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The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
After 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.
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!
Asus 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.