We've fallen in and out of love with more sexy ultraportable laptops than we care to remember. If we haven't been gazing lustfully at the gorgeous Sony Vaio TX3, we've been hankering for the sumptuous, leather-clad Asus S6F. So it's no surprise our wandering eye has latched on to the new size-zero hero -- the £1,399 Asus U1. Not only is it the first Vista-powered laptop we've tested, it has the perfect blend of portability and usability.
The mercurial Asus designers have turned us off as often as they've turned us on, but their latest effort, the U1, certainly falls into the latter category. Its 11-inch screen, 276 by 28 by 192mm dimensions and 1.1kg weight promotes a maternal instinct that made us want to protect it from the clutches of curious, fawning bystanders.
Two of the laptop's most notable aesthetic features are its 'piano black' lid, which is reminiscent of LG's Chocolate phone, and the matte-black leather that surrounds the keyboard. Asus says this is genuine cowhide. We can't vouch for its authenticity, but some overtly carnivorous members of the team had to be forcibly restrained from trying to lick it, which speaks volumes.
The keyboard itself is covered in glitter, but it's a subtle effect that doesn't detract from the sleek black aesthetic. More importantly, it feels good to type on. The keys are a little on the small size, but they should only prove annoying if your fingers are unnaturally large. Likewise, the mouse trackpad is responsive, and the mouse buttons provide good tactile feedback.
The entire laptop is lined with a glossy chrome outer rim, which is also present around the mouse trackpad. You also get chrome on the Asus logos on the lid and below the screen, and on the U1 logo below the keyboard.
Looking around the laptop, you'll notice the conspicuous absence of an optical drive. Instead, you get an external DVD rewriter that connects to a USB port and adjacent DC power outlet on the left of the laptop. You get a further three USB ports, one on the left, two on the right, plus a 4-pin FireWire port, all of which is reassuring, given that most ultraportables are light on expansion capabilities.
Other neat touches include a 1.3-megapixel camera above the screen, and a hardware Wi-Fi switch on the right, which is useful when an air stewardess tells you to disable your wireless devices. You also get a single ExpressCard slot, LAN and modem ports, and a fingerprint reader between the mouse buttons. This last inclusion is more a novelty than anything else -- given how prone the lid is to picking up fingerprints, it wouldn't take much for a determined thief to lift your prints using a bit of sticky tape.
Instead of red or blue LEDs, the U1 features a set of white LEDs below the screen. These show hard-disk activity as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth status. To the right of these LEDs is the power button and a small microphone, while to the far left is the increasingly familiar Asus PowerGear 4 switch, which lets you adjust the laptop's gearing towards performance or battery life as required.
The U1 isn't blessed with the fastest of components, but that's not to say it's feeble. Asus has managed to cram in a 1.06GHz dual-core U2400 Core Duo processor and 1.5GB of RAM, which is more impressive than the typical single-core CPU and 1GB of RAM we've seen in similar laptops. If 1.5GB of RAM sounds like an unusual number, that's because the laptop has 512MB built into the motherboard and a further 1GB of removable memory. If 1.5GB doesn't sound like much, there's always the possibility of adding more memory courtesy of Vista's ability to use ordinary USB keys as system memory.
Don't expect the U1 to run modern 3D games -- its onboard graphics card is rather pathetic. It can run Vista's flashy 'Aero' user interface which is a bonus, but you can't run games unless you use Asus' forthcoming XG Station external graphics card as an add-on to provide more 3D horsepower.
The U1 has an excellent display. It runs at a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels and despite only having 11 inches to display its wares, it's remarkably clear, with good levels of contrast and a wide viewing angle. The only drawback is its glossy coating, which reduces its usability somewhat in brightly lit rooms or when used outdoors.