Asus’ UL80Vt 14-inch notebook
Regardless of what you think of netbooks, the surprise success of Intel’s Atom CPU has definitely had a positive impact on the mobile market. The popularity of sub-$400 Atom-based systems no doubt prompted the introduction of Intel’s Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage (CULV) processors, pulling previously premium ultra-low-voltage CPUs into budget ultraportable territory. These CULV CPUs offer much better performance than Atom processors while staying within a reasonably modest power envelope. The chips have made their way into cheap 11.6″ netbook killers, not to mention a slew of 13.3″ notebooks, including an Asus UL30A that costs $750-$800 yet still offers nearly 10 hours of real-world battery life.
New ultraportables simply weren’t available for around $800 a few years ago. In that price range, you were looking at 14-15″ systems that were relatively short on battery life and not exactly thin or light. Thanks to the advent of CULV processors, that’s no longer the case. Intel’s latest ultra-low-voltage mobile CPUs are migrating to affordable 14″ systems, bringing the promise of better battery life and slimmer enclosures to a segment of the market typically populated by portly, easily winded designs.
Asus’ UL70Vt is one of the first 14″ systems to feature a CULV processor. It also has the same eight-cell battery as the UL30A, but in a larger chassis with an optical drive and switchable GeForce graphics. Finally, here is a system with the potential to offer excellent battery life and play games.
CULV processors are typically paired with Intel’s GS45 Express chipset, whose integrated Graphics Media Accelerator X4500MHD offers abysmal gaming performance and spotty compatibility. Fortunately, the chipset has 16 lanes of second-generation PCI Express connectivity, which the UL80Vt links to a GeForce G210M discrete graphics processor. The G210M sits at the bottom of Nvidia’s mobile graphics chip lineup; it’s a DirectX 10.1-class GPU with 16 SPs running at 1.5GHz. The rest of the graphics chip runs at 625MHz, and it has a 64-bit path to 512MB of GDDR3 memory clocked at an effective 1.6GHz.
Although Nvidia has the G210M fabricated using 40-nm process technology, the chip’s thermal design power (TDP) is still rated at a healthy 14W. To put that into perspective, the UL80Vt’s dual-core, 1.3GHz Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor has just a 10W TDP. Additional power consumption is a big drawback for discrete notebook graphics, but Asus has mitigated the GeForce’s battery drain by allowing users to turn off the discrete GPU when it’s not needed. Toggling between the GeForce G210M and GMA X4500MHD is as easy as switching between power plans, which can be done with the touch of a button located above the keyboard. The process isn’t entirely seamless; the screen goes blank for a few seconds when you switch graphics modes. But that’s not a terrible hardship to endure.
Rebooting isn’t necessary to take advantage of the UL80Vt’s switchable graphics, but you will have to restart the system to invoke its turbo mode. The SU7300 processor normally runs at 1.3GHz on an 800MHz front-side bus. However, a turbo button in Asus’ Power4Gear Hybrid software pushes the FSB to 1066MHz, yielding a CPU clock speed of 1.73GHz. This turbo mode also kicks the memory bus from 800 to 1066MHz.
At the other end of the spectrum, the UL80Vt’s battery-saving power scheme takes advantage of the SU7300’s second P-state, which caps the processor speed at 800MHz. Entering battery-saving mode doesn’t require a reboot unless you’re switching out of turbo, making it easy for the user to shift into low-power mode on the fly.
