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Asus DB71

The Asus Zenbook was one of the very first ultrabooks. The upcoming UX32 version keeps the high-end price and adds high-end features.

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One of the coolest-looking of the original generation of ultrabook laptops was the Asus Zenbook UX31E. It was a shiny MacBook Air clone that was hard to dislike, even though it had a handful of near-fatal flaws, including a high starting price, weak touch pad, and oddly hard-to-open lid.

The updated version has slipped into public view overseas, and a U.S. release is expected soon. We've been testing a higher-end configuration called the Zenbook Prime UX32VD, and there will also be less expensive versions, some keeping the older UX31 name -- but all will have Intel's latest generation of processors.

Our preview system has one of Intel's third-generation Core i7 processors, but not one of the first wave of quad-core Core i7 Ivy Bridge CPUs already announced by Intel. We've agreed not to name the specific CPU model inside the not-yet-available UX32VD until Intel does.

There are several high-end improvements over the original model in the new UX32. The display is now an IPS screen in full HD, with a 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution, although lower-resolution versions will be available. The UX32VD also has a discrete graphics card, almost unheard of in a 13-inch ultrabook (although we've seen a few in larger ultrabooks). In this case, it's an Nvidia GeForce 620M, which is coupled with the integrated Intel HD4000 graphics.

Running Street Fighter IV at full 1080p resolution, the Nvidia chip gave us 57.2 frames per second. Disabling the GPU and forcing the system to use the Intel HD 4000 graphics meant the game ran at the same resolution at only 16fps; to be fair, that's a very high resolution to ask any integrated graphics chip to run at.

One of the advantages of Intel's Ivy Bridge platform is better USB 3.0 support, and I counted three USB 3.0 ports built in, along with HDMI, Mini-DVI, and an SD card slot. The box included a Ethernet jack dongle and a Mini-DVI-to-VGA adapter, making it much more easily connected out of the box than a MacBook Air.

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, but that extra depth may let the keyboard have a little more space. I don't have the original UX31 on hand for a direct comparison, but the keystrokes here feel more standard. Asus says the keyboard is also going to be backlit, although that function didn't work on this early preview unit.

The large but finicky clickpad on the first UX31 was another problem. Asus said back at CES 2012 that Zenbook touch pads were getting updated drivers, and this new version seems to work better, but multitouch gestures such as two-finger scrolling are still on the sluggish side.

When we knocked the original UX31 Zenbook for copying the MacBook Air without offering a significant discount, we expected the follow-up Asus ultrabook to -- like similar laptops from HP, Toshiba, and Dell -- come in at well under $1,000. Some new Zenbook models are doing just that, but it's a pleasant surprise that the UX32VD is going in the opposite direction, keeping the premium price, but also adding premium features (1080p IPS screen, updated CPU, Nvidia graphics) that easily beat a comparable MacBook Air for now.

The Asus UX32VD will cost between $1,299 and $1,499, depending on CPU, screen, and hard-drive options, and it's expected around the same time as Intel's second wave of Ivy Bridge CPUs in June.

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