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Some of you requested a head-to-head between the Asus Zenbook UX303LN and the MacBook Pro 13 with retina display and I finally managed to get them side by side this week. I don’t have any pictures though, I did not have my camera with me at that time, so you’ll have to settle for my written impressions.
Anyway, these are two of the most interesting 13 inch mini-laptops available right now in stores (well, sort of, since the UX303LN has been continuously delayed and its availability still very limited at the time of this post). They are also some of the premium options for 13 inchers, so you’ll need to put aside about $1200 – $1300 (or Euro) for them, and even more for some of the higher end configured Macs.
But which one is the better pick in the end? Well, there’s no “simple” answer, as both of them are solid options, but each are meant to satisfy different requirements and each have limitations. But if you’ll stick with me through this entire post, you’ll know what to expect from each side.
|MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Mid 2014)
||Asus Zenbook UX303LN|
|Screen||13.3 inch, IPS 2560 x 1600 px glossy non-touch||13.3 inch, either IPS 1920 x 1080 px non-glare or IGZO IPS 3200 x 1800 PX touchscreen|
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4278U, Core i5-4308U, Core i7-4578U||Intel Core i5-4210U, Core i7-4510U|
|Video||Intel 5100 HD Iris||Intel 4400 HD + Nvidia GT 840M 2GB|
|Memory||up to 16 GB DDR3||up to 12 GB DDR3|
|Storage||up to 512 GB PCI-E SSD||2.5 inch 7 mm bay – up to 256 GB SSD|
|Connectivity||Wireless AC, Bluetooth, LAN (adapter)||Wireless AC, Bluetooth, LAN (adapter)|
|Ports||2xUSB 3.0, SD card reader, HDMI, 2 x Thunderbolt||3xUSB 3.0, SD card reader, HDMI, miniDP, VGA and RJ45 (with adapters)|
|Battery||71 Wh||3 Cell 50 Wh|
|OS||OS X Mavericks||Windows 8.1 /Pro|
|Size||314 x 219 x 18 mm (12.3 x 8.6 x 0.70 in)||323 x 223 x 20 mm (12.7 x 8.8 x 0.78 in)|
|Weight||about 1.57 kg (3.46 pounds)||about 1.45 kg (3.3 pounds)|
|Price||top version ~ $1800; starts at $1299 (latest discounts)||top version ~ $1300; starts at $849 (latest discounts)|
Both devices are available in a few different configurations. But there are two things to keep in mind:
- The TOP Asus config (Core i7-4510U, Nvidia 840M, 12 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD, 3200 x 1800 px IGZO touchscreen) sells for $1300, while Apple asks just as much for the base-version of the Macbook Pro 13 (Core i5-4278U , 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD).
- While Asus did announce several configs for the UX303LN, only the top one is now available in SELECT countries, with no word on when the others will get in stores or if they will be available worldwide (I’d reckon they won’t; Asus tends to offer only several configurations on the bigger markets, and more in smaller countries).
Design and build quality
I can’t say one of these looks better or feels sturdier than the other, that’s mostly a matter of personal taste, but I can say this: both are some of the most well made laptops out there.
Apple’s Macbooks have been a reference for years when it comes to build quality, but Asus actually managed to come close with their latest Zenbook. The latter still sports a more complex design, with a ripple effect on the lid cover and different shares of metal used around the body, while the Macbook remains simpler, with its silver aluminum unibody, but gets the lit Apple logo on the hood.
The Macbook Pro is millimetrically more compact and thinner than the Zenbook, but at the same time somewhat heavier, but neither are visible in real life. You will notice the perfectly joined parts though, the nicely cut edges or the sturdy long hinges on both of these.
And the ports, where the two are again fairly similar. The UX303LN does offer one extra USB port, but the Macbook Pro gets two Thunderbolt 2 connectors, which allows for a larger option of connected peripherals, while Asus’s notebook gets only a mini-DP port for external monitors. It’s also worth noting that most ports are lined on the left side on the Zenbook and on the right on the Macbook, thus if you’re a righty like I am, you’ll probably prefer the former’s layout, which leads to a less cluttered right side, where I usually keep my mouse.
Taking a quick look at the bellies, you’ll find some cooling cuts on the UX303LN and none of the Retina Pro, which anticipates the more powerful hardware inside the first. Air is blown out through the hinge on both, partially towards the rear and partially upwards, into the screen and back to the user.