|Processor||Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 1.3GHz|
|Memory||4GB DDR3-800 (2 DIMMs)|
|Chipset||Intel GS45 Express|
Integrated Intel GMA X4500MHD with 18MB
Switchable Nvidia GeForce G210M with 512MB GDDR3 memory
14″ TFT with WXGA (1366×768) resolution and
|Optical||Samsung TS-U633A DVD+/-RW+DL|
Seagate Momentus 5400.6 320GB 2.5″ 5,400-RPM
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec|
3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100/1000
Gigabit Ethernet via Atheros AR8131
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Atheros AR9285
“Full size” keyboard
|Camera||0.3 megapixel webcam|
13.3″ x 9.4″ x 0.55-1.06″ (338 mm x 240
mm x 14-26.8 mm)
|Weight||4.4 lbs (2 kg)|
|Battery||8-cell Li-Ion 84Wh|
The rest of the UL80Vt’s hardware looks about like what one might expect from a system in this price range. It’s great to see 4GB of memory coming standard with these types of systems, and 320GB of storage space should be plenty for folks who don’t need to carry around an extensive video library. Kudos to Asus for shipping the system with the x64 edition of Windows 7 Home Premium, too.
However, I’m less than impressed with the lack of Bluetooth support in the UL80Vt-A1 revision we have in for review. Bluetooth is listed as an optional feature, but none of the systems selling online appear to include it. 802.11n Wi-Fi is standard, at least, but the UL80Vt should really include both.
Really, it’s not that big
As a member of Asus’ UnLimited notebook series, the UL80Vt has a little more aesthetic flair than one might otherwise expect from such an inexpensive system. The star of the show is easily the brushed aluminum top panel, which is anodized black and looks quite stately, in an industrial sort of way. Plus, the textured surface won’t attract fingerprints and smudges like a glossy one would.
14″ systems aren’t considered a part of the ultraportable crowd, but the first thing I thought when unboxing the UL80Vt (sorry, I really should have captured that incredibly exciting moment in an exclusive unboxing video) is that it really isn’t all that big. I’ve reviewed a couple of 13.3″ notebooks lately, and while this particular Asus is definitely larger than all of them, the difference doesn’t amount to much. The UL80Vt measures 13.3″ x 9.4″ x 0.55-1.06″, which as you can see, makes is only marginally larger than Acer’s 13.3″ Aspire Timeline 3810.
The UL80Vt does weight a little more, but it only tips the scales at 4.4lbs, or exactly two kilos. That’s a pretty respectable weight considering the inclusion of an optical drive and an eight-cell battery.
Whether the UL80Vt can officially be considered a thin-and-light system will no doubt be the subject of some debate. Such distinctions are largely meaningless, though. The UL80Vt is easily portable, and it’s thinner than my Eee PC 1000HA. Of course, I can easily open the Eee PC in cramped quarters, including the tightly packed steerage class of most airlines these days. The UL80Vt is going to be a squeeze unless you can score a seat next to the emergency exit.
At the controls
While the brushed aluminum top panel makes the UL80Vt look and feel more expensive than it actually is, opening the lid quickly brings you back to reality. The system’s 14″ LED-backlit screen is ringed by glossy black plastic that’s not only highly reflective, but also a fingerprint magnet.
The screen is a transreflective unit, but not an overly reflective one. At least there’s enough brightness to overpower reflections in normal indoor lighting, which can’t be said of all glossy displays. Otherwise, the screen’s picture quality is largely average, which is becoming a common theme among budget notebooks. The viewing angles aren’t particularly good, and the colors are a little muted. Don’t worry about the blue tint in the picture above, though; that’s my camera not getting along with TR’s classic blue color scheme.
A 1366×768 display resolution with a 16:9 aspect ratio has become popular among budget notebooks, and you can add the UL80Vt to the growing list of models that have jumped on the bandwagon. This single-megapixel resolution is relatively low for a 14″ display, although the fact that on-screen text is quite large and easy to read should appeal to folks with poor eyesight. The lower resolution also makes life easier for the GeForce graphics chip, since games tend to look their best when played at an LCD’s native resolution.
Not content to just have the screen bezel mired with smudges, Asus also rings the keyboard with glossy black plastic. Matte finishes really make more sense for tactile surfaces that see constant handling, but manufacturers are seemingly obsessed with polished plastics, presumably because they look nice when all buffed up for product shots. At least the key surfaces ditch the gloss for a more practical flat black finish.
