I'm trying to do a clean install of Windows 8 after upgrading to the SSD as well. All I see when I replace the HDD with the SSD is the BIOS which doesnt have an option to boot off a CD. Would you please share how you got it to boot off the CD?

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 30, 2012 11:01:53 AM PST
Michael M. says:
Yeah the BIOS is hideously limited. I burned a Windows 8 install DVD and it automatically booted from it to run the install. I'm guessing the BIOS is hard coded to attempt to boot from DVD first, but because Windows 8 Certified hardware implements UEFI Secure Boot protocols, your bootable DVD has to be signed correctly. The Windows 8 x64 install ISO that I used was straight from Microsoft/TechNet and I had no problems clean installing (aside from it pulling the Standard OEM license key from the BIOS, when I wanted to use a Pro license key).

Right now I'm working on how to disable UEFI/Secure Boot and disable the BIOS SLIC 3.0 license key so I can install OS versions and alternate OSes of my choosing.

There's very limited information on the internet right now, since Win8 Certified hardware is just coming out and workarounds aren't well understood. I provided some input on the MS Answers site and I'm monitoring the thread.

Let me know if you need any more help getting setup.

My S56CA is running very fast with my SSD + integrated 24GB SSD cache drive combo.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 30, 2012 11:26:46 AM PST
SCets says:
Thanks for the tip on the signed DVD.

I have a spare Intel X25M-G2 lying around that I am repurposing for use in this one.

The one I downloaded was from a torrent site. Figured I would let the signed BIOS take care of the whole deal with the keys. I'll try to get a 'unmodified' image ISO and try again.

Im trying a disk cloning program after deleting the Data partition on the source drive and seeing if I can get it to boot that way and not reinstall anything as I dont mind the minimal amount of ASUS software that came with this relative to the usual bloatware experience.

Will report back on how it goes.

Thanks again!

Posted on Nov 30, 2012 6:40:12 PM PST
R. Robinson says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 30, 2012 8:32:54 PM PST
Michael M. says:
This is a lot of machine for only $500. It's less about paying a lot of money for a high end machine that's prebuilt, but finding something decent and inexpensive, poking and prodding around the hardware and software, possibly tossing a few inexpensive or spare parts at it and then wind up with something awesome by unlocking the hardware's potential and having absolute control over it. The Mac hardware and OS isn't as conducive to this kind of experimentation. Not to mention being 2-3 times as expensive. I am a bit worried that regular PC makers are following Apple's lead and completely locking down both hardware and software, as my findings are beginning to indicate. I already have a few super high end machines, so not necessary to blow huge $$.

Posted on Dec 2, 2012 8:13:28 AM PST
Initially, I thought the speakers were part of the battery too, but they're actually on the bottom and front of the device.

Posted on Dec 4, 2012 12:13:46 PM PST
Michael M. says:
I posted a full detail of the teardown, a hack to install a larger integrated SSD, and a hack to install Windows 8 Pro over Windows 8 Standard OEM on the notebookreview forums:
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