Asus have a new 15-inch laptop in the works for 2015: the Zenbook Pro UX501. It’s not yet available in stores at the time of this post, but it will be in the near future, alongside its close gaming oriented relative, the Zenbook G501.
The Pro UX501 is marketed as a premium multimedia full-size laptop and it builds on last year’s Zenbook NX500, which we reviewed here on the site a while ago. In fact, it inherits many of its features, including the sleek metallic body, a wide-gamut 4K display (although not the same one, as you’ll see later) and the large battery, but gets, among others, updated hardware, a new keyboard and redesigned speakers.
We’re going to address these here, in a series of impressions gathered after spending a few days with a pre-production UX501 model. I won’t focus on performance and battery life though, as we’ll keep those for the final review, which will be published when I’ll get my hands on a final version (hopefully in the near future, but there’s no promise).
I’ll touch most of the other aspects though and if you’ll have questions regarding any specific details I might have missed, feel free to get in touch in the comments section.
Asus Zenbook Pro UX501VW
In the meantime Asus released an updated versions of the notebook tested here, the Zenbook Pro UX501VW.
The design, keyboard, speakers or IO are identical to our review model, so make sure to check out the sections below for more details. However, the UX501VW improves and adds on a couple of levels. For starters, it’s built on a newer Intel Skylake Quad-Core hardware platform, which runs cooler and more efficient than the Haswell hardware in this test unit. So expect superior performance under loads (lower temperatures leads to fewer throttling cases) and increased battery life. Of course, the bump to Skylake also brings support for DDR4 memory and faster NVMe storage, among others.
Besides this, Asus actually put a great screen on this newer model, with an UHD panel and accurate color reproduction, unlike on our test model, which makes the Zenbook UX501VW a good choice for graphics professionals. One other thing to mention is the addition of a Thunderbolt 3 connector, again a feature professionals are going to appreciate.
The Zenbook Pro UX501VW is available with an Intel Core i7-6700HQ, 16-32 GB of RAM, 256-512 GB of SSD storage, Nvidia 960M graphics, a 96 Wh battery and a UHD display in the US and Canada, with the base configurations starting at $1499. In Europe the same laptop is also available with a FHD display option and start at around 1600 EUR. Follow this link for more details and up-to-date prices at the time you’re reading this post.
So let’s get going, but first, a quick look at the specs.
|Asus Zenbook Pro UX501 (Zenbook N501JV)|
|Screen||15.6 inch, 3840 x 2160 px resolution, IGZO IPS, touchscreen|
|Processor||Intel Haswell Core i7-4720HQ CPU|
|Video||integrated Intel 4600 HD + Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M 4GB GDDR5|
|Memory||16 GB DDR3 (8 GB soldered, 1 x 8 GB DIMM)|
|Storage||512 GB PCIe SSD (M.2 PCIe 80 mm)|
|Connectivity||Wireless AC, Bluetooth, Lan (with adapter)|
|Ports||3xUSB 3.0, SD card reader, HDMI, miniDP, Thunderbolt, RJ45 (with adapter)|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1|
|Size||383 mm or 15.07 in (L) x 255 mm or 10.03 in (W) x 21 mm or 0.83 in (H)|
|Weight||about 2.27 kg (5.00 pounds)|
|Extras||backlit keyboard with NumPad, Bang&Olufsen Speakers|
It’s worth adding that Asus will offer the Zenbook Pro UX501 in a couple of different configurations and among the options, you’ll be able to choose between a 6 Cell 96 Wh battery (like on this model) or a 4 Cell 60 Wh battery. The latter models will be slightly thinner and lighter (2.06 kilos), but will of course suffer when it comes to autonomy.
Design and exterior
On the outside the UX501 is nearly a perfect replica of the NX500. Brushed metal is used for the entire outer-shell, the interior and the screen’s hinge and the laptop looks and feels like a premium device should these days, with its aluminum covered surfaces and machine beveled edges.
I do have to add that the inner chassis is still made from plastic, so this laptop doesn’t exactly sport a unibody construction like the Macbook Pro. The laptop is nevertheless strongly built, but some of you complained about this particular aspect on the previous 15 inch Zenbooks and I wanted to let you know it hasn’t changed here.
