Asus Zenbook UX21 review: Asus Zenbook UX21

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Typical Price: £849.00
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4.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

3 stars 2 user reviews

The Good Slim and light design; Sturdy construction; Great performance; Relatively low price.

The Bad Different configurations not available; Keyboard is not always easy to type on.

The Bottom Line The Asus Zenbook UX21 is not only slim, light and attractive but also offers fantastic performance for a very reasonable price. It's very difficult to find much wrong with it.

8.8 Overall
CNET Editors' Choice Oct '11

The Zenbook is Asus' first foray into the Ultrabook world, offering powerful guts wrapped up in a super-slim and sturdy aluminium shell.

Asus is undoubtedly hoping to challenge Apple's dominance of the ultra-light market by offering the UX21 for £849, undercutting the similarly specced 11-inch MacBook Air by £150. We think it just might have a shot.

The Zenbook UX21 packs a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor with 6GB of RAM. It will be available from 21 October.

Design and build quality

Like all Ultrabooks, the Zenbook is designed to be slim, light and powerful enough to tackle demanding tasks. The UX21 is very slender, measuring only 17mm at the thickest point at the back and tapering down to 3mm at the front, which is as slim as the 11-inch Macbook Air.

UX21 side
That is a seriously slim piece of kit.

The UX21 is packing an 11.56-inch screen, so the chassis has been kept as small as possible. With a width of only 297mm and a depth of 196mm, it's small enough to slide into the most diminutive of bags without a second thought. The 11-inch MacBook Air has pretty much identical dimensions, so you can happily play 'ultra-light Top Trumps' without fear of an easy defeat.

The UX21 is machined from a single piece of aluminium, rather than being bolted together from various pieces of plastic and metal like regular laptops. We poked, prodded and bent the UX21 and didn't detect any flex in the body or in the lid, making it feel like a really well-built chap.

It certainly seems sturdy enough to cope with a rough-and-tumble weekend. But just to make sure, we took it away on a rough-and-tumble weekend. This involved the UX21 being chucked in and out of bags and cars, and being aggressively manhandled by 19 twenty-somethings in a big house in the middle of the Welsh countryside. The result? Not a mark on it. Splendid.

UX21 front
It's an understated look, but we're really keen on it.

The Zenbook weighs a not insubstantial 1.1kg. It feels surprisingly heavy when sat in your hand -- we naturally expected something so small to weigh much less -- but that weight comes from the solid metal construction.  We'd much rather have a machine that's a few grams heavier but built like a lumberjack than a featherweight affair that snaps at the first sign of trouble.

Rather than opt for the standard brushed metal finish, the lid has a rather unusual spun metal finish -- the Asus logo sits in the middle of an ever-decreasing circle. At first, it seems like a weird look, but we quickly got used to it and had to admit that, all in all, this laptop is stunning.

The 11.6-inch screen has a 1,366x768-pixel resolution that's both pleasantly sharp and extremely bright. Colours were handled well, so it'll do the job for Web browsing and streaming TV shows from BBC iPlayer. It doesn't have the deepest black levels we've ever seen, though, so if you want a full movie experience, you might want to hook it up to a big TV via the micro HDMI port.

UX21 lid
The spun metal finish is unusual and classy.

If 11.6-inches doesn't quite cut it for you, then you can go for the Zenbook UX31, which offers a 13.3-inch screen with a higher resolution as well as packing an Intel Core i7 chip for tackling more demanding tasks. This will set you back an extra £150 though.

Keyboard and trackpad

The keyboard uses square, isolated keys that at first glance look like they're made out of the same metal as the chassis. Sadly though, they're not, and are actually the more standard plastic. They're set quite low and close together, meaning that it doesn't always feel clear when you've pressed a key. This can cause a few mistakes when touch-typing at speed.

We got used to the feel of the keys pretty quickly, though, and gradually made less and less mistakes, but we much preferred the feel of the MacBook Air's keyboard. Unlike the Air, the UX21's keyboard isn't backlit, so typing away in a dark room isn't going to be easy. Best to get up and pop a light on.

UX21 keyboard
The keyboard isn't the best we've ever used, but it's a minor complaint.

The trackpad is a particularly massive, clickable glass affair. It takes up all available space, so it'll be handy for those of you who love sending your cursor frantically flying across the screen. It's pretty responsive and supports various multi-touch gestures that are handy for quick use.

Clicking with two fingers acts as a right-click, swiping to the right with three fingers displays all open programmes and windows in a cascading wheel, and swiping down with three fingers takes you instantly to the desktop.

Around the edge of the UX21 you'll find a USB 2.0 port, a USB 3.0 port, a micro HDMI and mini VGA ports, and a mic in/headphones out jack. There's no Ethernet port to be found but it comes with a handy USB Ethernet adaptor in case you need to hook it up to your router for speedy downloads.

UX21 trackpad
That's right, there is a huge trackpad.

The USB 3.0 port uses what Asus calls USB Charger+ technology that apparently charges devices like your mobile phone much faster than usual.

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