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zenbook prime ux31a lead replacement 1020
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Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A review

Is a high-resolution display what the ultrabook needs?

Eight months ago, Asus was one of the first to build a credible MacBook Air alternative with a similar look and feel. The 13-inch Asus Zenbook UX31 and 11-inch UX21 delivered extremely rigid all-metal frames, power-sipping Intel Sandy Bridge processors, speedy solid state storage, and unfortunately, an incredibly frustrating trackpad. Ultimately, we couldn't recommend them over their Apple competitors in any particular way, and that trackpad threw a wrench in the formula.

In March, however, we discovered that Asus intended to change the Zenbook for the better. The new Zenbook Prime UX31A and UX21A would include a revamped design with newer Ivy Bridge processors, backlit keyboards, an optional Nvidia 620M GPU, and best of all, matte 1080p IPS displays... even on the 11-inch model. That's a lot of pixels for a laptop this small.

Today, we've got a final production unit of the 13.3-inch Zenbook Prime UX31A to review, and we'll tell you if Asus nails the ultralight formula this time around.

Hardware

Hardware / design

Five different shades and textures of metal on one laptop

Asus has apparently taken the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach with the UX31A's design, because it's hard to find much of anything that's really changed, and that's not a bad thing. The matte black of the keyboard deck and the shiny silver keys have traded their colors, some curly text by the hinge has disappeared, and the new system might be the slightest hair thicker and heavier, but that's about it. All the materials and ports are in the same places.

If you've never touched the original UX31, though, what should you expect? A rougher-hewn MacBook Air chassis, basically. It's fairly light at 2.86 pounds, shy on full-sized ports with just a pair of USB 3.0 sockets, an extremely shallow SDXC card slot, and a 3.5mm headphone jack, though like the original it does come with a Micro HDMI port, as well as a USB to Ethernet adapter, a Mini-VGA to VGA adapter, and a small cloth pouch to tote them around. It's thoughtful of Asus to include them, and you never know when you might need one. On that note, the UX31A also still comes with a nice protective sleeve, and an Apple-styled power adapter that fits fairly easily in a bag.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 12.8 x 8.8 0.11 - 0.71 2.86
Asus Zenbook UX31 12.8 x 8.8 0.11 - 0.71 2.86
MacBook Air (2012, 13-inch) 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.96
MacBook Pro with Retina display 14.13 x 9.73 0.71 4.46
HP Envy 14 Spectre 12.88 x 8.7 0.79 3.79
Dell XPS 13 12.4 x 8.1 0.24 - 0.71 2.99
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 12.8 x 8.5 0.58 2.90
HP Folio 13 12.54 x 8.67 0.71 3.3
Sony Vaio Z (2011) 13.0 x 8.27 0.66 2.57
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2011) 12.9 x 8.9 0.64 2.88

Like that MacBook, the UX31A appears to be made entirely of aluminum, and if anything, it actually feels more rigid and durable than Apple's machine. It seems like Asus is trying to accentuate a rough, back-to-basics feeling for the computer, with much sharper angles on the corners and edges of the chassis. If you look closely at the corner of the keyboard tray, you can even see the individual layered cuts that the metalworking tools made. The main chassis is brushed aluminum, the bottom is polished to be glossy, and the top has a striking spun pattern. It's interesting if you like variety (and I do), but compared to the MacBook, it can definitely feel like a bit of a mishmash: there are five different shades and textures of metal on this one laptop. What I don't like are the rough front edges of the machine. They can really dig into your wrists, even more so than the Air. I develop red lines on my arms whenever I use it for extended periods.

If there's a real issue with the build, though, it's the smallish hinge that Asus uses to prop up the display. Either it's too weak or the lid is too heavy, as the slightest jolt or sometimes even the force of gravity alone is enough to cause it to fall backwards.

Compare this: Zenbook Prime vs. the $1,000+ ultrabook competition, including Apple's MacBook Air

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Screen / speakers

Screen and speakers

A hop, skip and a jump away from retina display
Ux31a-screen-800
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The screen on this laptop is so good you might not even care about the angle you view it from. Where the original 13.3-inch Zenbook had a 1600 x 900 traditional LCD panel with poor viewing angles, the 1920 x 1080 IPS display obliterates the issue. Not only can you view images and colors from almost any angle with only a slight loss of brightness, but it's one of the best displays I've seen on a laptop, period. Images are crisp, fonts look great, colors are vivid, and both whites and blacks are pure. Best of all, Asus manages all that with a matte screen that keeps reflections from disturbing your play and work. It's not perfect — in a dark room, with a dark image, I could see some backlight bleed around the edges of the screen — but the display is exceptional in just about every other way. If you're buying a Zenbook, make absolutely sure it has this "Full HD" screen, because the inferior 1600 x 900 panels are also a cheaper option.

