Asus UL20A review

angle3-smallThe Asus UL20A is a 12.1 inch laptop that offers many of the advantages of a full sized notebook in package that’s not much larger than a typical netbook. It’s small, light, and gets good battery life compared to many larger laptops, but it offers significantly faster performance, better graphics, and a larger, higher resolution display than most netbooks.

The UL20A is the cheapest and smallest member of the new Asus UL line of netbooks. I recently reviewed the 13 inch UL30A, which has a larger screen, a higher capacity battery, more RAM, and a larger hard drive than the UL20A. The UL30A also has Bluetooth, and an HDMI output, both of which are missing on the smaller model. But the Asus UL20A sells for about $200 less than its bigger sibling. Are those features worth an extra $200? Probably. But if you’re looking for something smaller and lighter with a price tag near the upper range of the typical netbook, the UL20A is certainly worth considering.

The model featured in this review has a 12.1 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display, a dual core 1.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 CPU, integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD graphics, 2GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and 802.11b/g/n WiFi.

You can pick up the Asus UL20A from Amazon for $581. There’s currently a promotion where you can get a $75 Amazon gift card for free when you purchase the notebook, effectively bringing the price down to $506.

Design

The notebook measures 11.6″ x 8.3″ x 1″. While that’s small by notebook standards, it’s pretty large for a netbook. But that extra inch or two around the sides means there’s room for a 12.1 inch screen, a roomy keyboard, and a decent keyboard.

wide open

The computer is black and gray, or what some people might call silver. The lid has a brushed aluminum feel to it, but the rest of the case appears to be made of plastic. The chassis has a nice solid feel overall.

side2

Along the sides you’ll find 3 USB ports, a VGA port, Ethernet jack, and a flash card reader that can handle SDHC and Memory Stick formats. There are also mic and headphone jacks, but no HDMI output even though the laptop is capable of handling HD video.

bottom2

The speakers are located near the front of the notebook underneath the palm rest area. On the bottom there’s a single large access panel secured by three screws. Once you remove them you can access the RAM and 2.5″  hard drive. The Asus UL20A ships with a single 2GB RAM stick, but it can support up to 4GB. Fortunately there’s an empty slot so upgrading the RAM should be easy.

The battery doesn’t quite sit flush with the base of the unit, but it doesn’t stuck out very far either. Because of this, the laptop is a little thicker near the back than the front and this provides a little tilt to the keyboard.

Display

The notebook features a 12.1 inch, 1366 x 768 glossy display. Although the screen is glossy and will reflect some light, it’s not nearly as glare-inducing as some other screens I’ve used. Still, the Asus UL20A might not be the best choice if you’re looking for a laptop that you will regularly use outdoors.

front-mirror

The screen is sharp, but not too sharp. I’ve seen some 10 inch laptops with 1366 x 768 pixel displays and my eyes hurt just thinking about the dot pitch on those models. During the week that I tested the Asus UL20A I never found myself squinting or moving my face closer to the display in order to read text. And if you do think the screen is too sharp, you can always tweak your settings to adjust the DPI, something which Windows 7 makes easier to do than ever — just type “display” into the Windows start menu, and change the setting from Smaller to Medium.

angle1

The viewing angles for the screen are fairly decent and I didn’t have any trouble reading web sites when looking at the computer from a bit to the right or left, or with the screen tilted up or down.

Keyboard and Touchpad

Asus went with a chiclet-style keyboard for the UL20A. It’s nearly identical to the keyboard used on the Asus UL30A. But because this notebook is smaller, the keyboard is as well.

keyboard

At first, I thought that was a big problem, because the UL30A has a dedicated row of keys on the right side for Home, PgUp, PgDn, and End. That makes sense on a 13.3 inch laptop that has room for a full sized keyboard. But on a 12 inch model, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough room for the rest of the more commonly used keys. But after a day or two of using the Asus UL20A, I was in love with the keyboard.

I don’t find the keyboard too small, which probably has something to do with the fact that you could chop off the extra row of keys on the right side and the keyboard would still be about the same size as a typical 10 inch netbook keyboard, if not bigger.

