ASUS UL20A 12.1″ CULV Laptop Review

Introduction

Even at a time when I was looking for maximum performance out of every computer I purchased, ultraportables always caught my eye, for one reason or another. Perhaps it was their cuteness, or perhaps it was the jet-setting lifestyle that they were associated with. Whatever the reason, they’ve held a soft spot in my heart, but prices have always been a hard knock for my wallet.

Intel became a victim of their own success in the Atom processor. Although margins on the product are pretty high, they cannibalized sales of more expensive processors, especially during the economic downturn of late. Sure, they’re still making money from Atom, but less revenues equals (=) bad for most companies.

Intel launched the Consumer Ultra-Low-Voltage (CULV) lineup of processors to help combat falling ASPs, starting with single core SU2700 and SU3500 processors. Since then, they’ve broadened the lineup to include dual core Celeron SU2300, Pentium SU4100, Core 2 Duo SU7300, and more. I always thought it would be AMD that forced ultraportables into my price range; it’s ironic that Intel’s own upselling strategy put the ultraportable within my budget.

ASUS launched their CULV notebook products in early September 2009, and a couple months later, the UL20A began shipping in North America. The smallest of the bunch, the 12.1″ UL20A brings decent dual core performance down to something not much bigger than the larger netbooks, which range all the way up to 11.6″. In fact, one of the “netbooks” I’ll compare the UL20A to, the Atom + ION powered HP Mini 311, is less than 0.1lbs lighter and 0.4″ narrower and shorter.

ASUS

Purchased configuration

Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 (1.3GHz)
1x2GB DDR2-800 RAM (1 open slot)
250GB 5400RPM HDD (Hitachi 5K500.B)
12.1″ LED-backlit display (1366×768)
Intel GMA X4500MHD
10/100Mbps Ethernet
0.3MP webcam
Intel WiFi Link 1000 802.11bgn
6-cell battery – 4400mAh (47.5Whr)
Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions:  11.8″ (W) x 8.4″ (L) x 1.0″ (H)
Weight: 3.3lbs (6-cell battery)

Price: $599 CAD

Reason for purchase

My choice of laptop would paint a pretty accurate picture of my interests and hobbies over the last five years. When I entered university, I went for a desktop replacement for power and gaming, an ASUS Z71V. Two years later, I downsized to a Dell XPS M1330, albeit with the discrete NVIDIA graphics, as I realized absolute performance was no longer the most useful asset of a laptop, with portability starting to trump. And now, as I wrap up my university career, I’m moving further down the size and performance food-chain with the ASUS UL20A. Without space limitations, a powerful desktop takes care of all my high-end photographic work.

Despite some drama around the time of the Dell-NVIDIA GPU issues, the M1330 has served me quite well for 2.5 years. That’s about as long as I’ve held onto any one piece of technology. The combination of portability and performance is not lost on me, and it served its purpose quite well. However, 2.5 years is a long time for the lithium-ion batteries, and both the 6 cell and the 9 cell started to wear out. To maintain portability away from power outlets, I needed to look for something new.

With a desktop holding down the performance fort, I went on the lookout for a small laptop, with good battery life. Cheap was also a bonus, as my place of employment would provide me with a laptop for business use. Really, this would be a toss-around for trips and lounging at home. Think netbook, but marginally more powerful.

I wanted something smaller than the M1330, so I juggled the Acer 1410T, 1810T, the ASUS UL20A, and the Dell Inspiron 11z.

  • The Dell was struck from the list, after I found out even with the tumorous 6-cell battery, it only gets slightly over 5 hours of battery life.
  • I’m still a sucker for aesthetics and design, and well, the Acer isn’t exactly a pretty face.
  • The Acers all come with bilingual keyboards in Canada, which I haven’t had much luck adapting to in the past.
  • The 1410T (SU4100) was $50 less than the UL20A, with similar battery life
  • The 1810T (SU7300) was $50 more than the UL20A, with better battery life.

In the end, I compromised with the prettier option, an English keyboard, and decent battery life in the UL20A. The laptop was purchased from NCIX.com for $599.95.

Acer the Big Winner in Netbook War?

While ASUS set the cheap, small notebook market alight with its Eee PC lineup, it looks like Acer is actually capitalizing more on the movement. For the month of September, Acer has reportedly outsold all other vendors in notebooks, helped in large part by 1.2-1.3 million Aspire Ones. ASUS was able to move around 700, 000 Eee PCs during the same time.

I spent some quality time on the Aspire One earlier this year, waiting for my M1330 to be repaired, and found it to be a very competent netbook, although I still don’t think the netbook form factor is quite right for me.

ASUS Eee PC 900 Thoughts

When I had my first hands-on experience with the ASUS Eee PC, I came away impressed with the package, but pricing was a sticking point, given the sacrifices. At the originally-announced $199 price point, the Eee 701 would have been an absolute steal, but at double that, it was less desirable to me. Specifically, I had issues the tiny screen and mediocre battery life. I suggested waiting for a 9″ or 10″ version that could (potentially) solve most if not all the problems I had with the 7″ model.

Now that the Eee PC 900 series has been announced and reviews are coming in, I’d like to follow up on some of the points I made in my previous article. I don’t have an Eee PC 900 in my possession, so like with the HP 2133 Mini-Note, I’ll have to make do with the observations of other reviewers.

Clearly the main change has been with the display. At 8.9″, ASUS has solved one of my main concerns with the Eee PC 701, display size and resolution. The new 1024×600 resolution yields 60% more real estate than the 800×480 resolution of the 7″ Eee PC. Furthermore, the display size increase did not come at the expense of size or portability. The speakers have been moved to the bottom of the machine, leaving almost the entire lid for the display itself. Not only does the improved display make the device more usable, it also vastly improves its aesthetics. No longer are there thick black bezels to ruin the cute design of the Eee PC.

It would be a shame to need a mouse to make user input pain-free, so I’m glad ASUS has increased the size and functionality of the touchpad. I wrote about touchpad functionality not long ago, so it pleases me that ASUS is thinking along the same lines. The touchpad is proportionally very large and the two-finger scrolling capability is impressive as well. Compared to the Eee PC 701, the Eee 900’s touchpad looks to have almost twice the surface area. That along with the increased screen size and resolution should make usability significantly better, especially on the go.



Courtesy of VR-Zone

Storage size has also been increased, quite significantly, especially with the Linux version. Both Linux and Windows configurations come with 4GB NAND flash soldered on the mainboard, and an additional 8GB (Windows) or 16GB (Linux) flash module. These increases help justify the increase in price, which is now $549USD for both Windows and Linux machines.

But not all is well. Like I harped in my HP 2133 commentary, the key here is battery life, and with the larger display, it has taken a bit of a dive from the Eee 701’s already mediocre battery life. Reviewers are observing in the range of 2 to 2.5 hours of productivity battery life. Watching videos or doing anything more intensive will drop than down to 1.5 hours. This is unacceptable for something that’s supposed to be an on-the-go device. The battery in the Eee PC 900 is rated at just under 42Whr, which means at the high-end of the observed battery life, this device is still pulling over 16W in productivity mode. To put that in perspective, that’s as much or more than my M1330 under the same load conditions.

I’m extremely tempted by this iteration of the Eee PC. It’s so close to being perfect for my mobile-productivity needs. One of my biggest gripes with the 701, the display size, has been rectified in the 900. Now, stuff a more power-efficient processor in there (Intel’s upcoming Atom processor is slated to make an appearance in a future version), boost battery life on the standard 4 cell to over 4 hours and I will definitely consider it for purchase.

Mini PCs and Vista SP1 Battery Life

There’s been a lot of hype and news regarding low-cost and/or small form factor PCs in recent days.

