Believe it or not, there was a time when 12-inch ultraportables weren't just considered supersized or supercharged netbooks. It was its own laptop category, mostly populated by business machines for road warriors. The Asus UL20FT-A1 focuses more on entertainment, thanks to features such as Altec Lansing speakers, and there's no question that this laptop has enough speed to be your primary work-and-play PC. You also get a stylish brushed aluminum lid and comfy keyboard. But is that enough to justify its $629 price when you can get the 12.1-inch EeePC 1215N netbook for $130 less?
Design and Ports
Handsome but somewhat unassuming, the UL20FT weighs a light 3.4 pounds and features a sturdy and classy brushed metal casing. You won't have to worry about fingerprints marring this notebook. The EeePC 1215N is the same weight, but its all-plastic chassis doesn't feel quite as sturdy. Inside the Asus you'll find a plastic sliver deck with a subtle cube pattern that looks elegant, which carriers over to the ridged touchpad, and a glossy black bezel.
The left side of the UL20FT houses an HDMI port, USB port, and headphone and mic jacks. A 5-in-1 memory card reader and two more USB, VGA, and Ethernet ports line the right side. Above the keyboard is a small power button on the right, as well as a button on the left that doubles as a launcher for the Express Gate instant-on OS (when the system is powered off) and a way for toggling through various power profiles (when the notebook is on).
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The UL20FT managed to keep its cool during testing. After playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, we measured relatively low temperatures of 88 degrees Fahrenheit on the touchpad and 86 degrees between the G and H keys. The underside of the notebook got up to 104 degrees by the vent, but the middle of the underside was a reasonable 91 degrees.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Asus doesn't have a reputation for delivering great ergonomics, and the UL20FT doesn't do much to change that perception. On the plus side, the keyboard offers good tactile feedback with minimal flex (much less so than the Eee PC 1215N). Our only nitpick here is the shrunken right Shift key.
However, the touchpad button will be a deal-breaker for some. It's entirely too stiff, and it's also small. We resorted to double tapping the touchpad to make selections, and whenever we had to right-click we were reminded why we avoided the button. The ridged touchpad offered smooth navigation as well as smooth pinch-to-zoom gesturing. Too bad the pad measures a mere 2.5 x 1.5 inches (versus a relatively mammoth 3.3 x 1.9 inches for the 1215N). We wish Asus could combine the keyboard on this notebook with the touchpad on its souped-up netbook.
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Display, Audio, and Webcam
Click to enlargeThe 12.1-inch display on the UL20FT has a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. Despite having a glossy coating, we didn't notice too much glare. We did notice that this panel was slightly dimmer than the 1215N's, but surfing the web and watching Hulu was still a pleasurable experience. A 720p episode of Glee streamed from Fox.com played smoothly while showing plenty of detail, including the wrinkles in the cheerleaders' uniforms.
Dialogue in the Glee episode was also plenty loud, thanks to the built-in Altec Lansing speakers with SRS sound. An easy-to-use control panel lets you optimize the audio for music, movies, or games with a click. When we played "A-Punk" by Vampire Weekend and "All These Things That I've Done" from The Killers on Slacker, the UL20FT delivered good fidelity for a laptop. But while the front-mounted speakers pumped out plenty of volume, the audio sounded harsh at the max setting.
To test out the 0.3-megapixel webcam, we made a video call on Skype. The other caller said the colors were warmer than usual (in a good way) and the audio sounded clear.
Wondering why this ultraportable costs $629 while other systems its size can be had for $500 or less? It's because the UL20FT packs a pretty powerful low-voltage Intel Core i3-330UM processor running at 1.2-GHz, though it's paired with only 2GB of RAM. In PCMark Vantage, which measures overall system performance, the UL20FT scored 3,929, outperforming most other 11- and 12-inch notebooks by a pretty significant margin.