The keyboard is one of those new-age chiclet designs, and I quite like the layout. There’s a decent border around each key, making it easy to keep track of where one’s hands are without looking down. This attribute is particularly helpful when typing at speed in the dark, although an LED backlight for the keyboard would be even more useful.
|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%|
Keyboard size generally isn’t a problem with 14″ systems, and the UL80Vt doesn’t disappointits array of chiclets has nearly the same dimensions as our full-size reference. Asus could’ve made the keyboard a little larger, I suppose, but it appears to have used the same keyboard as in the 13.3″ UL30A.
While I quite like the UL30A’s keyboard, the UL80Vt’s implementation isn’t quite right. There’s plenty of room to type, and key travel is adequate. However, the feel is a little muddled depending on which keys you’re hitting. On the right side, the keyboard feels like it’s backed with something significant. Keystrokes hit with a faint but satisfyingly dull thud. As you move left of center, that thud turns into more of a high-pitched click. There’s much more flex on the left side of the keyboard, too, which makes for frustratingly inconsistent tactile feedback.
Flex also infects the chassis, which makes me think the UL80Vt could use a more substantial subframe. Or maybe it just needs more aluminum. Yeah, definitely more brushed aluminum. The screen feels quite sturdy, though, and the hinge action is smooth and tight.
Like many new notebooks, the UL80Vt’s palm rests and touchpad surface are crafted from a single piece of plastic. Shallow dimpling defines the tracking area, making it easy to find without looking down. Although the effort to differentiate the tracking area is appreciated, Asus has done so with an inferior tracking surface. The dimples add some resistance, which isn’t always consistent, making tracking somewhat rougher and less precise than it could have been with a smooth surface. Dimpling might be slippery from an aerodynamic perspective, but that doesn’t translate to fingertips.
In the multi-touch department, the touchpad supports horizontal and vertical two-finger scrolling. That’s it for gestures, thoughyou can’t pinch zoom or two-finger swipe with this particular ELAN unit.
Connectivity and expansion options
The UL80Vt is the sort of system a lot of folks might consider using as their primary PC. To fill that role, it needs a healthy collection of expansion ports.
Asus obliges, endowing the system’s right edge with an increasingly commonplace memory card reader alongside USB and Gigabit Ethernet ports. And unlike with ultraportables, you get an optical drive, too.
The DVD burner is a Samsung unit that can write at speeds of up to 4X for dual-layer discs and up to 8X for single-layer media. A Blu-ray drive would’ve been a nice addition given that the integrated GeForce’s PureVideo HD decode engine can accelerate Blu-ray playback. This is still a budget system, though. Blu-ray remains somewhat of a luxury item in the notebook world, even as the price of 5.25″ readers plunges.
Around the left side of the system, the UL80Vt has two more USB ports, HDMI and VGA outputs, and a couple of analog audio jacks. I hooked the headphone output to the mic input and ran a quick RightMark Audio Analyzer loopback test, and the UL80Vt didn’t fare so well. RMAA scored the system as average overall, but rated its frequency response and stereo crosstalk as very poor. I ran the same test on a 13.3″ Aspire Timeline that also has a Realtek audio codec, and RMAA settled on a good overall score, which is one tick up from average in the application’s scoring scale. The Aspire did much better in the frequency response and stereo crosstalk tests, though.
In addition to various jacks and plugs, the left edge is home to the primary exhaust port, whose associated fan is surprisingly discreet. Even when running in turbo mode, the UL80Vt produces little more than a low hum. In fact, the keyboard noise is actually more distracting than the fan.
Asus makes it easy to access the UL80Vt’s hard drive and memory slots, facilitating easy upgrades. I don’t imagine many folks will need more than the 4GB of memory that comes standard in the A1 revision we’re looking at today. However, the ability to swap in a new hard drive will probably prove useful in the long run.
