Since giving my Lenovo Yoga 13 to my parents (a great machine, by the way, and v2 looks even better), I’ve been on the lookout for something to replace it. My primary considerations were battery life, display (inc. touchscreen), touchpad, weight, build quality and reasonable future-proofing for the machine to last 2-3 years. I’ve really liked the 12-13.3″ range, since it usually results in a laptop in the 3-3.5lb range, which is highly portable, while providing enough display real estate to be truly productive.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I considered several MacBooks, particularly the MacBook Air 13 (gosh, the 10-12 hours of real-world battery life is mind-blowing) and the MacBook Pro Retina 13. The build quality, battery life, and touchpads are absolutely fantastic, and frankly, even pricing isn’t outrageous, when looking at comparable options across the ecosystem.

However, I landed on the HP Spectre 13T, because:

  • Nice build quality, aluminium used throughout and positioned as a premium Ultrabook, so I hoped for the best in terms of manufacturing tolerances and the visceral feel in-hand
  • Great display options (in both colour gamut and resolution)
  • Includes both a gigantic touchpad and a touchscreen; most importantly, the touchpad is smooth and tracks well, almost as well as the MacBooks
  • Approximately 3.2lbs with 8-9 hours of real-world battery life
  • Configured with a Core i5 4200U, 8GB memory, 128GB SSD, 2560×1440 touchscreen, and included 2 year warranty was just under $950 (cheaper than a base MacBook Air 13)

I’m only a week in, so more detailed thoughts will have to wait. Initial impressions are positive; it feels reassuringly sturdy, the design is simple, but the aluminum colouring makes it a bit less generic than every other black or silver laptop out there, and the display is stunning in both colour as well resolution. Given how close it is to a melange of the right elements of each of the MacBook Air and Retina, in a package that cheaper than either, is a very good thing.

ASUS UX21 – A Few (Critical) Mistakes from Great

It was all looking so good. The feel of cold, smooth, brushed aluminum. The solidity of a thin form factor. Beautifully sleek design. Keys painted to match the brushed aluminum chassis. A large clickable trackpad. Good build tolerances all around. Sub-2.5lb weight.

And then I turned the thing on, and everything went downhill.

I’m writing about the ASUS UX21. I really wanted to like this fantastic looking “Ultrabook”, and it’s a really convincing rendition of a Windows-based MacBook Air-compete. However, a few critical components crippled the user experience of this unit in particular. Here are the specs of the version I picked up at the Microsoft Store.

  • ASUS Zenbook UX21E-DH52
  • Intel Core i5-2467m, dual core HyperThreading (1.6GHz – Turbo 2.3GHz)
  • 4GB DDR3
  • 128GB ADATA XM11 SSD
  • 11.6″ 1366×768 (TN)
  • Intel HD 3000 integrated video
  • Atheros AR9485 802.11b/g/n
  • 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, mini-VGA, micro-HDMI, 3.5mm headset
  • Trackpad – Sentilic
  • 35WHr battery

As I alluded to at the beginning of the post, the design of the UX21 is gorgeous. Although the dimensions and components used in this machine are almost exact replicas of the 11.6″ MacBook Air, the build quality is as good, if not better, and the execution of the design makes this a striking laptop. The radiating circular brush design on the lid works well, and even the two tones of aluminium for the lid and chassis complement each other, very well. The keyboard deck is firm, is nicely coloured to match the rest of the visual style, and even the display bezel seems to be aluminum. Closing the laptop produces a confident “thunk”. Once closed, the entire laptop feels like a solid chunk of metal, with little-to-no flex anywhere. Overall, the PC is stunning to look at and hold.

The first hints of trouble are seen when setting the machine up, for the first time. The trackpad isn’t sensitive all the way to the bottom edge – I think this is so you can rest your thumb/other finger on the “click-area”, without impacting cursor movement. But that’s a lazy way of getting around the real issue; other than in a MacBook, we still haven’t seen a good driver implementation of a clickpad, which can parse the difference between contact for moving the cursor and contact intended for clicking. While the trackpad looks awfully large and feels like one contiguous surface, you can’t tell at what point the trackpad will no longer be sensitive to your finger, as you move around. In that sense, ASUS would have been better off with separate buttons. ASUS says an updated trackpad driver should solve most issues, but I have the latest version they recommend (9.1.7.7), and there are still problems.

Fortunately, performance, even with a low-voltage Core i5 is very snappy, and the solid state drive (which uses an SF-2281 controller) is extremely quick. Boot up times are astronomically low. From a cold boot, the Windows 7 start up orbs don’t even have time to group together before we’re off to the Windows desktop. Resume from sleep is essentially instantaneous. It’s a superb experience. Given ASUS’ claim that this will last 1 week+ on standby, we’re getting pretty close to consumer-electronics experience.

After setting up Windows in the first boot, I connected to my home wireless network and opened up Internet Explorer and waited for the homepage to load. And waited. And waited.

Sure, MSN is not exactly the lightest-weight page in the world, but on a 20mbps downlink internet connection, it really shouldn’t take upwards of 20 seconds. I flipped over to Engadget, only to find that it loaded just as slowly. I thought it might be a temporary slowdown in my internet connection, but everything was still very speedy on my desktop. Speedtest.net showed I had download speeds below 2mbps. Fortunately, with a USB wireless N adapter lying around, I had an easy way to isolate the issue. I plugged that in and tried browsing again. Everything was near instantaneous and Speedtest.net showed ~16mbps down.

I searched the web for issues with Wifi on the Zenbooks and quickly found numerous users having the same problem with the built-in Atheros solution. For some, installing an older version of the Wifi driver helped. For me, it didn’t. Transferring files from my Windows Home Server became absurdly slow, to the point of unusable. This is a deal-breaker.

And the rest is mostly history. The laptop is, for the most part, pretty quiet. The fan rarely spins up (although my UX21 came with the 206 BIOS – some folks have said the update to 207 runs the fan more often: bad). The display is mediocre, but gets the job done; viewing angles aren’t great, but neither is the likelihood that I’ll be sharing an 11.6″ display with several other people or needing to fit it in some crazy angle on an economy seat tray table. Battery life is right around ASUS’ advertised mark. I get in the range of 4-5 hours of browsing, before the computer wants to hibernate.

The keyboard, which some have complained about, is okay – it’s a bit stiffer and has shallower travel than most keyboards, but you quickly get used to that. The keys seem smaller than a full-size though, particularly in the length dimension, so sometimes I overshoot. I’m typing this review on the UX21, and I’m already pretty used to the layout and firmness.

This laptop is going back, and with the combination of wifi (deal-breaker), touchpad (nearly deal-breaker) and a number of smaller issues, it’s not something I’ll try another unit of. The external design and construction of the UX series is phenomenal. Now they just need to choose the right key components for a good user-experience. The UX21 is a almost a great PC, but a few mistakes were made on critical components, which completely undermined the potential of the system.

HP EliteBook 2540p

I’ll get some photos up next week… I seem to have lost the few I took when I first got the machine.

Microsoft provided me a generous budget for my work laptop, which I used on an HP EliteBook 2540p. Specs:

  • Intel Core i7 640LM (2.13GHz – turbo 2.93GHz)
  • 4GB DDR3
  • Intel 160GB SSD
  • 12.1″ WXGA LED
  • Intel integrated graphics
  • 6 cell battery (62Whr)

HP EliteBook 2540p

I also had the option of larger, 14″ and 15″ laptops, but I knew I’d also have a desktop with plenty of grunt for running VMs. My laptop would to take to meetings, work on the road, at home, etc. I wanted something small and light, with good battery life. It really came down to the 2540p and the Lenovo X201. However, only the 2540p could be had with an SSD within budget, and knowing the difference one makes with my personal laptop and desktop, I had to have one for my work machine as well. One note: if you want an optical drive in this laptop, you’re stuck with 1.8″ form factor drives. Fortunately, Intel makes a 1.8″ SSD – otherwise, I would have been saddled with some slow as molasses 1.8″ spindle drive. That’s just no fun. Then again, I now have an optical drive I haven’t used yet.

