ASUS Z71A

Laptop Review – Doug

SUMMARY: Impressive DTR features – the best is yet to come!

z71a

The good guys at Directron and AxionTech.com were nice enough to send an ASUS Z71A over to us for a while to check out. This is a largish DTR laptop featuring Intel’s Mobile 915GM Express chipset, a feature rich chipset that has Intel’s latest bells and whistles, including support for fast DDR2 memory and FSBs of 400 and 533 MHz.

The ASUS Z71A uses shared memory for video; there is an upgrade model, the Z71V, which features an NVIDIA NForceGo 6600 PCI Express Graphics Processor. Tom’s Hardware did a nice review of the 915GM and concluded “This chipset is currently the best possible compromise between performance and an acceptable price for components.”

Key Features

  • Intel ® Pentium ® M Processor with 2 MB on-die cache – Speeds at 1.67 Ghz – 2.50 Ghz (Dothan), 400 & 533 Mhz FSB; Mobile Intel Celeron M Processor with 512K/1MB on Die L2 Cache-Speed from 1.3 Ghz – 1.7+ Ghz
  • 2 SODIMM Sockets expandable to 2 GB, DDR 333/400 SODIMM
  • 15.4” LCD 1280 x 800 TFT Display
  • Embedded Intel ® 915GM VGA Graphics – Shared Memory up to 64 MB with RAM up to 512 MB, 128 MB with RAM > 512 MB
  • Azalia compliant audio chip, with 3D effect & full duplex; Built-in stereo speakers and microphone
  • Built-in card reader: SD/MMC/MS/MS PRO
  • Module Hot Swap Function and 2nd HDD/2nd Battery (PortDock II)
  • Fax/Modem/ Wireless 802.11 a/b/g LAN (with PCI card)
  • One VGA port/Mini D-sub 15-pin for external display
  • 5 USB 2.0 ports
  • Two Audio jacks – Head phone or SPDIF, Mic-in
  • One 1394 B Type jack
  • S-Video and composite TV output
  • Battery life 6.5 hrs (10 hours with second battery)
  • Dimensions & Weight – 14.0” x 10.8” x 1.4”, 6.6 lbs
  • 1 year limited warranty, upgradeable up to 3 years

ASUS Detailed Spec

Performance Upgrade to ASUS Z71V

  • Intel Centrino with 915PM (Sonoma)
  • 15.4″ 1680 x 1050 display
  • NVIDIA NForceGo 6600 PCI Express Graphics Processor

The ASUS Z71V has the same capability to manually switch FSBs between 400 and 533 MHz.

Disclaimer: This describes my experience with this product – Overclockers.com will not be responsible for any damages, direct or consequential, any consumer incurs by following this example.

PART I: Setting Up The Laptop¹

The Z71A arrived minus the HD and wireless card; the CPU (Pentium 725, 1.6 GHz 400 MHz), RAM (512 MB Kingston DDR333) and CD ROM/DVD were provided by Directron, and I had a hard drive and wireless card handy:

Parts to Install

I received the laptop without anything installed, so I’m going to show how I installed all parts. Let me state at the outset that if you can hold a screwdriver, you can set this laptop up no problem.

The parts that ship with the laptop include the CPU heatsink, fan, hard drive carrier and screws:

Parts

Tools/Supplies Needed:

  • A small Phillips head screwdriver
  • A small “regular” screwdriver
  • Needle-nose pliers or tweezers
  • Thermal grease

NOTE: DO NOT snap the battery in place – the laptop should have no power as you work on it!

To populate the laptop with its hardware, you turn the laptop over:

Back

Remove the screws I underlined in red – 11 total; the arrow is where you can easily lift the large panel from the back.

All the areas you need are accessible from the back – this is a GREAT feature – on others I have worked on, you have to just about fully disassemble the laptop to get to the heatsink, for example. I’m sure there are others with easy access, but I tend to think this is the exception.

The back consists of two parts -

Back Open

First lift off the hard drive cover, then the larger cover. Once you do this, you have exposed all the areas you need to get the laptop functioning.

¹Directron has on-line directions HERE which picture a slightly different model.{mospagebreak}

CPU and Heatsink

Inserting the CPU, heatsink and fan is a snap. First, The CPU area:

CPU Area

If you’ve built a dekstop, the only difference with the socket is that there is no lever – the CPU is secured by rotating the screw at the top of the socket:

CPU Screw

This is a loaner – the black marks are not from ASUS.