The UL80Vt’s battery looks very similar to the eight-cell unit in the UL30A. Both are rated for 84Wh, which Asus claims translates to 11.5 hours of run time. There’s reason to be optimistic here, considering that the UL30A squeezed just under 10 hours of web browsing from the same battery.
Our testing methods
Today, we’ll see how the UL80Vt fares against another CULV-equipped notebook: Acer’s 13.3″ Aspire Timeline 1380T. The Timeline doesn’t have a discrete graphics option, but it does sport a faster 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo SU9400 processor. No turbo button, though.
To illustrate the range of performance and battery life offered by the Asus’ different operating modes, we’ve tested the system in two configurations. First, we ran through our suite with the system in high-performance mode, with turbo enabled alongside the discrete GeForce graphics chip. Next, we dropped back to battery-saving mode, which uses the Intel integrated graphics and caps the CPU clock speed at 800MHz.
With the exception of battery life, all tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.
Acer Aspire AS3810-6415 Timeline
Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400
Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300
|North bridge||Intel GS45||Intel GS45|
|South bridge||Intel ICH9M||Intel ICH9M|
|Memory size||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz|
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)
with 126.96.36.19907 drivers
Realtek codec with
|Graphics||Intel GMA X4500MHD with 188.8.131.526 drivers||
Intel GMA X4500MHD with
Nvidia GeForce G210M with 184.108.40.20688 drivers
500GB 5,400 RPM
Seagate Momentus 5400.6
500GB 5,400 RPM
Windows 7 Home Premium x64
Windows 7 Home Premium x64
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Firefox 3.5.3
- Adobe Flash 10.0.32.18
- x264 HD Benchmark 2.0 with x264 version 0.59.819
- 7-Zip 4.65 x64
- Call of Duty 4 1.4
- Left 4 Dead 2 demo
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
WorldBench kicks off our new collection of notebook tests, providing some insight on how each system deals with a varied collection of common desktop applications.
As one might expect, performance very much depends on clock speed. When overclocked in turbo mode, the UL80Vt’s processor is running at 1.73GHza full 333MHz faster than the Timeline. That translates to an eight-point lead in WorldBench’s overall score. Drop the Asus’ CPU down to 800MHz, and its WorldBench score falls by 41%.
No surprises here: the UL80Vt’s turbo mode is much quicker than the battery-saving config and a little faster than the Aspire.
7-Zip’s built-in benchmark is nicely multithreaded, which should give each of the CULV cores something to crunch. We ran this test to 10 iterations.
All hail the turbo button. Asus has effectively shipped the UL80Vt with a 1.73GHz Core 2 Duo, which is obviously quite a bit faster than the 1.4GHz chip inside the Aspire. Curiously, the battery-saving mode is much slower here than one might expect from its 800MHz CPU clock. Although the turbo mode roughly doubles the battery-saving mode’s clock speed, its 7-Zip throughput is three to four times higher.
Our video encoding tests make another good case for the UL80Vt’s turbo mode. A handful of extra frames per second might not look like much, but multiply that out over the length of the sort of movies you’d like to encode, and it adds up.
For our gaming tests, we used the 1366×786 native resolution common to both systems. Left 4 Dead 2 was run with medium in-game detail levels, while Call of Duty 4 had most of its visual eye candy disabled. Neither game was configured with antialiasing or anisotropic filtering enabled.
Oddly, the battery-saving Asus config scores a little higher than the Aspire in Left 4 Dead 2. There’s no comparison to the performance of the turbo config, though. The GeForce G210M really pulls its weight here, delivering more than 40 frames per second in each game. Intel’s GMA integrated graphics core doesn’t produce frame rates that even approach playable in either game.
Our next batch of tests highlights the UL80Vt’s video playback performance. The chart below includes approximate CPU utilization percentages gleaned from the Windows 7 Task Manager alongside subjective impressions of actual playback.