In fact, I put the UX31A's 1080p panel head to head against the 2880 x 1800 Retina display (220ppi) in Apple's new MacBook Pro, and the 165ppi screen on the Zenbook actually comes respectably close. While fonts and images don't have quite the incredible level of detail as they do on Apple's machine (see images above), that matte coating doesn't hurt, and the Retina display actually seems to have a blueish-purple tint when compared to the clean whites of the Zenbook. It's worth noting that at the 1080p native resolution, icons can be quite small and hard to manage by default. You may want to manually set the DPI to 150 percent by tweaking the setting in the Control Panel > Appearance and Personalization > Display menu. You could also adjust the resolution to a lower setting, like the MacBook Pro with Retina display does by default, but the Zenbook's screen is crispest at native resolution, for sure.

Bang & Olufsen quality this is not

As far as audio quality is concerned, I've got some unfortunate news to report: though we praised the speakers on the original UX31, Asus decided to change them anyhow. Rather than solely firing audio out of the LCD hinge like competing designs, Asus has cut two speaker vents along the edges of the chassis that face down, and whether that's a cause or a coincidence, the result is much weaker, flatter, and tinnier sound at any volume. Bang & Olufsen, whose branding is featured on the chassis, would not be proud. You'll want headphones.

Keyboard / trackpad

Keyboard and trackpad

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It's not easy to build a quality keyboard for a laptop this thin. Many come out stiff, shallow, and cramped. Like the original, the flat-topped chiclet keys on the UX31A aren't perfect, but they aren't bad. They're stiffer and shorter than I'd like, not as cushy as the Air, slightly inconsistent, and the spacebar has an annoying habit of squeaking continuously as I use it. Over the course of a long typing session, like this review, you might decide that you'd rather be using something else, but it'll do fine for most tasks as long as you get used to it. On the plus side, the entire keyboard is backlit now, with three brightness levels. No more fumbling about in the dark for your letters.

Now, the moment of truth: did Asus fix the touchpad issues that sullied the original? Yes and no. Mostly no. In fact, Asus has changed up the trackpad quite a bit, and it doesn't jump around during use. The touchpad (an Elan model) is fairly quick and accurate with a single finger, although the company's new, tackier glass touchpad surface can keep your digits from traveling smoothly if you're light on finger oil. I prefered the texture of the original.

The problems are these: scrolling through webpages and documents with two-finger swipes is a stuttery mess (ditto pinch-to-zoom), and more importantly, there doesn't seem to be any sort of competent palm rejection to keep the cursor from traveling while you're typing. See these paragraphs in front of your eyes? I typed every one on this machine, and just about every single one of them was abruptly chopped apart by my mouse pointer when my palms accidentally brushed the trackpad. Infinite monkey theorem could be disproven by the touchpad on this Zenbook.

Infinite monkeys could not type Shakespeare on the Zenbook
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Performance / software

Software and performance

Why the bloat?
Boot Resume
Asus Zenbook UX31A 30 2.4

Asus Zenbook UX31 20 2.0

Dell XPS 13 17 1.8
HP Folio 13 33
4.8

Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, Sandy Bridge) 16 3.0
HP Envy 14 Spectre 24 2.0
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 35 1.8

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 25 4.9

*All times measured in seconds
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You'd think a premium laptop like the Zenbook Prime wouldn't have any software cruft. You'd be dead wrong. The UX31A greets you with constant product registration reminders, unwanted toolbars and widgets, and the system also has totally extraneous processes (like tablet PC stylus input software) running in the background. That would be fine if all that software didn't affect performance, but oh, how it does.

We tested the $1,399 version of the UX31A with a 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U processor, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid state drive. While our benchmarks seemed fine, it was plainly obvious during regular Windows tasks that something wasn't quite right. Apps and webpages seemed slower to load than on comparable ultrabooks, scrolling was slower too, and with boot times of over thirty seconds, it's surprisingly sluggish for an ultrabook in this price range. It does wake from sleep quickly in 2.4 seconds, however.

