|Introduction and Specifications|
In our 2009 Notebook Buyer's Guide, we discussed the merits and perils of CULV based notebooks. This suddenly popular and quickly growing sector looks to bridge the gap between the bargain basement netbook and the full-size notebook. It makes sense to think that a swath of 13.3" to 14" machines would be needed for those who find 10.1" netbook displays too tiny and 15.4" rigs too large, and that's exactly the sweet spot that Asus is attempting to hit with its new UL30 range. The particular model that we're looking at today is the UL30A-A1, though a handful of other configurations will be available as well. This 13.3" machine looks to offer more power than a typical netbook, yet provide nearly the same level of portability and battery life.
The UL30 was just introduced last week along with a few other CULV machines, which stands for Consumer Ultra Low Voltage. This moniker refers to the Intel processor within, which is a more powerful chip than the Atom options found in most netbooks, yet isn't quite as potent as the full-fledged Core 2 Duo CPUs found in most full-size notebooks. Again, this whole machine is about splitting the difference, and we have to admit, it's a fine line to walk. Most folks are either satisfied with having a netbook to surf the Web and handle basic Office tasks or having a full-size notebook to handle desktop-like tasks; so, who exactly is the CULV machine for? On-the-go business travelers, consumers who need just a bit more power than a netbook can offer, and consumers who have realized that those full-size notebooks are just too powerful for their needs.
There's no doubt that many will compare the UL30 to Apple's MacBook Air, and rightfully so. Asus has settled on a striking brushed aluminum lid, and while the rest of the machine is indeed plastic, the lid is definitely attractive. Measuring in at just an inch thick, this machine is nice and thin. Unlike some of Asus' thinner Eee PCs, the 8-cell battery (which Asus claims is good for up to 12 hours of life, a figure that we'll be putting to the test later) is removable. This machine is equipped with Windows Vista, as it's too potent and too large to fit the mold required to run Windows XP as a "netbook" (by definition). We'll be putting this machine to the test in the pages to come, but right from the get-go, we'd say Asus has assembled a compelling package for just $799 (as tested). So, is it worth it? Join us as we find out.
As you can see, there's an awful lot here for $799, and if you don't quite need 500GB of storage, Amazon offers the UL30A-X3 for $749 which includes a 5400RPM 320GB HDD.
|Design and Build Quality|
Asus has shown its ability to pump out stylish machines, especially lately. The Eee PC lineup has grown increasingly sexy, with the 'Seashell' range being particularly attractive. The 13.3" UL30 is just another notebook from the company that is exceptionally easy on the eyes. It's hard to describe exactly how thin this machine is. If you've ever played with a MacBook Air, this machine has that same sexy, thin feel. Sporting a brushed aluminum lid that will certainly catch the eyes of onlookers, this silver/black machine is a cut above most other CULV machines in terms of design. We know it sounds minor, but we really dig the fit and finish here. This machine is put together in a way that feels quite luxurious; it's tough to believe that a machine of this quality is "just" $799.
The port layout is fairly robust, with a trio of USB 2.0 ports, VGA and an HDMI outputs, a multi-card reader and an Ethernet port. The only knock here is the lack of an optical drive. We understand the need to leave it out in order to keep the machine thin (and priced right), but it's something you should certainly consider. Granted, USB optical driver aren't terribly expensive, but they definitely aren't as handy as having one built-in at all times.
Once you crack the lid open, you'll notice a silver casing with black chicklet style keys. We love the contrasting colors, and we have to confess that we love the keyboard. We're not quite sure how Asus managed to make this keyboard feel so roomy on a 13.3" machine, but it has. Next to the Dell Studio XPS 13, this is our favorite keyboard on an ultraportable. There is a bit of flex when mashing on the keys with some degree of force, but in general use you won't be bothered by it. Our thoughts on the textured trackpad are mixed; we liked the fact that it supports gestures like two-finger scrolling, but it simply felt a bit too slick during general use. It's easy to slide your fingers off the side of the trackpad without noticing, and the chrome left/right click bar isn't ideal.
