When Intel unveiled its notion of the ultrabook in June, Asus could hardly contain its excitement. Just moments after Intel’s Sean Maloney announced the newly-named laptop category, which promised fast boot times and great battery life, Asus’ Chairman Jonney Shih took the stage in his always-entertaining, yet transcendent style to show off his company’s future UX ultrabooks. The laptops had more than just a few things in common with Apple's MacBook Air – aluminum chassis, teardrop designs, buttonless touchpads, fast resume times, and 11.6- and 13-inch screens. However, unlike other PC manufacturers that have dared to mimic Apple, Asus promised to focus on style and refinement without cutting corners on the parts of the computer that make the experience. And even better, it planned to stay competitive on price – the Core i3, 128GB UX21 costs $999 and the Core i5, 128GB UX31 runs $1,199 ($200 less than the similarly spec’d Air). The two ultrabooks are now ready to hit shelves, but has Asus really brought both quality and performance for an enticing price? Or is the UX just another disappointing entry like Acer’s Aspire S3 ultrabook? I’ve spent the last week with the UX31 in search of those answers and more.
Hardware / design
Asus did throw in its own design ideas and we’re not talking its usual black plastics and shiny stickers lining the palm rest
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but something tells me Apple isn’t exactly flattered by the UX’s design. Of all the new ultrabooks, Asus’ is the most similar looking to the Air. Everything from the unibody build, the power button’s location on the keyboard, and the way the UX tapers down to .11 inches at its thinnest point is reminiscent of the Air. However, Asus did throw its own design sense into the mix, and we’re not talking its usual black plastics and shiny stickers lining the palm rest (though there are some new polished and more toned down Intel and Windows stickers). The aluminum lid’s concentric circles and a darker shade of metal give the machine a very high-class yet distinct look, though I certainly could have done without the cursive, almost tattoo-reminiscent font of the "UX Ultra Slim" that adorns the metal just above the keyboard. Regardless, the UX is a beautiful laptop; there’s just a part of me that wishes Asus would have gotten a bit more creative with styling like Samsung did with its Series 9.
But like Samsung, Asus understood the importance of great build quality on such a portable machine and matched that Air-inspired design with Air-inspired materials. The entire aluminum chassis is solid to the bone. There’s zero flex to either the top or bottom lid and, unlike many Asus systems of the past, the screen hinge is especially taut. After reviewing the Acer S3, the rigidity of the Asus is impressive, but it does give the system a weightier feel, even though on paper it's about .10 pounds lighter. Still, the 2.43-pound UX21 and 2.86-pound UX31 can be easily ported around in one hand and won’t leave your shoulder aching after a twenty-minute walk home with them in a bag. I’ll get to the trim dimensions soon, but I should mention that, like the Air, the front lip of the system is quite sharp and can be a bit rough on the wrists. The same sharpness also causes it to be slightly hard to open – the small flap to open the lid’s magnetic latch is somewhat hidden and even when you find it, it can be difficult to pry the lid and bottom deck apart. I noticed Jonney Shih having the same difficulty at the Zenbook event a couple of weeks ago and if can absolutely be a inconvenience when you just want to open your laptop as quick as humanly possible.
|Dimensions (in.)||Thickness||Weight (lb.)|
|Asus Zenbook UX31||12.8 x 8.8||0.11 - 0.71||2.86|
|Acer Aspire S3||12.6 x 8.5||0.51 - 0.68||2.98|
|MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch)||12.8 x 8.94||0.11 - 0.68||2.96|
|Sony VAIO Z (2011)||13.0 x 8.27||0.66||2.57|
|Samsung Series 9||12.9 x 8.9||0.62 - 0.64||2.88|
|Toshiba Portege R835||12.44 x 8.94||0.72 - 1.05||3.2|
All that said, the first thing anyone is going to notice about the UX21 and UX31 are their slim profiles. Both measure just .11 inches at the thinnest point while the UX21 goes up to .67 inches at its thickest and the UX31 .71 inches. Both Airs may be just .68 inches, but when you place these side by side, the difference isn’t noticeable to the naked eye. Of course, that means that, like the Air, the UX21 and UX31 keep it slim on ports. Both have USB 2.0, USB 3.0, Micro HDMI, 3.5mm headphone, and Mini VGA ports. However, the UX31 does make room for an SD card reader. Both systems come with Mini VGA-to-VGA and USB-to-Ethernet adapters as well as a small canvas carrying case for keeping them warm. It’s a very nice touch and saves you the hassle of having to order these on your own time, though oddly, there’s no Micro HDMI-to-HDMI adapter included.
Keyboard and trackpad
Yes, the trackpad actually killed the machine
After spending a week using the Acer Aspire S3’s overly plasticy keyboard, the panel on the Asus is a breath of fresh air. A cold glass of water on a hot day. A bed after a 16-hour flight. Well, you get the point – it is a heck of a lot better. The silver-colored keys, which are coated in a smooth finish, are comfortable and there’s no bend to the panel itself. Unfortunately, the plastic keys have less travel or height than the ones on the Air, which at first resulted in missed keystrokes, but about midway through writing this review I had gotten the hang of it. The arrow keys aren’t quite as small as the ones on the Acer, but oddly, they’re smaller than the usual directional buttons. My biggest issue with the keyboard? The lack of a backlight. Even though I’m a strong touch typist, I’ve been incredibly spoiled by the glowing keys on my MacBook Pro and find it to be very useful on dark flights or when working before going to bed.
However, it all goes downhill — and I mean straight down — at the trackpad. The glass-covered pad itself is very wide and feels smooth under a finger, but hardware doesn’t seem to be the issue — software does. And it’s here that it only seems right that I recount my experience with the original UX21 Asus sent me. Right off the bat, I found the pad to be not only finicky but in some ways unusable; the cursor would intermittently jump across the screen and somehow it would then select random things, causing at one point it to open 10 blank windows of Internet Explorer and some other Asus software to launch. For some reason or another, I decided to resist the urge to attach an external mouse, and I’ve regretted it ever since. As I was working on writing this review in Google Docs, the cursor somehow decided to open an Asus utility called WinFlash, which then began to reformat the BIOS. (I’m really not even sure why this is included!) Oddly, I couldn’t stop the process and before I knew it, I had a totally dead system. Yes, the trackpad actually killed the UX21.
Now, I realize this was a total fluke; however, to say the pad makes it incredibly hard to precisely control the software would be an understatement. And while the UX21 incident may be extreme, it doesn’t change the fact that Asus is shipping laptops that end users cannot easily control. Asus immediately sent me the UX31 with updated drivers, and while the experience has been markedly better, the trackpad is still a serious issue. Accurately pointing and clicking requires more effort than it should, even after tweaking a number of the settings in the software. I was able to make it through writing the rest of the review on the UX31, but I resorted to tapping on the pad rather than clicking and then attaching a wireless mouse. Ironically, the two-finger scrolling implementation is one of the best I’ve seen on a Windows PC, but when you’re forced to change your regular mousing behavior, I’m not sure it really matters. Asus is working on another set of drivers right now for the Sentelic-made pad, but is also qualifying an Elantech touchpad for the unit, which would mean a totally different hardware and software setup. I promise to update this review when I get the new drivers.
Bottom line, this touchpad is still in need of work and I truly do wonder if it was thoroughly tested before it left the lab. It has to be said: Apple’s touchpad mastery — in both Windows and OS X — continues to be light years ahead of the competition, and it makes all the difference in terms of usability.
Screen and speakers
The 1600 x 900-resolution, 13.3-inch display on the UX31 has an edge on the Air’s 1440 x 900, at least in terms of pixels, but the quality of the panel isn’t as impressive. Dead on, the 450nit screen is very bright, though blacks could be deeper. However, off-axis viewing is poor — a friend couldn’t make out Will Smith’s face in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air intro from a 45-degree angle and pushing the screen back causes some color distortion. I guess it’s not bad for security, but not ideal when it comes to sharing your screen with others.
However, it’s very clear that Asus spent much more of its energy on the Bang & Olufsen ICEpower sound. At first glance you’d think the grill lives along the dotted bottom screen bezel — yeah, the part that’s adorned in that tacky cursive — however, they are located within the system. According to Asus, they dwell in two tuned chambers in the upper part of the chassis on the outside corners of the keyboard. The audio is then directed out the chamber below the LCD hinge (pictured here). But the bigger mystery is how such quality sound comes out of those small openings. Not only is it loud, but the sound is incredibly full for such a thin machine. It’s still lacking bass and at full blast a softer song had some tinniness to it, but again, the quality is overly impressive for the size.
The sound is incredibly full for such a thin machine
Performance and graphics
The system does indeed boot in Asus’ promised 20 seconds
As I said in the Aspire S3 review, it’s very clear that Intel and its partners have been focusing on those core performance attributes, notably boot-up and resume speed. Overall, the UX31 is a very snappy system and its 256GB SanDisk U100 SATA III SSD (the base unit has 128GB of storage) has a lot to do with that. Programs open and install noticeably faster than most hard drive-based laptops and the system does indeed boot in Asus’ promised 20 seconds. Similarly, it resumes from sleep in just under two seconds. I didn't run any hardcore SSD tests, but transferring a 1.8GB file from a USB 3.0 external hard drive took 59.8 seconds when plugged into the USB 2.0 port (30.82 MBps) and just 38.9 seconds (47.38MBps) when plugged into the USB 3.0 port. The Air's write speed was right in between those; it took 49.6 seconds (37.16MBps) to transfer the same file to the Air's 128GB SSD.