In fact, if you take a look at this photo comparing the smaller Asus Eee PC 1008HA keyboard with the Asus UL20A keyboard, it’s pretty clear that the Ul20A has a larger keyboard even without the extra keys on the side:

w_1008_5_keyboards

Having dedicated Page, Home, and End buttons also means that Asus could assign extra features to the Arrow keys. On Asus netbooks, these buttons often serve double duty as Home, End, and Page keys. But on the Asus UL20A, the arrow keys act as media buttons. For example, Fn+Down arrow is the play/pause button while Fn+Up is the stop button.

Having gotten quite used to having media playback buttons on my 15.6 inch laptop, I didn’t realize how much I missed them on ultraportables until I spent some time working on the Asus UL20A while listening to music. I was able to pause Windows Media Player in a split second to take a phone call, and then start it up again just as quickly when I was done.

In a typing test, I managed to tap out about 90 words per minutes, which is pretty close to my average typing speed.

touchpad

The touchpad is also very similar to the one on the Asus UL30A, but a bit smaller. It features a textured, bumpy surface that makes it easy to detect where the palm rest ends and the touchpad begins without recessing the trackpad. There’s a single button below the touchpad with a rocker to let you register left and right clicks. I’d prefer two distinct buttons, but this one gets the job done.

One strange thing is that while the touchpad is capable of supporting multitouch gestures such as pinch to zoom, the drivers included on my review unit didn’t support two-finger scrolling. The Asus UL30A could handle two-finger scrolling out of the box. Instead of scrolling up and down in web pages, documents, pictures, or other applications by moving your finger up and down the right edge of the touchpad, two-finger scrolling lets you scroll by placing two fingers anywhere on the touchpad and moving up and down.

2-finger scrollAfter digging around in the included Synaptics touchpad settings console for a while, I decided to try downloading the generic Synaptics touchpad software from the Synaptics web site, and that worked like a charm. While Synaptics suggests using drivers from your computer manufacturer instead of the generic drive, in this case the generic driver is definitely the way to go.

Once I installed the generic driver, the touchpad was just as easy to use as the one on the Asus UL30A, if a bit smaller.

Performance

Like the Asus UL30A, the UL20A has a 1.3GHz dual core Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor and integrated GMA 4500MHD graphics. If you’d expect it to get similar performance based on those specs, you’d be absolutely right. The UL20A was able to handle 720p and 1080p HD video playback with ease, as well as 720p HD Flash video content from the web.

But the SU7300 is designed to offer decent performance without taxing your battery too much. It’s not a miracle worker. For instance, YouTube announced this week that it’s going to start hosting some Flash videos with 1080p resolutions, and when I checked out a sample video with the Asus UL20A, playback was choppy as all get out. If you want to watch 1080p Flash video you’re either going to need a faster processor or a laptop with a dedicated video card that will work with the new GPU-accelerated version of Flash Player 10.1 that Adobe is expected to launch soon. Update: I just learned that the new Flash Player 10.1 will support GMA X4500MHD graphics. That solves one problem!

high performanceAsus makes it easy to adjust the processor speed in order to boost performance or battery life depending on your needs. Using the Power4Gear Hybrid Engine, you can choose from four modes: High Performance, Entertainment, Quiet Office, and Battery Saving.

The first two will basically offer the best performance, while the latter two severely underclock the CPU and adjust Windows 7 graphics and other settings in order to squeeze out extra battery life.

The end result is that while you can definitely surf the web, edit documents, and perform other netbook-like tasks with in Battery Saving mode, HD Flash video playback and other CPU-intensive tasks may be out of the question.

For comparison’s sake, I ran a series of benchmarks on the Asus UL20A in High Performance and Battery saving mode. These are the same tests I ran on the Asus UL30A and the Acer Aspire One 1410 with a dual core Intel Celeron SU2300 processor.

lilbench

Here’s  a quick summary of the benchmarks: The audio transcode test involves converting a 13 minute, 24 second audio clip from WAV to MP3 using WinLAME. The video test involves transcoding a 4 minute, 34 second video file to XViD using VirtualDub. And the folder copy and zip tests involve copying the contents of a folder (478MB, 2186 files) into a new folder and then creating a ZIP file containing those files using 7-Zip.

