It's been a long time coming, but the world of laptops is about to get a major shake-up thanks to arrival of the Asus S6 series. Not only do these laptops feature the latest Centrino Duo components, but also they're the first to feature permanent, real leather panels.
The Asus S6F wasn't available in the UK at time of publication, but Asus assures us you'll be able to buy it some time in May. The RRP is £1,699, but expect online retailers to lower that.
The S6F is obviously the product of painstaking design. It would have been easy for Asus to ruin the delicious prospect of a leather-clad laptop by delivering a shoddy final product, but during our time with it we found it to be as sturdy and as solidly built as the rest of the Asus laptop range.
Its biggest selling point is obviously its panelling. Asus has chosen to deck the rear of the screen and the palm rest below the keyboard in a real cow-leather material, though we'd like it if there were more abundant use of leather, perhaps around the screen bezel. Despite this, the overall aesthetic is superb. Some users won't be fond of the chocolate brown colour of our review sample, but a more contemporary camel-grey colour will soon be available exclusively via the Micro Anvika site, and there's the prospect of pink and possibly crocodile-skin editions later in the year.
The gunmetal-grey keyboard and matching mouse touchpad are also attractive and make a pleasant change to the plethora of matte-black input devices that litter the laptop market. The buttons for the mouse are vaguely reminiscent of those found on the Apple Mighty Mouse in that there's no seam between the left and right buttons, which adds an air of style.
The only negative point we could find was that the high-yield battery on our review sample juts noticeably from the back of the unit. This can be replaced with a smaller battery that fits flush with the chassis. To the left side of the laptop there's a VGA port and a hard-wired switch for enabling or disabling the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. There are also modem, LAN, two well-spaced USB ports and a mic jack. These are hidden behind a magnetically sealed flap, which is a far better solution than untethered flaps that can get lost and leave ports exposed to dust and foreign objects.
There's an SPDIF headphone socket just outside the port, and on the right of the laptop an additional USB port, a DVD-rewriter drive, an ExpressCard slot and a multi-format card reader. All things considered, you'll be hard pressed to find a better-looking, more thoughtfully designed laptop.
In light of its ultra-modern exterior, we'd have probably forgiven Asus for shipping the S6F with older components. We'll give the company full credit, then, for cramming the laptop with the latest Centrino Duo technology. It uses the Intel 945GM chipset and an Intel Centrino Duo L2400 dual-core CPU running at 1.66GHz.
Our review sample shipped with 1.5GB of fast DDR2 memory, but final retail models will use 1GB. All laptops in the S6 range use the same 11.1-inch TFT SXGA screen, which runs at a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, and has Asus' glossy Colour-Shine coating. This can be a little too reflective if used in direct sun or office light, and its small size means it can be difficult to read, but we found it fine provided you enable 'Large fonts' mode in Windows XP's display settings.
We had few other issues with the laptop's usability. Its keyboard had surprisingly large buttons that were comfortable to type on, and the mouse touchpad proved responsive, despite the fact that its square-ish shape doesn't match the flatter, rectangular aspect ratio of the screen.
Connectivity, another potential Achilles heel for this and all other ultra-portable laptops, was surprisingly good on the S6F. It lacks a FireWire port, but there are three USB ports to choose from, each of which is adequately spaced, so you should have no difficulty connecting bulky USB peripherals.
An integrated ultra-slim DVD rewriter means there's no need to lug a separate optical drive, and Asus hasn't skimped on format support -- the drive can write and rewrite CDs at 24x and 16x respectively, and can write to 'plus' and 'minus' formats at up to 4x. This is a tad slow to use as your main backup solution, but it's good to have the option nonetheless.
Multimedia lovers will be pleased with the screen, as mentioned above, but they'll also be glad to find a 100GB hard drive inside the S6F. This is a massive amount of space for such a small laptop considering most of its rivals now settle for 40GB or 60GB disks. This allows you to store around 90 hours of high-quality video on the laptop, but we'd recommend you use a set of external speakers or headphones if you use the laptop to play movies or music.
Graphics performance isn't the S6F's forte. It uses the integrated display adaptor as found in the Intel 945GM chipset, so although it runs games, most modern titles will run in low frame-rate jerk-o-vision. We'll forgive it this black mark though, because that's not what the laptop is designed for.
As predicted, graphics performance was fairly pathetic. It scored a 3DMark 2006 score of 108, and although that's more than double the score of the similarly sexy Sony VAIO TX2, it's nothing to brag about. It ran Doom 3 at just 6.1 frames per second at a resolution of 1,024x768 pixels, but was far more impressive when running common productivity applications. It never once felt sluggish during everyday use and notched up a PCMark 2005 score of 2,834.
This tally is the highest we've seen from any ultra-portable laptop, and is better than we'd have expected from an average tower desktop PC before the advent of dual-core processing. More impressively, it ran virtually silently throughout our tests and was very cool during use, so if you like to use laptops as their name describes -- on your lap -- there's little risk of burning your legs.
We were unable to obtain a battery-life score from our pre-production S6F sample, but we'll update this review with a score in the near future.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide