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Quick Look At Asus' CULV Notebooks: The "Premium Netbooks"

Quick Look At Asus' CULV Notebooks: The "Premium Netbooks"
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For many, 10.1" netbooks (and even the slightly larger 11.1" and 12.1" models) are woefully inadequate for any sense of real productivity. So, when it comes to shopping for notebooks, you say the word "netbook" with derision--and that is perfectly understandable. It is hard to look beyond the compute and graphics horsepower limitations, and even when you do, the dinky form factor seriously cramps your style. High-bit rate 1080p video files just aren't the same on a 10.1" screen. Typing can be a tear-your-hair-out experience that seems to accelerate the onslaught of carpal tunnel syndrome. Suffice it to say, netbooks are not for everyone.

I maintain that netbooks are good in limited cases (read our 2010 Fall Buyer's Guide), and their value really only revolves around a low price tag compared to more fully-featured notebooks. If you went ahead and added another $300 dollars to bottom line, we'd rather be talking about better-equipped systems armed with faster components.

While prices are always a moving target, netbooks generally fall in around $300. If you are willing to go one generation back, there are some excellent sub-$200 deals. Just make sure you understand that whatever your motivation is for purchasing a netbook, they are designed as companion devices. You are supposed to do your heavy lifting on a desktop or workstation.

Netbooks often take a lot of abuse in reviews for this very reason. Everyone generally agrees that the compact little form factor wasn't designed to host a primary computer, but people don't want to have to deal with two machines with different purposes. They seem to want one stationary machine and one convenient mobile system capable of doing the same things. It's  hard enough for true power users to maintain a single archive of documents and media files on one PC. Netbooks make you juggle two (or come up with a smart cloud-based sharing solution). This is where we hit an impasse that consumer ultra-low voltage (CULV) notebooks are able to address.

Historically, Intel is the key proponent of this form factor, which hasn't been strictly defined. Why? Remember that netbooks were the mobile PCs that brought mobile prices down to the ground. This put pressure on notebooks in every other category--specifically the ultra-thin-and-lights. Looking back, why would you spend more than $1500 for a thin-and-light (like some of Sony's older Vaios) when you could purchase a dirt-cheap netbook? The form factors were similar, and the netbook was only handicapped with a slower processor. But it sold for less than one-quarter of the price. In this economy, that budget purchase looks far more attractive.

Conventional notebooks cost $300-$400 dollars more than a netbook. This leaves a huge gap. What can you get spending $150-$300 more than the price of a netbook? CULV notebooks compete in this space. Their dimensions and performance profiles were never strictly defined because they were intended to offer more attractive performance than netbooks, at conservative price points compared to faster notebooks.

Netbook performance is expected to improve significantly thanks to the introduction of AMD's Zacate and Ontario APUs. So, you can think of CULV notebooks as the "one-up" option ahead of netbooks, but "one/two-down" from mainstream notebooks. This means you get a more powerful CPU, GPU, and a roughly 12.1" screen. Whereas netbooks are most often based on Intel's Atom CPU, you're more likely to see CULVs driven by Core 2 Duo or a low-voltage Arrandale-based processor. Without question, those chips are nowhere close to as powerful as a modern mobile Core i5 or Core i7. But you get a smaller, thinner, cheaper, and more power-friendly form factor in return. This is why we consider CULV notebooks to be "premium netbooks," or perhaps "budget ultra-thin-and-lights."

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  • -2 Hide
    one-shot , January 18, 2011 5:30 AM
    Why get this outdated tech when more powerful Sandy Bridge based laptops are already out and more with even better battery life are on the horizon within the next few months. Here is a link from Anandtech that shows a i7 2820QM 4Core/8Thread CPU getting almost 7 hours of battery life (416 minutes) surfing the web with heavy flash.

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/4084/intels-sandy-bridge-upheaval-in-the-mobile-landscape/9

    These CULV were great a year ago, but not anymore. This is old tech and purchasing any of these is a poor use of your money if battery life and performance are what you are after. If you want shorter battery life and weaker performance, then by all means this is for you. Sigh...
  • 4 Hide
    acku , January 18, 2011 5:34 AM
    We will have our Sandy Bridge mobile up story up shortly, but that is a i7-2820M. It is meant for DTRs. CULVs are a different beast. Brazos is more applicable comparison if you read our conclusion.

    And "heavy flash" is somewhat of a misnomer. Its still single-threaded. It doesn't matter what video you happen to be playing. And if you read our Flash article then you know H.264 Flash video has very little overhead on current GPUs (including Sandy Bridge), because they all use hardware decoders. This is going to naturally translate into more battery life. This doesn't just go for Intel. It goes for Ion2, Nile, etc...

