Editor's Update, July 2012: Read our review of the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A that replaces this model. It has a 1080p matte display and Intel Ivy Bridge CPUs.
For Windows-loving road warriors and coffee shop live-ins, the Asus Zenbook UX31 is ambrosia. Want MacBook Air size, weight and even looks along with a Windows style keyboard, USB 3.0, HDMI and a higher resolution display that's bright enough to combat the great outdoors? The UX31 has you covered. And it's $200 less than the 13" MacBook Air entry level model. Good times. Asus makes both an 11.6" UX21 and the 13.3" UX31 we look at in this review. The machines are available with ULV Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs, 4 gigs of RAM and a SATA III SSD drive. Is it the best Ultrabook? That depends on your needs, but as one of the earliest, it did earn our Editor's Choice award, and that still stands.
We're not Mac obsessed, but the 2011 Air has become the ultraportable to beat thanks to its high quality, performance, supreme thinness and portability. Intel knows this, so they started the "ultrabook" initiative to get Windows PC makers on board to make ultraportables that are under 0.8" thick, are fast, have an SSD drive and quick boot/resume times. Their target price was $1,000 or under, but manufacturers haven't been able to produce these high end ultraportables for that little on average. Hmmm, there's a reason the MacBook Air isn't cheap. Acer brought their Aspire S3 in at $899, but it skimped on some Intel requirements like an SSD drive (it has a 320 gig spinning hard drive and a 20 gig flash drive to speed hibernate and resume) and they went with plastics and a lower quality display. Asus, never a stranger to aggressive pricing, came in pretty close at $1,099 for the Core i5 with 4 gigs of RAM and a 128 gig SSD. It's thinner than Lenovo's U300s ultrabook and starts with a faster Intel Core i5 ULV CPU vs. Lenovo's base model. So out of the gate, it looks like the Zenbook will be the ultrabook to beat.
Pre-release reviews of the UX21 (the 11.6" version) and UX31 lamented the very roomy but wonky capacitive trackpad. Fast forward a few weeks and it's another case of "release it now, fix it later". We've seen a lot of this in 2011 from tablets to smartphones where the ship date precedes the final, or working, software. When we booted our retail purchased Zenbook UX31, Asus' update utility prompted us to download an updated trackpad driver. That helped things but it still wasn't ideal. So we visited Asus' support website and voila, there's a bios update that addresses trackpad bugs. Why wasn't this wasn't pushed via the update service? We updated the bios to version 206 and what a difference a firmware makes: the trackpad is now a well-mannered beast with predictable and controlled cursor movement and solid multi-touch for features like two-finger scrolling and pinch zooming. Is it as good as the MacBook Air running Lion? Not quite. Is it nearly as good as a MacBook Air running Windows? Yes. At any rate, it's no longer a disaster and I find it more pleasant to use than many Windows machines' trackpads (disclaimer: my main work machine is a 2011 MacBook Air 13" running Mac OS X Lion).
Design: Luxury meets Surgical
Clearly both the Asus Zenbook and Acer Aspire S3 go after the MacBook Air's design. Lenovo's sticking with their unique and attractive library-themed journal book look that hails back to the Lenovo IdeaPad U260. If Apple has a patent on razor thin silvery notebooks, we could see yet another lawsuit. The Zenbook just might one-up Apple's best selling portable when it comes to esthetic design and materials. Here it diverges from the Air: though they both share unibody aluminum designs, Asus went with a darker metal lid that has concentric rings that refract light in interesting ways. The lid looks more like stainless steel, while the wrist rest area and bottom panel are lighter brushed aluminum. The Zenbook looks like a prop for an ultramodern operating room or seriously upscale home of the future. It's cool and it's classy. The MacBook Air looks understated in comparison, though we wouldn't call the Zenbook gaudy or even flashy. It just flaunts its metal more.
Deals and Shopping:
In a cold room, the UX31 is very cold to the touch. Run it for an hour, and the bottom doesn't get hot. Neither do the keyboard or wrist rest area. Impressive and unusual for a very slim metal notebook, since these tend to transfer heat. Even when streaming Crackle video for 45 minutes, the hottest surface (bottom) never rose above 81F. The fan is mostly inaudible, and the vents along the bottom and in the hinge area don't gush hot air. The hinge vent is actually more open to the air than Apple's MacBook Pro and Air models, which doubtless helps.
The entire bottom panel is removable via 10 very tiny TORX screws. Inside you'll find the nominally non-user replaceable battery (because Asus assumes you won't want to remove 10 screws to swap your battery). The Lithium Ion polymer 50 watt/hr, 6840 mAh battery spreads like pancake batter to fill up most of the useable space inside the laptop. It's actually easy enough to take out, should yours run flat in a few years. The motherboard runs in a strip across the rear, and it has a socketed gumstick-style SSD drive. Nothing else is upgradable. The 4 gigs of RAM is soldered on, and there's no internal optical drive. The machine is cleanly and intelligently designed in terms of internal architecture.
The casing itself is perfect. There are no gaps, no sharp unmachined edges and everything lines up as it should. Asus was once a budget brand, but they've gone for high quality here and achieved it. The magnetic lid opens fairly easily with two hands, and the hinge on our unit was firm but not surly. If you push the display panel back beyond straight upright and shake the computer, the display will gradually open to maximum extension (about 30 degrees past upright). Tiny script engraving lines the hinge ("UX31 Series Ultra Slim") and the only other marking besides the very large ASUS logo under the display is the very tiny "Audio Bang & Olufsen ICEpower" below the keyboard.
The display bezel is a darker gray than the keyboard deck, and it has a ceramic coating to resist fingerprints.
The charger looks like a black version of the MacBook's, and has a long thin cord that's about 8 feet. The charger connector has an LED that glows yellow when the UX31 is charging and is green when the notebook is charged. The computer is nearly sticker free (there are just a Windows and Intel sticker on the keyboard deck), and the Windows certificate of authenticity is on the charger instead of the notebook's bottom!
The notebook has no flex. Not even the display panel or keyboard. It's deadly solid. In fact I bumped my head on its corner and got a bruise for my klutzy-ness. Hardened aluminum casing; check. A rigid lid and no light pooling on the display if you press it from behind: check.
Asus Zenbook UX31 Video Review
The keyboard keys are topped in matching metal, but they're not overly slippery. The keyboard is about the same size as the MacBook Air's, and there's good spacing between keys for a 13" class laptop. The keyboard has an Fn row and an arrow pad at the lower right, and the power button is the uppermost right key, just like the MacBook Air. The power button has a white LED as does the wireless Fn key, and very small white LED on the side lets you know if the machine is sleeping. Keyboard travel is low, and tactile feedback is weak. The keys require a firmer press than the MacBook Air's, and those with a feather touch might not like it (we often missed keystrokes). No, it's not a ThinkPad or MacBook Pro keyboard, but it's bearable if you don't spend lots of time writing, as I do. Alas, the UX31's keyboard is not backlit.
Ports and Display
The UX31 has one USB 2.0 port, a combo 3.5mm stereo headphone/mic jack, a USB 3.0 sleep-and-charge port for speeds that are 10x faster than USB 2.0, a micro HDMI port, mini VGA and a full size SD card slot. Ethernet comes courtesy of an included USB to Ethernet dongle, and Asus also includes a mini VGA to VGA adapter (note: this is not a mini DisplayPort). The two adapters come in a small brown ballistic nylon pouch that matches the included notebook sleeve. For a 13" ultraportable, these are a healthy selection of ports, and we applaud Asus including the adapters in the box.
