The Asus UL50VT is, in many ways, a full-fledged laptop with a large 15.6-inch screen, a DVD/CD burner, and a dedicated gaming graphics chip from Nvidia. At the same time, this Asus has an ultralow-voltage Core 2 Duo processor running the show, a CPU normally dedicated to smaller laptops with long battery life.
Back in our last retail roundup, we reviewed a previous iteration of the UL50, the UL50AG-RBBBK05. Back then, we said that we appreciated how thin the laptop was for its size–1 inch–while still accommodating a DVD burner We also said that the one thing missing was dedicated graphics. To the credit of the UL50VT, that’s exactly what was added in this model, and for a similar price. However, now Intel’s newer Core i3 and i5 processors are included in many affordable laptops in the same price range and offer better performance for the money, thus raising our expectations on what a $700 laptop should offer. Asus has a new Core i3 laptop that’s similar in design, the U50F-RBBAG05, lacking only dedicated graphics–and it only costs $649.
While the UL50VT can turn its dedicated gaming graphics chip off via a software switch to conserve battery power, newer, potentially better, auto-switching dedicated-graphics technology from Nvidia is right around the corner if you’re willing to wait. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether a slightly thinner chassis, added battery life, and the graphics chip are worth the lower-powered CPU, but we say it isn’t.
Price as reviewed $729
Processor 1.3 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 ULV
Memory 4GB, 1066 MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Mobile Intel GM45 Express
Graphics Nvidia GeForce G210M
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 15.2×10.2 inches
Height 1 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 15.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 5.1 / 5.9 pounds
At first glance, the UL50VT doesn’t look particularly special. Clad in black with a brushed-metal finish on the lid, it resembles any number of sleek-looking and generic midrange laptops. However, what distinguishes the UL50VT is its thinness. In both its compact base and its razor-thin lid, it’s a close cousin to thin designs we’ve seen in the Acer Timeline series. There are many similarities in the UL50VT to its smaller-screened cousin, the Asus UL30A-A1, which we loved when we reviewed it last year. However, therein is the problem. The UL30A has the same exact processor this larger UL50VT model has, as well as the same hard drive and RAM, for $799 back in September.
The Asus UL50VT has an optical drive, something not many systems so thin manage. The tray-loading DVD/CD burner is so quietly and successfully tucked into the side, it makes us wonder why more slim laptops–or, perhaps, all of them–can’t manage a similar feat. Opened up, the UL50VT reveals a full, very MacBook-like raised Chiclet-like keyboard, except a number pad has also been squeezed onto the right side. While that’s appreciated, a few keys seem shrunken to accommodate the pad.
It has a matte surface with an almost rubberized texture that surrounds the keyboard and touch pad, lending a soft feel that’s slightly prone to oily smudges and stains. The multitouch touch pad is responsive and comfortable, although the chromed button-bar beneath is a rocker-type, which we always like less than two discrete buttons.
Despite being thin, the UL50VT manages to avoid any real battery bulge by integrating the battery into part of the middle hinge. The UL50VT feels a bit plasticky and delicate when opening it up, but when closed the laptop feels sturdy and backpack-safe.
Confusingly, the UL50VT 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 environment, a quicker-booting mini operating system 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. However, we usually keep our laptop in sleep/hibernate mode, which resumes quickly, so we don’t use this feature too often around the office. Many casual users have the quick-launch OS on their laptops don’t even know they have them. The ExpressGate button activates the switching of power-saving modes when the UL50VT is already booted in Windows 7, and although switching between dedicated and integrated graphics involves a few-second software change-over with some screen flicker, it doesn’t require you to log out of Windows.
The 15.6-inch glossy 16:9 LED screen on the Asus UL50VT is bright and good-looking, but its 1,366×768-pixel resolution, while standard for most laptops, is a bit on the low end for 16 inch laptops and larger. Nevertheless, the screen was perfectly good for most uses, although its colors weren’t quite as vivid as on other large-screen notebooks we’ve reviewed recently. On the other hand, the stereo speakers on the UL50VT–embedded on the bottom of the laptop, facing the front–gave off louder than expected, crisp sound for such a thin chassis–a nice plus.
Asus UL50VT-RBBBK05 Average for category [Mainstream] Video VGA-out, HDMI VGA and HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 3 USB 2.0, multiformat memory card reader 4 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion None ExpressCard/54
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN
Optical drive DVD/CD burner DVD burner
With USB ports, HDMI and VGA ports, and its CD/DVD burning drive, the UL50VT is generally capable of handling any mainstream computing needs. While Bluetooth is not included–it’s a common omission in budget laptops–the UL50VT-RBBBK05 has 802.11n Wi-Fi, as well as a generous 500GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM.
Our biggest issue with this compact Asus laptop is its processor, the SU7300, is technically a Core 2 Duo processor but it’s an ultralow-voltage model running at roughly half the speed of some mainstream Core 2 Duos. This performance hit is reflected in its benchmark scores: it’s slower than most Core 2 Duo laptops. While that would have been more acceptable as a fair trade for improved battery performance a year ago, Intel’s newly released Core i3 processor offers a leap forward in multitasking and improved speeds compared with the Core 2 Duo series, widening the gap between the SU7300 and mainstream laptops in 2010. For instance, the Asus U50F-RBBAG05 offers a Core i3 processor for only $649, and outperforms the UL50VT on all fronts except gaming and battery life. It’s worth noting that the UL50VT performed near the bottom of our mainstream retail comparative benchmark charts.
A pleasant surprise on the UL50VT, and one of its chief advantages, is its switchable graphics capability. The included Nvidia GeForce G210M offers 512MB of dedicated graphics for gaming, and the UL50VT can switch between the Nvidia processor and energy-conserving integrated Intel graphics with a press of a chrome button on the upper left side of the keyboard. Being able to pick whether you need the GPU helps extend the battery life on the UL50VT, and makes it a great hybrid laptop to consider. However, be forewarned: Nvidia has recently announced Optimus technology that enables auto-switching of graphics, making the process even smoother. You might want to wait for Optimus models to arrive before buying a laptop; however, even if you don’t, the UL50VT still offers more graphics customization that most laptops. The UL50VT also offers Asus’ “Turbo 33″ overclocking on its CPU, but the results of such additional performance tweaks still couldn’t begin to match going with a Core i3 CPU instead.
With GeForce graphics turned on, Unreal Tournament III ran at 33.5 frames per second in native resolution, which is an acceptable but not screaming score. While the UL50VT is hardly a “gaming laptop,” it certainly can play many mainstream games.
The Asus UL50VT ran for 4 hours and 44 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included eight-cell battery with its Nvidia GeForce graphics turned off. That’s a very good battery life for a laptop this size, although we would have expected slightly better performance with dedicated graphics turned off. Needless to say, activating the GeForce graphics will make another dent on the UL50VT’s battery performance, although you should get more than five hours of battery life with integrated graphics under more casual usage scenarios.