Whether CULV thin-and-light laptops will ever fully find a spot between the Netbook world and the full-featured laptop world, they are most definitely a category that's growing every day. Dropping an optical drive and throwing a low-voltage processor alongside a long-lasting battery is the trend of 2009, although the low-voltage laptops we've seen so far have often sacrificed either build quality, performance, or value-for-dollar.
It's relieving to say, therefore, that the 13-inch Asus UL30A-A1 is a thin-and-light that we'd gladly carry around in our bag for a good long time to come. With a sturdy frame, a decently performing new Core 2 Duo CULV processor as opposed to the disappointing single-core Core 2 Solo CULVs we've seen, and really good battery life, it's close to a complete package for a sub-$1000 laptop that doesn't resort to an Atom processor.
While we've seen similar-looking products here before, including the Lenovo IdeaPad U350 and the MSI X340, we liked the overall performance on the UL30A-A1 better. And as far as its closest competitor goes, the Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T, the Asus UL30A-A1 had equal or better performance, better battery life, and costs $100 less than the 3810T did at launch. This is a thin-and-light that does everything we had hoped thin-and-lights would do, and it costs nowhere near what a MacBook Air or a Dell Adamo does.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$799|
|Processor||1.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300|
|Memory||4GB, 1066MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Chipset||Mobile Intel GM45 Express|
|Graphics||Intel GMA 4500MHD|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Premium|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.9 x 9.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.94/4.44 pounds|
|Category||Thin and light|
With a solid-feeling chassis, the Asus UL30A-A1 has a plastic feel, but unlike some low-cost laptops, you shouldn't be worried about it breaking if you don't hold it right. The bottom's generic black matte plastic is topped with a glossy silvery plastic on the interior, surrounding a very MacBook-esque chiclet-style raised keyboard. Glossy black plastic surrounds the upper lid's inset glossy screen, while the back is covered in what feels like a thin overlay of aluminum. Even though the UL30A-A1 does look (from a distance) somewhat MacBook-esque, the overall construction is far more budget-minded. To this thin-and-light's credit, the battery is well integrated into the space behind the keyboard and between the two display hinges.
Unfortunately, the keyboard area did demonstrate some discomforting flex when pressed down on, always a bit of a pet peeve here for us in a thin-and-light. Even so, the raised keyboard still had sufficient firmness when typing to not be a major problem. While we'd say the Lenovo U350 still felt higher-end and more polished in its construction, the Asus UL30A-A1 is on the better side of laptop build quality and feels a few hairs short of excellent.
There are two silver buttons on the top left and right of the keyboard tray. One is the power button, while the other launches a pre-boot Express Gate quick-start environment, with a Web browser, a music player, an online gaming portal, and a photo viewer. It started much more quickly than a regular Windows Vista boot, but the screen resolution seemed squashed and improperly set on initial use of the Web browser. We're not sure how many people use features such as prelaunch environments, but it's nice to have. When the UL30A-A1 is running Windows Vista, the left button toggles four power settings, including both Battery Saving and High Performance modes. These presets are shortcuts to settings that can also be configured in the Control Panel, and all of our tests were run in High Performance mode. Honestly, we can't see why you'd even select Battery Saving mode at all, since the UL30A-A1 had amazing battery life even at the highest settings.
We had a small beef with the touch pad: while its multitouch functions such as page scroll worked well, the dimpled glossy surface shares the same material as the rest of the palm rest area, and feels too smooth; we like better traction in a pad. The click-bar button area below worked well but had a central pivot and left/right click areas; we prefer two discrete buttons instead.
The glossy 13.3-inch LED screen on the UL30A-A1 has a 1,366x768 native resolution, which is standard for laptops of this size, and it still looks bright and colorful here on the UL30A-A1. Text and icons popped, and videos looked good. Stereo speakers are tucked in the bottom of the front end, on the laptop's underside. They had decent volume, but were nothing particularly noteworthy.
|Asus UL30A-A1||Average for category [thin and light]|
|Video||VGA-out, HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
There's nothing portwise on the UL30A-A1 that you haven't seen in other laptops of its size, but there's also nothing significant that's missing, other than an ExpressCard slot. All ports were comfortably and easily laid out on both sides of the machine. 4GB of RAM and a generous 500GB hard drive were nice as well--half a terabyte of storage onboard will help ease the pain of going without an optical drive. We wish all manufacturers were as giving with their hard-drive space. Intel's SU7300 is a new Core 2 Duo CULV, as opposed to the single-core processors we've been used to seeing in recent inexpensive, thin 12- and 13-inch laptops. While single-core CULV processors have generally been disappointments, Core 2 Duo CULVs provide much more of the computing kick we'd expected in the first place. We found the UL30A-A1 to be comfortably zippy in general use, and it beat out all similar thin-and-lights in multimedia multitasking. Performance-wise, it was far better than Pentium ULV in the Lenovo IdeaPad U350, and was close to the performance of the Core 2 Duo U9400 on the Acer Aspire 3810T--sometimes exceeding it. Basic multimedia including HD video streaming, office work, e-mail and Web browsing were all easy tasks for this laptop to pull off. We'd recommend this model as a sufficient replacement for a regular Core 2 Duo laptop, provided you aren't interested in too much gaming or heavy multimedia editing or authoring. While the UL30A-A1 didn't have Windows 7 installed on our review model, it qualifies for a Windows 7 upgrade under its version of Vista. Still, we would have liked to have seen Windows 7 preinstalled.