    Andrew
    TomsHardware.com
  • 1 Hide
    runswindows95 , January 18, 2011 5:42 AM
    That RLU benchmark is a really useful benchmark! I for one would buy a netbook or any system just to do word processing, the internet, and mp3's all day. You should also include it when comparing lower-end desktops as well because not everyone buys a computer to run high-end graphics all day. It really made me look at these netbooks better, and I can make a better decision based off that one benchmark alone.
  • 1 Hide
    acku , January 18, 2011 5:48 AM
    Quote:
    That RLU benchmark is a really useful benchmark! I for one would buy a netbook or any system just to do word processing, the internet, and mp3's all day. You should also include it when comparing lower-end desktops as well because not everyone buys a computer to run high-end graphics all day. It really made me look at these netbooks better, and I can make a better decision based off that one benchmark alone.


    Honestly, that is probably the first compliment we have received on it. But I'm glad to hear you like it. Feel free to drop suggestions for improving it or possible permanent names.

    I'm glad at least my many hours of programming weren't useless. But we plan to use it in our (many) upcoming mobile system reviews as well.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , January 18, 2011 6:37 AM
    How did you guys update the Ion2 drivers on the 1215n?
  • 0 Hide
    acku , January 18, 2011 6:51 AM
    Uninstall everything, then install Intel driver first, then install Nvidia driver.
  • 1 Hide
    braneman , January 18, 2011 7:21 AM
    I think the appeal of these netbooks is more if you have to carry them around with you, also they are 500$ cheaper, smaller, and probably several pounds lighter than a sandy bridge notebook, trust me if you have to carry it around with books you will notice the difference between this and a 15-17 inch laptop.
  • 0 Hide
    super_tycoon , January 18, 2011 7:35 AM
    inaphasiaHow did you guys update the Ion2 drivers on the 1215n?

    you should try using nvidia's drivers from their website, for a long time I couldn't get any installer to work and had to resort to windows update (I reinstalled windows to x64 ultimate). However, I tried again with the 266.35 installer and that worked perfectly, even with the gpu 'off'.

    I just want to add that if you're going to rip open your 1215n, swap the wifi card. I replaced the stock bs with an intel 6200 (the 1215n only has one antenna, so overkill, yes) and it's amazing. A situation where a cheap abs case is actually beneficial.

    I also don't recommend upgrading the hdd to an ssd. They're expensive, and the platform in general, whether it was ram or cpu, held me back further than I would have expected. The only real advantage is power savings. In the end I put the ssd back in my desktop to live it's horrible life as my swap drive.
  • 3 Hide
    frederico , January 18, 2011 9:40 AM
    one-shotWhy get this outdated tech when more powerful Sandy Bridge based laptops are already out and more with even better battery life are on the horizon within the next few months. Here is a link from Anandtech that shows a i7 2820QM 4Core/8Thread CPU getting almost 7 hours of battery life (416 minutes) surfing the web with heavy flash. http://www.anandtech.com/show/4084 [...] andscape/9These CULV were great a year ago, but not anymore. This is old tech and purchasing any of these is a poor use of your money if battery life and performance are what you are after. If you want shorter battery life and weaker performance, then by all means this is for you. Sigh...


    Great review, very pleased with it.

    To address the above, all is very well and easy when you don't have to take weight and portability into account.

    I own a half dozen laptops and several PCs, I am a pretty hardcore gamer, but the one that gets the most use is the little portable netbook. Its 'evolved' all by itself into the most useful piece of tech I have. Can travel with it, watch tv and order stuff online, even sit out in the sun and watch a movie.. so many uses..

    Yet, so many limitations, this is where something like the 1215n comes in..

    Perfect screen size - really, 11.6 or 12.1 is absolutely spot on, as 10 is too small and anything else takes away from the portability

    Just enough processing power - its not a desktop machine, but not a titsy little single core atom either, it can run whatever you want, not at lightspeed, but thats not want we need, just decent speed.

    HD, HD, HD - It can play movies, flash, etc that other little netbooks can't, I am not a videophile, but I cannot stand stuttering, try a .mkv on the old atom 270 - just doesn't work

    ION - I won't game on the netbook, but the nerd inside me likes the fact that it can handle them, even recent titles, quite admirably.

    Battery - this is key in the balance, its gotta be close to 6 hours, which really is the magic number, I know this will get 5 and a bit, so its not bad.