On paper, both sides look great, with sharp IPS displays. Asus’s option packs even more pixels, but you’ll hardly see the difference in everyday use. In fact, if we consider that plenty of older third party apps still don’t scale well on Windows 8.1, the higher resolution can be seen as a disadvantage, for now. But OS X is not perfect when it comes to scaling either.
At the same time, both panels are bright (above 350 nits) and have decent measured contrast (above 750:1 for the Mac, about 500:1 for the Asus) and both are glossy. That was expected for the UX303, which offers a touchscreen with protective glass on top, but Apple’s screen lacks touch, so perhaps they could have went with a better anti-glare finishing.
The Zenbook’s display however has serious problems when it comes to reproducing colors. As I’ve told you in my review, the Samsung made panel on the UX303 paints mustardy yellows and skews the other colors as well. That’s a known problem, the same panel is used by Lenovo on the Yoga 2 Pro and by Samsung on the ATIV Book 9 Plus and they partially corrected the issue with BIOS updates, but Asus did no such thing, at least for the time being. Hopefully they will, but even so, the Retina Display on the Macbook still remains capable of showing colors more accurately.
Keyboard and TouchPad
These two laptops feature what seems like nearly identical keyboards on a first look, with pretty much the same layout and color schemes (black keys on a silver background), both illuminated. However, Apple went for a smoother, softer plastic coating on top of their keys, while those on the Zenbook feel cheaper, plastickier . Besides these, the Mac’s keys are a bit firmer and all these combined lead to a slightly superior typing experience on the Macbook Pro, but the UX303 does not trail it far.
Both laptops also feature large glass-made touchpads with not dedicated buttons. They are both responsive and accurate, with support for gestures, but if you’re one of those persons that performs physical clicks on a touchpad, you should know that the Zenbook’s is rather stiff and noisy. So once again, while the UX303 does provide a good experience here, the Retina Macbook Pro is just nicer to use.
Hardware and everyday experience
Here’s where these two are no longer close match-ups.
On one side we have the Macbook Pro which is powered by the higher-end line of Intel ULV Processors, hence the Core i5-4278U (2.6 GHz), Core i5-4308U(2.8 GHz) and Core i7-4578U (3.0 GHz) CPUs, all bundled with Intel HD 5100 Iris graphics. Such platforms are only available on the Asus UX301LA windows 13 inch laptop, and provide a 15-25% boost in raw performance from a standard ULV Haswell chip with Intel HD 4400 graphics, like the ones available inside the Zenbook UX303LN (the C0re i5-4210U – 1.7 GHz or the Core i7-4510U – 2.0 GHz).
The Zenbook is however paired with an Nvidia GT 840M graphics chip, a mid-level modern solution usually found on larger multimedia laptops. And as a result, the UX303LN demolishes the Macbook in games and most other apps that require intense graphics processing. Not that much in Premiere and Photoshop though, which rely more on RAW CPU power.
However, that’s not all. The Zenbook gets up to 12 GB of RAM, and 4 of them are soldered on the motherboad, while for the other up to 8 GB you can insert your own DIMM into the available memory slot. The Macbook Pro 13 gets up to 16 GB of RAM, but the entire amount is soldered on the motherboard, so you’ll end up with what you’re choosing in the beginning and there’s no way to add more later.
Last but not least, the two feature different storage solutions. The UX303 gets a standard SATA 3 7mm 2.5″ enclosure , plus a half-size mSATA port, while the Pro 13 gets a PCI-E slot. Thus, Apple’s solution allows for faster speeds, however, since this is not a standard M.2 slot, but a proprietary one, while it is theoretically possible to upgrade the storage on the Macbook Pro, you’ll have a really hard time finding something compatible.
The Asus on the other hand can get all sorts of storage drives, from HDDs to SSDs, into that standard-sized 2.5 inch bay, plus one of those mSATA half-size sticks (which are rather expensive and slow, though). However, there’s one thing to keep in mind: replacing the storage solution by yourself voids warranty for the Zenbook at least in the US, as it requires you to remove a certain sticker placed on one of the screws. You can still peal it carefully and reapply once you’re done, but do it on your own risk.
OK, so the wrap-this up, the MacBook Pro 13 leaves no room for upgrades (also see this post on iFixit for details). Even its battery is glued to the frame and very difficult to change, if needed. At the same time, it does offer fast configurations with up to 16 GB of RAM and up to 512 (or even 1 TB) SSDs, but you’ll have to buy them directly from Apple and the higher end configs are going to get really expensive. The Zenbook UX303LN settles for slower processors, only 12 GB of RAM and up to 256 GB SSDs, but you can upgrade the memory, storage and battery yourself fairly easily. Last but not least, the Zenbook benefits from a more attractive price/configuration ratio.
