With their new Zenbook Primes, Asus tries to fix most of the issues users encountered with their first generation ultrabooks and add a couple of extras on top, just enough to make these perhaps the best ultrabooks money can buy right now.
In this post, we’re going to talk about the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A, their 13.3 inch thin-and-light laptop and take you through all of its important aspects. This way, by the time we reach the end, you’ll know why this is my new favorite ultrabook right now, but also where Asus could have done a better job with it.
I also liked the first gen Zenbooks, they were in fact some of the best in that generation, but had some deal-breaking issues with the keyboard and the trackpad, which are now mostly fixed on the new Primes. Besides that, Asus added a new FHD IPS screen and kept the astonishing looks of their ultrabooks and the prices unchanged.
The video review will tell you many things about the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A, but if you want the extras, you’ll have to read the review.
We’re going to start by taking a quick look at the exterior. Of course, if there’s one thing customers loved about the first Zenbooks, that’s the extravagant looks. With a brushed aluminum body and a thin silhouette, the Zenbooks are among the most appealing laptops ever built, especially if you’re after a bit of glam, although some might find the Asus ultrabooks a bit ostentatious.
I for one don’t really dig the brushed aluminum with concentric circles design, I’d rather have something more basic on my laptop, like Lenovo has on their ThinkPads or Apple on the MacBooks, but that’s completely subjective on my part.
The Asus UX31A weighs 2.96 pounds and measures 0.65 inches in its thickest point, although it seems a lot sleeker, mainly because its front part is significantly slimmer than the back. In fact, you should be careful with those sharp edges, they might cause unpleasant accidents.
The Zenbook Prime isn’t however the thinnest or the lightest ultrabook in its class (the Toshiba Z835 still holds the crown there), but that’s somewhat compensated by its sturdy feel and solid build quality.
The UX31A lines a couple of ports on its sides. On the left there’s an USB slot, an audio/mic jack and a card-reader. On the right you’ll get a Power LED, the mini-VGA and micro-HDMI video output, another USB port and the DCIN. Given its size, Asus couldn’t fit a LAN Adapter and had to go for mini-VGA and micro-HDMI ports on this Zenbook Prime UX31A, which is a bit annoying, but at least they offer USB-to-Ethernet and mini-VGA to VGA adapters in the pack and you don’t have to pay extra for them (you’ll have however to buy a HDMI adapter though).
There’s only a sheet of metal on the bottom, with some cooling grills on the back and the two speakers carved on each edge. That means you don’t get a removable battery and you won’t be able to easily access the internals, but that’s a given with most ultrabooks these days.
Lifting the lid, you’ll also find aluminum covering the interior, with a lighter finish for the palm-rest and the area around the keys and a darker finish for the screen’s bezel. The screen’s hinge looks good, with a punctured design and it’s solid as well, while hiding the cooling exhaust behind it.
The entire palm-rest is spacious, with a wide-trackpad in the middle and you should notice that there’s nothing piercing the shell, as the Power button is masked as one of the keys (the top-left one, and it’s stiffer than the others, so you won’t accidentally press it – although sometimes you might confuse it for the Del Key that’s usually placed in that corner).
All in all, there’s just nothing wrong I can say about the UX31A when it comes to looks and build quality. Sure , I would have loved regular sized ports, but I can live with the adapters as well.
The keyboard and trackpad were problematic on the first gen Zenbooks and luckily Asus managed to address most of their issues. They replaced the tacky silver keyboard with a new chiclet one, with dark keys and illumination.
This way, the keys are more robust, better spaced and offer a bit better travel and feedback, which makes typing on the UX31A an overall pleasant experience.
Still, the keys are just not firm, that’s why I still prefer the keyboard on the U300S ultrabook, which just breathes confidence.
As for the trackpad, that looks a lot like the one on the first gen Zenbooks, although Asus now only uses Elan trackpads and dumped those faulty Sentallics. They’ve also worked on the software and as a result I was overall satisfied with this trackpad, as it’s now accurate and not as jumpy as before.
Single-taping is still a bit problematic though and I couldn’t find a way to make the touchpad a bit more sensitive. So i did have to pinch the touchpad more than I’d want for it to register my commands, sometimes even two-three times in a row. Annoying.
Multi-touch gestures seemed to be working fine, and Asus includes a bunch of them, involving one, two or three fingers. And the trackpad on my test unit actually managed to properly cope with palm-rejection as well, which is usually a problem with wide touchpads like this one.
The Zenbook UX31A is just another proof that every laptop should have an IPS display. The 13.3 inch panel offers Full HD resolution, which allows incredibly crisp images and texts, but is a bit problematic as well, giving Windows 7’s inability to properly scale up fonts and interface elements. If you’ll leave those as default though, everything is going to be very small on this screen, which can be annoying and even cause head-aches.
Except for that, this is arguably one of the best displays I’ve ever seen on a laptop: it’s sharp, decently bright (although it could be brighter), offers good contrast and excellent colors. And it’s matte, which means you’ll be able to use it even outside, in bright light, but it’s not the same kind of matte I get on my ThinkPad, it’s a non-glare finish that still allows some reflections.
