Not even 12 months have passed since the first ultrabooks hit the stores. And while those early models had their issues, they cleared the way for the things to come: a myriad of thin and light laptops, some of them very very good.
The Asus Zenbook UX51VZ / U500 is one of those last ones, the biggest and the most powerful Zenbook on the market right now, packing a 15 inch screen, fast hardware and an awesome screen. But are these enough to make it a worthy competitor for some of the other premium thin notebooks available out there, like the Dell XPS 15 or the Retina Apple MacBook Pro?
Update: Looking for discounts on this laptop? Then you might want to read this article.
Update: Just to be clear, the U500 is not an ULTRABOOK per-se, it’s an ultra-portable laptop in an ultrabook body. That’s because Intel imposes a couple of regulations for laptops to be officially called ultrabooks and among them, is this one: “ultrabooks must be built on Intel’s ULV hardware platform”. In other words, the U500 is not an ultrabook because of its more powerful processor inside.
Update2: Looks like the Asus Zenbook U500 will sell as the Asus UX51VZ, or just the Asus UX5 on several markets. Early details on prices are available now, so go ahead and check them out below.
You’ll find out the answer for that from this post, where I’ve gathered my impressions on the U500 after using it for a couple of days. So this is not really a review, for a couple of reasons. First, my test unit is an early prototype, thus things might differ between it and the final product that will hit the stores in early November/late October. And second, I only got to spend 4 days with it, like I said, and that’s not really enough time for a proper thorough review.
But enough jabber jabbering, let’s get into those details.
Asus Zenbook U500 / UX51VZ video review
First though, if you want to know the basics about this laptop and what it can do, the in-depth video below is what you need. For the hidden goodies though, keep reading.
The Specs for the Asus Zenbook U500 / Asus UX51VZ
And I should also tell you a couple of things about the specs, so you’ll know exactly which particular U500 version I got to play with here.
|Asus Zenbook U500 / Asus UX51VZ
|Screen||15.6 inch, 1920 x 1080 px resolution, IPS, non-glare|
|Processor||Intel Ivy Bridge Core i7-3612QM CPU, 2.1 GHz|
|Video||integrated Intel 4000 HD + Nvidia GT 650M 2GB|
|Memory||8 GB DDR3|
|Hard-disk||256 GB SSD (2 x 128 GB SSDs in RAID 0)|
|Connectivity||Wireless N, Gigabit Lan, Bluetooth 4.0, WiDi|
|Ports||3 x USB 3.0, mini-VGA, HDMI, LAN, card-reader, HD webcam|
|Baterry||74 Wh, encased|
|Operating system||Windows 8|
|Weight||about 2 kg|
|Extras||external subwoofer and external optical unit included|
Design and exterior
From starters, you’ll notice that the Asus Zenbook U500 is astonishing looking. In fact, it’s an oversized version of the Asus Zenbook Prime we’ve tested a while ago. That means that it’s solid built and nicely finished, with a full metal body.
You get the dark silver aluminum on top, with those concentric circles pattern, and the silver finishing on the bottom. Speaking about the underbelly, you’ll notice that it does not offer quick access to the battery or the internals, as there are only some cooling grills back here. Still, that was expected from such a thin laptop.
The Asus Zenbook U500 measures about 20 mm in its thickest point, but just seems sleeker, as it gets slimmer towards the front. The edges are once again quite sharp, as on the other Zenbooks I’ve tested, and that might be a bit inconvenient, so be careful when handling this machine. Besides that, the U500 has a slightly smaller footprint than most of the other laptops within the 15 inch class. And it is quite light as well, weighing about 2 kilos. Unfortunately I can’t provide the exact weight right now, as I do not have an electronic scale around. So I’ll have to get back on that.
There are plenty of ports lined on the sides of this laptop. On the right there’s a headphone/microphone jack, a card-reader, an USB slot, a mini-VGA port and the connector for an external subwoofer, plus a small indicator LED (shows you when the laptop in in sleep mode), while on the left, you’ll find the DCIN, a flopable Ethernet port, a Full Size HDMI and two USB slots.
You’ll notice that Asus could not fit an optical unit on this Zenbook, but there is one included in the box. In our case, that’s an external DVD-RW than can be easily connected to the laptop with the also included USB cable. But I’m pretty sure you could also get at least a BluRay combo once the U500 hits the stores. One thing though: you’re going to need two USB ports to power this external unit, but that’s alright, as there are two of them placed on the left side of the laptop.
Speaking about what’s inside the box, Asus also bundles a miniVGA to standard VGA adapter and packs the external subwoofer we’ve seen in the past on the N multimedia series, and given how good those laptops were in terms of audio quality, this one is probably going to be just as good. We’ll talk more about that later.
Opening the lid cover, you’ll once again find the emblematic metallic interior we’ve seen on Zenbooks since the start, but since the U500 is bigger, the entire palm-rest is more spacious and there is now enough space to fit a more complex keyboard. There’s a dedicated power-button as well, placed in the top-right corner, as it’s not integrated within the keyboard as we’ve seen on other laptops in this family, while the status LEDS are extremely discrete and placed beneath the trackpad.
There’s metal around that 15 inch screen as well, with a slightly purple finishing, and on top of the display you’ll find an HD webcam with an indicator LED, an ambient light sensor and some microphones.
All in all, although I’ve got to play with just an early Asus U500 prototype, there’s just nothing wrong about it when it comes to its build quality and overall finishing. As for the design, this will definitely not go unnoticed, but some, like me, might consider it a bit too obtrusive.
Like I already mentioned above, there’s a 15.6 inch display on this unit. But it’s not just an average screen, it comes with an IPS panel and Full HD 1920 x 1080 px resolution. As a result, it is bright and offers good contrast and colors.
In fact, this exact panel we have on the Zenbook U500 is made by LG and can also be found on some HP and Sony laptops, but while those had some issues with orange or blue colors, this one seems to be a lot more accurate, as you’ll see from the picture below, comparing the U500 with the IPS panels on my Lenovo ThinkPad X220 laptop and Dell 2209WA monitor.
You’ll also be able to use the screen in strong light conditions, thanks to its non-glare finishing and good brightness, but be aware that this non-glare coating is not completely matte, like on the ThinkPads for example, and still passes some reflections.
There’s one more thing I should add: IPS panels usually suffer from light bleeding, visible on dark backgrounds, but there isn’t any noticeable bleeding on this Asus. That doesn’t mean that your unit might not have some bleeding, that’s more or less a given with IPS panels these days, but if it’s only visible on dark static images, you’ll be fine with it.
As a quick wrap-up, the screen is excellent, despite not having the pixel density of the Retina Macbook Pro. There is however one issue: it can’t lean back too much, which means that in some situations, you won’t be able to properly adjust the viewing angles. And while this would be very annoying on a smaller device that I’d probably use while laying in bed or on the sofa, I can live with that on a 15 inch machine which will spend most of its life on my desk.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about color gamut, measured contrast and brightness and all these fancy things, I’m sorry to disappoint, I don’t own a colorimeter so I could not test these.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard on the Asus U500 is a lot like the one on the N56, but the rubbery finishing on top of the keys is gone. As a result, the keys feel a bit harsher, while they are also a tiny bit wobblier, as you can see in the video review.
Despite that, the overall typing experience is very good, as both the travel and the feedback provided by the keys are within satisfactory margins. The keyboard is also quite silent and only flexes a little bit when pressed in the middle.
The keys are also backlit and the laptop can either automatically adjust the backlightning intensity with the help of its light-sensor, or you can adjust it manually (you get to choose between three levels or OFF).
There is one thing I’m not particularly fond of though: Asus included a NumPad area on the U500, exactly like on the N56, with slightly narrower keys. As an indirect result though, the arrow keys are quite cramped, that’s why I feel like skipping the entire NumPad would have been a better call here.
As for the trackpad, it’s basically the one we’ve seen on the Zenbook Prime, which means it’s large, feels good and is usually accurate. And yes, usually is the word here, because at times it can get jumpy and erratic, which does ruin the overall experience.
Plus, it integrates the click buttons withing the tactile area and they are a bit stiff and noisy.
Hopefully, it will get slightly better on the final unit. If not, get yourself a proper mouse, you’ll be better off with it.
Hardware and performances
OK, this is probably the part you’re most interested in. Like I said at the beginning though, I can’t really focus on numbers, because this is an early prototype and Windows 8 drivers are still immature.
I will tell you that this laptop packs some powerful guts though: a quad-core Intel Core i7 3612QM processor, dedicated Nvidia GT 650M graphics, 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD made by coupling two 128 GB SSD in RAID 0. All these handled by Microsoft’s Windows 8.
The pics below will tell you a bunch of things about the hardware. I must tell you that I could not open the back-panel of the device in order to show for sure the internal configurations, that’s why some of the things I’m going to say in the next paragraph are speculations based on the information provided by several hardware analysis programs.
So, there might be 4 slots of memory inside this unit, but once again, I can’t confirm that. Out of these, a 4GB module is almost surely soldered on the motherboard. For my test unit, only a 4 GB Hynix module was visible, while I could not find anything about the other 4 GBs, thus I concluded they were soldered.
We do know that the two SSDs are made by Sandisk and we’re probably talking about 2.5 inch SSDs, and not bar drives, like on the UX31, since Asus announced that this laptop will also be available with hybrid storage. Performances are quite good, as you can see from the benchmark below and the two support TRIM.
I can’t say for sure if these storage drives are easily removable or if Asus uses standard drives or proprietary ones until I can actually open that back-panel, which might not happen that soon. But SIW Pro says that they are not removable, which would be weird for 2.5 inch drives. We’ll see.
As for the graphics, this laptop bundles Nvidia GT 650M chip in its more powerful version, with 2 GB of DDR5 memory and that helps it push quite solid numbers in games.
With all these onboard, this laptop flies. Not only does it booth in about 20 seconds, but it just handles all of your daily apps at ease, whether we’re talking about browsing, editing photos, chatting with friends, watching all sorts of movies. It will also deal with more complex tasks, like editing video content, rendering 3D scenes or running some programming software.
Plus, with the Nvidia 650M chip inside, it will handle games as well. I’ve tried a bunch of them, like Crysis 2, Dirt 3, Need for Speed Unleashed 2 or Skyrim, as you can see from the clip below.
I did not focus that much on benchmarking those games, but if you’re interested in numbers, you’ll find some below. I ran all these games in FHD resolution and details set towards maximum (in some cases I lowered AA) and they all worked fine, except for Crysis 2 which was lagging on HardCore mode and was only playable on Gamer.
- Crysis 2 (Gamer mode) – 30.8 fps;
- Dirt 3 – 40 fps;
- Skyrim – 39 fps;
- Need for Speed Unleashed 2 – 38.4 fps.
If you’re after the benchmark results, like I said, I can’t share much with you right now, but I’ll share two numbers:
- PCMark Vantage: 16651 points;
- 3Dmark 11 Performance: P2398 (2216 graphics, 5852 physics, 1890 combined)
That Raid 0 storage option definitely has a lot in influence on those numbers, so take that into consideration when comparing them with the scores got by other laptops.
All in all, the Asus Zenbook U50 is a beast in its class, but packing the powerful hardware inside a thin body comes with two potential issues, and we’ll talk about them in the next part of our post.
Heat and Noise
Yes, you might have guessed it, we’re talking about heat and noise. This laptop has two cooling fans inside and while they can spin fast when you’ll be pushing the device, they will almost never become annoyingly noisy. I measured the noise with an App on my iPhone, so I can’t say how conclusive it is.
I’ve tested to scenarios. First, with the phone placed on the trackpad, the recorded noise was at about 40 db in idle and 50 db while gaming. In the second case, I’ve placed the phone on the screen’s edge, over the Asus logo there, and recorded about 57-58 db in Full Load and 48 in idle . The phone measured an ambient noise in the room, when the laptop was OFF, of about 38db.
Take these numbers with a grain of salt, this is in no way a professional test, as I do not have the tools for that.
On the other part, this laptop can get very hot. I could not run a stress-test on this unit, since it’s an early sample, but I did run some games. When playing Crysis 2 for about two hour,s the CPUs will get close to 95 degrees Celsius, while the Graphics goes to 80+. Also, the bottom is getting scorching hot and so is the rim on top of the keyboard, as part of the cooling exhaust is placed behind the screen’s hinge. But the palmrest and the area around the keyboard stay merely warm, which is very important.
Speaking about the cooling system, the laptop seems to such air from the bottom and exhaust it behind the screen’s hinge, on the sides. as there are two cooling fans inside. That of course means that using this laptop with the lid closed is not going to be a very good idea, just in case you were thinking at using it as a desktop replacement or something like that.
During everyday activities though, extreme heat in not going to be a problem and you’ll even be able to comfortably use the laptop on your lap. But if you’re after the Zenbook U500, I’m pretty sure you’re not going to use it just for casual stuff, right?
And there’s one more thing. While running games on High Performances, the CPU’s Cores run at 2.8 GHz. However, analyzing the logs recorded with HWinfo 64 while playing Crysis 2 or Skyrim, I noticed that sometimes, as the temperatures got higher, the frequencies drop to 1.2 GHz. And correct me if I’m wrong, but that sounds like throttling to me.
I’m not going to insist on that or draw any conclusions, as this is not a final product. I will hopefully get to test a shelf-ready U500 in the next weeks and I’ll update this section then. For now, I only find two possible explanations for that: either the temperatures push the CPUs into throttling (still, this happens with the Cores at about 85+ degrees and 40-50% Load), or the 90W power adapter in the pack does not provide enough energy for the hardware inside this unit.