Back on topic, in reality the UX501 is millimetrically longer and thicker than the NX500, and from what I can tell that’s because Asus needed extra space for the only major exterior change on this new model: the keyboard, that now includes a NumPad Area. I have to admit I’m not a fan of this addition, especially since it attracts a much more annoying change: the speakers are no longer firing towards us, but have been moved on the laptop’s back, like on most of the other Zenbooks available right now.
To be frank, there’s no way I can understand why they did this. It’s not that they made the laptop larger when their 15 inch Zenbook was already trailing the competition when it came to size and weight, but why mess with the speakers? Those are extremely important on a multimedia machine and this UX501 is no longer a reference when it comes to either volume or sound quality. The NX500 was imo a downgrade from the older UX51 which included an external subwoofer, but at least offered front-facing speakers. This new model no longer does that, and still doesn’t include the subwoofer. WHY?
Anyway, on a much friendlier note, the UX501 gets an interesting addition when it comes to the IO: a Thunderbolt port (on select models, according to Asus). In other words, the miniDP port available before is now a Thunderbolt connector on some versions of this Zenbook, which can come in handy when connecting various accessories (mass-storage systems, external monitors, etc). That aside, nothing else has changed. The UX501 still gets 3 USB 3.0 slots, full-size HDMI output, a headphone-microphone jack and a card-reader that still can’t fit flush a regular SD card. There’s also an USB to Lan adapter included in the pack, if you’ll ever need that, but there’s no VGA adapter. I do appreciate that the video connectors are placed on the left side, which leads for an uncluttered right edge.
There is another thing I should add before we move on. The cooling solution on last year’s 15 inch Zenbook wasn’t spectacular and Asus tried to address that on this new model, internally, with what looks like a redesigned heatpipe system. More about that lately. They also made a minor tweak to the laptop’s rear rubber feet, which are now taller than the front feet by about 2 millimeters. That creates extra space beneath the laptop when you put in on a desk or other flat surface. Not sure if that’s going to make any difference, especially since the intake and exhaust are still crammed behind the screen’s hinge, but it might help. On the other hand, adding some cuts in the belly would have probably made a greater difference, but I’d guess that’s reserved for the more powerful GX501. We’ll see.
Ok, so the wrap this up, the Zenbook Pro UX501 remains a beautiful and excellently crafted machine. But while the competition is struggling to create more compact machines without compromising on anything important, Asus actually went the wrong way and made the new model slightly larger and moved the speakers on the back, all these in order to accommodate a new keyboard.
Keyboard and trackpad
The truth is the keyboard on the older Zenbook NX500 needed a redesign. It felt mushy and lacked firm feedback, which occasionally resulted in missed strokes.
The solution on this newer Zenbook Pro seems to me identical to the one Asus use on the Asus N551 laptop, both in terms of how it performs and in terms of layout. And that comes with pros and cons.
On one hand, I feel that typing on this implementation is a more pleasant experience, although I only used it for a few days. The keys feel more robust and better finished, not as plasticky as before. On the other, this particular layout isn’t very good. The NumPad section is cramped, with rather narrow keys, and what’s more annoyingly is the fact that the arrow keys are just as small. On top of that, the Power button is integrated as the top right key and while it’s stiffer than the others, you’ll still end up pressing it by mistake and put the computer to sleep from time to time.
However, my biggest grippe with the NX500’s keyboard remains unaddressed here: contrast. The lack of it, actually. Asus stuck with silver keys on a silver background, corroborated with white illumination LEDs, and that makes keys difficult to distinguish when the backlight is active. If you’re an experienced typist and don’t need to look at the keyboard this might not mean much to you, but for the regular user it will. I’m not the only one complaining about this aspect and perhaps someone at Asus should start reading the forums and the reviews and get back the BLACK keys they’ve used on their laptops a few years ago. Contrast makes a whole of a difference and should be used to our benefit!
Anyway, on to the trackpad. Not much has changed here. The glass clickable area is spacious, smooth and accurate most of the time, no matter if it comes to handling swipes, gestures or taps. But the experience is still somewhat lacking here and there, for at least two reasons. First, the clickpad’s software doesn’t allow any tweaking (cursor speed and sensitivity, for example) and second, physical clicks are noisy and stiff. Having tested countless Asus laptops in the recent years, I’m 99% sure these aren’t going to be addressed on the final retail models. But let’s hope I’m wrong.