HP 2133 Mini-Note

Let’s start off with the HP 2133 Mini-Note. I wrote about my thoughts earlier and followed up with the editor at Notebook Review regarding possible problems with the VIA power management module. Unfortunately, the unit has been sent back to HP already, but judging by the editor’s experience with the 1.2GHz C7-M ULV in the Everex Cloudbook, the heat dissipation and mediocre battery life are not isolated to the HP 2133.

Dell plans for the low-cost notebook market

While in Tel-Aviv, Dell’s CEO, Michael Dell said that the low-cost notebook market is something he plans on addressing.

We do see opportunities for very interesting products that are smaller and lighter and address the more mobile users in a very cost-effective way – Michael Dell

The rumours are that based on the potential June announcement, this product or product line will be powered by Intel’s Atom processor. I certainly hope the offering will be as well designed and built as the HP 2133, but also more functional, from a heat and battery life point of view. Take the HP 2133, reduce the heat dissipation and make the battery life 1.5X or more and you’ll have something that is really appealing.

ASUS Essentio 5110

Here’s a higher-end mini-desktop from ASUS, equipped with a Blu-Ray drive along with the performance to power 1080p content. It’s definitely not a competitor for something like the upcoming Eee Desktop, but does address what I’ve been writing about recently, an attractive, almost decorative desktop. It’s not a power performer, but, as an HTPC, has the ability to push all the HD content the user could want. This ASUS looks like one of the more attractive and well integrated HTPCs I’ve seen thus far.

Vista SP1 Battery Life

I recently installed SP1 for Vista on my Dell XPS M1330 and I’ve noticed an improvement in battery life. Some initial testing with SP1 has shown a 14.2W power consumption during web browsing and productivity work, versus 15.6W without SP1 under the same conditions. The SP1 testing was performed with an extra BlueTooth module as well. This translates into an almost 10% increase in battery life (around 20 extra minutes with the 6 cell and half an hour with the 9 cell), which is quite significant.

HP 2133 Mini-Note – So Close, Yet So Far Away

Now that HP has officially announced the 2133 Mini-Note PC, I’d like to discuss why I don’t believe it will succeed like the ASUS Eee PC has. Note that since I don’t have a unit in my possession, I can only base my analysis on what the initial reviews have observed. (By all means, if HP wants to send me a sample to review, I’d be more than happy to do so…) For reference, the Notebook Review article is what I’ll be speaking to mostly.

HP 2133 Mini-Note

I previously wrote about the HP 2133 mini-notebook back when it was but a rumor in the blogosphere. I touched on some key points it aimed to address, namely screen size, keyboard usability, and battery life. By combining these three improvements with what the Eee PC does well, I reckoned it could be a very compelling choice in the sub-notebook space, assuming appropriate pricing. It looks like HP’s nailed two of the problems, completely missed the third and added a few issues of its own along the way.

Screen and Keyboard

Let’s talk about the good things first – the screen and the keyboard. There will be people who dislike the WXGA resolution display (1280×800) on a relatively small 8.9″ display, but I think it’s great. That’s a ton of real estate – the same as most mainstream widescreen laptops these days, which means you’re really not sacrificing much, despite having a much smaller chassis and display. The keyboard is also significantly larger than what the Eee PC has, advertised as 92% of the regular size (although there’s some weirdness going on with the number keys). These two key improvements over the 7″ Eee PC could make the 2133 a significantly more useful productivity tool. That is until you reach the next couple points.

The Steve Ballmer

Battery life, battery life, battery life. Battery life, battery life, battery life. (Imagine me saying that while dancing on a stage if you like.) You cannot make a small, portable, mini-laptop, touting it as the mobile internet browsing, email writing machine and then give it about 2 hours of battery life. That’s what the reviewers are getting on the 3 cell default battery (productivity work gives anywhere between 2 and 2.5 hours). Granted the review samples are running Vista, which isn’t exactly the most efficient system, but if you’re selling them in that configuration, make sure it works well. Upping the battery to the 6 cell (55Whr) makes it awkwardly thick towards the rear and brings the weight up to over 3.2lbs, making the whole ‘just toss it into your bag‘ proposition go out the window. And even then, the 4-4.5 hours of battery life isn’t anything to brag about. The Dell XPS M1330 I’m typing this on gets close to 4 hours of productivity battery life on the standard 6 cell (56Whr). How does a 8.9″ display, an ULV VIA C7-M processor, and integrated graphics consume almost as much power as a standard voltage Core 2 Duo, a discrete 8400M GS video card, and a 13.3″ LED backlit panel?