What do you guys think?
ON the other hand, I did not notice any frequency drops for the GPU, neither for the graphic processor or the memory, while playing those games.
With all those in mind, there’s one more thing I should add: the gaming experience on the U500 was pretty consistent and I could not see obvious drops in frame-rates while playing any of the games. In fact, if it wasn’t for the monitor programs, I would have never noticed that the CPU’s frequency does drop sometimes, when under intense load.
Speakers and others
The Asus Zenbook U500 comes with Bang&Olufsen IcePower speakers and there are no less than 4 bundled on this machine, based on what Asus says. The speaker grills are on the bottom, one on each side, like on the 13 inch Zenbook Prime and all in all, the audio is rich and definitely loud.
However, the true potential of the Zenbook U500 is going to be unleashed only when you’ll connect that external subwoofer, that’s going to take care of all the bass and low-frequency sound.
I’ve put up another video showing you how good this laptop sounds and what’s the difference when connecting or disconnecting the external woofer, so check it out.
You can of course place the subwoofer wherever you want, within the short margins offered by that connecting cable.
As for the other details, I should tell you that the U500 features an HD webcam on top and it will be alright as long as there’s enough light around, otherwise the images will get quite noisy and underexposed.
As for the wireless solution, Asus bundles the Intel Centrino Advanced-N6235 module inside this Zenbook and the overall performances are steady, even when you’re a bit further away from your router, with some walls between. WiDi and Bluetooth 4.0 are also part of the mix.
I did notice that sometimes, after the laptop resumes from sleep, the wireless module takes a bit longer to reconnect to the network, even north of 10 seconds. That is a bit annoying, but I can’t say if it’s a Windows 8 issue or something more serious.
As we get close towards the end of this clip, it’s time to talk about battery life. There’s a 74 Wh battery inside the Zenbook U500, which sounds promising. This test unit however averaged about 3 to 3 and a half hours in daily use, while browsing, chatting, editing some photos, writing some posts, listening to some music, in Balanced Mode with the screen at 60% and WiFi ON.
I also managed to run BEPro in Classic mode, with the screen at 100% and High Performance Mode, and the laptop shut down at 5% after almost 80 minutes. I did not have the time to run any other “standard” battery test though, due to the short time I had with this U500 and some problems with BEPro on Windows 8.
Anyway, I did notice that BatteryBar shows that the laptop eats around 18 Wh while in idle, on PowerSaving mode with the screen at 0%, but that varies inconsistently between 15 and 22. At Full Load, the same BatteryBar showed that the laptop eats 55 Wh, while on average daily use, it eats about 22-25 Wh.
All in all, you have to be aware that this is a powerful machine and not one of those ULV ultrabooks. Even so though, I was expecting it to do a bit better, but given that this test unit was a sample and the same potential Windows 8 drivers’ issues, we can only hope that the final products will do better.
Prices and availability
There will be several versions available for the U500 and the laptop will sell as the Asus UX51 or the Asus UX51VZ on some markets. For now, we know about two configurations:
- ASUS UX51Vz-XH71 – the top version, with a similar config to the laptop tested here, but a 512 GB Raid 0 SSD, going for around $2499 in the US and around 2000 euros in Europe;
- ASUS UX51Vz-DH71 – a cheaper version, going for $1999 in the US and around 1700 euro in Europe, and sporting only a 128 GB SSD, from what we know right now.
More details about all these configs, plus some potential discounts, are available over here.
Of course, more details will be available in the next days, as we get closer to November, when the laptop should start shipping. So stay tuned for the updates.
All in all, the Asus Zenbook U500 is certainly one of the most impressive premium laptops of the moment. It’s beautiful, it packs an excellent display and it’s powerful. But, like you’d expect from such a thin machine that bundles fast hardware, it does have some heating issues.
And it’s going to be expensive.
I’m not going to jump into conclusions for the time being though, as I’ve only played with an early sample of the Asus U500 and not the final product. Thus, you’d better bookmark this article and check it out from time to time, I’ll add updates over the next weeks and months.
I was told that I will also get a shelf-ready Zenbook U500 for tests, which will help me bring light over the yet shady aspects of this review, like the potential throttling and sub-par battery life issues. But that might not happen until late October.
With that in mind, It’s time to end this post. Like I said, this is mainly an indepth preview of the Asus Zenbook U500 then a review, as it lacks most benchmarks results and was tested quite hasty, given the short time I got to spend with this unit. But I’ll update and get back with more details in time.
Till then, if you have any questions, suggestions, critiques or just want to add something smart to the article, the comment form below is there just for that.