Asus earns bragging rights with their 13.3" 1600 x 900 pixel display. It has the highest resolution of any ultrabook on the market, and even bests the 13" MacBook Air's 1440 x 900 resolution. The only 13" laptop with a higher resolution display is the Sony Vaio Z with its 1080p display and a $2,000 to $4,500 price tag. While 1920 x 1080 is a bit much to cram into 13.3 inches (text is tiny), the 1600 x 900 resolution offers a good compromise between viewing comfort and increased productivity. You can have two windows open side-by-side, for example. There's more room to work in Photoshop. We much prefer this to the 1366 x 768 resolution found on most Windows laptops up to 16", including the Acer S3 and Lenovo IdeaPad U300s.
The display is also extremely bright at 450 nits. That's bright enough for outdoor use, and even at one notch above the lowest brightness setting, we found it more than bright enough for work in subdued office lighting. The gloss display has some glare but it's not as mirror-like as many notebooks on the market. The TN panel has decent but not nearly IPS-class side viewing angles. Also typical of TN displays, it has poor horizontal (top-bottom) viewing angles. We found ourselves angling the display back and forth to find the sweet spot when watching videos.
Intel's ultrabook concept includes plenty of computing power in a very slim, light package. No longer the purview of $2,000 and above specialty machines, the ultrabook is supposed to bring powerful ultraportable computing to the masses (or a greater percentage of the masses). The Zenbook certainly has plenty of horsepower with the base Sandy Bridge Intel Core i5-2557M 1.7GHz CPU. This is a second generation ULV 32nm CPU with 3 megs of level 2 cache and Turbo Boost to 2.7GHz. It's a dual core CPU with 4 threads of execution and it's paired with Intel HD 300 graphics. For $1,499 you can get a decked out 13" Zenbook with the Intel Core i7-2667M 1.8GHz CPU and a 256 gig SSD. But honestly, the performance difference won't be hugely different, though you do get 4 megs of level 2 cache and a 100MHz faster clock speed. ULV Intel Core CPUs just don't show the performance gain that the non-ULV (ultra low voltage) CPUs do, and you don't get more cores by upgrading to the i7.
All Zenbooks ship with 4 gigs of DDR3-1066/1333 RAM soldered to the motherboard. That's plenty of RAM for serious work, but HD video editors might pine for more. Still, 4 gigs is plenty enough for home and small business video editing of 1080p content, so we're not terribly upset that RAM isn't upgradable. The base machine ships with an extremely fast 128 gig SATA III drive that uses the SandForce controller, and there are two models available with a 256 gig SanDisk SSD. The drive is a gumstick style drive that is user replaceable, though these drives aren't easy to find.
PCMark Vantage Benchmarks
Our Intel Core i5 1.7GHz model scored 10,021 on PC Mark Vantage, which is very impressive. It's also nearly identical to the 2011 13" MacBook Air with the same CPU, RAM and an SSD. Synthetic benchmarks don't tell the whole story since the mobile (not ULV) Sandy Bridge 2.5GHz Core i5 ThinkPad X220 scores 7,447. I have my doubts that the Asus with its ULV processor is 25% faster, no matter what PCMark says. PCMark Vantage also puts quite a bit of weight on fast drives, and the X31's drive likely sways the score. That said, this machine is faster than what most folks need who do MS Office work, browse the web, do email and run apps like Adobe Photoshop CS5, Adobe Flash and social networking.
The Zenbook and all ultrabooks so far use Intel HD 3000 graphics. Intel's latest integrated graphics are more than capable of handling HD video playback up to 1080p, Adobe Flash and more. Adobe Photoshop CS5 is very responsive (watch our video review to see it in action) as are casual games and golden oldies like Rise of Nations, Age of Empires III and Max Payne. But don't expect playable performance in serious 3D games like Crysis 2 or Battlefield 3. Ultrabooks aren't meant for 3D gaming.
Boot and Resume Times
Once again, Intel's at work here with their Rapid Start requirement for ultrabooks and their preference for SSD drives. Rapid Start simply means hibernate to NAND flash, and that translates into a 6 second resume from hibernation. It takes only a scant 2 seconds to resume from sleep with the Instant On utility turned on (why wouldn't you turn this on unless you intended to leave the machine sleeping for several days?) Windows 7 boots in 16 seconds: now that's fast!
