Samsung Series 7 Ultra vs. Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch 13.3" Ultrabook Smackdown
Wow, this isn't an easy smackdown: both the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch and the new Samsung Series 7 Ultra are very compelling 13.3" Windows 8 Ultrabooks with similar specs and elegant aluminum casings. Even I don't find this an easy choice, but hopefully our comparison points will help you decide between these two Windows 8 touch screen Ultrabooks.
What they have in Common
A lot, actually! Both are 13.3" Ultrabooks with lovely 1920 x 180 full HD gloss touch screens that support 10 points of multi-touch.
Both have Intel Core i5 ULV CPUs with 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM and a 128 gig SSD drive. The Samsung Series 7 Ultra is 100MHz faster since it uses the recently updated 1.8GHZ Intel Core i5-3337U vs. the 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U in the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch.
Both have Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics.
Both have backlit keyboards, a large and capable trackpad, dual band Intel WiFi 6235N with Widi wireless display, Bluetooth 4.0 and a webcam.
Each has an aluminum casing and looks like a high end piece, though the Zenbook cuts the more stylish and daring figure. In the US, BestBuy has the exclusive for now, and the Samsung Series 7 Ultra sells for $999 while the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch sells for $1,099.
These are IPS displays, both made by the same company and the model numbers are close: CMN1343 on the Samsung Series 7 Ultra and CMN1348 on the Asus Zenbook Prime Touch. The Samsung uses the same panel as the Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD, but with a touch layer added, while we haven't seen the UX31A touch panel in another laptop yet. Both are very bright panels that approach 350 nits of brightness and they have extremely wide color gamuts by notebook standards. While on paper the Samsung's panel has a few points more on the color gamut, both are near 100% of Adobe sRGB. The Asus has a warmer panel, and even after calibration it's still warm (whites have a tinge of yellow). That looks lovely when watching videos since you get very natural skin tones and bright warm areas really pop in a luminous way, but pro photo editors won't be as pleased since accuracy is more important that pretty. For average users, the Zenbook display has a slight edge because it glares a bit less and colors pop a little bit more, particularly warm highlight tones that can make an image look alive. In our video, you'll notice the Samsung looks washed out compared to the Zenbook, and that's because our camera couldn't combat the Samsung's display glare. In person, it doesn't look washed out in the least.
Both respond to touch well and have rich, deep blacks.
Winner: by a small margin, the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch.
The Samsung Series 7 Ultra should have an edge since it has a slightly newer and faster CPU, but the Zenbook benchmarks faster out of the box. Why? It's RAM is soldered on, but it's in a dual channel configuration, and that can really help Intel HD integrated graphics performance. The Zenbook scores 4670 in PCMark 7 vs. 4469 for the Samsung Series 7 Ultra. Surprisingly, at 7.9 vs. 8.1, our ADATA SSD with SandForce controller in the Asus scores a little bit higher in the Windows Experience Index than does the Samsung PM841 SSD in the Ultra 7 (Samsung has a reputation for making some of the fastest SSD drives). The desktop graphics scores in the WEI are different despite the exact same drivers, chipset and Intel HD 4000 graphics: 4.6 on the Samsung and 5.5 on the Asus. I'm not sure what's going on here, but I've noticed that Ultrabooks often show this exact divide on this score, with some falling inexplicably in one camp or the other with no difference in real world heavy graphics use like 3D gaming and video editing.
Ah... but things change if you open up the Samsung Series 7 Ultra and make use of those two standard RAM slots. Samsung ships the laptop with one 4 gig DIMM, leaving the second slot open for future upgrades. That's great because you don't have to discard two 2 gig DIMMs to upgrade memory, but you do lose dual channel mode when using just 1 RAM module. I put a matching 4 gig RAM module in there, and dual channel memory kicked in. The PCMark 7 score jumped up to 4690, ever so slightly beating the Zenbook Prime UX 31A Touch. For those of you who want to upgrade your RAM, the Samsung looks great, but for those of you who just want to use the machine as shipped, the Asus looks a little better.
Winner: close enough to call a tie.
Upgradabity and Ports
This is a slam dunk win for Samsung. While the Asus Zenbook's memory is soldered on and isn't upgradable, the Samsung Series 7 Ultra has two standard RAM slots. That's common on big notebooks but a delicious rarity on Ultrabooks. You can go up to 16 gigs of RAM with the Series 7 Ultra, but you're forever stuck at 4 gigs with the Asus. 4 gigs in enough for moderate to heavy use (concurrently running IE with several tabs open, Adobe Photoshop CS6 and Word), so it's by no means the end of the world; but for those who need to run VMs or do HD video editing, more RAM would be a bonus. And it's a nice bit of future proofing, too.
Both use mSATA SSD drives, but the Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch uses a proprietary gum stick shaped SSD drive rather than a standard mSATA SSD like the Samsung Series 7 Ultra. Again, for those who might want to upgrade to a larger drive in the future, the Samsung is more attractive.