The $499 Eee PC 1215N, which has a dual-core 1.8-GHz Atom CPU, notched 1,921; and the $436 Toshiba T215D, with its 1.7-GHz AMD Athlon II Neo chip, scored 1,938. The $529 ThinkPad X100e, powered by a dual-core AMD processor, reached a PCMark Vantage score of 2,382. (This system originally cost $569.) If you want comparable performance to this Asus, you'd need to step up to an 11.6-incher like the Acer Aspire 1830t, which achieved a score of 3,824. That notebook costs $699, but the configuration we reviewed had an even more powerful Core i5 CPU and 4GB of RAM. (A Core i3 version is also available.)
Those who want to edit video will also find the UL20FT pretty capable. The notebook transcoded a 114MB MPEG-4 file to AVI in 1 minute and 24 seconds. That showing is a good deal faster than the ultraportable average of 2:06, as well as such competitors as the ThinkPad X100e (2:17) and Inspiron M101z (2:16). The Eee PC 1215N took a leisurely 3:17.
Click to enlargeUnfortunately, the UL20FT took its sweet time starting Windows 7, taking 1 minute and 25 seconds to fully boot into Windows; that is, when we finally had complete control of the desktop and all the icons had filled in. That's considerably longer than the ultraportable average of 62 seconds. The transfer time offered by the 320GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive (where we copy 4.97GB of multimedia files) wasn't that great either; 20.9 MBps is below the category average of 24.6 MBps.
When using the laptop, the UL20FT was fairly responsive. We had seven windows open and didn't notice any lag. You'll especially benefit from its extra horsepower if you perform more demanding chores, like photo and video editing. However, if you're primarily interested in word processing, web surfing, and checking e-mail on the go, this machine's Core i3 processor might be overkill.
With Intel's HD integrated graphics under the hood, you shouldn't expect serious gaming chops. Sure enough, the UL20FT mustered only 23 frames per second when playing World of Warcraft--and that was at 1024 x 768-pixel resolution. That dropped all the way to 9 fps at native resolution. In 3DMark06, the ultraportable scored 1,256, which is slightly above the category average (1,165).
The Nvidia Ion-powered Eee PC 1215N runs circles around this notebook in the graphics department, more than doubling the UL20FT's score in 3DMark06 (2,692) and turning in much higher frame rates in WoW (37 fps and 48 fps, respectively.) Still, this laptop is no slouch when it comes to playing HD video, including a 1080p trailer of Tron HD on YouTube.
Battery Life and Wireless
Click to enlargeAlthough this Core i3 notebook offers plenty of processing muscle, it doesn't last as long as we'd like on a charge. In the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous surfing over Wi-Fi), the UL20FT's six-cell battery turned in a runtime of 4 hours and 33 minutes. The average ultraportable lasts a full hour longer. To be fair, many of the AMD-powered 11- and 12-inchers we've tested recently have lasted less than 5 hours as well, but they also cost less. The Dell Inspiron M101z (4:54) and Toshiba Satellite (4:45) both offered more juice, as did the Core i5-equipped TimelineX 1830t (5:53). The Asus Eee PC 1215N lasted 5:40.
The Atheros AR9285 802.11n wireless adapter delivered fast throughput close to and a good distance from our router. We saw data rates of 40.2 Mbps and 25.1 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet, respectively, both above the category averages.
Software and Warranty
The UL20FT comes with several Asus programs, including LifeFrame (for recording and sharing video), SmartLogon (facial recognition), and Power4Gear Hybrid (for tweaking power settings). Asus also bundles the notebook with trials of Office 2010 and Trend Micro Internet Security, as well as Syncables Desktop and Kindle for PC.
Asus backs the UL20FT with a one-year warranty and one-year accidental damage protection, as well as 24/7 tech support. To see how Asus fared in our tech support showdown, click here.
Click to enlargeThe Asus UL20FT-A1 looks good and packs a punch, making it a tempting choice for those who want to travel light without sacrificing performance. However, the touchpad button is pretty awful, nearly ruining the overall experience. Plus, for $629, we would hope for more than 4.5 hours of endurance. When it comes to inexpensive 12-inch systems, we think the Asus Eee PC 1215N is a better value. It offers a much larger touchpad, more comfortable mouse button, and drastically better graphics performance for just $499. Sure, the UL20FT has a more premium feel and does a better job of resisting fingerprints, but we'd much rather carry around a cloth than an external mouse.