A closer look at the cockpit
Before you think Asus has realized the perils of glossy black plastic, check out the bezel surrounding the UL30A's display. Yep, glossy black plasticand for no apparent reason other than to create distracting reflections around the screen that are interrupted only by your own smudged fingerprints.
As if that weren't enough, the display itself has a layer of gloss, too. This transreflective coating produces cleaner, crisper colors than matte displays, which tend to look a little grainy in comparison. However, the glossy coating also creates subtle reflections on dark backgrounds, even under normal indoor lighting with the screen's brightness cranked.
Luminescence is provided by an LED backlight that gives the UL30A's 13.3" panel plenty of shine. The screen isn't quite as bright as the blinding display on my Eee PC 1000HA, but it's comparable to the one in Acer's Timeline. Like the Timeline, the UL30A's screen offers 1366x768 pixels, which is more than enough to play back 720p HD video content at full resolution. I can certainly understand why some folks would prefer having more vertical pixels with a 1280x800 resolution. However, an extra 32 vertical pixels is only just barely enough height for two lines of TR textthat's not going to save you much scrolling.
As an Excel junkie and Henry Rollins fan, I don't mind trading a little height for additional width. Besides, 1366x768 offers 25,000 more pixels than 1280x800.
The UL30A's screen swings on a sturdy hinge that feels nice and tight. Unfortunately, it doesn't tilt all the way back, stopping at just about exactly a 45-degree angle. This wouldn't be an issue if the display had great viewing angles, but they're only average, so you really need to be looking at the screen dead-on to get the best picture.
Acer's 13.3" Timeline has a similar tilt limitation, except it can only lean back about 40 degrees. I guess that makes the Asus an improvement. A screen without such an arbitrary limitation seems like a better solution, though.
Moving from the UL30A's visual interface to more touchy feely ones, we come across the system's chiclet-style keyboard. As writers, we're particularly, um, particular about keyboards. But we appear to be in the minority, because it feels like keyboard quality has actually gone downhill over the last year or so. In fact, I've yet to encounter a budget ultraportable with a better keyboard than the scissor-switch unit on my $400, nearly year-old Eee PC.
The UL30A gives the Eee PC a run for its money, though. At first, I thought the keyboard might use rubber dome switches. But the more I use the UL30A, the more I suspect that scissor switches lie under each chiclet. I'd pry one off to be sure, but they're securely affixed. Regardless of the switches used, key travel is excellent, with a good amount of initial resistance. One weakness is the relative lack of feedback at the end of each key's travel. Another? Some visual flex when you poke just about any key not directly on the outer border of the keyboard.
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||298 mm||105 mm||31,290 mm²||169 mm||54 mm||9,126 mm²|
|Versus full size||104%||95%||99%||98%||95%||93%|
At least the keyboard's area is quite generous. The total area is nearly the same as the "full-size" reference we use from an old 14" Dell notebook of mine. I tend to think that the size of the alpha key area, which stretches from the outer edges of the A and L keys on the horizontal and the T and V keys on the vertical, is a more important measurement of keyboard cramping, or a lack thereof. After all, the alpha keys are where your fingers spend most of their time. Zoning in on the letter keys, the UL30A again measures nearly full size.
Having a spacious keyboard probably isn't a concern for some folks, but it matters to those of us with large, clumsy hands. My girlfriend refers to mine as "meat paws," and they have plenty of room on the UL30A's keyboard, even hammering away at full speed.
I found it quite easy to get my typing up to speed on the UL30A. Part of the credit goes to the keyboard's size, but the spacing and finish count for a lot, too. The key caps are textured rather than glossy, which, combined with clear separation between the keys themselves, makes it easy to keep one's fingers properly anchored to the home row. I didn't have many problems getting my hands centered in the dark, either, although I'd still prefer a backlit keyboard. The fact that more manufacturers haven't embraced keyboard lighting boggles my mind. Apple figured it out a long time ago.
Before moving on from the keyboard, I should note one layout quirk involving the infamous right shift key. Unlike some older Eee PC keyboards, the shift key is in the correct spot. However, it's also a little narrower than usual to make room for full-size arrow keys in a traditional inverted-T layout. I like the compromise because I'm not a huge fan of half-height directional keys. Still, that hasn't stopped me from cursing when I accidentally punch the up arrow instead of right shift when trying to enter double quotes. Of course, proper typing technique probably dictates that I should be using the left shift key for that character, so the problem is more with me than the UL30A's keyboard.
Just under the keyboard sits the requisite multi-touch trackpad. This Elan unit supports two-finger horizontal and vertical scrolling, but not pinch zooming or fancy other functions. You can adjust the sensitivity of the PalmTracking feature, which ignores what it deems to be inadvertent or unintentional trackpad contact, or choose to disable the trackpad completely with a keyboard shortcut.
The trackpad's single button nicely handles left and right clicks on either side. However, I'm not crazy about the dimpled surface of the trackpad itself. In aerodynamic applications, such as golf balls and high-end bicycle components, dimples are used to cut turbulence and reduce drag. They have somewhat of an opposite effect here, imparting a subtle resistance that makes the trackpad's surface feel a tad slow and just the slightest bit tacky at times.
That said, the dimples do a good job of differentiating the trackpad area from the palm rests. The palm rests are glossy silver plastic that, in part thanks to an inconspicuous pattern under the gloss, doesn't seem to show fingerprints or smudges. I'd prefer more brushed aluminum, of course, but this is a budget ultraportable, after all.