As for the viewing angles, they are like night and day compared to what we get on regular TN displays, but I for one would have still preferred to be able to lean back the screen a bit more.
There are however some issues with IPS screens: light bleeding around the edges and bright spots, and they are present on the UX31A as well. They are only visible on dark static images, so you’ll hardly notice them otherwise, that’s why I for one don’t find this particular aspect that much of a problem. In fact, I had similar faults on all the devices with IPS panels I encountered, from tablets, to laptops and monitors, and I managed to cope well with them in the end. So don’t worry, you’ll be fine with the light-bleeding on the Asus UX31A as well.
It’s time now to see how does this laptop perform during everyday use. The UX31A is built on an Intel Ivy Bridge ULV hardware platform, with integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, 4 GBs of RAM and SSD storage. You can choose between a Core i5 or faster Core i7 processors and my test unit came with the latter.
What does this mean? First of all, this laptop boots in under 30 seconds and resumes from sleep in around two. It’s also snappy during daily activities and deals well with multitasking. You can use it for some serious tasks as well, like editing videos and photos, although it’s not really designed for those. It will also handle all kind of multimedia content and even some games.
You’ll find some benchmarks I ran on the UX31A below and you can see that the Core i7 CPU does push up the results.
My test unit had a 256 GB SSD onboard, but only about 185 GBs were actually available for programs and content, with Windows installed and all the things Asus bundles on this laptop (aka, a bunch of crapware and one or two useful apps). Also, I’ve noticed some reviewers claiming the SSD is slightly slower on the UX31A, but my tests showed it was actually very fast on my test unit, which was in fact a retail version, one you can buy in stores yourself.
I’ve also tried bunch of games on the Zenbook Prime, although this is clearly not a gaming machine. Still, it managed to deal well with older or simple titles, like Angry Birds or Heroes 3, but also with some modern games, like COD: Modern Warfare 3.
In fact, if you’re willing to run games on 13 x 7 resolution with details towards low, you’ll get playable framerates in a bunch of other popular games, like Word of Warcraft or even Starcraft 2. But for RTS and FPS games you’d need at least consistent 40+ fps to be able to properly enjoy the experience, which this laptop can’t really offer unless you’re going for even a lower resolution.
There’s a 50 Wh battery on this laptop which translates in about four and a half hours of daily use, with browsing, listening to music, chatting, editing texts and some photos, etc. Looping a 720p movie with the screen at 70% and Power Saver mode ON will push it to about 5 hours of life.
That’s alright I’d say and can get better (even close to 6) when using the computer lightly, dimming the screen and turning of the keyboard’s backlightning, but there are ultrabooks out there that can offer 1 or 2 hours of extra use-time on a charge.
You’ll also appreciate the very compact charger, with a long cable, perfect when traveling. It’s quite small, at 25Wh, so it will take a while to charge the laptop while using it, but that’s something you’ll get used to.
During everyday activities the Asus UX31A is going to remain fairly cool and quiet, and while the fan does kick in from to time, it’s far from being too noisy.
However, when pushing the laptop onto more serious tasks, the entire body will get slightly warm, while the bottom and the interior as well (on top of the keyboard and on the right palm-rest area ) can even become hot. This usually happens with aluminum covered laptops, but I find it unpleasant, as it will make your palms sweat.
I should also mention a couple of things about the Bang & Olufsen audio system on this laptop, with speakers carved on the edges of the laptop facing down, one on each side. For ultrabook speakers, they provide above-average sound quality. However, I wish they were a bit louder, as they are not able to perform properly in a noisy room.
As for the Webcam on top of the screen, it does a good job in apps like Skype or Google Talk.
And there’s one more thing: Asus opted for the latest Intel Centrino wireless solution for their Zenbook Primes, which translates in better Wi-Fi performances and adds WiDi. Some customers have reported Wi-Fi issues with their versions, I did not encounter any of them on my unit, but you should keep an eye out for those.
And then, there are the prices. Given the looks and all the features, you shouldn’t be surprised that the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A is one of the priciest ultrabooks in stores. The base config starts at $1099, with a Core i5 processor and 128 GB SSD, while the top version will get to $1499, with a Core i7 CPU, 256 GB SSD and TPM.
In fact, here are some of the available options you can pick right now (available with slight discounts via this link):
In the end, I can state that I’m glad to call the Zenbook Prime UX31A my new favorite ultrabook, so I’ll be adding it to my list of best available ultrabooks very soon.
I’m also happy to see that Asus listened to their customer’s complaints about their first generation ultrabooks and managed to address almost all of them with the new laptop, improving the keyboard, trackpad and screen, while upgrading it to the latest Intel hardware platforms.
It still has its issues, with the rather slow SSD, average speakers and potential font-scaling problems, but I for one could actually live with them.
On the other hand, the Zenbook is expensive, like I already said above. But if you want the best, you’ll have to pay for it. And don’t forget that it’s still cheaper than a MacBook Air, while out-featuring it on certain plans.
Otherwise, you can find cheaper ultrabooks in stores, that might be better fitted for a budget-oriented buyer, including the mainstream Asus Zenbook UX32 line, the HP Folio 13 or maybe the Samsung Series 5 Ultra.