Keyboard and Trackpad
Asus has greatly improved the keyboard with much better tactile feel and key travel. Really. I spend lots of time writing and the original Zenbook keyboard annoyed me more each week. I've written 5 reviews on the Zenbook Prime keyboard and it has me smiling. It's not as tactilely delightful as the Dell XPS 13 and Lenovo ThinkPad X230 keyboards, but my typing speeds and error rates were good. The keys are backlit and you can control backlight level via Fn keys or let the ambient light sensor handle it for you. Thanks to the rigid casing, there's virtually no keyboard flex, unlike the UX32VD.
The Elan trackpad is improved as well, with more reliable tracking and multi-touch behavior, but palm rejection is weak. I installed the free utility TouchFreeze to improve palm rejection when typing. Pro tip: uninstall Asus Virtual Touch and multi-touch gestures will work much better! After Asus Live Update installed an update for Asus Smart Gesture (Asus' TouchPad driver that replaces the Elan driver), multi-touch gestures were more reliable and native palm rejection improved greatly so I didn't need TouchFreeze. Bottom line: the trackpad works, but like many Windows laptops, it falls far short of the Retina MacBook Pro and MacBook Air experience.
The Zenbook Prime impresses before you open the lid thanks to the elegant industrial design and sturdy feel. Open it up and the matte 1920 x 1080 IPS display seals the deal. The matte panel is simply gorgeous: very bright, lovely balanced colors and high contrast. Text is very sharp and black levels are excellent. Asus didn't skimp here. The 360 nit panel is brighter than most notebooks on the market (disable the ambient light sensor if you really want to blast your retinas). The display will likely set the Zenbook Prime ahead of the competition for some time. Since this is an IPS panel, viewing angles are very wide, and there's no need to angle the display forward and back to find the sweet spot as with TN panels. Whites are wonderfully neutral and the display looks as good as my MacBook Pro with Retina display, though Mac OS X does a better job of fine tuning fonts in Retina-aware apps. Contrast is likewise excellent with rich blacks that don't invert or look muddy.
It wouldn't be an Asus product if we didn't have some light bleed, but to be fair, light bleed in IPS displays isn't uncommon. What is light bleed? The display may have lighter spots near the edges when viewing black backgrounds like the black bars in letterboxed widescreen movies. Our unit, which came from a local retailer, has a small amount of light bleed along the bottom edge, but it's nothing we'd call annoying (watch our video review to see the display showing a pure black image in the dark). Anecdotally, the Zenbook Prime UX32VD seems more prone to light bleed according to user forums. Interestingly, our UX31A's light bleed decreased after a few days, to the point where it became hard to demonstrate for our video review. Perhaps the glue securing the display panel had finally set?
The Zenbook Prime has Intel WiFi and Intel graphics: the happy couple that's required for Intel WiDi wireless display, which is pre-installed. With WiDi and a receiver box that plugs into your home theater setup via HDMI like the Netgear Push2TV, you can stream your display's contents to your HD TV, or use your TV as a second monitor sans wires. For those who prefer wires, there's a micro HDMI 1.4 port on the right side and a 3.5mm combo headphone/mic jack. For those who use projectors and older monitors, there's a mini VGA port and Asus includes a dongle adapter that converts it to a full size VGA port.
Horsepower, Intel HD 4000 Graphics and Performance
This is a classic Ultrabook, and that means dual core 17 watt Intel Core i5 and i7 ULV (ultra low voltage CPUs) that use less power and generate less heat than their full mobile counterparts used in standard size notebooks. That said, they're more than fast enough for everyday productivity work like web, email, MS Office and even moderate Photoshop work.
Streaming and local HD video playback work wonderfully and that's much appreciated given the 1080p display. Ultrabooks rely on Intel HD graphics, and in the case of this third generation Intel machine, that means Intel HD 4000 graphics, which is significantly faster than the Intel HD 3000 used in Sandy Bridge models like the UX31E. That doesn't mean you can play Crysis 2 on high settings at native resolution, but casual and older 3D games play with good frame rates and even demanding current games like Skyrim play at 30 fps on low settings and a less stressful 1366 x 768 resolution. Beyond serious gaming, what else wouldn't I use an Ultrabook for? Editing 1080p video on a daily basis. It's fine in both Core i5 and i7 dual core renditions for occasional vacation footage editing, but is too slow for those who edit HD video professionally/frequently. There is no quad core i7 ULV CPU, Intel stops at dual cores.
The machine has 4 gigs of DDR3 1600MHz RAM soldered to the motherboard, so no upgrades are possible. Look to the Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD for upgradable memory and hard drives. The Zenbook Prime UX31A is available with 128 and 256 gig SATA III SSD drives, and these are made by ADATA and Sandisk. There's no way of knowing which you'll get, since the "Sandforce" sticker that indicates the faster ADATA drive is on the inner box (the same was true with last year's UX31E). That said, the Sandisk drive is much improved over that used in the UX31E, and it no longer means a huge performance drop vs. the ADATA with a Sandforce controller. Our model from a local Microcenter had the ADATA 128 gig drive and the 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U CPU.
Thanks in large part to the SSD drive, our Zenbook Prime UX31A feels very peppy, and Windows boots in well under 30 seconds. Resume from sleep takes just seconds. It scores very high on synthetic benchmarks like PCMark Vantage because of the SSD drive that's so much faster than conventional spinning hard drives, but don't let that fool you: in terms of raw processing power it's not faster than 15.6" and larger laptops with full Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs. Though we fault PCMark for favoring SSDs so much, it does reflect the perceived performance boost they offer for core functions like launching apps and booting Windows. The machine boots and launches applications much more quickly than a quad core i7 HP Envy or Dell XPS with a conventional spinning hard drive.
3D Mark Vantage: 2801 (GPU 2310, CPU 7663) on Performance test preset
PCMark Vantage: 12,272
TV and Movies: 4625
Windows Experience Index:
Graphics (for Aero): 5.9
Gaming Graphics: 6.4
Benchmark Comparison Table
Battery Life and Networking
The Zenbook Prime UX31A has a 50 watt Lithium Ion battery that's sealed inside. Like the last Zenbook, it comes with a small charger that looks like a gloss black version of the Macbook Air charger. In our tests with WiFi active and display brightness set to 40% (which is quite bright), the UX31A averaged 6 hours on a charge, which is average for an Ultrabook and good considering the machine is pushing extra pixels.
Asus offers 4 custom power plans for performance, entertainment, quiet office and low power consumption. You can tweak these if you like, and we suggest changing the default power management for WiFi: it sets the radio to low power mode, which destroys transfer speeds. A little too power-frugal, Asus!
The UX31A has dual band Intel Advanced-N 6235 WiFi 802.11b/g/n, and range and speeds comparable to other notebooks once we adjusted that darned WiFi power setting. The metal casing didn't cause any problems with download speeds or range. The laptop has Bluetooth 4.0 as well, and 10/100 Ethernet via the included USB Ethernet adapter.
Do we like the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A? Oh yes, in fact we love it. It has superb build quality, one of the most elegant and attractive designs on the market and that 1080p IPS display will spoil you. The MacBook Air's display will be a let down, and even the super color-accurate Sony Vaio Z 1080p display will seem weak for viewing angles and brightness. The much more typing-friendly backlit keyboard, fast performance and dual USB 3.0 ports seal the deal.
Price: Starting at $1,099 for the Core i5 with 128 gig SSD
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch
Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD