Asus redefined the concept of thin and light notebooks when it launched the Eee PC line of netbooks in 2007. While the Asus UL30A isn’t quite as revolutionary, it’s a remarkable laptop that weighs about 3.7 pounds and gets nearly 10 hours of battery life.
For several reasons, it’s not a netbook. First, it’s too large. The UL30A has a 13.3 inch display. And second, with a MSRP of close to $800, it’s too expensive (although you can find it for about $100 less from Amazon). But Asus isn’t sending out review units of the smaller, cheaper 12.1 inch UL20A, so I’ve been playing with a UL30A demo unit for the last few weeks.
The model featured in this review comes with a 1.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 50GB hard drive, and a 13.3 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display. The unit I reviewed was running Windows 7 RC1, but the computer is now shipping with Windows 7 Home Premium.
The Asus UL30A is larger than your typical netbook, measuring about 12.9″ x 9.3″ x 1″ and it weighs a litle more than most netbooks, at 3.7 pounds. But it’s still relatively small and light for a laptop, and the bezel around the display isn’t unreasonably large.
There’s no question that this machine is a bit bulkier to lug around in a bag than a 10 inch netbook, or even an 11.6 inch machine like the Acer Aspire 1410. But it’s very thin and definitely a cut above any Asus Eee PC product I’ve tested when it comes to design.
The case is made of plastic, but the lid is metal. So while the bottom of the laptop gets moderately warm during extended use, the lid stays remarkably cool at all times. Not that heat buildup on the lid is typically a problem with laptops, but it always surprises me a bit when I close the computer and notice that the bottom is rather warm while the top is actually a bit cold.
Around the sides of the laptop you’ll find 3 USB ports, a VGA port, and an HDMI output as well as a flash card reader and mic and headphone jacks. There are no ports at the front or back.
On the bottom of the UL30A you’ll find two speakers located near the front of the laptop and two access panels for upgrading the RAM and hard drive.
In the top right corner above the keyboard there’s a power button. On the left side, there’s a similar button that you can use to boot into the Asus ExpressGate quick start environment instead of Windows.
There are four status LEDs located on the front of the notebook just below the touchpad. I like that they’re not particularly bright or in-your-face. Some laptops have half a dozen or more LEDs which seem to be blaring at you all the time.
Overall, the notebook has a solid feel to it. While it’s a bit large to throw in your bag and forget about, the UL30A would fit comfortably on a desk. And it’s light enough to pick up and take with you wherever you go.
Keyboard and TouchPad
The Asus UL30A has a full sized chiclet-style keyboard. After spending much of the last two years reviewing 10 inch and smaller netbooks, I’d almost forgotten that it was possible to put a full sized keyboard on a machine weighing less than 4 pounds. But not only does the island-style keyboard have full sized keys, there’s also room for dedicated Home, PgUp, PgDn, and End keys as well as arrow keys which serve double-duty as media buttons.
I found the keyboard responsive and easy to use, and managed to type at speeds up to 90 words per minute, which is close to my normal upper limit.
Aside from the arrow keys, a number of other buttons serve dual purposes. Hitting the Fn key plus the spacebar, for instance, triggers the Power4Gear Hybrid Engine, which allows you to adjust the computer’s settings to extend battery life or boost performance. The Fn keys at the top of the keyboard include controls for adjusting the display brightness and audio, toggling the WiFi, and putting the PC to sleep.
The touchpad sits flush with the palm rest are of the laptop. But it has a dimpled surface which makes it easy to detect where the palm rest ends and the touchpad begins without glancing down.
It did take me a little while to get used to the texture of the touchpad, but now that I have, I find it quite responsive and easy to use. The touchpad supports multitouch gestures such as two-finger scrolling, which works remarkably well on this laptop.
Under the touchpad is a single button which can be used to register right clicks or left clicks thanks to a rocker dial in the center. I personally prefer touchpads with two distinct buttons, but this one does get the job done.
Aside from size and price, the main things that sets the Asus UL30A apart from every netbook I’ve reviewed over the past two years are the processor and chipset. The Asus UL30A has a 1.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 dual core processor and GMA 4500MHD graphics. The processor is part of Intel’s CULV (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) line and combines relatively low power consumption (compared with most notebook chips) with decent, if not spectacular performance.
There are a number of CULV processors hitting the market right now, and the SU7300 is near the top of the line. In fact, in most respects, the Asus UL30A is faster than the Toshiba laptop I’ve been using as my primary work computer for the last 2.5 years. It probably helps that the UL30A also has 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive, compared with the 2GB of RAM and 120GB HDD on my Toshiba laptop.
Overall, the computer got a 3.4 score on the Windows 7 Experience Index. The lowest rating was a 3.4 for 3D graphics performance.
For day to day tasks including web browsing, watching online video, listening to music, and editing images using Irfanview, I had no problems at all with this laptop. It could easily handle Flash video, including SD and 720p HD video from Hulu.com, although the HD videos did need to buffer for a moment before playing smoothly in full screen mode.
To see how the computer holds up more CPU-intensive tasks, I ran my standard raft of real-world-esque benchmarks, which includes transcoding audio and video files, creating a ZIP file containing a large number of smaller files, and copying a fairly large folder. You can find more details about this benchmarking method here, as well as some information about how the Asus UL30A stacks up against a few other notebooks I’ve used.
In a nutshell, here’s what I found:
- Audio transcoding test: 32 seconds to transcode a 13:24 WAV file to MP3
- Video transcoding test: 3:22 to transcode a 4:34 file
- Folder copy test: 10 seconds to copy and paste 2186 files totaling 478MB
- Folder zip test: 1:02 to create a 453MB ZIP file containing 2186 files
That makes this the fastest computer I’ve tested to date when it comes to CPU and hard drive performance, although to be fair, most of the notebooks I’ve reviewed feature Intel Atom processors. It’ll be interesting to see how these scores fare against other thin and light laptops with Intel CULV, AMD NEO, and similar processors.
The Asus UL30A had no problem watching HD video downloaded from the Windows Media HD Showcase. CPU usage was typically between 25% and 50% while watching a 1080p video from the hard drive.
The display is about as sharp as you would expect a 13.3 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display to be, and it gets reasonably bright. In fact, I probably spent most of my time using this laptop with the display set to 50% brightness or lower because there was just no need to go above that.
The speakers are nice and loud. You may want to invest in a pair of headphones or external speakers if you plan to use this laptop as a multimedia machine, as the built in speakers are still a little thin sounding. But I have yet to find a laptop with internal speakers that can really hold their own against a good set of plug-in speakers.
The laptop has a high capacity 84Whr, 5600mAh battery which Asus claims is good for up to 12 hours. And while the battery life on this computer is amazing, you’re probably not going to get 12 hours of run time unless you plan to shut off the WiFi and use the screen at its dimmest settings. But you can easily get 9 to 10 hours on a charge when you use the computer with WiFi on for moderate activity such as surfing the web and maybe watching a few YouTube videos.
I’ve never really tested a laptop where I felt like it was less necessary to keep a power adapter handy. Over the past few weeks, I’ve regularly used the laptop for a few hours, put it into hibernate mode overnight, and then opened it the next day to use some more without the battery indicator hitting the 50% point.
Of course, the more video you watch, the quicker the battery is going to run down. But I would expect the Asus UL30A to run 5 or 6 hours even while watching videos in a continuous loop.
The Asus UL30A ships with Windows 7 Home Premium, but the unit I reviewed was delivered before Windows 7 was officially released and it’s running Windows 7 Release Candidate. As a result, it didn’t come with the full suite of Asus applications. But for the most part, I didn’t miss them. I’m not sure if that says more about my personal preferences or the lack of value added by the software that Asus and other PC makers regularly slap onto notebooks before shipping them.
I did download some of the utilities available on the Asus support site including the Power4Gear Hybrid Engine and the drivers that allow you to adjust the screen brightness and volume with keyboard shortcuts.
The Power4Gear Hybrid Engine is similar to the Super Hybrid Engine on Asus Eee PC netbooks. It lets you adjust the computer’s performance settings to either prolong battery life or give you a boost if you need more speed.
While the utility for adjusting the brightness and display is a must-have, I’m less than thrilled with the graphics that pop up on screen when you adjust those settings. Instead of an easy-to-read line graph showing the volume settings, for instance, you get a sort of pie chart that doesn’t exactly make it clear which was is up and which is down.
Asus also loads the laptop with a number of other applications including the Splashtop-based ExpressGate quick boot software. ExpressGate is basically a stripped down Linux environment that lets you open a web browser, instant messenger, Skype, and media player without waiting for Windows 7 to load. You can launch ExpressGate (if it’s loaded on your computer) using the secondary power button at the top left side of the keyboard.
There’s also a webcam utility and a program called FancyStart that lets you change the audio and graphics that show up at the boot splash screen.
The Asus UL30A is an interesting machine. It’s not the most powerful laptop you can find for $700 to $800. But it’s strength isn’t its power, so much as the combination of price, performance, and portability. It’s a lot like a netbook that way. It just happens to be bigger, more powerful, and more expensive than most netbooks.
If you value performance over all else, you can find a faster machine. If small size and light weight matter, you can find one that’s more portable. And you can certainly find cheaper laptops. But the Asus UL30A delivers significantly better-than-netbook performance in a package that still weighs just 3.7 pounds.
And if the UL30A is too big or expensive for you, Asus offers the smaller, cheaper UL20A for under $600. That laptop has a 12.1 inch display, 2GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and a 7.5 hour battery. But it has the same processor and the same basic design as the Asus UL30A.