ASUS UL20A Review, Specs

The Asus UL20A is a cheap ultrabook alternative for those who want something cheap, portable and do not care much about hooking up their laptop to a larger screen or HDTV. Battery life of this ultrabook is its strong point. The only drawback I see in this ultrabook laptop is the fact it lacks HDMI port, which is something I expect from a notebook of this price. Read this review to find more about it.

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Asus UL20A Specs

Note: US model differs in two specs: an Intel SU7300 (1.3GHz) ultrabook processor and a 250GB HDD. I have a Japanese model.

12.1” 1366 x 768 display (glossy, 199 nits)
Intel Celeron SU2300 processor (1.2GHz dual core)
Intel GMA 4500M HD graphics (1080p capable)
2GB RAM (2 slots)
320GB HDD (2.5” SATA)
0.3M Webcam
10/100 LAN
802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Express Gate “Instant On” OS
Altec Lansing Speakers + SRS Premium Sound
6 Cell 4,400 mAh battery (rated at 7.5 hours, 5.5 hours in reality)
1.51 kg / 3.3 pounds weight
11.9 x 9.2 x 1.2 inches / 30.2 x 23.4 x 3 cm size
3x USB 2.0, VGA, audio jacks, card reader, Kensington lock
Available in silver, or in certain countries, black.

Box Contents

There’s a whole lot of stuff in the box. Manuals, booklets and several CDs. One is a restore CD. Warranty booklet. Cable tie thing.

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Installed Software
There’s a whole lot of crap / bloatware installed by default from ASUS. Most of it is fluff and worth removing to speed up your system but some I will point out:

Power4Gear Hybrid
This is similar to Super Hybrid Engine you get on Eee PC netbooks and it works in the same way, except you have different power modes (Power saving, quiet office, entertainment and performance modes) and more control over each mode through different settings.

Unlike Eee PCs, I did not notice the CPU under or overclocking depending on the mode. CPU-Z reported 1.2GHz for all modes. By default the lowest power mode turns off Aero but annoyingly auto-hides the taskbar – easily disabled though.

Express Gate
This is ASUS’ name for one of those “instant-on” quick booting OSes. It should be installed by default otherwise you can install it from the menu. Manual says it should be seen in the boot up however I have not been able to get the OS to show up as of yet.

Ports / Layout

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Left: Kensington lock, air vent, 2x USB 2.0 and mic and headphone jacks.

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Right: Power, VGA, LAN 2.0, card reader (fully flush)

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Front: LED status lights in the middle.

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Back: Battery and just that. Flush, too, which is nice.

Bottom: One large access panel which is very easily to slip off.

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Top: Brushed metal lid feels and looks good though it still picks up fingerprints. Here’s a before and after makeover.

Display

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Slim bezel houses a 12.1” display with a 1366 x 768 resolution. Very easy on the eyes and the pixels aren’t big and chunky like you’d see on a 13-inch notebook. Display is bright at 199 cd/m2 brightness in the middle of the display. Indoors, you’d probably have brightness on the lowest notches (1-4) out of 15. Display is glossy so glare and reflections are distracting as usual for glossy displays and particular on websites with dark backgrounds.

Screen folds back far enough that I haven’t encountered any positions that inhibit obtaining the best viewing angle.

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Let’s compare brightness with some other netbook / notebooks. Note that anything above 150 or so nits is overkill for indoors. Anything higher will really help outdoors or unusually bright locations.

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Noise
The UL20A exhibits low noise bordering on quiet. At all times I can always hear the fan. For web browsing the fan stays at the lowest level and I have to put my ear close by to hear it. If you start watching YouTube or play games you will notice the fan ramp up, though it’s still very decent and still low noise. You can of course hear the faint clicking of the hard drive at all times like most other notebooks without a solid state drive.

Heat
Overall stays cool, with the bottom left underneath getting slightly warm and the touchpad having a touch of warmth. That’s after about 30 minutes running HD YouTube video. Warmest part reached 34 / 93 degrees. Air vent pumped cool air, however the actual temperature at the vent was 45 degrees.

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HD Video

Thanks to the integrated Intel GMA 4500M HD chipset, you can play 1080p WMV / AVC / H.264 videos with full hardware acceleration which results in crisp, smooth playback at full screen. Flash (YouTube HD) works okay – 720p video is very smooth even in full screen but 1080p wasn’t quite as smooth particularly in full screen. The Flash 10.1 drivers are still Beta however so I expect better performance once the drivers come out of Beta.