Of course, the 1.80GHz Intel Core i7 2677M processor (the base is an Intel 1.7GHz Core i5-2557M CPU) and the 4GB of DDR3 RAM help push along the machine. I had no problem making the UX31 my main rig for the day; simultaneously running Chrome with over 30 tabs open, Trillian, Skype, iTunes, and TweetDeck was no hurdle for the machine.
|PCMarkVantage||3DMarkVantage||Just Cause 2|
|Asus Zenbook UX31||6692||1574||3.69|
|Acer Aspire S3||5222||1475||10.00|
|MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch)||10134||1748||11.32|
|Sony VAIO Z (2011)||12079||4019 / 1984||25.96|
|Dell XPS 15z||7303||3804 / 1926||24.95|
Unsurprisingly, graphic performance was similar to any laptop with Intel’s HD 3000 integrated graphics. Watching local and streaming 1080p videos was no problem, but try and run Just Cause 2 on this thing and you’re looking at choppy, choppy images. Oddly, it did notch almost six frames per second less than the Aspire S3, but I highly doubt anyone is going to be playing these sorts of titles on this hardware. The good news is that the vent on the bottom of the laptop keeps it from getting overly warm. The palmrest and bottom of the system stayed consistently cool and quiet during my everyday usage and even when running a Flash video for five minutes in the background (yes, Nyan Cat on repeat!).
Editor's Note: I noticed after publication of this review that both Engadget and LAPTOP Magazine had gotten better PCMarkVantage results. I'm looking into this, but I believe this has to do with the fact that we were sent the 256GB SanDisk U100 solid-state drive model while other outlets were sent machines with 128GB ADATA SandForce SF2281 SSDs. (The only other real tests of the 256GB drive that I have seen is from Dutch publication nl.hardware.info, and they also got similar PCMarkVantage scores to mine.) Since I haven't used the 128GB version, I can't say if it performs faster than the 256GB version in everyday use, but I'm currently trying to get my hands on it to see if it does in fact top the larger model.
Battery life and software
The UX hits on another incredibly important point that the Aspire U3 failed miserably on: battery life. Whether it was in my regular usage or on The Verge Battery Test, the runtime was impressive. On our home-brewed test, which cycles through a series of 100 websites and with brightness set at 65 percent, the UX’s 50 watt-hour battery lasted 5 hours and 31 minutes. That’s a bit shorter than the Air but longer than the VAIO Z by a hair and more than an hour more than the Samsung Series 9. In real life, I was able to work an entire afternoon (about six hours) around the office — moving from the conference room back to my desk — on the laptop without having to reach for the cord. Speaking of the cord, Asus devoted special attention to the power brick; the glossy black cube has been redesigned with just a single cord hanging from it and an LED to indicate if its charged or charging. It’s nice not to have the two cord setup, and at about nine feet, it’s long enough to string down the back of a desk or across a long couch. An obvious Apple copy in some respects? Sure, but a refined laptop deserves an equally refined charger.
Besides that rather tragic aforementioned WinFlash BIOS software, Asus loads up the UX with a slew of its own software programs. There’s everything from its own PowerWiz to its Vibe multimedia program. It also includes its WebStorage program, which includes 2GB of Cloud storage. As for third-party apps, it’s got the usual Trend Micro security suite, as well as Syncables and Nuance’s PDF reader.
I was able to work an entire afternoon (about six hours) around the office
|Asus Zenbook UX31||5:31|
|Acer Aspire S3||3:27|
|MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch)||6:12|
|Sony VAIO Z (2011)||5:27 / 10:34*|
|Samsung Series 9||4:16|
|Dell XPS 15z||4:36|
|*With slice battery|
However, the trackpad seems to negate all those other amazing attributes
Aside from one piece, the UX31 is the ultraportable (er, ultrabook) Windows users have been waiting on for oh so long. It’s fast, it’s got great battery life, and it costs less than the MacBook Air. (The $1,399 Core i7 unit I was sent is still $200 less than the equally spec'd Air.) However, that one piece — the trackpad — is so incredibly important to the end experience, that it seems to negate all those other amazing attributes that Asus worked so hard to get right. If you cannot control the core part of the laptop — the actual interface and software — what good is everything else? Yes, Asus is improving the experience little by little and right now the drivers have made the experience tolerable, but I’m not sure “tolerable” is good enough for a machine that costs more than a grand. If you can look past the trackpad issue and have the patience to wait on Asus to adjust the drivers, the UX31 is without a doubt the best Windows ultrabook out there and for $1,119 you get similar build and performance to Apple’s Air. However, until that trackpad issue is really mended, I have to say paying $300 more for the Air or Samsung Series 9 seems like the safer route. Still, something tells me Asus’ excitement about this category and Intel’s support will eventually give us that no-compromise Air competitor.
Note: We will update this review (and perhaps the rating) when Asus releases fixes for the touchpad.