I’m pretty certain that the 10 second score shown for the Asus UL30A in the folder copy test was a freak accident, so I make sure to run that test a few times now and take the average score.

As you can see from the chart, the Asus UL20A performed almost exactly like the Asus UL30A on the tests, which is to say pretty darn well in high performance mode. In battery saving mode, the processor is underclocked significantly to save battery life, and that takes a hit on performance. As the chart shows, in battery saving mode the Asus UL20A isn’t nearly as fast as even the Acer Aspire 1410 with a slower Intel Celeron SU2300 processor.

But it is worth noting that the audio and video transcode scores in the battery saving test are still far better than what you’d expect from a netbook with an Intel Atom N280 CPU. For instance, the Asus Eee PC 1008HA took 457 seconds to transcode the same video and 73 seconds to transcode the audio file. The folder zip test took 151 seconds on the Eee PC 1008HA, and the folder copy test took 80.

The Asus UL20A did feel a bit more sluggish than the UL30A in day to day use. It took a few seconds longer to boot and resume from hibernation, for instance. There are at least two possible explanations for this. It could be due to the fact that the UL20A has 2GB of RAM while the 13 inch model has twice that.

Or it could be because the Asus UL30A I reviewed had Windows 7 RC installed and didn’t come preloaded with all of the Asus software, security software, and other applications that are on the Asus UL20A. It’s possible that uninstalling some of these utilities could speed up performance a bit.

windex

The computer got a 3.3 on the Windows Experience Index, with the lowest scores coming in the graphics/3D graphics areas. That’s slightly below than the 3.4 the Asus UL30A scored, but not much lower.

I already mentioned that the computer’s media keys come in handy when listening to music. So do the speakers, which are louder than those found on most small notebooks. Of course, they’re still a little tinny and no replacement for a god pair of external speakers.

techvi

The 0.3MP webcam is nothing to write home about, but it can snap some quick photos or shoot some video. If you want to do any serious video recording or chatting you might want to invest in a USB webcam. You can watch a video recoded using the Asus UL20A webcam at TechVi.

Battery

The Asus UL30A gets remarkably good battery life, running for up to 10 hours on a charge while surfing the web using WiFi. Unfortunately the Asus UL20A isn’t in the same league when it comes to battery performance.

battery

In high performance mode, I was able to run the Asus UL20A for just 4 hour and 5 minutes while surfing the web over WiFi and watching one short video on YouTube. That’s not bad by 2005 standards, but in 2009 I kind of expect more from an ultraportable laptop.

On the bright side, Asus does offer more. If you flip over to Battery Saving mode, you can squeeze an extra two hours of life out of the battery. I was able to get 6 hours and 1 minute of run time out of the laptop in Battery Saving mode while running a similar web surfing test that included watching one 5 minute YouTube video.

battery savingAs I mentioned, the computer will take a serious performance hit in Battery Saving or Quiet office modes. But for most tasks, the UL20A still feels pretty responsive even in this mode and will outperform most netbooks at CPU-heavy tasks like transcoding video.

But while you can easily watch 720P Flash video in High Performance mode, the video will look more like a slide show with the Battery Saving features turned on.

Software

Asus crams the UL20A with a number of utilities. Some, like the Power4Gear Hybrid utility that lets you adjust system settings to preserve battery life are extraordinarily useful. others, like ControlDeck, a 3D application for adjusting system settings are simply pointless eye candy. Fortunately, you can uninstall any programs you don’t want or need.

controldeck

There’s Asus WebStorage, a utility that lets you access web-based storage from the Windows explorer. Asus is offering up to 500GB of online storage space to customers that pick up a number of new Asus notebooks. You also get utilities to backup your files to the cloud if you register for a premium account.

The program also comes with a utility to create backup discs that will restore your computer to its factory default condition as well CyberLink Blu-Ray Disc Suite and trial versions of Trend Micro Internet Security, Microsoft Office 2007.

