After thoroughly reviewing the Lenovo U300s and the Acer Aspire S3, it’s now time to focus on the Asus Zenbook UX31, the ultrabook that seemed to have the best odds to be a real competitor for the MacBook Air a while back.
The Zenbook UX31 has been available for a while and I think now is the best time to see how good of a job Asus has done with their first ever 13.3-inch ultrabook.
Update: You should also check out this review of the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A, which is this laptop’s direct successor. And this list of places to buy it discounted might be of some interest as well.
We are going to look at all the details a technology enthusiast might be interested in before buying the UX31 (or any other laptop, for that matter) and I’m going to try to find out if the 13-incher from Asus is nothing more than a cheap Air copy or if it is a strong and capable notebook with a personality of its own.
The complete Asus Zenbook UX31 review is available below, but you’ll also find my video review. If you’re not here for the whole story though, here’s a quick spoiler: the Asus Zenbook UX31 is good, very good actually, but because of some hick-ups, it’s second in my list of favorite ultrabooks.
The biggest hick-up is the keyboard, which for me is a crucial element, as I spend so much time writing articles, but there are some others. On the other hand, in terms of performances, looks and build quality, this is for sure top notch.
Note: Excuse me for interrupting, I'm gathering my favorite Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals on ultraportable laptops over here, if you're interested.
More in the next paragraphs though.
Design and body
When I first laid my eyes on the UX31 a few months ago, I couldn’t shake up the feeling that I had seen a similar shape before.
Of course , I wasn’t wrong, design wise, the UX31 is a close replica of the MBA; both are a bit thicker towards the back and get slimmer on their front and both come with full-metal casings.
On the other hand, you can’t say that the Zenbook UX31 is a bad or cheap copy of the MacBook Air, managing to borrow the good parts from Apple’s design and add some original spices here and there. The unibody case is the same as on the Air, the sturdiness and elegance are all there, but the concentric circles on the aluminum lid and the slightly darker shade of metal are original touches that make the UX31 stand on its own.
Of course, the Asus is a bit ostentatious, at least for my taste, but I’m sure many will just love the looks and the overall sturdiness and quality of the body (I appreciate the latter as well).
Opening the lid, you get a nice aluminum finish on the palm rest and the bezel around the screen, which add to the overall high-quality feeling exhaled by the Zenbook UX31.
The Asus UX31 is extremely light and thin, no matter how you look at it.
As for the size and weight, the UX31 is doing just fine, weighing in at just 2.9 pounds (1.3 kg) and measuring a mere 0.67 inches in thickness.
There’s also a smaller and lighter version available if you won’t find the UX31 portable enough, the 11.6 inch Asus UX21, which weighs just 2.4 pounds.
Speaking of ports and connectivity options, the Asus UX31 trails some of its competitors. You do get USB 3.0 and 2.0 slots, but you don’t get an Ethernet port or regular sized HDMI on the machine. Instead, you get micro-HDMI and mini-VGA slots, plus two included adapters: one for miniVGA to regular VGA and one for USB to Ethernet. So overall, it’s not that bad, except that you don’t get an easy way to output digital video content, as you’ll have to buy an HDMI adapter on your own and the laptop does not support Intel’s WiDi (Wireless Display) either.
Keyboard and touchpad
For me, the keybord and trackpad combo is pretty much crucial when choosing a laptop. Unfortunately, these are pretty much strike and miss on the UX31.
Aesthetically, they both look great. The keys are proper sized and proper spaced, the trackpad is big enough and positioned where it should be. When you get to use them though…
First, the keys are wobbly and stiff, plus offer little travel, and unless you make sure you press them firmly in their middle, they might not register your hit. In time you’ll get used to the keyboard and learn to make it usable, but that’s not how things should work on a computer in this price-range. Except for that, there’s little flex and the keys feel good to touch; too bad though such aspects don’t really matter when the typing experience is just bad.
The keyboard and especially the touchpad are surprisingly poor on the UX31.
The touchpad is even worse, suffering from ‘’chronic’’ software glitches and a severe lack of responsiveness from time to time. What’s weird is that the problems come and go and the trackpad will sometimes act accurate, comfortable and precise, while in other cases will simply go berserk and leave you asking why the heck didn’t Asus take its time with solving these issues before releasing the laptop.
These are drivers related problems and Asus promises to work on getting them fixed.
Update: Asus seems to have fixed most of the touchpad issues on their newer models that now pack an Elan trackpad (as opposed to a Sentelic one before). It’s still not perfect, but it’s way more accurate and reliable, so if you want to get an UX31, look for one with an Elan trackpad, or regret it forever.
