If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the MacBook Air should be positively blushing right around now. A sudden onslaught of Ultrabooks--the Intel-coined term for thin, MacBook Air-esque Windows laptops with fast boot times and sleek, high-end designs--has hit just in time for the holidays, and one of the most highly hyped ones we've seen is the Asus Zenbook, a product that doesn't shy away from an Apple-like design whatsoever. That's not such a bad thing: who doesn't want a thin, unibody metal lightweight laptop that starts fast and has a great battery life?
The 13-inch Asus Zenbook, despite looking at least as expensive and high-end as laptops such as the Samsung Series 9, has a starting price of $1,099, which includes 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD drive. That's $200 less expensive than the equivalent MacBook Air. Smartly, the Zenbook gets that part right: when competing with a product as singularly well-known and highly rated as the MacBook Air, your product has to be either better or cheaper.
Cheaper, it is: as for better, I'd have to disagree. Excellent speakers, sleek design, and a high-resolution screen are accompanied by a finicky keyboard and touch pad, giving the ever-so-slightly-off sensation when working on the Zenbook. It feels like the opposite of the silky-smooth experience on a MacBook Air. Battery life is short of the Air's lofty numbers, too. Nearly 5 hours isn't shabby, but it's not industry-leading.
Those are somewhat minor issues for what's otherwise a very solid and impressive thin laptop, but at a price north of $1,000, these are issues anyone would pay attention to. The 13-inch Zenbook UX31 gets more expensive in 256GB SSD and Core i7 configurations, climbing up to $1,449 at its highest price. If I were buying a Zenbook, I'd stick with our $1,099 review model and live with the limitations, glad that I had a MacBook Air-alike that saved me a few dollars along the way. If your idea of an Ultrabook is a Windows version of a MacBook Air with a slightly lower price, then consider the Zenbook your product: just be forewarned that the keyboard, touch pad, and battery life are less impressive than the audio/visual bells and whistles.
|Price as reviewed||$1,099|
|Processor||1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-2557M|
|Memory||4GB, 1333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||128GB SSD|
|Graphics||Intel HD 3000|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.8 x 8.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.1/3.5 pounds|
Take the Asus Zenbook out of its foam-lined jewel-box packaging, and you might think you'd accidentally bought a MacBook Air. The experience is that similar, down to the square plastic wall charger with a removable plug tip. The Zenbook, made of unibody aluminum like the MacBook Air, has a darker gloss to its back lid and a heft that makes it almost feel more like magnesium or steel. Radial metal lines on the back catch light and give the Zenbook an industrial-design flavor. Inside, the metal surfaces are brushed in a subtle vertical pattern. Brushed metal on the bottom is only interrupted by a rear speaker grill and four black rubber feet.
The bladelike teardrop shape of the Zenbook is even curved like a MacBook Air, but it's slightly more bulbous: its 0.71 inch of maximum thickness is cleverly concealed, but I could tell the difference when I slipped it into a messenger bag. A weight of 3.1 pounds is still light, but it's a tad heavier than the MacBook Air, Acer S3, and Lenovo IdeaPad U300s.
Ports line the sides of the Zenbook UX31, just like on the MacBook Air. USB, an SD card slot, and a headphone jack line the left side, while a USB 3.0 port, Mini DisplayPort, and Micro-HDMI port line the right. There isn't any Ethernet jack, but Asus includes a USB-to-Ethernet and VGA dongle with the Zenbook, along with an attractive brown, nylon mailer-envelope-style sleeve to protect your laptop investment.
The Zenbook's got a great coffee-shop quotient: it's easy to slip into and out of a bag, and odds are you'll draw a fair amount of casual attention from nearby latte-sippers when using it. I found that fellow office-workers were more eager to check it out than the typical laptop. Asus spent a lot of effort on the Zenbook's design, and it shows.
The magnetic hinge that keeps the Zenbook closed works somewhat like a MacBook Air's, but the narrow lip is harder to catch with your fingers and pull apart. Sometimes it worked perfectly, other times I had to fiddle a bit. Once it opens, the interior's clean and crisp design offers an unencumbered keyboard seated up near the screen and a very large--about as large as a MacBook Air's--multitouch click pad, with dedicated click zones underneath delineated with a simple little black dividing line.
Alas, if only that keyboard and touch pad could come close to what a MacBook provides. The flat, square raised keys are too shallow and mushy for my taste, but it's more than that: I mistyped quite a bit when keys didn't seem to register. The keyboard's top row of function keys does double duty for volume control and screen brightness, and the power button's part of this same row on the far right. All buttons required me to simultaneously press Fn to raise/lower volume and the like, which killed some of the elegance. The keyboard also lacks backlighting, and the black-on-silver key lettering can be hard to read at off angles.
The touch pad isn't the more common Synaptics version, but a Sentelic that, while offering similar two- and three-finger gesture controls, wasn't as responsive consistently--even when we installed the latest driver updates. Neither the keyboard nor the touch pad is a deal breaker, but they mar the supposed Zen-like feel I felt that Asus hopes we achieve via the Zenbook. Love at first sight didn't describe my ergonomic experience.
Asus includes some software tools on the Zenbook that should feel familiar to owners of other Asus computers. Lifeframe, Asus' Webcam program, is as chock-full of odd backgrounds and extra features as always. Instant On is a desktop widget that promises faster wake-up from sleep. I activated it (who wouldn't?) and found a cold powered-off boot-up to take around 16 seconds, but wake-up from sleep by lifting the lid was indeed snappy, coming in right around the promised 2-second mark. A clever battery life widget shows not only the estimated hours left of use, but estimated hours for game play, "office operation," video playback, and Internet browsing. Asus promises two weeks of standby time when in sleep mode, but I wasn't able to test this in the limited time I've spent with the laptop. A data-save feature will save the laptop's data when the battery dips below 5 percent, much like Apple's MacBooks already do quite well.
The 13.3-inch glossy glass screen is framed in a bezel that's not edge-to-edge, but will be familiar to MacBook Air users, too. The screen resolution is an impressive 1,600x900 pixels, well above the 1,366x768 pixels on other Ultrabooks and mainstream laptops. I was able to fit more onto the screen--more documents, more text--and the finer resolution wasn't a big strain to my eyes. While the screen's very bright, colors and viewing angles aren't quite as spectacular. I tilted the screen and found the picture quality degraded faster than an IPS-style screen.
Asus touts the audio on the Zenbook, and it lives up to the billing. I loved listening to music and movies via the Bang & Olufson-designed speakers, situated under the laptop. Their resonance and quality were a step above other thin laptops I've used. They're not the best laptop speakers I've ever experienced, but for the size, they might be.
The included Webcam's a letdown: I booted up Lifeframe and discovered that the camera had a 640x480-pixel maximum resolution. That's no better than a budget laptop, and doesn't fit the sticker price.
|Asus Zenbook UX31E-DH52||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||Mini VGA, micro HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Despite being so small, the Zenbook UX31E-DH52 manages to include all the ports I'd expect on a larger laptop, including USB 3.0 and HDMI. Some of the ports are limited in number (only 1 USB 2.0 and 1 USB 3.0) or size (Micro-HDMI, mini VGA), but dongles for VGA and Ethernet make up for what's missing better than Apple's MacBook Air or the Samsung Series 9 do. I wish this had a standard HDMI port--I hate using dongles. Of course the optical drive's intentionally left out, as it is across all Ultrabooks.
The 13-inch Zenbook UX31 (there's also an 11-inch model, the UX21) comes in three configuration varieties, starting at $1,099 for the UX31E-DH52 this review unit: a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB SSD storage. That's $200 less than the equivalent 13-inch MacBook Air, or $100 less than a comparable Lenovo IdeaPad U300s. The 256GB SSD configuration bumps the price to $1,349, and upgrading to a Core i7 CPU brings the price to $1,449. Still, even at that lofty price, it beats the top-end MacBook Air by $100 while offering a better processor, and gives more bang for the buck than the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s. You can't argue that the Asus Zenbook isn't a relative value.