The Asus UL20A also has Express Gate software, which is based on DeviceVM’s Splashtop. This lets you boot into a light weight Linux desktop that gives you quick and easy access to Firefox, Skype, and a handful of other applications in just a few seconds without waiting for Windows to load.

Verdict

The Asus UL20A is an interesting laptop that’s a bit of a cross between a netbook and a full sized, full power notebook. While it’s not as small or light as a typical netbook, this 12.1 inch laptop has a larger screen and keyboard and it performs CPU-intensive tasks like transcoding video.

And the UL20A’s not that much bigger or heavier than some netbooks. Weighing in at about 3.5 pounds, it’s just 0.3 pounds heavier than the Asus Eee PC 1000H 10 inch netbook I’ve been using for the last year. And it’s just a little larger:

w_1000h_1

In fact, the Asus Eee PC 1000H is a little thicker in the read than the UL20A, but to be fair, the Asus Eee PC 1000H was one of the largest 10 inch netbooks ever released. You can find more images of the Asus UL20A and the Eee PC 1000H in the gallery below. There are also some comparison shots with the Eee PC 1008HA, which is noticably smaller and slimmer.

On the other hand, the UL20A has a Consumer Ultra Low Voltage processor and integrated graphics. For $500 to $600 you could probably find a lager, more powerful notebook that can handle video games that would make the UL20A choke.

side open1

But all things considered, it’s hard to find another laptop that packs this much power into this small and light a package for under $600. The Acer Aspire Timeline 1810T is comparable, but I personally prefer the keyboard, touchpad, and general build quality of the Asus UL20A. I also find the 12.1 inch HD display to be a little less painful on the eyes than the 11.6 inch screen on the 11.6 inch Acer Aspire Timeline series of laptops.

You can find more images in the gallery below, and share your thoughts about this notebook in the comments and in the Liliputing Product Database.

  • jack

    dude…awesome review! thanks!
    it doesn't sound like you were too superimpressed with it. I think the battery life is the biggest downfallin my mind.

  • goddzeus

    I wonder if we will see an Intel CULV processor pair with an ION GPU netbook before Xmas. This is the combination what the massive tech geeks and HD media fan want. Anyone have any insight and how much it may cost? I think it will need to be under $499.00.

  • ruudboek

    Can't agree more ;)

  • goddzeus

    I think the company who first come out with an Intel CULV processor pair with an ION GPU netbook is going to win alot of market shares. There is market niche for web surfing, HD streaming and HD media. All my HD movies and son's cartoon are 1080p MKV format. I need a netbook that can handle these movies instead of waste time to convert these files to a different video format. I will BUY TWO!!!

  • ruudboek

    I just want to be able to do some proper gaming.

  • Devin

    Hey, I noticed you put the typical netbook results for your benchmarks into a paragraph below the bargraph of the comparison results. I think it would be better if they were included in the bargraph as well. That way someone deciding between this computer or a netbook would easily see the performance differences.

  • jack

    just a quick question – these benchmarks are all with the 47WHr battery. Didn't michael say his was a 63 WHr battery? Are there different batteries? Can anyone double check theirs and post a pic??

  • oryoki

    Thanks for including standard performance tests in your reviews. To put the numbers in perspective, I'd suggest that you run the tests on a “typical” Atom-powered netbook, such as the Asus 1005Ha with Windows 7.

    Asus says the UL20a has a 6 cell battery, and the UL30 has an 8 cell battery. That doesn't come close to explaining the difference in battery life you observed. Is the mAh rating of the UL30 double that of the UL20? Thanks.

  • http://liliputing.com Brad Linder

    Actually Asus describes the UL30A as a 12 hour battery and this as a 7.5
    hour battery. Neither is quite true.

  • jack

    well, the ul30a is 5600mAh battery with 67 WHr. I think the ul20a is a 4400 mAh with 47 WHr – that's probably what explains the difference….unless there are different batteries. I guess we'll see, I'm getting mine on Friday and will post a pic of the battery.