The arrow shows the lip that prevents the screw from over-rotating; it moves only 180º to lock the CPU in place – the red lines indicate the extent of this arc.
Note on the socket there are symbols to indicate when the CPU is locked and unlocked. This is the only time you will use a “regular”, or slotted, screwdriver. Here the CPU is locked in place:

CPU Socket

Once in place, the heatsink is next – a heatpipe. After applying a thin layer of thermal grease to the CPU core, the next step is to slide the heatsink in place. The heatsink consists of two parts, the base which contacts the CPU core

HS

NOTE: The heatsink I received did have a thermal pad, which I removed.

and the fin assembly. Note that the fins are very close together – what’s nice about this laptop is you can get to the heatsink easily enough to clean the fins of dust.

HS Fins

The heatsink can only go in one way – it does take a little wiggling to get in place, as it’s a snug fit. The heatsink is held in place with four screws – note that the legs of the heatsink are marked 1-2-3-4; this is the screw tightening sequence, although I simultaneously tightened 1 and 2, then 3 and 4.

This is where you need the needle-nose pliers or tweezers; the screws are small and, unless you have really small fingers, you need something to drop them in place (if the screwdriver is magnetic, you don’t need the pliers).

Once the heatsink is secured, the blower slips in place and is secured by two screws. Last, connect the fan to its power plug. Once done, it should look like this:

CPU Done

Installing RAM

This model has two RAM slots:

RAM Empty

To slip in the RAM, hold it at a slight angle (about 30º) and slip it into the socket; the RAM is indexed, so you can only put it in one way.

RAM Slant

Once the base is into the RAM slot, push the top of it down towards the motherboard and it will snap into place:

RAM

You can see above that there are two metal levers at each side that holds the RAM in place.
{mospagebreak}

The WIFI PCI Card

The WIFI PCI slot is similar the the RAM slot – the card can only go in one way and is inserted at about a 30º angle.

WIFI Area

There are two miniscule connectors that snap into small round sockets on the left hand side of the card – this is the only part that is a pain.

WIFI Buttons

The penny gives some idea of the connectors size.

These connectors are tiny – the wires do not have enough play to connect the card outside of the socket, so you have to install the card and then snap these little guys in place. It took me about ten minutes to do this – this was the most time-consuming operation of the whole assembly process.

Installing The Hard Drive

There are two parts needed to install the hard drive – the carrier and an adapter plug:

HD Parts

The hard drive area shows the connector plug at the left side:

HD Area

The adpater plug which goes on the hard drive’s pins can only fit one way – it is impossible to mount incorrectly.

HD

The hard drive is held in place with four small screws:

HD Out

The drive goes in with this way; it literally falls into place:

HD Tray

The large cover must be in place first – the hard drive is the last to go in.

HD Open

The CD/DVD Player

Last, slide in the CD/DVD player – it just snaps into place. Note that you can use this bay for an extra battery or hard drive if the player is removed.

CD

You’re done! put the covers in place, screw them down, snap the battery in place and you’re ready to power it up.

The Chipset

Chipset Area

There is nothing to do with the chipset – I removed its fan to take a look:

Chipset

There is a thermal pad on the chipset heatsink – perhaps it could be replaced by thermal grease, but I did not do this yet; you have to be mindful of clearances if you attempt this.

SUMMARY: A drop-dead-no-brainer-easy-as-pie-the-gods-must-be-crazy 33% overclocking notebook.

Booting Up The First Time

After mounting all the components and checking connections, I inserted the battery pack, hooked up the AC adapter and pressed the power button. The fans powered up, the screen showed a blinking cursor and stopped there.

Uh-oh….. What did I do wrong? I could not power it off, so I disconnected the AC and battery to shut it down. I re-checked all connections and tried again – same thing.

Crap – did I screw the pooch??

OK – trouble shooting 101 – reseat cards and try again – same deal. Next, remove everything but the essentials. The only extra was the WIFI card, so I removed it and tried again.

Success!

I called ASUS Notebook Support¹ and they informed me that only the Intel WIFI card is supported – others may or may not work. The card I used was a pull from another notebook and the ASUS did not like it at all.

The hard drive I used was a 40 GB IBM Deskstar – I thought it was empty, so when I saw the splash screen for W2000, I then remembered that I had used this drive as a short term backup when one of my desktop drives failed in my RAID mirror. It went through the usual “New Hardware Found” routine – the CD Driver disk that comes with the unit filled the bill and I was up and running.

The whole process, including reading the manual, took about three hours – this included lots of picture taking, so it slowed me down somewhat. I would be surprised if it took more than a morning to fully set up this notebook, including loading the OS and reading the manual (no real help on hardware setup, BTW.)