It's the same bar found on the 'Seashell' line of Eee PCs, and it's simply too thin and too clicky for our liking. It's also far too near the edge of the machine. We know Asus did this to expand the size of the trackpad, but we think it slimmed the click bar down a bit too much when compromising. We should also point out that Asus got the "Fn"/"Ctrl" key layout correct in the lower left corner. Many keyboards have the Function key on the lower-left corner, while every desktop keyboard ever made has a Control key. Asus realized this, and it correctly put the Control key where you'd expect it to be--in the lower left. Kudos!
The 13.3" LED display is, of course, very glossy, and it's surrounded by a glossy black bezel. We're not huge fans of glossy displays in general, and we didn't like how quickly the panel and bezel picked up fingerprints. That said, the display was crisp and sharp, but reflections were present when using it in well-lit rooms. Overall, the display was on par with other ultraportable panels, though we couldn't help but long for a matte option for those who will be using this outside from time to time.
|Software and Accessories|
Asus is clearly trying its best to ensure that the price tag on this CULV machine doesn't top $800, and that means only a few accessories and software are included. Within the box, you'll find just the machine itself, a few install discs, an Express Gate user guide (that's an Instant-On operating system pre-loaded onto the UL30, by the way), a UL30 user guide, an AC adapter and an AC power cable.
On the software front, our test unit was loaded with Windows Vista Home Premium, CyberLink's Power2Go disc burning software, a suite of Asus utilities, the previously mentioned Express Gate Instant-On OS, Norton Internet Security, Adobe Reader 9, a 30-day Microsoft Office trial and...well, that's about it. Nothing too earth-shattering here, and we'd actually prefer if Norton came only on a disc so it wouldn't pester those who didn't want it every time they booted up (until they uninstalled it, of course).
We should mention that we can't wait for Windows 7 to start shipping in October, as the CULV platform (along with netbooks) stands a great chance of benefiting from Win7's improved speed and usability. But since we're still a month away from the new operating system's official ship date, the machines on the market today still use Vista.
By and large, using the Asus UL30 is a real pleasure. It's incredibly thin and light, the build quality is above average and the keyboard is very good, particularly considering the size here. Boot-up was reasonably quick, and while the 500GB hard drive only spins at 5400RPM, we were generally impressed with load times.
We should say that a 7200RPM drive or SSD would be fantastic, but we're not sure we'd be willing to a) pay the upgrade charge and b) deal with the extra heat, with a 7200 RPM HD anyway. As it stands, the machine loads applications sufficiently quick given the $799 price tag, and it never once got uncomfortably hot. We'll take quick enough, affordable and cool any day. Our test machine produced a 3.7 rating in the Windows Vista Experience, with the integrated GPU pulling the score down. CPU, RAM and HDD ratings were above average, though.
The styling here is also fantastic. The brushed aluminum lid looks great (and not chintzy at all), and the silver inside underneath the black keys really pops. Our only gripe on internal design is the super glossy display and bezel, both of which seem to attract fingerprints. We should also point out that the trackpad bothered us a bit due to its slickness. There are dimples in the pad, but no clear edge; this led us to mouse off of the pad a number of times, and we generally felt that bumps (as opposed to recessed dimples) would've served users better. Also, the left/right click bar is far too skinny (as we mentioned earlier), which generally led to frustratingly slow click times.
Once the machine was booted, we were mildly annoyed by the Norton pop-up. We wish PC makers would leave this type of stuff on a sperate disc. Outside of that, bloatware wasn't an issue. We also felt the amount of stickers inside was overkill. A huge sticker on the right side takes up nearly the entire palm rest, while the others just detract from what would be a really clean, sleek look.
The LCD hinge was solid, leaning back only when we pushed it and having a smooth glide the whole way. Application loading, as mentioned, was sufficiently fast. Still, general computing within Vista felt much snappier on this machine than any of Asus' Eee PC netbooks (as it should). We also noticed very little heat from the machine during our testing, so kudos to Asus for keeping things cool. Finally, our multimedia tests found the machine plenty capable of playing back HD YouTube clips and 720p content, but 1080p material slowed the machine to a crawl. Still, 720p is plenty for most (particularly on a 13.3" screen), so we were happy to see it handle the content so well.
|Test Setup and 3DMark 06 CPU|
The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.
