Netbooks are often decried for their lack of horsepower, and rightfully so. After nearly a year with an Eee PC, I've come to the conclusion that it's just fast enough for the basics, but definitely not peppy enough to fill in as my only mobile PC.
What netbook detractors rarely acknowledge is that the genre's low-power underpinnings usually translate to exceptional battery life. It's easy to squeeze more than five hours of run time from the average six-cell netbook. Several systems are even capable of running for seven or more hours in the real world. That's not quite a full working day, of course, but it's significantly better than we've traditionally seen from notebooksespecially ones trending toward the netbook end of the price spectrum.
Recently, a wave of new notebooks based on Athlon Neo and Consumer Ultra Low Voltage (CULV) Core 2 processors have brought a big step up in performance along with still-affordable prices in the $600-800 range. These systems carry other perks in tow, such as larger screens, nearly full-size keyboards, and free Windows 7 upgrades. They've done it without bloating beyond traditional ultraportable dimensions, too.
We've tested numerous members of this new breed of budget notebooks, and those based on AMD CPUs haven't offered impressive battery life. The CULV-based systems look considerably more promising, as evidenced by the five-hour run times we observed with Acer's 13.3" Aspire Timeline. That sort of longevity is still short of what the best netbooks can achieve, but it's certainly a better balance of performance and battery life for some needs.
So what if you could get a budget ultraportable with CULV performance and better-than-netbook battery life? Is that something you'd be interested in?
Asus is betting your answer is yes, because its latest UL30A 13.3" thin-and-light notebook sports an eight-cell battery that promises up to 12 hours of juice. That claim has the usual asterisk attached; however, the extra battery cells do leave room for optimism. A dozen hours is undoubtedly too ambitious, but eight might just be attainable. And you'd be getting that from a $750 system with a dual-core processor, 4GB of memory, 1366x768 pixels of display resolution, and a 500GB hard drive.
Yeah, I thought you might be interested.
Before digging deeper into the UL30A, I should note that it's just one member of a full lineup of UnLimited-series notebooks from Asus. In addition to this 13.3" variant, there are also 12.1", 14", and 15.6" varieties. Those last two sizes have discrete GeForce G 210M graphics options, but they're not available in North America just yet. In fact, the UL30A seems to be the only UnLimited design that you can currently get stateside.
Based on a little browsing, it looks like there are three UL30A flavors on sale in the US at the moment. At $699 (and currently discounted to $650), Newegg has the UL30A-X1, which features a Core 2 Solo SU3500 processor clocked at 1.4GHz. Spending $750 bumps you up an X3 model that appears to be identical to the X1 with one exception: instead of running the single-core SU3500, it has a dual-core SU7300. The SU7300 ticks along at 1.3GHz, so it has a slower clock speed than the SU3500, but one more core. Both chips house 3MB of L2 cache and are designed to ride an 800MHz front-side bus. The SU7300 is also present in the UL30A-A1, which looks to be an X3 with a 500GB hard drive, and currently sells for between $750 and $800.
With decent CPU options under the bonnet (sorry, too much Top Gear), the UL30A seems like a prime candidate for Nvidia's GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chipset. However, Asus apparently thinks the GeForce 9400M is better deployed in Ion guise paired with an anemic Atom processor, which is sort of like strapping a lawnmower engine to the chassis from a Lotus Elise. Instead of teaming the UL30A's CULV processors with an equally sporty chipset, Asus has tapped the equivalent of a generic four-door sedan: Intel's GS45 Express.
The GS45 isn't all bad, I suppose. It has a GMA 4500MHD graphics component capable of accelerating high-definition VC-1 and H.264 video playback. MPEG2 decode assist curiously isn't supported, though. I wouldn't get your hopes up about gaming, either. The 4500MHD has enough grunt to handle all the fancy cosmetic effects in Windows 7, but in-game frame rates are lackluster at best and dismal at worst.
|Processor||Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 1.3GHz|
|Memory||4GB DDR3-800 (2 DIMMs)|
|Chipset||Intel GS45 Express|
|Graphics||Integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD with 64MB dedicated memory|
|Display||13.3" TFT with WXGA (1366x768) resolution and LED backlight|
|Storage||Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 2.5" 5,400-RPM hard drive|
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec|
3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Atheros AR8132
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
|Expansion slots||1 SD/SDHC/MMC/MS/MSPRO/xD|
|Communications||802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Atheros AR9285|
"Full size" keyboard
Trackpad with multi-touch scrolling
|Camera||0.3 megapixel webcam|
|Dimensions||12.7" x 9.0" x 0.9-1.1" (323 mm x 229 mm x 22.9-27.9 mm)|
|Weight||3.7 lbs (1.7 kg)|
|Battery||8-cell Li-Ion 84Wh|
Intel's ICH9M south bridge chip is paired with the GS45, providing basic connectivity and I/O functionality. On the wireless front, Asus uses an Atheros adapter that can tune in to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. I don't imagine many users will miss the ability to connect to 802.11a Macolyte networks. However, the absence of Bluetooth support will definitely irk some. Bluetooth comes standard on plenty of sub-$500 netbooks, making its absence on a $750 notebook all the more glaring. To be fair, Asus does list Bluetooth as an optional feature for the UL30A; it's just not available on any of the configs currently selling.
If your home network uses Gigabit Ethernet, you might also be disappointed in the UL30A's 10/100 wired networking component. 100Mbps is still plenty of bandwidth for the vast majority of users, but I expect that Asus could have inexpensively added GigE to the mix. Given the number of networking chips it buys for motherboards, Asus surely gets a sweet volume discount on GigE silicon.
Otherwise, the UL30A's spec sheet looks rather unremarkable. Well, except for the eight-cell battery, of course. More on that in a moment, but first, a closer look at the system.