Both have socketed Intel 6235N wireless cards for WiFi and Bluetooth. Both are fairly easy to open with one caveat for each: the Samsung uses standard small Philips head screws to affix the bottom cover while the Zenbook uses somewhat more obscure tiny TORX screws. But the Samsung has a tenacious plastic strip along the back of the aluminum bottom cover that makes it a little harder to pop off the rear edge of the back panel (use a plastic card or credit card to release the plastic tabs).
The Samsung wins on ports, unless you're in love with USB 3.0. The Series 7 Ultra has a full size HDMI port (no need for an adapter), gigabit Ethernet (a rare feature on Ultrabooks and an important one to business travelers), a 3.5mm combo audio jack, mini VGA (adapter to full size VGA required but sold separately) and 3 USB ports (also rare on an Ultrabook). You get one USB 3.0 port and two USB 2.0 ports. We wonder why Samsung didn't use more 3.0 ports, but keyboards, mice and printers are generally 2.0. We're not bothered much.
The Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch has a micro HDMI port, mini VGA (adapter included), 3.5mm combo audio and two USB 3.0 ports. Asus includes a USB Ethernet adapter in the box, but the drawback is that you have to remember to take it with you and it uses up one of your two USB ports. It's a 10/100 Ethernet port, so you won't get the Samsung's gigabit Ethernet speeds.
Winner: Samsung Series 7 Ultra.
These laptops have nearly identical battery capacity and runtimes that average 6 hours of moderate use. Asus uses their usual square wall wort charger with a long skinny cord. The Samsung uses a mini laptop style charging brick with separable cord. The Samsung charger annoys us because the charging pin doesn't go all the way into the notebook's charging port (a little bit of the metal barrel is exposed). Perhaps this is Samsung's idea of a quick release charger that won't drag your notebook across the floor if you kick the cable? The Asus charger can get quite hot if you're plugged and charging in while playing 3D games.
Design and Ergonomics
I'd say the Asus Zenbook Prime UX 31A Touch is the winner here, though looks are subjective. It has the usual tapered, gorgeous Zenbook design with a spun aluminum top, all in black for our US model. The complex curves, exquisitely thin front edge and overall look are stunning. Drawback: it attracts fingerprints like mad and you'll need a damp cloth to clean it properly. Some folks might find the abrupt edges dig into their hands, though the edges are well finished.
The Samsung Series 7 Ultra is also a classy looking piece with equally good fit and finish. But it's more understated with no fancy outer casing taper, though the keyboard deck has some interesting and pleasing curves. It has an aluminum (silver) finish, and it looks like a baby Samsung Series 7 Chronos. It's amazingly good at resisting fingerprints and has a clean and classy design. Those of you who prefer toned down designs will like the Series 7 Ultra.
Both weigh 3.5 lbs. and have a similar footprint.
Winner: Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch
Keyboard and Trackpad
Both have backlit keyboards with standard layouts and a large multi-touch trackpad. Asus self-brands the trackpad so we don't know who makes it, and the Samsung has an Elan trackpad. Both work well in Windows 8 with no cursor jumping. The Asus Smart Gesture control panel has a few three finger gestures but no four finger gestures. The Samsung has a full-featured control panel and settings for 2,3 and 4 fingered gestures.
The Asus' keyboard backlight is overzealous and comes on in fairly well lit rooms (we don't mind since it never leaves us in the dark). The Samsung's backlight is a little shy and the sensor is next to the webcam so it can easily pick up distant ceiling lights and thus not turn on until you hit the keyboard backlight control buttons or tilt the display forward. The Asus keyboard has much better contrast with black keys and white letter masking. The Samsung Series 7 has light silver keys with dark silver masking, and these can be hard to see in dim lighting where the backlight either doesn't kick in or doesn't help much. The Asus keyboard feels better with a hair more travel and more key damping, but somehow we type equally well and fast on each.
Winner: Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch keyboard for better feel and more visible keyboard masking. Samsung for better trackpad support with more multi-touch gestures (one and two finger gestures work equally well, Samsung only pulls ahead for three and four finger gestures).
Identical wireless cards and identical performance. I've tested these laptops up the wazoo with speed tests, signal level tests and distance tests: it's a tie. Samsung uses a small plastic strip on the lid's front edge for a wireless window but they both test the same. I have noticed that Intranet transfer speeds are a little bit faster on the Samsung, but this likely is due to software and drivers rather than hardware since all other test results are equal.
This isn't normally a focus of our review, but the Samsung's 2 watt JBL speakers really rock by Ultrabook standards. They're louder and fuller than the Bang & Olufsen branded audio in the Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch. No comparison. Audio through headphones and Bluetooth? Equally good.
Winner: Samsung Series 7 Ultra
It's a darned close race. I suspect the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch will appeal to those who crave high styling and an eye-popping display. The Samsung Series 7 Ultra is no slouch in the display corner though, and it's reasonably close. The Samsung Series 7 Ultra will appeal to upgraders who want to upgrade RAM and the SSD drive (or replace RAM without swapping the entire motherboard should the RAM fail). The Samsung has a stronger port selection with more USB ports (granted only one is USB 3.0), gigabit Ethernet and a full size HDMI port.
Here's our Samsung Series 7 Ultra vs. Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch Comparison Smackdown video.