No surprises here; the 1.3GHz CULV processor can't hold a candle to the full-fledged Core 2 Duo chips in these other machines, but it actually fared pretty well when you consider that the Asus machine is significantly cheaper than either of those two options. Here's a look at the full 3DMark 06 score:
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage|
Continuing our testing we use Futuremarks PCMark Vantage benchmarking suite, which takes a broad look at all aspects of the machine in order to give a more general idea of how it performs in a variety of "day-to-day" situations.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Memories' Test Description:
Memories 1 - Two simultaneous tasks. CPU image manipulation and HDD – importing pictures to Windows Photo Gallery
Memories 2 - Two simultaneous tasks. GPU image manipulation and HDD – video editing using Windows Movie Maker
Memories 3 - Video transcoding – DV to WMV9 - Transcoding from DV (720x480p 35.38Mbps) to a portable player (SD WMV9 320x240p 1.0 Mbps). Uses two cores if available.
Memories 4 - Video transcoding – VC-1 to WMV9 -Transcoding from media server archive (HD VC-1 1280x720p 11 Mbps) to a portable player (SD WMV9 320x240p 1.0 Mbps)
We get the feeling this will be a trend. A 1.3GHz CPU won't ever match up to a 2.4GHz processor, but the story here is that a $799 ultraportable has the power to even complete these tests.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Hard Disk Drive' Test Description:
HDD 1 - Windows Defender
HDD 2 - Gaming
HDD 3 - Importing pictures to Windows Photo Gallery
HDD 4 - Windows start up
HDD 5 - Video editing using Windows Movie Maker
HDD 6 - Windows Media Center
HDD 7 - Adding music to Windows Media Player
HDD 8 - Application loading
Well, would you look at that? Even though Asus packs only a 5400RPM drive in the UL30, it nearly matched the 7200RPM drive in Dell's Studio XPS 13. We knew this thing felt snappy when loading up applications, and now the numbers are here to back up our suspicions.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Gaming' Test Description:
Gaming 1 - GPU gaming - Performing basic GPU (graphics processing unit) tasks utilizing PS (pixel shader) 2.0 and VS (vertex shader) 2.0 operations found in most 3D games using DX (DirectX) 9. This test utilizes SM(shader model) 3.0 (if available) performance optimizations which do affect visual quality.
Gaming 2 - HDD gaming
Gaming 3 - Two simultaneous tasks. Data decompression - Loading compressed level from hard drive and decompressing it into system memory. CPU gaming -Executing heavy AI path finding algorithms. Uses all available cores up to 16 cores.
Gaming 4 - Three simultaneous tasks. GPU gaming- Performing basic GPU (graphics processing unit) tasks utilizing PS(pixel shader) 2.0 and VS (vertex shader) 2.0 operations found in most3D games using DX (DirectX) 9. This test utilizes SM (shader model) 3.0(if available) performance optimizations which do affect visual quality. CPU gaming - Executing heavy AI path finding algorithms. Uses all available cores up to 16 cores and HDD – gaming
Again, the UL30 falls behind the higher priced competition, but the story here is how well it did all things considered. The GMA 4500MHD isn't considered a powerful integrated GPU, yet it managed to notch a score over 1600. Not too shabby for a $799 machine, low voltage, ultra portable.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Communications' Test Description:
Communications 1 - Three simultaneous tasks. Data encryption – CNG AES CBC. Data compression. Web page rendering – pictures - Opens a web page with many large pictures.
Communications 2 - Three simultaneous tasks. Web page rendering – favorites group parallel - Opens various news pages from IE Favorites in separate tabs and closes them one by one. Data decryption – CNG AES CBC. HDD – Windows Defender
Communications 3 - Windows Mail – searching - Searches mails for words in the message body, subject and sender.
Communications 4 - Two simultaneous tasks. Data encryption – CNG AES CBC. Audio transcoding – WMA to WMA - Measures audio transcoding performance in VOIP usage.