Build and Design

Business machines haven’t exactly prioritized aesthetic design, but the EliteBook doesn’t do a horrid job here. It has a nice brushed metal texture on the lid and a two-tone color scheme when open. Brushed metal also adorns the palm rest. The combination of a standard 16:10 display, thick top and bottom bezels and thin side bezels could make one mistake it for a standard 4:3 laptop, but who makes those nowadays, right? Even the 6-cell battery protrudes out the back about 2/3rds of an inch, but ends being a fair hand-hold when the laptop open or closed. (I end up walking with my laptop open, reading email more than I’d like.) Overall, it’s a little more sprightly looking than a ThinkPad, but there’s certainly also something classic about the ThinkPad look. We’ll see if the EliteBook design wears well over time.

In terms of build quality, the thing is tank-like. The lid feels very good, the heavy-duty metal display hinges are tight as day one, there’s no flex anywhere you’d touch. The lid is held in place by a strong clasp, which is disengaged by a large metal button on the front. Unfortunately, it’s a bit easy to push it and open the lid. ThinkPad’s sliding lid mechanism is much more fool-proof. The chassis is supported by a magnesium alloy shell underneath metal (or plastic around the keyboard). The laptop also meets some military standards for environmental conditions, tested for a wide range of temperature, vibrations and shocks, and moisture. Long story short, this thing is designed to survive in the elements, so surviving a typical office workday probably isn’t asking much of it. After 6 months, the only sign of use is a slight bit of a mark on one of the left mouse buttons. There’s absolutely no marks anywhere else, and I certainly haven’t babied it in the least. Not bad.

On the downside, the laptop is nearly 3/4lb heavier than an equivalent (6-cell) Lenovo X201. I’m okay with the near 4lb weight overall.

Input/Output

The keyboard is one of those hybrid-chiclet types, with flat keys. It feels pretty good to type on, although not as good as the ThinkPad keyboards or the Logitech Illuminated Keyboard I used with my desktop (quite possibly the best keyboard I’ve ever laid hands on). There’s a slight bit of rattle when typing quickly, but no flex is evident. I think the travel distance could be a bit longer. Above they keyboard are touch-sensitive buttons for volume, wireless and some quick-boot options. Personally, I’d be just as happy with tactile buttons. Touch-sensitive buttons are always a bit fidgety, not 100% responsive.

The touchpad is small, but acceptable for a 12″ laptop. Nice rubbery-textured touchpad and pointer buttons have good travel. The pointer comes with an indented cap that I’ve become very accustomed to. In fact, I simply never use the touchpad anymore. When I’m home with my MacBook, my hand defaults to where the track pointer should be, only to realize there isn’t one.

The display is of the 16:10 variety, matte, with typical viewing angles for a TN panel (e.g. decent horizontal, terrible vertical). It can be turned up pretty darned bright and colors seem fine. Then again, I use it for web, email, Word, and the occasional training video. The display doesn’t have the most stressful job to perform in my day to day.

There’s a smattering of ports – 3 USB 2.0, DisplayPort, VGA, SD card reader, FireWire, single headset 3.5mm, gigabit ethernet and (importantly!) a smartcard reader built in. That last input is fantastic for working remotely, as I don’t need to carry around an external card reader.

In Use

I’m not going to run the laptop through a gauntlet of performance benchmarks, since no, I don’t spend my days running PCMark or calculating the x millionth digit of Pi. However, I do launch Outlook quite often and that’s essentially instantaneous now. The combination of four threads of Intel Core i7 power and the Intel SSD does wonders for system responsiveness and performance. There are no hesitations between action and response, except for the human ones. It’s generally a pleasure to use.