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  • Michael

    In Asia, the battery is 63W and getting 7 hours with wifi on is very normal. I think in the US, it is the lower capacity battery, thus, explains why it is so cheap in the US.

  • chris

    I tried the Express Gate feature… it's really cool!! should add this on EeePC I have!

  • Dave

    Brad, any indication the ul20 is experiencing any wireless connection issues similar to ones others have reported with the ul30 (frequent drops, weak signal strength, etc.)? I know most of these problems are linked to the ul30-a2 with the artheros wireless card, do you know which card was installed on your ul20?

  • http://liliputing.com Brad Linder

    I haven't had any problems, but I've also primarily used the notebook at
    home so I haven't tested it with every router available.

    I don't know what wireless card it uses off the top of my head, and I just
    boxed the notebook up to return, but I'll see if I can find out.

  • Michael

    Dave I have noticed using Express Gate, the Wifi Signal is stronger and can pick up wifi networks that Windows 7 cannot. Strange and weird.

    Btw Brad, will there be a speed increase if I upgrade 2GB to 4GB RAM?

  • jack

    do u know the part # of that battery? we may be able to order it directly from ASUS.

  • Dan

    It seems like a decent laptop, I think having one of the better designs of the new portable/ultra thin laptops that have been recently released.

    I like the build and design and I think Asus is heading in the right direction but there's a few major setbacks which are holding it back from being a real winner:
    1. better battery life (the UL30a has around 10hrs/charge running on the same processor while the UL20a runs at about half that)
    2. replace the glossy screen with a matte screen (matte is generally more desired than glossy, and not being able to use an ultraportable outdoors because of a glossy screen is a letdown)
    3. bluetooth capabilities

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  • shelley181

    My UL20A came with Intel 1000 BGN, and I have had very sturdy and strong connections for the first day that I have been using the computer. In fact, based on general complaints, I pre-purchased an extra apple antenna, thinking I would have to install it, and now feel like I really jumped the gun. So far the wireless is just as good as my other laptop.

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  • http://liliputing.com Brad Linder

    It has the Atheros AR132 WiFi card.

  • Joshua

    Brad,
    Thank your for the excellent review on the Asus UL20A. I will soon order one, but I was wondering if you played around with the BIOS settings and if there was the option to boot from a USB device (or if the manual mentions something about it). Since there is no optical drive, I would like to know if this option is available so I can make a fresh install of Windows 7 via a bootable USB drive.
    I appreciate any information you can provide.
    Josh

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Deniska-Zaycev/100000332797680 Denisoka Denisokaa

    все клево только где цена??

  • jack

    just got it. it looks very very nice. not as diminutive as the msi wind u100 overall, but it feels thinner and it does not feel significantly larger. screen is very nice. tons of bloatware. face recognition in the camera – which is reasonable though its 0.3 mp. i do notice it lags.

  • jack

    oh yeah…the rocker mouse button is annoying

  • jack

    craziest thing ever….ya'll see the little slits above F10 F11 and F5 F6 in the close up pic of the keyboard? it seems that's the way the keyboard is removed..>? >..anyway, it's a thin sheet of aluminum that isn't really anchored down, so it flexes anytime you hit anything on the # row or F row…. is this really true for everybody's too??

  • michael

    Everybody says there is this Turbo mode to increase the processor 1.3 to 1.7.

    I can't find it at all. Is this true at all?

  • jack

    alright, it's going back…..can't keep a friggin wifi signal more than a few feet from the router. aint nothin ultraportable about that!

  • pete

    UL30vt, UL50, UL80 models only for Turbo33

  • larindom

    I bought it a little month ago and I love it. It can play Football Manager 2010 just fine and it runs a looong time on battery in my standards. Furthermore, it has great n-draft wifi and bluetooth (scandinavian model). And it runs with a SU2300 here, which is actually not that much different from the su7300 – gets 3,9 in processor score in index experience. All in all, I am very happy with my purchase – and usually I love powerful gaming notebooks (last one with GF8600gt 512 and T7200). This little guy though has made me quite fond and possibly lifetime-addicted to subnotes. Yeah.