In the communications test, the UL30 came darn close to matching the 2.1GHz Toshiba A305. The more expensive Studio XPS 13 soared ahead, but still, we're left impressed with what Asus managed to squeeze out of just $799.
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage (cont'd)|
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Productivity' Test Description:
Productivity Test 1 - Two simultaneous tasks. 1. Text editing 2. HDD – application loading
Productivity Test 2 - Two simultaneous tasks. 1. Windows Contacts – searching - search 2. HDD – Windows Defender
Productivity Test 3 - HDD – Windows Vista start up
Productivity Test 4 - 1. Windows Contacts – searching - Searches contacts. 2. Windows Mail – copying - Runs Message Rules. 3. Web page rendering – favorites group parallel - Opens various news pages from IE 7 Favorites in separate tabs and closes them one by one.
In the Productivity Test, we see the UL30 nearly match the Toshiba A305. It's not even close to the Studio XPS 13, but again, it's not nearly as expensive (nor as warm to the touch) as the Dell.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Music' Test Description:
Music 1 - Three simultaneous tasks: Web page rendering – music shop - Opens music shop kind of content; Audio transcoding – WAV to WMA lossless; HDD – adding music to Windows Media Player
Music 2 - Audio transcoding – WAV to WMA lossless
Music 3 - Audio transcoding – MP3 to WMA
Music 4 - Two simultaneous tasks. Audio transcoding – WMA to WMA. HDD – adding music to Windows Media Player
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'TV and Movies' Test Description:
TV and Movies Test 1 - Two simultaneous tasks. 1. Video transcoding – VC-1 to VC-1 - Transcoding from HD DVD (HD VC-1 1920x1080p 28 Mbps) to the media server archive (HD VC-1 1280x720p 11 Mbps). Uses two cores if available. 2. Video playback – VC-1 HD DVD with HD content - Playing HD DVD (VC-1 1920x1080p 28 Mbps) with HD (VC-1 1280x720p 7 Mbps) content.
TV and Movies Test 2 - Two simultaneous tasks. 1. Video transcoding – VC-1 to VC-1 - Transcoding from HD DVD (HD VC-1 1920x1080p 28 Mbps) to the media server archive (HD VC-1 1280x720p 11 Mbps). Uses two cores if available. 2. Video playback – MPEG-2 HDTV - Playing terrestrial HDTV (HD MPEG-2 1920x1080i 19.39 Mbps).
TV and Movies Test 3 - HDD – Windows Media Center
TV and Movies Test 4 - Two simultaneous tasks. 1. Video transcoding – VC-1 to WMV9 - Transcoding from the media server archive (HD VC-1 1280x720p 11 Mbps) to a portable player (SD WMV9 320x240p 1.0 Mbps). Uses two cores if available. 2. Video playback – MPEG-2 Blu-ray - Playing Blu-ray (HD MPEG-2 1920x1080p 48 Mbps).
Futuremark PCMark Vantage Overall Score Test Description:
The PCMark Suite is a collection of various single- and multi-threaded CPU, Graphics and HDD tests with the focus on Windows Vista application tests. Tests have been selected to represent a subset of the individual Windows Consumer Scenarios. The PCMark Suite includes a subset of Consumer Suite tests.
In the overall PCMark Vantage test, Asus' UL30 stacks up pretty well when you consider who this machine is tailored for. The Studio XPS 13 that beat it by around a third is clearly geared towards users who are willing to pay a stiff premium. The UL30 holds it own once again, yet it only costs $799, stays cool under pressure and has a battery life that's unmatched. All in all, we'd say the UL30 did a great job here of completing the tests and staying close to those other, more potent notebooks.
|SiSoft Sandra Benchmarks and Multimedia Testing|
We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks). All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speeds of 1.3GHz with 4GB of DDR3-1066 RAM running in dual-channel mode.
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge
CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge
Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge
Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge
As these tests show, the UL30 basically hung steady with the reference systems in most tests. It fell behind in a few benchmarks, but that's to be expected with a machine that is tailored to run cool and quiet while saving power for those on-the-go. We know it's growing tired, but again, we're impressed with how the UL30 stacked up with the others.
