A few years ago, nearly every PC maker had its own version of the idea ultrabook (some would call them MacBook Air clones), with a slim body, low-voltage CPU, 13-inch screen, and a premium price. In 2014, the nearly identical laptop everyone needs to have is a radically updated version of that ultrabook, adding Windows 8, a touch screen, and a better-than-HD screen resolution.
The Asus UX301 joins the Toshiba KiraBook, Apple MacBook Pro, Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus, and others in offering a touch screen that goes beyond 1080p. In this case, it's a 2,560x1,440 display, which has so far proven to be slightly more common than the 3,200x1,800 version found in the Yoga 2 and Razer's upcoming Blade 14.
In either case, it's a lot of pixels to push on such a small screen, but there are definite benefits in reading on-screen text and editing high-resolution photos. It's not an extra feature that counts as a must-have just yet, but just as touch screens have gone from oddity to standard feature in less than two years, I can see these higher resolutions coming to more and more laptops in the near future.
Hopefully, many of those future models won't cost quite as much as as this one. At $1,899 (it's about $50 less at most online stores), this configuration of the UX301 is about as expensive as non-gaming laptops get. The components are appropriately premium, to be sure, with an Intel Core i7 CPU and big 256GB SSD, but only 8GB of RAM and no other particularly unique features, aside from scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 3 on both sides of the lid. A 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro with similar specs (but minus the touch screen, of course), is $1,799. Likewise, a similarly configured Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus can be found for about $1,750, with an even higher-res 3,200x1,800 screen.
With just a bit of daylight between the prices of comparable laptops, your preference will likely rest on subjective impressions of the design, keyboard, and touch pad (all very good here, but the same could be said for the Ativ Book 9 Plus, for example). And keep in mind, if a better-than-HD screen is the main feature you're after, Lenovo's Yoga 2 Pro offers a 13-inch 3,200x1,800 hybrid for just about $1,000.
|Asus Zenbook UX301LA||Toshiba Kirabook 13-i7s||Apple Macbook Pro 13-inch (October 2013)|
|Display size/resolution||13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 touch screen||13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 touch screen||13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 screen|
|PC CPU||2.8GHz Intel Core i7-4558U||1.8GHz Intel Core i7-4500U||2.4GHz Intel Core i5 4258U|
|PC Memory||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz|
|Graphics||32MB (dedicated) Intel Iris Graphics 5100||1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400||1GB Intel Iris Graphics|
|Storage||(2) 128GB SSD hard drives||256GB SSD hard drive||256GB SSD|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||Windows 8.1 Pro (64-bit)||OS X Mavericks 10.9|
Design and features
The Zenbook was one of the first laptops to truly embrace the ultrabook vibe, with slim, tapered metal shells, and lids that stood out from the crowd with a circular pattern that some say resembled rippling water. Here the same effect is generated not in aluminum, but but under a Gorilla Glass 3 lid, over a dark blue background. The big difference between this and other recent slim ultrabook-style laptops we've tested is the incredibly high gloss finish on the back of the lid -- as one would expect from a glass top layer.
At a bit over 3 pounds, the UX301 feels hefty in the hand, solidly built, but not as light as some other 13-inch laptops. However, despite the generally tight-feeling chassis, a very minor bump onto a carpeted floor left the power pin from the AC adaptor seriously bent out of shape, although still functional. That's why Apple, for example, has a magnetic power connection (although I've dropped and bumped plenty of Windows laptops over the years with nary a bent power plug pin).
The matte black interior features a sunken keyboard with large island-style keys. Important keys such as Shift, Enter, and Backspace are decently sized, and the entire keyboard has a very MacBook-like vibe, from the layout of the arrow keys to the power button at the very top right corner. Typing was only slightly hindered by some keyboard flex around the center, but you'll have to be a heavy typist to really notice.
The large clickpad-style touch pad is much better than the versions found on the early Zenbooks of years ago. Back then, touchpad response was finicky, and multi-touch gestures were near-useless. This version is as good as any Windows laptop, with quick response and natural-feeling inertial scrolling, but I had to turn off the Windows 8 edge gestures because they were too easy to accidentally trigger.
The 13.3-inch 2,560x1,440 touch screen display is a system highlight. Covered with edge-to-edge glass, the touch response was excellent and off-axis viewing was decent, but not best-in-class. The ultra-high resolution allows for an amazing level of zoom, and you can pinch-to-zoom on pages of text to see the effect up close. The glossy screen does, however, have a lot of glare under normal lighting conditions, so you may end up twisting and turning to find a glare-free angle.
The speakers are from Bang & Olufsen ICEpower, a subsidiary of the famous audio company, and sound decent for such a small laptop, although that may be because they're fired from side-edge speakers, which gives you an especially wide stereo image.
Asus Zenbook UX301
|Video||micro-HDMI and mini-DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance, and battery
On a slim ultrabook-style laptop, you're not going to find a lot of ports and connections. The main compromise here is the inclusion of two off-size video outputs, micro-HDMI and mini-DVI, instead of a single full-size port, as in the case of the similar Toshiba Kirabook, which has a regular HDMI port. More options are great in theory, but you'll need to carry around a pocketful of dongles to make it work. Two USB ports is acceptable, but many ultrabooks offer three.
The 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-4558U CPU is a few notches past the 4200U chips we see in a lot of competing systems, but as long as your 2014 ultrabook has a current-gen Core i7 low-voltage processor, you're in roughly the same camp. That said, the Asus UX301 deserves credit for running most of our benchmark tests faster than systems such as the Toshiba Kirabook or even the 13-inch Macbook Pro, even if you're unlikely to feel a difference in real-world usage.