I used Windows Media Player to handle all playback tests and Firefox for our windowed YouTube HD test. The new version of Windows Media Player built into Microsoft’s latest OS supports the video-decoding capabilities of the GeForce G210M and Intel’s GMA X4500MHD, so the UL80Vt gets hardware assist in both battery-saving and turbo modes.
|CPU utilization||Result||CPU utilization||Result|
|Star Trek QuickTime 480p||0-7%||Perfect||0-9%||Perfect|
|Star Trek QuickTime 720p||0-6%||Perfect||1-11%||Perfect|
|DivX PAL SD||0-9%||Perfect||2-20%||Perfect|
|YouTube HD windowed||33-46%||Perfect||36-61%||Perfect|
Thank you, Microsoft, for bringing good video decoding support to Windows Media Player. The UL80Vt has no problem providing buttery-smooth video playback up to 1080p with minimal CPU utilization, even in battery-saving mode. Only Flash-based YouTube HD video offers a real challenge, and even then, the UL80Vt’s battery-saving mode proves more than up to the task. The new Flash 10.1 beta supports GPU acceleration, and it should lower CPU utilization even further.
Each system’s battery was run down completely and recharged before each of our battery life tests. We used a 50% brightness setting for the Timeline, which is easily readable in normal indoor lighting and is the setting we’d be most likely to use ourselves. That setting is roughly equivalent to the 40% brightness level on the UL80Vt, which is what we used for both of that notebook’s configurations.
For our web surfing test, we opened a Firefox window with two tabs: one for TR and another for Shacknews. These tabs were set to reload automatically every 30 seconds over Wi-Fi, and we left Bluetooth enabled as well. Our second battery life test involves movie playback. Here, we looped a standard-definition video of the sort one might download off BitTorrent, using Windows Media Player for playback. We disabled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for this test.
In its most frugal configuration, the UL80Vt offers more than eight-and-a-half hours of Wi-Fi web surfing time and seven hours of movie playback. That’s quite a bit better than the Aspire Timeline, whose battery life is only barely longer than what the Asus system achieves in turbo mode.
The Aspire only has a six-cell, 56Wh battery, so the deck is stacked in Asus’ favor here. Although, to be fair, Asus has stacked the deck in its favor by equipping the UL80Vt with a beefy battery as standard equipment.
External operating temperatures
External operating temperatures were measured with an IR thermometer placed 1″ from the surface of the system. Tests were conducted after the UL80Vt had run our web surfing battery life test for a couple of hours in turbo mode.
The UL80Vt runs nice and cool, ensuring that it won’t overheat your potential offspring should you use the system as an actual laptop.
On to some real games
Before taking a closer look at the UL80Vt’s gaming chops, there are a few things I need to gripe about: software bloat and Asus’ Power4Gear Hybrid power management software. Asus isn’t alone in loading its notebooks with extraneous trialware and other garbage that you’re probably better off uninstalling, but that doesn’t make it right. Removing all of the junk that comes pre-loaded on the UL80Vt could could take a good half hour or more.
One pre-installed app that you will want to keep is Power4Gear Hybrid. This program is the only way to activate the UL80Vt’s turbo mode, and you have to be running the app to toggle power-saving modes with the handy button located just above the top-left corner of the keyboard. However, Power4Gear doesn’t otherwise deviate from the power management options offered natively by Windows 7. One might expect the Asus app to be better tuned for the UL80Vt’s hardware, but it doesn’t have any awareness of the power states available in the SU7300 processor. Despite the fact that the chip can only run at 1.3GHz or 800MHz when not in turbo mode, Power4Gear still lets users define maximum and minimum processor states in ultra-fine 1% increments.
I’d like to see more explicit switchable graphics controls integrated into Power4Gear, as well. As it stands, users don’t have direct control over the graphics mode. The GeForce is enabled in high-performance and entertainment modes, while the other two fall back on the GMA.