One major feature lacking on the UL20A is that there is no HDMI port. This means you can’t as easily connect it to your HDTV. You’ve still got a VGA port and hooking it up to a desktop LCD monitor is simple. The UL20A had no problem with the native resolution of 1920 x 1200 on my 24-inch monitor as well as playing back 1080p video on it which was very smooth. VGA being analog by nature, the image isn’t as sharp as you’d get via HDMI.

Keyboard

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Fantastic chiclet style keyboard. Very wide, taking up the whole chassis with no wasted space on the sides. Side keys (backspace, enter, left and right shift keys) are extra chunky so even easier to hit – there’s plenty of space for the chassis to allow for this. I really like the addition of a function and both alt / control keys on the right hand side of the keyboard that’s not always available on keyboards on smaller sized notebook / netbooks like MSI Wind U115. Under normal typing conditions no flex is exhibited however you can see some slight flex if you press down harder than normal. Keys feel great and give good feedback. I did not experience any other aspects to the keyboard that inhibited use or detract from it’s use.

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Trackpad

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If you’ve used an Eee PC Seashell netbook before then you know exactly how the trackpad on the UL20A is. One large touch surface, flush with the palm rest with a simply dimpled surface (though the dimples are inversed and set into the chassis rather than protrude out like on the netbooks). A single bar for both buttons is a little noisy and stiff but it does it’s job decently. There’s no multi touch scrolling capability on the trackpad but you do get multi touch zooming and pinching. Scrolling is done on the right edge, though it is very responsive but it can be tricky finding the edge at times since.. there is no edge to the trackpad.

Battery Life

ASUS claims a 7.5 hour battery with it’s 6-cell 4400mAh, 47Wh battery. Real usage shows that battery life falls several hours short of this figure. Being as frugal as I could, light web browsing with no flash on the lowest brightness notches with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on using power saving mode, I managed 5 hours, 4 mins. Strangely, I got a little more battery life doing the same test on Performance mode: 5 hours, 26 mins. On another occasion, on quiet office mode watching just standard quality YouTube video for the most part mixed in with some web browsing gave me a figure of 3 hours, 31 mins though I still had just over an hour left according to Windows – I wasn’t able to finish this last particular test.

Here’s a chart of various battery life scores:

Battery Life    Test    Settings
5:26    Light web browsing (no Flash) Run 2    Performance, Wi-Fi / BT ON,  up to 20% brightness, audio ON
5:04    Light web browsing (no Flash) Run 1    Battery saving, Wi-Fi / BT ON,  up to 20% brightness, audio ON
4:18    DVD Quality movie (looped)    Battery saving, Wi-Fi / BT OFF,  40% brightness, audio ON
3:35    720p (H.264) video (looped)    Battery Saving, Wi-Fi / BT OFF, 40% brightness, audio ON
3:29    1080p (H.264) video (looped)    Battery Saving, Wi-Fi / BT OFF, 40% brightness, audio ON
So, you’ll get anywhere between 3.5 – 5.5 hours of battery life out of the ASUS UL20A, a couple of hours short of ASUS’ 7.5 hour claim.

Let’s see how that compares to other notebooks and notebooks. Battery life compares to a lot of other 11-inchers with the same SU2300 processor.

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The above benchmarks were done using my 480p video test, with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth OFF on the lowest power saving mode available. 90 cd/m2 brightness. For real usage figures add an hour more.

The battery took 1.5 hours to recharge from 7% to 100%. Windows automatically shuts down the system and puts it in hibernation once you reach 7%, by default, out of the box.

Audio

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The UL20A has Altec Lansing speakers along with SRS Surround Sound. I was somehow expecting awesome sound with good bass for some reason, though my expectations fell a bit short. Sound quality is very good and clear, though bass seems to be lacking. Definitely above average sound quality. Surprisingly, SRS makes audio sound better – turning it off made audio sound rather average. I find volume quite loud, certainly enough for a living room.
Webcam & Microphone
I used one of ASUS’ included webcam apps for testing out webcam quality. The 0.3MP webcam gives a decent image and average for what I’ve seen with 0.3MP webcams. The maximum resolution you’ll get is 640 x 480. Image turned out pretty good in my dimly lit den with only just a little bit of noise. I didn’t look like a serial killer so it passes my webcam quality test.