The screen on this Zenbook is not bad, except for one major issue, that if you get past the occasional scaling issues you’ll encounter with many third party apps, which either look blurry or don’t scale at all. And that’s because Asus put a 4K display (3840 x 2160 px) on the UX501. Out of the box it’s set to scale content up to 200% so by default everything looks like a much crisper version of a 1920 x 1080 px resolution on the 15.6 inch screen.
It’s worth adding that some of the base models are going to get a FHD (1920 x 1080 px) panel, which will help with scaling, battery life and even performance, but while I’m not convinced UHD screens are actually worth getting on a laptop today, I have to admit that I did enjoy this panel’s sharpness or potentially increased working space.
Asus opted for a pentile screen on the UX501 and not the quantum dot panel they bundled on the NX500. In fact, they went for the Samsung SDC434B panel we’ve seen on a bunch of other laptops (Lenovo Y50, MSI GS60, Dell Inspiron 15), which in unable to display yellows properly. In fact, yellows have a mustardy tint. That can be somewhat addressed with appropriate BIOS profiles, but Asus are usually very slow or even incapable of providing those fixes. Remember the Zenbook UX303LN who never got the fix?
Yellows were imo not as skewed on this test unit as they were on the UX303LN, although the numbers below do show they are not accurate either and the calibration run did little to address that. So if you do need this computer for color-accurate work, look elsewhere, the Samsung panel will not deliver.
- Panel HardwareID: Samsung SDC434B;
- Coverage: 97% sRGB, 74% NTSC, 78% Adobe RGB;
- measured gamma: 2.2 ;
- max brightness in the middle of the screen: 275 cd/m2;
- contrast at max brightness: 490:1;
- white point: 6600 K;
- black on max brightness: 0.56 cd/m2;
- average DeltaE: 2.71 uncalibrated, 2.30 calibrated.
There’s something else to keep in mind here. Asus went for a touchscreen on this laptop and it’s one of the glossiest I’ve seen in a while, so glossy that reflections can become annoying even in standard office environments, especially since the panel is not very bright.
Asus will also offer a matte non-touch version of the UX501 this year, but that might not be available all over the world.
Hardware, performance and upgrade options
We had one of the beefiest Zenbook UX501 configurations for this preview and that includes the Intel Core i7-4720HQ processor, 16 GB of RAM, a 512 GB SSD and Nvidia 960M graphics (with Optimus and Intel HD 4600).
However, since this is a pre-production model, we’re not going to get in depth on performance, benchmarks and gaming results. I’m sure many of you would be interested in those, so stay close. As soon as I get my hands on a final retail version of this thing I will update this section.
Compared to last year’s NX500 though, the UX501 is a fairly different solution. First of all it now gets a more powerful quad-core 47W processor, as opposed to the Core i7-4712HQ processor in the NX500. That will be visible when it comes to demanding tasks like editing photos/video, running programing software, virtual machines and so on. The new processor is hungrier and theoretically heats up quicker though, and given how the NX500 had issues under load, I’m a bit worried about the UX501. On the other hand, when it comes to graphics the GTX 960M chip shouldn’t be a major step-up from the 860M solution used in the NX500, but it does run colder and more efficient.
So again, we’re not drawing any conclusions, but from the little I can say right now this new configuration seems to perform well in most activities, even in those that put the hardware to serious work. In fact, the internal cooling system was changed on this new Zenbook and got redesigned heatpipes.
Speaking of the internals, you’ll notice that there’s a RAM DIMM available on this laptop, as well as a M.2 PCIe 80 mm storage slot. That DIMM can take an up to 8 GB memory module, while 8 GB of RAM are also soldered on the motherboard. In other words, you can end up with a max of 16 GB of RAM on this machine. The M.2 slots support fast PCIe SSDs and this test unit bundles a 512 GB Samsung XP941 stick, one of the fastest available right now (and one of the priciest as well).
BTW, accessing the internals is a fairly simple job, but you’ll need a Torx T4 screwdriver for all the screws around the rear-panel and a Philips PH0 for the extra two screws hidden beneath the rear rubber feet.