Here’s what happens during a normal day. I get into the office, pull the laptop out of my backpack, plunk it into the dock and snap in the dock connector. My Logitech MX Anywhere’s mini-receiver is perpetually plugged into the left-hand side USB port of the laptop, so once the 2540p resumes from sleep (about 2 seconds) I’m ready to go. The dock is connected via DisplayPort and VGA to two 20″ 4:3 Samsung displays, one in portrait and one in landscape mode. I have Logitech Z-5 speakers connected to the dock and a Microsoft Natural 4000 keyboard. Outlook fires up and I’m ready to start with my morning email browsing.

A couple hours later (or perhaps immediately, depending on the day), it’s meeting time, and I simply pop the dock connector button and my laptop’s good to go. I sit down at the meeting, open up my laptop, and a few seconds of the laptop figuring out that it’s no longer connected to two desktop monitors ensues. Then I’m back at my desktop, except with a 1280×800 resolution desktop. Doing the regular tasks at work, writing, emailing, browsing SharePoint, gives me 5 hours or so of battery life on the 6 cell. That’s plenty to get me through the day, since I rarely sit through any string of meetings longer than that (in which I’m actively using my laptop, especially).

I come back to my office, plug the 2540p back into the dock and my monitors pick up the picture again, without any input required on my part. It’s all really pretty seamless. My mouse and keyboard haven’t left their original positions and I’m ready to work again.

And really, that’s how a business laptop should be, in my opinion. Portable, good battery life, easily able to survive being bumped around and virtually invisible (from a reconfiguration point of view) to the user. I don’t want to think about reconfiguring my multi-monitor setup every time I get back to my desk or need to explicitly ask to undock my laptop before I do so (which, from what I understand, you need to do with the ThinkPad docking solutions).

Conclusion

As you can probably tell by now I’m pretty happy with my choice of the EliteBook 2540p. It’s built well, performs great, has good battery life, and fits seamlessly into my day-to-day use cases. It’s a bit heavier than the equivalent from Lenovo (X201), looks a bit nicer as well (in my opinion), and has a fantastic docking solution. It should easily last me our typical hardware upgrade cycle.

Pros

  • Built like a tank (essentially no signs of use after 6 months)
  • Blazing fast with the SSD
  • Portable and good battery life
  • Full-size keyboard
  • Looks pretty nice for a business machine
  • Great, seamless docking experience

Cons

  • Keyboard is only good
  • Heavier than the competition (X201)
  • Display is middle of the road in terms of quality (but bright)
  • If you don’t get an SSD and want an optical drive, you’ll be stuck with a slow 1.8″ hard drive

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.

Performance for Photography

I came down to the United States without my desktop, only my Dell XPS M1330, which is going on 2.5 years. Since purchasing it, I’ve done some upgrades to keep it performing at an acceptable level. The original floppy keyboard was replaced with a firmer version, the RAM was upgraded to 4GB and perhaps the key, the Hitachi 120GB hard drive was swapped out for a Patriot Warp 32GB SSD, and then a Kingston 128GB SSD.

I always thought it would be games that would be the thing that forced upgrades down the road. Quite unexpectedly, it turns out that photographic work brought my computer to its knees far before any games did (which I really don’t play anymore).

Intel’s Lynnfield launch gave me the perfect opportunity to get some great performance at a much lower price than the Bloomfield i7’s. For under $500, I put together an i5 750, 2x2GB DDR3, Radeon 4350, GigaByte mATX P55 board, and an Antec NSK1380 case. I repurposed the Kingston 128GB SSD for the desktop build, and stuck the old 120GB hard drive back in the M1330. For $500, I now have a substantially more suitable platform for photo editing. Next up will be to get another 4GB of RAM. Photoshop and Capture NX2 take up a heck of a lot of memory.

To take advantage of all that power, I picked up Scott Kelby’s Photoshop CS3 book for photographers. I’ve dabbled with Photoshop here and there, but never truly learned any formal techniques. Getting great out of camera photos is a wonderful thing, but I have to admit, most of my shots need some form of post-processing help. I’ve already tried a couple things from the book (very effective tips), and I now have one image post processed on the new computer with some new techniques. This photo is from a few weeks ago.

Upon further reflection