The Asus Zenbook averaged 6 hours of actual usage in our mixed use test. With brightness set to 50% and the Asus power manager set to battery optimized we used the notebook for web browsing over WiFi, editing MS Office documents, processing 14MP images in Photoshop for 30 minutes, and playing streaming video from YouTube and Crackle.com for an hour. That's just 20 minutes shy of our 13" MacBook Air and considerably better than the Acer Aspire S3. It's not quite as good as the 11.6" Acer TimeLineX 1830T that clocked almost 7 hours.
Small notebooks usually have small, anemic speakers. Not the Zenbook, it comes through loud and full (check out our video review for a demo). Bang & Olufsen ICEpower audio helps this ultrabook fill a room with sound that's neither harsh nor thin. There's no subwoofer thumping bass, but these are some of the best speakers we've heard on a small notebook. The speakers fire from under the keyboard and out the rear hinge vent, so they're not blocked when the notebook sits on a table. Sound out through the combo 3.5mm jack is likewise good, but that's not such a rare commodity.
The Asus Zenbook ships with Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit with SP1. Beyond some mostly useful Asus utilities, the usual pre-install of MS Office 2010 starter edition and a 60 day trial of TrendMicro security, that's it. How refreshingly bloatware-free! Asus includes handy power management utilities, a recovery manager (you can burn 2 recovery DVDs and delete the 8 gig recovery partition if you wish) and webcam utilities. The VGA webcam works with Asus' FaceLogon feature, but honestly, we rarely had success with that. As a webcam with Skype video chat, it's OK but we'd hoped for something better than VGA.
We like the Asus Zenbook UX31 quite a bit. It's exquisitely thin, superbly light at 2.86 pounds, and it's gorgeous. The build quality is top notch--in fact it's one of the best made notebooks we've seen outside of Apple's store. The laptop is very fast and could work as a main machine if you're not a 3D gamer. For a 13" ultraportable it has a better than average selection of ports, and we love the HDMI and USB 3.0 ports in particular. Though most components are soldered onto the motherboard, we appreciate that it's not hard to open up the notebook to access components. We have no qualms with the keyboard though it's not our favorite, and we actually like the trackpad after updating the firmware and drivers. Lastly, the 1600 x 900 display really sets the Zenbook apart from the crowd and is more conducive to doing serious work on the go. Finally, there's a MacBook Air for Windows folks. That's not to say the Air isn't an excellent machine to run Windows, but the $200 price savings, Windows keyboard, HDMI and USB 3.0 combined with the higher resolution display are a good counter to the Air.
Price: $1,099 as tested with Intel Core i5 and 128 gig SSD, model UX31E-DH52
Display:13.3", 1600 x 900 pixel LED backlit display, 450 nits brightness. Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. Micro HDMI and VGA ports.
Battery:50 watt/hour, 6840 mAh Lithium
Ion rechargeable. Compact world charger included.
Performance:1.7 GHz Intel
2nd generation ULV Core i5-2557M processor with 3 megs level 2 cache. Also available with a 1.8 GHz Intel Core i7-2677M CPU. 4 gigs DDR3 RAM, 128 or 256 gig SATA III SSD drive. No internal optical drive. Intel QS67 Express Chipset.
x 8.75 x 0.67 (at thickest point) inches. Weight: 2.86 pounds.
Audio:Bang & Olufsen ICEpower stereo speakers, 3.5mm combo stereo headphone and mic
Networking:Atheros AR8495WB-EG 2.4GHz single channel
WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Atheros AR3012 Bluetooth 4.0 +HS. Ethernet via included USB to Ethernet dongle.
7 Home Premium 64 bit.
Expansion and Ports:1
SD card slot, one USB 2.0 port, one USB 3.0 sleep and charge port, 3.5mm jack, mini VGA port (dongle adapter with stanard VGA port included).
In the Box:UX31E laptop, charger, slip case, small case for included adapters: mini VGA to VGA and USB Ethernet. Printed material.