PCMarkVantage 3DMarkVantage
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 13128 P3316
Asus Zenbook UX31 6692 P1574
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 8269 P3159
Dell XPS 13 10242 P1697
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 10404 P1693
HP Envy 14 Spectre (2011) 9121 P1526
HP Folio 13 8371 P1523
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch) 10134 P1748
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 12079 P1984 / P4019*
*Denotes discrete GPU score

My first instinct was that maybe Asus picked a sub-par solid state drive, so I ran the 128GB ADATA XM11 drive through a couple rounds of the AS-SSD benchmark. The drive seems fine: sequential write performance (for copying large files) seems a little low at around 100MB/sec, and access times a little slow at 0.14ms read and 0.24ms write, but they shouldn't really account for the slowdown here.

One thing I discovered that helps a bit is a little setting in the Power Option menu called "Intel Dynamic Platform & Thermal Framework Setting." By default, Asus has set the processor to run at 13 watts and a clockspeed of up to 1GHz when on battery, but you can change that or switch the mode to high performance to extend the range to 17W and up to 2.4GHz under a heavy load.

As I hinted earlier, though, it's really the bloatware that's responsible. When I did a full clean, bone-stock install of Windows 7, everything immediately sped up. Even boot times were dramatically improved, with the system starting in just 18 seconds instead of the 30 it required before.

Gaming

As usual, you shouldn't expect to play recent games on a system this light, but Intel's HD 4000 graphics are slightly better than the previous generation. I was able to run our aging benchmark favorite Tom Clancy's HAWX in DirectX9 mode at the Zenbook's 1080p native resolution, with maximum settings, and average a healthy 30 frames per second. Mind you, that's a game from 2009, and it wasn't state-of-the-art even then.

I'm hoping to get some quality time with the Zenbook Prime UX32VD, a slightly thicker version of the same machine that has Nvidia GeForce GT 620M graphics, to see if it can do much better.

Battery / heat / noise

Battery life, heat, and noise

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Heat and noise

It's a bare aluminum laptop, and as with most bare aluminum laptops, the material is a double-edged sword: heat dissipates quickly and easily from the exposed surface, but it also transfers directly to your hands which can make for sweaty palms. Thankfully, the UX31A actually runs fairly cool. The fans can get noisy and the chassis grows a bit warm after extended use, but not unbearably so, and compared to my 2011 MacBook Air, it's both cooler and quieter under load.

Battery life

When it comes to longevity, the UX31A is just under par for the course: we clocked the system at 5 hours, 46 minutes in our Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images (with the screen set to 65 percent brightness) until the system bites the dust. We also ran the same test with Asus' special Battery Saver mode (which automatically kicks in whenever you unplug the AC adapter and disables a lot of Windows eye candy to save power) and got a very subtle increase to 5 hours, 55 minutes... which makes me think that the silicon does a pretty decent job of managing its own power consumption, thank-you-very-much.

Battery Life
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 5:46
Asus Zenbook UX31 5:31
MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012) 5:34
MacBook Air (13-inch, late 2011) 6:19
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:10
Samsung Series 9 15-inch (2012) 6:01
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:14
Dell XPS 13 4:55
HP Folio 13 7:07
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s
5:33
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 5:27 / 10:34*
*With slice battery
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In real-world use, things weren't quite as rosy, as I got only about four and a half hours of work done with my typical load of auto-refreshing web browser tabs, push email, music playing in the background, and the occasional video clip here and there. That's about average for a laptop this thick, but it lags behind best-in-class machines, including the MacBook Air. Perhaps that's attributable to the 1080p screen, though.

Not bad, but all-day battery life remains elusive

The Zenbook Prime UX31A boldly strides forward, only to stumble again. Asus introduces a brilliant 1080p IPS display that sets a high bar for every new premium ultrabook, and adds the backlit keyboard we missed, but fails to fix the terrible trackpad, weakens the hinge, stuffs it with cruft, and deadens the audio quality in the process. Parts of the experience feel premium, to be sure, but like the tacky stickers on the palmrest, the cheapness seeps through. There's little excuse in the second generation (of what's otherwise an identical laptop) for this sort of issue — particularly now that the 13-inch MacBook Air starts at $1,199 and there are plenty of Windows-based competitors.

If you're willing to carry a mouse, headphones, and wrist guards in addition to those video and Ethernet adapters, and install the OS from scratch, it's a nice, capable, and thin machine. Still, we expect more, and it's a bad sign that the whole time I was reviewing the Zenbook, I was dreaming of a cheaper, more comfortable HP Folio 13, a Dell XPS 13, or yes, even a MacBook Air... but with the Zenbook's gorgeous screen. There's still another chance for Asus to get it right, though: all the company has to do is fix things in the touchscreen-equipped Windows 8 sequel.

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