  • David

    Nice review!
    But what about noise levels? Is it all quiet when idle? Different levels on AC/battery?

  • tom69

    Larindom, c-ulv processor in your scandinavianmodel? Must be kinder to the battery than core2duo. How many hours wifi surfing do u get?
    Im looking for a 11,6-12,1 machine for web/movies/word mostly during my long travels and this seems do be a good canditate but asus…ive heard some nasty rumours about the quality? My other computer, sony vaio 13,3 has been up and running almost 24/7 for 3 years without any problems (except sonys support when the recovery disc didnt work)

  • Jim

    it's the quietest and coolest laptop I had so far. I am very picky about noise and I have no complaints at all about this laptop. Even if the fan do turn on high mode, it doesn't bother(still quiet). But if you don't want to hear the fan at all like me, just run in the “quiet office” mode(still very fast) and you'll have a silent laptop(I usually only hear the hard drives). So, noise shouldn't be the concern when you buy this laptop.

  • Tom SONY

    Mine comes in 4G RAM and bluetooth. 802.11n /Gigabit LAN /Bluetooth V2.1. Still 6C battery tho. Still testing, but my last computer was a VAIO, so this was 1/2 of what I paid for my last notebook 2 years ago. We'll see.

  • serkandilaver

    Dear sir;
    I wanna watch full hd(1080p) film on tv screen and surfing internet. Which one is your advice: asus UL20A 12.1 inch or ASUS Eee PC 1201N (Atom N330). (about performans/price+mobility)
    Best regards.

  • Arie

    Thanks Brad, great review. How does the Asus UL20 stack up against the Asus eee pc1201n in your view?

  • david

    Great review. I have been using my UL20A for a month now. The battery life is great if you don't need to go into High performance mode. The model I am using has only a SU2300 processor but a 63Whr battery. 8hr + battery life is possible if you're working mainly on documents and spreadsheets.

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  • dan

    I've got the 63Wh battery too. By the looks of it, the part number is A32-UL20. The notebook's part number is UL20A-2X064V.

  • dan

    Folks – is there any trick to get the UL20A too boot from an USB stick? Strangely, it detects my pen drive at boot time, but still boots Win7. My other laptop can boot just fine from the same pen drive.

  • dan

    Never mind that, got it. The trick is to have to USB stick plugged in before powering up. That's because setting the boot device priority (putting removable devices at the top of the list) is not enough. The USB stick is treated as a hard disk by the BIOS, so the hard disk priority has to changed too.

    Having the stick plugged in before powering up will make it show up in the hard disk list.

  • dan

    The model number as reported in /proc/acpi/battery/BAT0/info is UL20A56

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  • Jon

    Seeing as how this was released towards the end of last year, should I wait for the newer Asus UL20AT to come out? Will there be a significant price drop for the UL20A once this happens?

    As always, thanks for the informative review.

  • http://1untuksemua.blogdetik.com alfi94

    How about temperature at keyboard, palm rest, and touchpad?

  • sonali

    should i buy this or the 1201 N…asus ul20 or asus 1201N

  • sonali

    should i buy this or the 1201 N…asus ul20 or asus 1201N

  • http://www.laptopbatteriesinc.co.uk/asus-eee-pc-701-laptop-battery-p-6877.html asus laptop battery

    a 11,6-12,1 machine for web/movies/word mostly during my long travels and this seems do be a good canditate but asus…ive heard some nasty rumours about the quality

  • http://www.laptopbatteriesinc.com/ mylaptopbattery

    ASUS is famous for it good quality ,I use ASUS sevel years,I like it very much

  • Ironmantis7x

    Thanks for the great review… This review was one of the reasons I bought the ul20a. I find this laptop to be great in terms of speed, portability, price and function (VERY Linux friendly!).

  • http://www.dressesofwedding.com/ wedding dresses

    Great review. I have been using my UL20A for a month now.

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  • Daniela Izursa

    i have had this computer for the past 4 years, with no problems at all!!! it’s just magnificient. I want to upgrade to a new one in a couple of months, and not sure which one to choose, could you give me a hand with that, please?