Editors' note: This review is part of our 2009 Retail Laptop and Desktop Holiday Roundup, which covers specific fixed configurations of popular systems found in retail stores.
This year has undoubtedly been defined, if not by Netbooks, then by the growth of affordable thin laptops that shave size--and even optical drives--off in an effort to provide a more portable, larger-screened computer. Whereas this territory used to be the domain of highly expensive "executive" computers, such as the MacBook Air and the Dell Adamo, companies like Asus, MSI, and others have been providing cheaper alternatives that run at slower speeds, but are more energy-efficient thanks to ultralow-voltage processors.
We've seen machines like the Asus UL30A, the Toshiba T135, and the Acer Aspire Timeline series all enter this territory, but new to the landscape are even larger thin laptops that share the same low-voltage processors as their smaller counterparts.
The Asus UL50AG is just such a machine: with a 15.6-inch screen, it's in the upper range of mainstream laptop screen sizes, yet it weighs a relatively light 5.2 pounds and is just an inch thick. This configuration was reviewed as part of our 2009 Retail Laptop and Desktop Holiday Roundup, and it cuts a pretty profile. While it has an optical drive--something its smaller sibling, the UL30A, lacks--the internal components still add up to a computing experience that's substandard of a fully fledged Core 2 Duo processor. Nevertheless, a long battery life, a lower price than the smaller Asus UL30A, and an elegant design might convince you to give this big-screened version a try.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$729|
|Processor||1.3 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 ULV|
|Memory||4GB, DDR2 800 MHz|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Chipset||Mobile Intel GM45|
|Graphics||Intel GMA 4500MHD|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit|
|Dimensions (WD)||15.2 inches wide by 10.2 inches thick|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||5.2 / 6.0 pounds|
When we reviewed the Asus UL30A-A1, we remarked on its comfortable and slim-looking design, showing off clean lines and a utilitarian style. The UL50A, while bigger, carries over many of the same aesthetics. An extremely thin, brushed-black-metal lid opens up on a wide keyboard area draped in a rubberized matte black. A raised keyboard--including a number pad--lies above a smooth, matte, black touch pad and a chrome, plastic button-bar. The glossy screen is framed simply in glossy plastic. Everything's black, but the effect is more like a ThinkPad than a gleaming, fingerprint-collecting laptop, and we greatly appreciate the subtlety. The UL50A also manages to fit a DVD optical drive into its thin frame, although at first glance it doesn't look capable of doing so.
We'd be really excited to call the UL50A our favorite thin laptop in this price range, were it not for the processor inside it. The Core 2 Duo ultralow-voltage processor, the same as the one in the UL30A, is a better-than-average Intel low-voltage chip that still, by nature of consuming less power, runs at a slower speed than most Core 2 Duos. This makes it underpowered, and might be an unacceptable compromise for those looking for a more capable 15-inch multimedia machine.
Confusingly, the UL50A seems to have two power buttons, both chrome, on the above-left and right of the keyboard. In fact, one boots Windows 7, while the other launches an Express Gate Splashtop OS environment, a quicker-booting mini-OS with a pared-down Web browser, e-mail, and other essential programs. The idea of Express Gate is to offer a faster start-up for quick tasks without booting Windows 7, but we usually keep our laptop in sleep/hibernate mode, and it doesn't take too long to resume what we were doing, so we don't use this feature too often around the office. Many casual users with quick-launch OS options on their laptops don't even know they have them.
The big 15.6-inch screen feels even larger on a laptop this thin, and icons and text looked crisp and bright. The glossy 16x9 LED screen has a 1,366x768 resolution, which is standard for a 15-inch screen (although we occasionally have seen higher resolutions in this range). Videos played back nicely, and the stereo speakers, seated below the keyboard, had above-average volume and decent clarity. A built-in Webcam had passable resolution and video quality, and included some odd Asus photo-games and video modes.
|Asus UL50AG-RBBBK05||Average for category [mainstream]|
|Video||VGA-out, HDMI||VGA-out, HDMI|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
By tossing in an optical drive, the UL50AG has a complete set of laptop ports and features that one would expect from a 15-incher. While there's no Bluetooth, the complement of HDMI and 802.11n Wi-Fi are solid inclusions.
Now, let us address where we were disappointed: while the UL50AG does have a generous 500GB hard drive, the 4GB of included RAM are DDR2, not DDR3. The included Intel UL7300 processor is a Core 2 ultra-low-voltage CPU, which sacrifices faster speeds for better battery life, while still being capable of multitasking decently thanks to the inclusion of two processor cores. Performance is slower than it is on a regular Core 2 Duo, but far better than a Netbook's Intel Atom CPU. This is great news for users of 13-inch thin-and-lights, but this 15.6-inch laptop is playing with bigger boys with faster CPUs, and up in the 15-inch range the expectations change.
With exactly the same processor, plus no discrete graphics and a larger screen to manage, the benchmark tests on the UL50AG showed some drop-off in both multitasking and iTunes performance. The UL30A-A1 was better than the average thin-and-light, but the UL50AG is worse than the average 15-inch Core 2 Duo laptop; being so thin and light has a small price. We couldn't feel the sluggishness on basic laptop tasks while using Windows 7, but using this machine for any serious multimedia purposes will lead to disappointment.
|Asus UL50AG-RBBBK05||Mainstream (Avg watts/hour)|
|Raw kWh Number||29.34|
|Annual Energy Cost||$3.33|