Laptop shopping is always about making compromises, trading computing power for battery life or reducing size and weight at the cost of extra features. For ultrabooks or other ultrathin laptops, this is especially true, and nearly every slim 13-inch laptop we've reviewed has had one or more cut corners and missing features that remind you of the inevitable trade-offs required.
The 13-inch Asus Zenbook UX32VD comes alluringly close to being an ultrabook without compromises. For $1,299 it includes an Intel Core i7 CPU, a full HD 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution display, and a discrete Nvida 620M GPU. Most laptops of a similar size, including Apple's genre-leading MacBook Air, lack all three of those features (although a Core i7 option is available on the Air for $1,599).
That makes this the closest hybrid of a 13-inch ultrabook and a full-power mainstream laptop to date, and might be the answer to occasional reader questions I get about superthin laptops with GPUs and high-res screens. Acer also has a few larger ultrabooks with GPUs, but they have other issues, including low screen resolutions.
It's not all perfect, however. $1,299 is still a lot to pay for any laptop, especially when other ultrabooks are $800 or less. It has both a hard drive and a solid-state drive (SSD), adding weight and heat, and the Nvidia 620M GPU is pretty low-end. The design is very MacBook-like, but still not as elegant or ergonomic. And, finally, the touch pad isn't as responsive as it should be, even after a late software update from Asus.
Despite these shortcomings, the UX32VD is great for on-the-go gaming or situations where you really need a full HD screen. Asus makes several UX variations, including the UX31A and UX32A, which swap in different CPUs, screens, and hard drives. The UX31 is a more upscale design variant, thinner with a more unibody chassis. Neither has a component set as attention-grabbing as the UX31VD, though. If your ultrabook needs are more basic, there are many other worthwhile options out there to consider.
Asus Zenbook models compared
|UX32VD||1.7GHz Core i7-3517U||Nvidia GeForce 620M||500GB HDD/24GB SSD||1,920x1,080||$1,299|
|UX32A||1.4GHz Intel i3-2367M||Intel HD 3000||320GB HDD/24GB SSD||1,333x768||$779|
|UX31A||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U||Intel HD 4000||128GB SSD||1,920x1,080||$1,079|
Asus Zenbook UX32VD specs
|Price as reviewed||$1,299|
|Processor||1.7GHz Core i7-3517U|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm, 24GB SSD|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 620M / Intel HD4000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.8x8.8 inches|
|Height||0.2 - 0.7 inch|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.3 pounds / 3.8 pounds|
The Zenbook line launched in late 2011 as both an early entry in the then-new ultrabook market and a direct competitor to the MacBook Air. The design, aluminum, tapered, and minimalist, was the most Air-like of the early ultrabooks, at least until the Dell XPS 13 came along. But it also had a few design miscues. The lid on the original Zenbook was notoriously hard to open. The UX32VD doesn't have that problem, and the touch pad also feels more responsive than the older models', especially after a last-minute software update from Asus, although it's still one of the system's weak points.
The original Zenbook was thinner and lighter than this version, which is packed with much more powerful hardware, but both the more tapered Zenbooks (such as the current UX31A) and this one have a sharp front lip that can be murder on the heels of your hands, depending on your typing style. Ergonomics aside, the solid-feeling aluminum body is not as streamlined in its construction as a MacBook, but the parts fit together well, with minimal screws and seams.
The keyboard was a weak point on the original Zenbook, with shallow, clacky keys. The body of the UX32VD is actually slightly thicker and heavier, and that extra depth lets the keyboard have a little more space. Compared with the UX31, the feel of the keystrokes here is more like what you get on a standard laptop. The keyboard is also backlit, a must-have feature on any ultrabook (and something that really stands out now when missing).
The large but finicky clickpad on the first UX31 was one of our main problems. Out of the box, the version on this system was similarly annoying, with what felt like muted sensitivity and unreliable multitouch gestures. Asus sent over an updated touch-pad driver package, which the company says will be available via Asus Live Update by the time you read this.
I was dubious, but the new drivers (version 1.0.26) did make a reasonable improvement, and the touch pad went from frustrating to usable. It still feels a bit jumpy sometimes, and under-responsive at other times. There is, however, a decent set of multitouch gestures, demoed and controlled by the Asus Smart Gesture application. It's nowhere near as intuitive or responsive as a MacBook touch pad, but that's a Windows-wide problem. One nice touch -- you can set a two-finger tap to indicate a right-click, a very Mac-like move that I've seen popping up a few Windows laptops lately.
In another change from the previous generation of Zenbook laptops, the display is now an IPS screen in full HD, with a 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution. That will be a major selling point to some, but it's also a polarizing choice. Most 13-inch laptops, including some very expensive ones, have 1,366x768 screens. That's fine for $800 or so, but once you get past $1,000, I think it's perfectly reasonable to expect a 1,600x900 display. In fact, to my eyes, that's the sweet spot for a high-end 13-inch laptop.
The 1,920x1,080 display here can make text very small and hard to read at times. Still, it depends on what you want to do with it. For playing 1080p video content or cranking video games up to their highest laptop resolution, it's an important feature, and one some shoppers actively seek. Note that the relatively low-end GPU may not be the best at pushing more-recent games at that full 1,920x1,080 resolution. The screen itself looked decent, and was not excessively glossy, but there was some light bleed visible at the very bottom edge from the backlights during dark scenes of movies and games.
Audio through a speaker grille at the very top of the keyboard tray was predictably thin, despite the Bang & Olufsen ICE Power branding. Audio volume controls are mapped to alternate F-key functions, so you'll need to hit, for example, Fn+F10 to mute the sound.
|Asus Zenbook UX31VD||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||HDMI, Mini-DisplayPort (plus VGA via dongle)||HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 3.0, SD card slot||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet via dongle, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
With dual video outputs and three USB 3.0 jacks, the UX32VD makes good use of its slightly thicker body to fit in more ports. Ethernet is still relegated to an external dongle.