    Price - hits the magic 500 dollar/euro mark

    Those are called "criteria" - your ultraportable has to have a good combination of all of the above. A quadcore can have all the battery it wants, but if it don't fit the above then it isn't really fit the category, or the price.. or the weight.. or the portability.. etc etc

  • 0 Hide
    grooveboss , January 18, 2011 11:36 AM
    I am going to be simple here. Netbooks running linux are great to check email and browse in bed when using a good trackball, also for video conferencing and Google voice calls and maybe some flash gaming or retro gaming. For Typing you really want an accessory keyboard, but it does not need a stance to hold its screen up when using it for word processing and the netbook can be easily hooked up to an external monitor. In my opinion since you are saving the money in the core of the system itself might as well spend the extra cash of a usual budget for buying a computer on more practical peripherals to increase productivity and still have an ultra portable machine. I think that covers for netbooks from me.In conclusion they are slow but in the future hardware will be smaller and ultra portable machines are going to be awesome.
  • 1 Hide
    zodiacfml , January 18, 2011 12:34 PM
    this is tom's way of preparing for the onslaught of portables. i also think coverage for the portables will be more this year than desktop parts.

    can't wait for Brazos.
  • 1 Hide
    frederico , January 18, 2011 12:38 PM

    Lads, if you've never even touched, let alone owned a netbook, try not to make guesses about them. Some of the comments I read are just plain crazy.

    On my samsung netbook I have 7 tabs open on chrome, skype, winamp and I'm typing this, it loads up windows faster than my overclocked quadcore desktop and 'runs' just as fast when doing anything internet related. Nothing I am using is "slow". Obviously gaming or encoding or any of that crap would be slower. Even the keyboard is 92% full size, its perfectly fine. I hate trackpads but meh I get used to it, its not like I am playing SC2 or something and need the mouse that bad.

    My only issue is the high quality video streams can be jerky and high quality video (.mkvs) can judder.. hence the interest in soemthing netbook sized but with the power (without sacrificing batt power or portability) e.g. the 1215n or the new HP dm1z



  • -1 Hide
    cknobman , January 18, 2011 12:39 PM
    Why are 11.6' note/net books being totally left out here?

    Sorry but I think you left out one of the main size categories here -50 points on the review.
  • 1 Hide
    scook9 , January 18, 2011 1:19 PM
    I have a UL80Vt from work and I really love it except for 1 thing......the build quality on it is just GARBAGE. The screen is THE WORST I have even seen....period.....and the keyboard feels like a trampoline (only word I could come up with to describe it). The inclusion of highly glossy plastic everywhere is also a huge let down.

    It is a real shame because the internals of this notebook are great and the performance is awesome for the form factor.....they just shot themselves in the foot with a cannon when it came to build quality of the rest of the notebook :( 
  • 0 Hide
    jacobdrj , January 18, 2011 2:50 PM
    These are NOT premium netbooks. Too big. Anything larger in formfactor than 10.1" is not a netbook. Put a CULV in a 10.1" formfactor with a 1360x768, and now you have a premium netbook...

    So far, the D550 is serving my needs quite well...
  • 0 Hide
    Nintendork , January 18, 2011 3:37 PM
    Definition of netbook:

    10-11.6" 1280x720-1366x768
    low power consumption
    low temps
    good cpu + igp perfomance
    great price

    =
    Fusion
  • 0 Hide
    nbk_redspy , January 18, 2011 5:43 PM
    Quite frankly, I'm really interested in a nettop but I really don't see anything worthwhile until the Fusion systems are available for purchase. Seems like a much better value for the same price.
  • 1 Hide
    Darth_Kaar , January 18, 2011 8:08 PM
    I have an UL20A notebook with dual-core Celeron SU2300 as a second computer, which I use for word processing or Internet browsing when I need mobility. It's lightweight construction, small form and durability make that notebook just perfect for carrying it in a bag. It's performance in Windows 7 environment is good, with appropriate respond times. Unlike the author I don't find notebook's wrist-rest and integrated touchpad design as a disappointment. Plastic in these areas collects no dirt or fingerprints. Also in my copy of UL20A there are no problems with poor support around the O, L, K,keys.
    Battery life is very good, much over 4 hour with wi-fi turned on.
  • 0 Hide
    freeman70 , January 18, 2011 9:55 PM
    I have the same opinion as Darth_Kaar. I replaced a netbook with my an Acer 1410 with the same dual-core SU2300 CPU and have never looked back. Albeit these ultraportables are not a flashy or as powerful as some of the latest gear but they get the job done. None of these systems are really good for gaming. Even more powerful laptops are only passable. A friend has an i5 ASUS laptop with a 14 inch LED screen and an Nvidia 335 GPU and he still prefers to play 3D games on his desktop with a 20+ inch monitor because it is a much more immersive experience. The 14 inch screen size makes the experience feel confined. In the end, I believe it is the physical screen size that will affect your enjoyment of games. Don't take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Play any 3D game on a 22 to 24 inch monitor and then play it on even a 17 inch laptop and you'll understand what I mean.
  • 0 Hide
    manishpatel80 , January 18, 2011 11:11 PM
    I have the ul30A and this is the best laptop for portability I have ever purchased. It have about a 10 hour battery and after I upgraded the HDD to a SSD the battery life was extended to 11 hours with Wifi on. I love the performance with the SSD. The system feel likes it flies. It can also run HD divx very well. What can I say it the best laptop for flights and long distances.
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