Speaking of graphics, it’s time to delve a little deeper into the UL80Vt’s gaming potential. This is the first CULV-based system we’ve tested with a real graphics processor, and I was curious to see how the combo fared in some more recent games. These informal tests were conducted at 1366×768 with the system running in turbo mode. I used Fraps to approximate frame rates during each gameplay session.
We’ve run our Call of Duty benchmark already, but this time I was curious to see how far I could crank the in-game detail levels and still get playable frame rates. I was able to turn on all the eye candy, including anisotropic filtering, and still get frame rates between 20 and 40 FPS on the game’s first real level. Gameplay was sufficiently smooth, although antialiasing proved too demanding.
The UL80Vt already managed over 40 FPS with our benchmark timedemo, but the system can handle better than medium in-game detail levels. Left 4 Dead 2 ran smoothly with maximum details, oscillating between 30 and 40 FPS most of the time. Heavy action and smoke plunged frame rates into the 20s, but the game remained quite playable.
To be perfectly honest, all the travel and looting in Borderlands feels a little like work to me. And the game makes the UL80Vt work, too. Even with medium detail levels, Borderlands only ran between 20 and 30 FPS. During light action sequences, it spent most of its time in the 20s. That’s much better than the slideshow you’ll get on a GMA, of course, but it’s borderline for what I’d consider comfortably playable.
GRID is one of the better PC driving games out there, but it doesn’t run particularly well on the UL80Vt. Even with low in-game detail levels, you’re looking at frame rates in the mid-to-low 20s, which is pushing it for a driving game.
Of course, you can also wring higher frame rates from the UL80Vt by dropping to lower screen resolutions than we’ve used here. Just keep in mind that scaling is rarely good for image quality, especially if games don’t support lower resolutions that match the screen’s 16:9 aspect ratio.
According to our price search engine, the UL80Vt-A1 is currently selling for around $825 online. Amazon is also running a deal that’ll get you the system and a $100 gift card for $824, with free shipping to boot. Even with that pseudo discount, the UL80Vt isn’t among the cheapest 14″ systems you can buy. It is, however, one of the most versatile.
Unlike most CULV-powered notebooks, the UL80Vt’s switchable GeForce graphics can actually handle recent games. This is still far from a serious gaming rig, but there are a great many quality titles that will run quite smoothly on the system at its native resolution, even with detail levels turned up. The turbo mode’s a nice addition, as well, especially since it’s paired with a clock-throttling battery-saving mode. Asus has effectively covered both ends of the spectrum, allowing users to ramp up performance dramatically when they need it, but also fall into a low-power mode to conserve battery life.
Ah yes, sweet, sweet battery life. The UL80Vt-A1 delivered more than a working day’s worth of run time in our real-world Wi-Fi web surfing test, which is more than can be said for even most netbooks. There’s enough battery life to watch several full-length movies, as well. Never before have I seen a notebook this powerful and this affordable run for so long.
Of course, the UL80Vt also has its share of problems. The dimpled touchpad surface doesn’t track as smoothly as I’d like, and something is definitely up with the left side of the keyboard. Other online reviews have noted the clicky, flexy left side, so this appears to be a design flaw rather than a problem with one individual unit. The lack of Bluetooth support is also disappointing in a system in this price range. Heck, even sub-$400 netbooks come with Bluetooth as standard equipment.
Despite these flaws, the UL80Vt’s appeal really starts to sink in when you look at the big picture. Many folks are trading their desktops for notebooks these days, and the UL80Vt has the performance and features to serve effectively as a desktop replacement for a great many users. Plus, thanks to its incredible battery life and relatively thin and light chassis, the UL80Vt also makes a pretty good notebook.
Compromise usually rules out perfection at the budget end of the market, and the UL80Vt doesn’t defy that trend. But it demands a lot fewer compromises than one might expect from a 14″ notebook, and that makes it TR Recommended.