To test multimedia capabilities, we attempt to play back a 720p WMVHD clip, a 720p H.264 clip and a 1080p clip.
Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264
Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD
Click To Enlarge; 1080p
Even with a relatively weak integrated GPU (Intel's G
We've already determined that the performance of Asus' UL30 is great for its price, but what about the battery life? One of the big selling factors of CULV-based thin-and-light/ultraportable notebooks is stellar battery life. Indeed, Asus packs a larger-than-usual 8-cell battery into this machine, and it claims to offer up to 12 full hours of usage. We've questioned the legitimacy of these claims from PC makers before, as there's no indication of how exactly Asus settled on this admittedly huge number.
As you can see in the graph above, the UL30 mustered "just" 4 hours and 53 minutes before calling it a day. That's exceptional when you consider that display brightness was nearly maxed and Wi-Fi was on, but it's not even close to the 12 hours Asus claims that you'll see. Even if you dimmed the screen as far as you could and disabled Wi-Fi, we can't imagine this machine ever lasting the full 12 hours. Still, 293 minutes of runtime isn't anything to scoff at, as only a few netbooks managed to best that figure.
Asus UL30 With Battery; Click To Enlarge
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra testing, the Asus UL30 managed to hold its own in most respects, though it never looked like a real speed demon. In other tests, it fell noticeably behind the other machines, but both of those were priced higher and aimed slightly upmarket. The UL30 kept cool throughout our testing, and real-world performance was great for the price. We were impressed with how quickly it booted up and how quickly applications loaded, and our HDD tests proved that the 5400RPM drive in the machine was about as quick as you could expect. During our multimedia tests, content up to 720p played back perfectly smooth, but a 1080p movie trailer refused to play back smoothly. Put simply, there's about 90% of the performance of a "full-size notebook" here, at a relatively low cost, with great battery life.
It's probably too early to call, particularly with the introduction of Windows 7 just about a month away, but we think Asus has a hit on its hands here. Asus managed to do many things right. The design is excellent. It's thin. And it's light. You can also remove the battery, which is larger (8-cells) than most rivals as well. The machine has plenty of RAM and HDD space too. There are plenty of ports for the size. And the keyboard is spacious given the ultraportable form factor. It's the small things that add up, and Asus nailed them.
Our only gripes were ones that are easily overshadowed by the machine's overall performance. We weren't very high on the trackpad and click button, and the glossy display found too many reflections and fingerprints for our liking. But when a PC "feels fast," loads applications quickly, handles multi-tasking with ease and plays back 720p content, it's hard to really focus on minor quirks that are really just personal preferences. The battery, under real-world use, didn't last nearly as long as Asus claims, though it did manage to survive for far longer than most notebooks and even many netbooks. We still think the near-5 hour battery life is commendable, but we wish Asus were more up front with the results. The 12 hour figure is apt to get a lot of attention, and it may disappoint users who find that reaching that would require you to essentially do nothing on the machine for half a day.
If Windows 7 came loaded on this machine, we'd give it two big thumbs-up. As it stands, we'd recommend waiting until Win7 begins shipping on it or buy it from somewhere that throws in a free/cheap Win7 upgrade once October 22nd rolls around. [Update: As with many other PC makers, Asus is also taking part in the Windows 7 upgrade program. In other words, users who buy this machine with Vista on it will be able to upgrade to Windows 7 after October 22nd free of charge. That's a pretty nice way to get you to buy in now and upgrade when the time comes.] Frankly, we were impressed with how well the 1.3GHz CPU handled Vista, which generally requires a higher-end CPU to run smoothly. At just over $700 depending on configuration (our build had an MSRP of $799), it's really hard to not give this machine a serious look if you need a new ultraportable. This rig is far more capable and far more enjoyable to use than any netbook we've tested to date, even the ones that soared above the $500 mark. If you can save up a few more bucks, you'll thank yourself for snagging a CULV-based system over an Atom-based system. There's really no comparison when it comes down to it. We think a new bar has been set, and for just over $700, we think you'd be hard pressed to find a sleeker, more enjoyable rig to buy than the UL30.