As for the microphone, located on the top right of the screen bezel, I tested it’s quality using Audacity 1.3.11. By default, there were filters applied (noise suppression in the HD audio control panel for example). Default voice recording had audible hiss – though turning on the filters removed all hiss. Still my voice sounded like I was almost underwater. Wasn’t too impressed though should be fine for phone calls or video chat.

Performance
As I mentioned earlier Japanese models come with a dual core Celeron SU2300 processor (1.2GHz) rather than the Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor that you get on the UL20A in most other countries. I have yet to test a notebook with a SU7300 processor so I cannot tell you what the difference is between them.

As far as the SU2300 is concerned, it’s more than enough for daily, casual tasks. Even on battery mode there’s no slow down on webpages with Flash – a common occurrence on netbooks. Heck, even compared to my desktop PC (E7400 processor, 7200RPM HDD) I don’t feel much, if any difference outside of niche applications (gaming, 3D graphics, image processing). I do a lot of image processing for my site and I didn’t notice much of a difference there even with photos taken from my camera. For example, opening up a 1.3MB photo (3262 x 1924) only takes a second extra to resize down to 50% compared to my desktop (2 secs vs 3 secs). In short, it is much better than Atom processor that is being used in MSI Wind U115 laptop.

Now, how about 3D performance?

3DMark06 returned a score of 723 on performance mode. The Lenovo ThinkPad X100e with an ATI Radeon HD 3200 scored higher with 1038. My desktop PC with a Core 2 Duo E7400 and 7200RPM HDD returns a score of 9154. I’ve only just started including 3DMark06 scores so I don’t have much to compare to at the moment.

Here’s a relative comparison of the UL20A’s performance against other notebooks and netbooks that I have reviewed. Note that the UL20A is the most powerful notebook I have ever reviewed. (again I have yet to test any CPU higher up in the chain above the SU2300). Here, the Acer Aspire 1410 also has the same SU2300 processor.

 

Overclocking

In the BIOS there’s an option to increase the overclocking value from the default 3% to 5%. I don’t notice any change in the clock speed when on Performance mode (with CPU-Z) and I don’t notice any other changes. I ran CrystalMark 2004R3 to check if overall performance was increased but the total score did not show any improvement from 3%, actually it dropped slightly.

Upgrades

Opening the access panel below gives you access to one 2.5” SATA storage device, housing your 250GB HDD and 2x RAM slots with 1 filled with 2GB RAM. That’s all there is regarding upgradable parts.

Gaming
I tested out Half Life 2 (original) with default graphic settings at the native 1366 x 768 resolution. FPS seemed very smooth though I did notice slightly jerkiness when getting close to people and FPS dropped from 40 – 50 quickly down to 25 FPS once there was more than one person on the screen. Hard to tell if this is going to be enjoyable / smooth at the native resolution.

Power Consumption
Here are some various power consumption figures (Watts) from various tasks. I didn’t notice any difference between performance and battery saving modes other than performance giving 12W when vs 8W when idle. Brightness set to 90 cd/m2 and no battery plugged in.

Task    Power Consumption    CPU Usage
Idle    8W    1%
720p H.264    16W    ~19%
1080p H.264    18W    ~20%
720p Flash    20W    60%
1080p Flash    20W    50%
Linux

I tried out Ubuntu 9.10 and it installed and booted up with no problems. Brightness and hot keys worked. Sound and hot keys worked. Resume from suspend worked. Wi-Fi did not work however and installing the latest updates and checking out hardware drivers were to no avail. I don’t know if Wi-Fi cards vary between UL20 models but mine particular one was a Realtek RTL8191SE card. A quick Google search shows that Ubuntu users are able to get Wi-Fi working using ndiswrapper. I don’t have time to try this myself however.

ASUS UL20A Review Summary

Pros
1080p capable
Large keyboard, no missing keys
An ultrabook type laptop for those who cannot afford one.
Low noise
Stays cool
Bright display
Good battery life (5.5 hours)
Better than average sound
Cons
Glossy display, chassis
Brushed metal lid still picks up fingerprints
No HDMI

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