VIA As a Scapegoat

Many people are blaming the CPU, a VIA C7-M ULV ranging from 1.0GHz to 1.6GHz, for almost all of the machine’s problems. I don’t believe this to be the case. However, it may very well be the cause of one problem – performance. Typically performance would be a non-issue for laptops in this category. The ASUS Eee PC wasn’t designed for number crunching, but at least internet performance was fluid. Based on Notebook Review, the tasks the HP 2133 was designed for, internet usage and productivity, are somewhat hindered by sluggish performance.

On paper the 1.6GHz VIA C7-M processor should provide excellent speed for general computing tasks. In reality, web pages rendered slower than expected, multi-tasking was painfully slow, and most processor-hungry applications like Photoshop or video encoding software just didn’t like the VIA processor. – NBR

I’m not worried about Photoshop or encoding performance, but web page rendering and multitasking issues? With the reviewed system being the absolute top-of-line 2133 (1.6GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, 160GB 7200RPM hard drive), it should eat up multitasking with ease. Slower than expected web page rendering is appalling. Whether these issues can be chalked up to Vista remains to be seen (hopefully some testing with the SuSE Linux version will show a different outcome), but regardless, as I mentioned above, the out-of-box experience is what most people will end up having and it’s not looking good. In addition, heat dissipation seems to be a problem, and for a laptop that’s very portable, having the fan constantly running and the bottom of the chassis heating up to close to 50C are not conducive to classroom use or use on one’s lap.

HP 2133 temperatures
Temperatures in Fahrenheit. Courtesy of Notebook Review.

One reason HP may have decided to go with the VIA platform is the upcoming Isaiah processor. It looks like it could be very well suited for the mini-laptop design, and being pin compatible, it should be a simple switch over for HP when it becomes available. In the meantime, the top-end 2133 will be stuck with a processor that performs similarly or worse than the 900MHz Celeron M in the Eee PC. I don’t even want to think about what the user experience would be like with the 1.0GHz C7-M for the $499 version.

Pricing is out-of-line

Add that all up and we come down the price. The starting $499 price isn’t bad, until you consider the $399 Eee PC will vastly outperform it and weight half a pound less. If you can wait for the 8.9″ version of the Eee PC, you’ll get a similar sized display as well (albeit at a lower resolution). When you start moving up the 2133 price chain, things get expensive awfully fast, with $50 more giving you a 1.2GHz, 1GB RAM, and a 120GB HDD. the $749 model gets you a 1.6GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, and a 120GB 7200RPM drive. The samples reviewed by most sites included a 160GB 7200RPM drive, which will add even more to the price. When you consider the laptop from a performance point of view, it’s an abysmal price proposition. At the top end of its price range, I’d imagine even something like the $999CAD XPS M1330 would start to enter into the equation, with similar battery life to the 6-cell 2133 and about a pound heavier, but sporting a full Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, and a 160GB hard drive, not to mention other features.

The Best Case Scenario

The best case scenario for the HP 2133 Mini-Note currently being reviewed would be that the power management system isn’t functional. That would explain things like the heat dissipation and poor battery life. I’ve asked the reviewer at Notebook Review to confirm that the expected power saving features (such as downclocking the CPU and/or voltage) are working, but I haven’t heard back yet. The nicely designed shell and gorgeous screen and keyboard are more than offset by failing at the one the thing it’s designed to be, a mobile, internet browsing and productivity machine. Without some serious changes, it’ll be but a pretty face.