The 13.3-inch screen on the Asus UX31 is in fact right now (as I’m typing this review in late 2011) the only one on an ultrabook to sport HD resolution, 1600 x 900 pixels. Yes, with Windows 7 everything will get a bit smaller (so if you have bad eyes, that might not be for you), but you also get this vastly increased canvas that greatly helps you improve your productivity.
The colors are crisp and this screen is probably the brightest you’ll get on an ultrabook these days. And while it comes with a glossy finish and the viewing angles could definitely be better (they’re not that bad though), I’d say the overall image quality on this UX31 is superior to everything we’ve seen so far on ultrabooks.
The bright high-res screen almost makes you forget about the glitchy touchpad.
Hardware and performances
In terms of hardware, the UX31 is available in a bunch of different hardware configurations, with the basic version being pretty much on par with the ones offered by most other producers in this class.
So, you get the Intel Core i5-2467M processor, as well as 4 GB of RAM, integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics and a 128 GB SSD. However, we’re talking about a SATA 3 compatible SSD, while most other ultrabooks only offer slower SATA 2 Storage.
The top model features a very snappy Intel Core i7 processor and a larger 256 GB SSD (which by the way, comes partitioned by default).
Overall, even the standard UX31 configuration should be enough for most ultrabook potential buyers, being able to handle multitasking and HD content playing. Games are a no-go, but that’s the same for all ultrabooks these days, as they come with integrated graphics; also, heavy-duty tasks like editing RAW photos and videos might push the low-voltage CPU towards its limits. For everyday stuff though, the UX31 is just fine and definitely snappier than the average laptop out there, thanks to the powerful hardware and that fast SSD.
Under the hood, the UX31 is the snappiest ultrabook today.
There’s a 4 Cell 40 Wh battery inside this Zenbook and that’s enough to push the whole package for about 5.5 hours of daily use. Yes, Asus claims it can go for much longer and you can probably squeeze up to 7 hours of life for very very light usage (just reading some content with the screen dimmed down and no wireless). But not more.
For the everyday routine though, expect a little above 5 hours of life every charge, which is actually quite good, though not really better than the competition.
If only Asus had managed to fit in a full-sized HDMI port…
Noise, heat, speakers and others
The Zenbook manages to stay cool and mostly silent no matter how hard you’ll push it. The metal body seems to do an excellent job at dissipating heat and while the bottom will get warm, it will never pass beyond the “comfortable” point. Personally, I’m quite impressed with this, especially since before reviewing the UX31 I got to play with the UX21 and that one had some massive overheating problems (squeezing the same hardware in tinnier body was the issue there).
The speakers are actually quite good on the UX31. The Zenbook features stereo speakers powered by Bang & Olufsen’s ICEPower and Asus’s SonicMaster technologies and the overall audio quality, as well as the volume, are pretty unbelievable for a laptop this small. So hands-down these are the best speakers on an portable laptop, even though when turning the volume up, the speakers (which are placed beneath the keyboard) might cause the keys to vibrate a bit (and hence you get some distortions). As long as you keep the volume below 75% though, these are just top notch.
On the other hand, the 0.3 MPx webcam is clearly not the best we’ve seen on an ultrabook today and can’t keep up with the competition. But will do the job, and that’s all I want from a webcam.
Pricing and availability
The UX31 starts at around 1100 dollars these days and can go to up to 1500 bucks or more, based on configuration.
Bottom point, the Zenbook UX31 is more expensive than most other ultrabooks out there and at least for the moment, only the Lenovo U300S out-costs it by $100.
Quality comes with a price though, as with the Lenovo, so if you want the extra goodies you get on this machine, you’ll have to pay a bit extra. In the end though, the 13.3 inch Asus laptop is still $200 cheaper than a similar equipped MacBook Air, thus given all the features, its price tag is actually looking good in my eyes.
While the Asus Zenbook UX31 still has its flaws, it is one of the best, if not the best available ultrabook on the market.
Basically, if it weren’t for the poor keyboard and trackpad (the latter actually seems to be improved on the newer models available for sale in 2012), I’d recommend this one hands down. It’s good looking, solid built, has a very good screen, excellent speakers and solid battery life and performances. All these with a decent (while still above most competitors) price tag.
Don’t forget that I’m a blogger thus a good keyboard is a primordial aspect in my book. If you’re fine with a less-than-perfect typing experience, the UX31 might be just the one for you. For me though, the Lenovo U300S remains my favorite ultrabook so far and the UX31 is a close second.
If only I could get a mix of the two… perhaps with the 2nd generation of ultrabooks.