The Surprise

I had SiSandra on the drive, so I ran it to start to check things out. Hello – what’s this?

I find it’s running at 2.13 GHz, not 1.6 GHz.

I pick up the CPU box and confirm it’s a Pentium 725 – 1.6 GHz, SL7EG. Hmmmm….

I load CPU Cool (a VERY nice notebook utility HERE) and confirm again that it’s running at 2.13 GHz; I right-click My Computer and confirm that it is indeed a 1.6 GHz CPU.

I conclude that this is a 400 MHz part running at 533 MHz (16 * 100 = 1.6 GHz; 16 * 133 = 2.128 GHz). OK – how did this happen?? Let’s take a look at the CPU area for some clues:

CPU Area

I noticed this little dipswitch marked “SW3″ before and wondered about it – now I had a very strong hunch – this sets FSBs. A quick call to ASUS confirmed it.

Selecting FSBs

This harkens back to some early ASUS motherboards that used dipswitch settings to set FSBs. In this case, it’s up for 400 FSB and down for 533 FSB:

SW3

ASUS ships the notebook set for 533 MHz. Using SW3 means that all peripherals are running at spec – not overclocked.

The Pentium M 725 is a GREAT overclocking chip – I will show some tests that I performed at both 1.6 and 2.13 GHz (a 33% overclock), and I have to say Intel gave us nice present. Considering that the 2.13 GHz part costs about $400 more than the 1.6, I think you get the drift of why I like this notebook a lot (if there are others that offer this feature, and I’m sure there are a few, drop me a line).

Folks, this is a drop-dead-no-brainer-easy-as-pie-the-gods-must-be-crazy situation. Longtime readers will appreciate the parallel to the Celeron 300.

Doing this on other notebooks might be a little messy – here’s an example of the CPU pin-mod on a Dell 9300 HERE. Not only is getting to some notebook CPUs difficult, it also involves shorting out pins on the CPU – a mistake could be costly. Overall, this ASUS is much preferred.

Conclusions

This is one notebook that delivers a nice bonus – easy FSB overclocking. With low speed 400 MHz Pentium M CPUs capable of running trouble free at 533 MHz, flipping a dipswitch is a real plus. I’ll report on performance and use testing shortly.

The ASUS Z71A is available from Directron.

¹I should note that I called three separate times and the longest wait I had was 10 minutes; I got speedy replies to my questions – not bad, although it is toll call to California.

Performance Testing

My first concern is stability – I could boot into Windows no problem and everything appears stable, but until you push it a bit, you’re not quite sure if it’s “real”. I decided to use Prime 95 to test for both stability and temperature levels at 1.6 and 2.13 GHz.

The Test

I inserted a thermocouple under the heatsink next to the CPU core as a second check to on-die temps as reported by CPU Cool. Ambient temps averaged 25ºC during the test period.

Stress Test

Temp Sensor 1 is the on-die temp.

Prime 95 Stress Test

CPU On-Die Temp

Thermocouple Temp

CPU @ 1.6 GHz

65.0ºC

52.8ºC

CPU @ 2.13 GHz

68.0ºC

54.2ºC

Under 100% CPU usage after an hour, the difference between the two is negligible.

The Pentium 725 is a gift from our pals at Intel; according to Intel’s S-Spec, the Pentium Ms can run up to 100ºC, so running at 65-68ºC is not even close to dangerous territory. It appears then that the only difference between the 400 MHz part and the 533 MHz part is the multiplier – under the hood, the SL7EG is a tiger waiting to be unleashed and the ASUS Z71A is one way to wake it up.

I have seen some anecdotal reports about the 400 FSB 1.7s and 1.8s doing the same thing, although I have to believe that as the stock speed increases, the percentage of CPUs that will overclock decreases. To check out various CPU specs, go HERE.

To give you some idea of the performance boost, I ran some SiSandra benches for comparison:

SiSandra 2005 Benchmarks

Test Speed

CPU

Multi-Media

Memory

ASUS @ 2.13 GHz

9180 2962 3789

20298 22365

2225 2226

ASUS @ 1.6 GHz

6857 2218 2836

15198 16750

2090 2100

No real surprises here – CPU and Multi-Media are about 33% higher with Memory up about 6% (Note: The RAM is rated DDR333). I was going to run 3DMark, but it gave me an “Out of video memory” error – with 512 system RAM, there is only 64 MB of video RAM; over 512 MB, the video bumps to 128 MB.