Noise, Heat, Connectivity, speakers and others
Again, we’re not going to get in depth on noise and heat, simply because this tested laptop does not run on final hardware/software and the results could be misleading. I can say that the laptop’s back does get warm in daily use and the fans remain silent when performing daily taskstasks (editing texts, browsing, Youtube, music), but do kick on and become audible once you put the computer to work. More about these in the update.
As for the speakers, well, I already complained about them above. Asus moved those on the bottom. In fact, from what I can tell from the internal pics, these look a lot like the speakers used on other Zenbooks, so there’s nothing special about them anymore.
That’s also the impression I got using the laptop for a couple of days, but do keep in mind this is a preproduction model and things might be different on the final units. Anyway, I had to keep these at max volume most of the time and even so, they were barely capable of filling up a small room. As for the audio quality… well, it was disappointing for what I was expecting from the 15 inch Zenbook, having the previous models back in my mind as a reference. BTW, Asus includes the AudioWizard app on the laptop and by default the Music mode is selected. If you switch to OFF the results are even worse.
As for connectivity, the laptop offers Bluetooth 4.0, Ethernet (with the included adapter) and wireless. Asus went for a Qualcomm Atheros AR5BWB2222 module here, a solution found mostly on mainstream notebooks in the last years. I didn’t have the time to properly test it, but I haven’t noticed any issues in my brief experience with the UX501 while browsing, downloading stuff of the Internet or streaming video content of Youtube (including 4K clips). I haven’t encountered any signal drops either or “Limited Connectivity” when resuming the machine from sleep.
Last but not least, there’s a 720P webcam on top of the display, flanked by an array of dual-microphones. Expect it to be good enough for occasional calls, as long as there’s sufficient lighting.
The tested model came with the larger 96 Wh battery and Asus promise around 6 hours of everyday or multimedia use. Again, I’m not going to get specific here as the results I got on the pre-production model might not be accurate, but I can say that this particular UX501 came only a little short of those numbers, averaging between 4 to 5 hours of life on a charge in real everyday use. It only got close to 6 in Office mode, while editing documents in Google Drive, with almost nothing else running at the same time.
I do expect some nice improvements when it comes to gaming on battery, as the 960M graphics chip coupled with Nvidia’s BatteryBoost technology should spur impressive runtimes. But that’s something else I will have to test on the final models.
Price and availability
The Zenbook UX501 is available in the US for $1499.
The base model includes a Intel Core i7-4720HQ processor, Nvidia GTX960M graphics, 16 GB of RAM, a 512 GB SSD and the 4K display.
Similar configurations are more expensive in Europe and keep in mind that over here the Zenbook UX501 is available with a different internal layout that includes space for the 2.5″ HDD, but only gets a smaller battery.
Update: A Skylake version of this laptop is available in the meantime, with a Core i7-6700HQ processor, support for up to 32 GB of RAM and NVMe storage, a Thunderbolt 3 port and an improved display, which also starts at $1499 in the US. Follow this link for up-to-date prices and configs at the time you’re reading this post.
This wasn’t an actual review, so I’m not going to draw the line on this laptop before actually getting to see how the final models perform and what they’ll offer in terms of battery life and thermals.
I am however convinced that the UX501 is only a small update of last year’s NX500 and to the most part, a step-back. While the more capable processor and graphics are welcomed changes, the new keyboard, the screen and audio system are not. They might not be deal-breakers for you, especially since the Zenbook Pro UX501 is much more affordable than the NX500 and it still gets the looks, the build quality and especially the hardware to match (and outmatch) many of its rivals, including the:
- Macbook Pro 15 2015, which is smaller and lasts longer on a charge, but only relies on outdated graphics solutions and sells for more;
- HP Omen, which is cheaper, uglier (imo), lacks an UHD display and offers very poor battery life;
- Dell XPS 15 w/Retina display, which hasn’t received an update in 2015 yet.
The MSI GS60 Ghost Pro on the other hand, well that’s going to be a true competitor for the Zenbook. You might want to check out our review over here.
Last but not least, if you’re interested in the Zenbook UX501 you should also keep an eye on the Asus G501 model, with a black/red case and keyboard. More about it in a future post.
Anyway, these were my detailed impressions of the Asus Zenbook Pro UX501, the soon to be available 15 inch premium Asus multimedia laptop. Let me know what you think about it in the comments section below and look forward for the updated/final review somewhere in the next weeks.