When it comes to the software, one side runs Windows 8.1, the other Mac OS X Maverick, with their own particularities. Most of you should be OK with either sides though (although the change will take a few days of accommodation if you haven’t used one of the sides before), just think about the software you’re going to run on these computers and whether it works better (or at all) on a particular environment. For instance, games, Microsoft’s Office Suite and certain programming software tend to work better on Windows, while on Mac OS you get an entire suite of proprietary apps, like Final Cut or iPhoto, plus functions like Power Nap.
Both computers run quietly in daily use and mostly cool, although both are fan-cooled. The Asus gets two smaller fans and the Macbook only one, thus the Zenbook will get noisier under load, but that was expected, given the dedicated graphics inside. The UX303’s case also reaches somewhat higher temperatures when playing games and running demanding software, again, due to the graphics, to the point that using it on your lap while performing such tasks is not comfortable at all.
The 13 inch Macbook Pro 2014 gets a 71.8 Wh battery, while the Zenbook UX303LN only a 50 Wh one. There are higher TDP processors inside the Apple laptop (28 Wh vs 15 Wh), but even so, the Macbook tends to easily outlast the Zenbook in real life use.
I’ve got between 5-6 hours of life on the UX303LN while performing a mix of daily tasks, like browsing, watching some clips and Youtube, listening to some steamed music, editing texts, etc while the Pro 13 offers around 8-9 hours in similar conditions. Under heavy load though, expect both of them to die in about 2, maybe 2 and half hours.
Asus lists the Zenbook UX303LN for between $850 and $1300. All the configs are listed in my review, but the TOP configuration is the one presented above, with the Core i7 processor, high-res screen, Nvidia 840M graphics, 12 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD. If you don’t need the dedicated graphics, Asus also offers the Zenbook UX303LA, which sells for less (here’s how the LA compared to the LN version).
The Macbook Pro on the other hand starts at $1300 for the Intel Core i5 , 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD combo, while higher end configurations sell for between $1500 to $1700. So you will have to pay significantly more for something specced closer to the Asus above.
But is the Retina Macbook Pro 13 worth paying extra for? Well, it depends. Having these two side by side, the Macbook takes the point when it comes to ports, screen-quality, overall typing experience and battery life. Especially battery life. It’s also the overall faster device in daily use, thanks to its beefier processors and PCI-E storage. Thus judging by all these, The Macbook Pro 13 is overall the superior device here and there’s no important box that this one doesn’t tick.
On the other hand, the Zenbook offers dedicated graphics and the upgrade possibilities, which means that it’s a more capable gaming ultraportable (more options of gaming ultrabooks are available here) and you could actually buy a lower-end version of the laptop and add the RAM and the SSD yourself, thus end up with something even more affordable.
But the main reason to buy the UX303LN is its gaming potential. If you want to play games on a thin-and-light 13 incher, there’s nothing better right now. If you don’t, well, you can consider the Macbook Pro 13. But that’s not going to be your only option, unless you really want something more powerful than the norm and with a good high-resolution screen and really long battery life, which I’m sure we all want, but comes at a high price. Otherwise, there’s the lighter and cheaper Macbook Air, but also a handful of Windows laptops, like the Asus Zenbook UX303LA, the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, the HP Spectre 13T-3000 or the Dell XPS 13, plus some of the other premium 13 inch ultrabooks mentioned in here.
Regardless, the Zenbook UX303LN offers plenty for the money, more than any other similar computer. Its screen drags it down and it can’t last long on a charge, but these are not its biggest problems. Surprisingly, what will probably stop you from buying the UX303 right now is its unavailability. It was initially announced for the middle of July, now, two months later, it’s only available in a few countries (US and Canada) and in a limited number of configurations. Big markets like Germany and France haven’t got it yet and rumors say they won’t for at least a month or so, while countries like the UK might not get the LN version at all.
So no matter if the UX303LN is good enough for you, Asus’s inability to have it in stores is mind-bubbling. In the meantime, the Macbook Pro 13 is available all over the world in all sort of configurations.
Anyway, that’s about it for now. These are my opinions on the Macbook Pro 13 with Retina Display and the Asus Zenbook UX303LN. Let me know what you think. If you have any questions or anything to add here, the comments section is open and I’m around to reply.