CONCLUSIONS

The ASUS Z71A, as a DTR, looks like a fine choice, considering the no-brainer performance boost from FSB overclocking. I am doing more use testing and will report back on my impressions shortly.

The ASUS Z71A is available from Directron.
{mospagebreak}

Use Testing

The following are my subjective impressions on some of the ergonomics of this laptop.

The Screen

A 15.4″ LCD running at 1280 x 800 covers a LOT of territory.

In Photoshop, for example, usually I have to scroll horizontally with some images if I have all the menus up on the screen – with this LCD, there is enough space so that the image and menus co-exist nicely. In Exel, my Sharp’s 12.1″ screen covers columns A – O, while the ASUS 15.4″ covers A – S.

I found the screen to be sharp and bright – very nice performance and easy on the eyes.

Fan Noise

The fans never revved up to full strength (except for maybe a few seconds at Boot-up) – I never found fan noise objectionable. If I had to guess, I would say it was running at about 50% capacity while running Prime 95. With a desktop CPU, the noise level would be higher. Under “normal” use, the fans are just about noiseless – and this is with the CPU running overclocked 33%.

One thing I noticed that I should mention – sometimes the fan would spin up for a few seconds and then decrease; for example, when using a Photoshop filter. The spin-up would be to the next step – not full on. Not annoying, but noticeable.

The Keyboard

The keyboard’s footprint measures 11 ¾” x 4 ¼”; this compares to 10 ¼” x 3 ¾” on a Sharp MV12W (12.1″ LCD) and 11 ¼” x 4″ on a Microsoft Digital Media keyboard. I found the Asus keyboard very comfortable and I had no problems hitting two keys at once, which sometimes happens with smaller keyboards. There is ample room to rest your palms on the laptop.

The one thing I did not like is that the Fn key is the lower leftmost key next to the Ctrl key – at first I found myself hitting Fn instead of Ctrl – you get used to it, however.

BIOS Updating

Bios Utility

A snap and done while in Windows – download the BIOS file, unzip, launch the update utility, point to the BIOS file and that’s it – could not be easier.

LCD Brightness Monitor

This is a very nice touch – there is a sensor at the top of the screen (next to the microphone) which adjusts screen brightness. Once you set the level you like (I always set mine about midway – I find the whites very bright), the sensor takes into account room brightness and adjusts accordingly. I did notice that once in a while the screen flicked a shade dimmer – the monitor may have picked up some outside light when I moved; this has happened maybe two times in a week.

Instant Launch Keys

There are five keys at the top right hand side above the keyboard to launch email, internet, wireless LAN, touchpad ON/OFF and “Power4 Gear”. Frankly, I’m not a fan of dedicated buttons as it’s just as easy to launch most of these things with Windows “Quick Launch” icons; the others you’re not going to access all the time anyway, so why bother?

CD Player Functions

This is not bad – you can play audio CDs with the notebook turned off. The usual buttons (Play/Pause, CD Stop, CD Skip Previous, CD Skip Next and CD Power) are conveniently located at the front right. You can also adjust the volume with the CD Skip buttons – holding them down adjust the volume.

Power4 Gear

There’s a bunch of power modes under AC and battery – you can select among them from settings such as “Super Performance”, “DVD Movie Performance” etc. It does give users added flexibility, although I would use this notebook as a DTR and run it on AC probably 99% of the time, so for me they are there and that’s about it.

I also feel that there are other utilities that will do the same thing and maybe a bit better – Intel’s “Enhanced SpeedStep ® Technology” is very neat and …”enables the processor to switch
between multiple frequency and voltage points instead of two.” As an example, these are settings for the 1.6 GHz:

Vcore

The utilities shown below allow users various degrees of control over settings:

CPU Cool – Temp readings included
RMClock – Nice displays but no temps
SpeedSwitchXP – The most aggressive “underclocking” of the bunch; also shows CPU speeds in the tray

Conclusions

I really like this notebook – purely a personal view:

  • The LCD is sharp, bright and covers lots of territory
  • The keyboard is full size
  • It’s very easy for users to clean, maintain and service
  • CPU upgrading and overclocking is a snap
  • It runs quietly – low fan noise
  • It’s not horribly heavy at 6.1 pounds, but not what I would consider a portable

Things I don’t like -

  • Plastic case (nice, but plastic does flex)
  • Fan intake ports – on the bottom of the notebook – you must ensure that there is no interference with airflow – on the lap or blanket is a No-No.

Overall, I think any one looking for a DTR or a “semi-portable” will find ASUS’s Z71A a very good choice – if my kids were still in school, this would be a top pick.

The ASUS Z71A is available from Directron.

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