Take everything we liked about the Asus Eee PC 1005HA (a well-designed, seashell-shaped netbook) and marry that with the CULV-laden Acer Timeline 3810T. The result: Asus's stab at a good, low-cost ultraportable computer, the UL30A.
Quite literally, it looks as though Asus cribbed notes from its own designs as well as the competition to come up with a decent pedigree. It has all the marks of a laptop that makes a good showing, even though we haven't had a chance to run the machine through our WorldBench 6 tests just yet. Under the hood are Intel's 1.3GHz SU7300 processor, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 500GB hard drive (at 5400 rpm). Will it blast through tests? Highly doubtful, but it'll probably run a hair faster than the Timeline we tested. Battery life is another unanswered question for now, but spokespeople say that the UL30A will hang in for up to 12 hours with the included 8-cell battery. We'll see.
The UL30A has a reasonably crisp 13.3-inch backlit LED screen. That makes it a little easier on the eyes when trying to use the machine outdoors. You'll still deal with a bit of a glare coming off the glossy 1366-by-768-pixel screen, but it won't completely blind you. Nevertheless, when I dropped the brightness settings down on the display, rich colors seemed a little too washed out. Video fared a bit better, as black shadows were visible against a dark, if slightly ashy, background. That said, if you were relying on getting a bit of relief from work watching Hulu or just some video stashed on the hard drive, you'll be just fine. I didn't spot any painful, show-stopping stutters. But note that the UL30A has only GMA 4500MHD integrated graphics, enough for straight video playback and little else. And the audio, though slightly tinny as it emanates from two front-firing Altec-Lansing speakers, delivers enough mid-range clarity that you won't instantly reach for headphones.
However, the big star, at least to me, has to be the ginormous, comfortable keyboard, with huge cut-out buttons that crop out like islands. Some laptops have flimsy cut-out keys: Accidentally stick a fingernail too far underneath a key, and you could easily pop it off. That won't happen on the UL30A unless you intentionally put a lot of effort into it. The function buttons, while smaller, are spaced well enough that you won't accidentally trigger the wrong command. This machine may lack dedicated multimedia shortcut buttons (those functions are an "Fn" + command button away), but it does have one notable shortcut key for Express Gate, Asus's Linux-based, quick-boot platform. It launches in about 9 seconds to access a series of basic apps for Skype, the Web, and media.
The mouse button is basically what I remember from the earlier 1005HA, a subtle pock-marked zone cueing you that your fingers are on the touch pad. And thanks to driver support, it supports some gesture commands for document navigation (scrolling, but no zooming). The UL30A, however, should have a better mouse button. While it is solid and springy enough to feel like not it's going to fall off, this thin strip of a button at the bottom feels just a hair too narrow for its own good.
The rest of the case is an interesting mix of a sturdy, slick aluminum sheet protecting the screen, a tough-textured plastic on the underbody, and a nice, cool-to-the-touch coating on the face (where the keyboard and mouse reside). It smudges, but the silvery colored shell of our test unit hides that tendency pretty well.
The rest of the case is reasonably well apportioned. Along the left side are one USB port and VGA and HDMI video-outs. On the other side: a five-in-one card reader, two more USB ports, a 10/100 ethernet jack, and headphone and microphone jacks. That's on top of the 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0, and an integrated 0.3-megapixel Webcam. Overall, it's a good collection of features. The only thing this machine lacks is an optical drive, and that shouldn't come as any surprise considering that the UL30A, at about 3.7 pounds, falls in the category of lightweight laptops.
The software that comes with the UL30A adds some value. The AIRecovery utilitiy is a tool to easily archive your data. LifeFrame 3 is a painless Webcam software package, and you get a couple of bits of trialware.
All said and done, this machine a reasonably good package, but it is £500. You might find yourself asking if you want to get something that might not run as long, but have more muscle or forgo a little bit of that power and save a few bucks with a plain ol' netbook. But final judgments are pending: We still need to run the UL30A through our labs, and when that's complete, we'll come back with a full review.