Asus Zenbook UX31 £999
28th Oct 2011 | 11:00
Is this the first real PC alternative to the MacBook Air?
The Asus Zenbook UX31 is one of the first laptops to conform to Intel's Ultrabook specification.
And, right away, we'll tell you - it stands toe-to-toe with Apple's MacBook Air in the fight for the title of best luxury ultraportable.
You can check out our video look at the Zenbook in our special video report:
Back to the present though and Asus has done a terrific job with the Zenbook's design - even if you have to acknowledge that the designer took more than a sneaky glance at Apple's ultraportable first.
The 13-inch Zenbook is fantastic to look at. When closed, the wedge-shaped laptop measures 17mm at its thickest point and a mere 3mm at its thinnest.
The aluminium silver lid boasts a distinctive concentric circle design that catches and reflects the surrounding light. Befitting the name, the Zenbook's simple, sleek finish gives it a premium look that keeps getting better as soon as you lift the lid.
The design ethic is in evidence earlier than that, though - it's a lovely experience as you open the box while Asus has also included a mini Display Port to D-Sub adapter and a USB to Ethernet lead as well. Both are housed in their own little pouch. Better still, you even get a bespoke sleeve for your Zenbook in the box.
The same thinking even stretches to the Intel Core and Windows 7 stickers. We wonder who it was that proposed they were silver and black - Intel? Asus? - but whoever did has made a difference.
The outward elegance of the Zenbook UX31 has certainly been matched by power on the inside. There are currently two different versions available, our test model has the Core i7 2677M Processor while there's also a Core i5 2467M Processor variant.
Our test version was running Windows 7 Home Premium, though the Asus spec sheet seems to suggest that Professional is also available should that be a requirement for you.
For those looking for a smaller laptop, there's an 11.6-inch UX21 version that costs £849. We'll be reviewing that separately as soon as we can get our hands on one.
You'll get 4GB or RAM with all 13-inch models, as well as a 128 or 256GB solid state drive (SSD). Our review model had a 128GB drive under the hood and, as we were using it a lot, we managed to fill most of that with apps and files in no time. This is a performance machine and you may find yourself wanting the larger capacity.
The isolation-style keyboard is front and centre inside the Zenbook with no additional clutter from the likes of hotkeys, volume controls, numeric keypads or even separate mouse buttons.
As the chassis is so thin, there's very little depth to each key. It must be said that, at first, this can be of-putting, especially if you're used to hammering out your emails – but before long typing on the Zenbook becomes second nature.
We did find the directional arrows and the enter key to be a little on the small side, but not enough to interfere with extended typing sessions.
There's also no backlight to the keyboard - as the MacBook Air and other competitors such as the Samsung 9 Series have this. A shame it's missing here.
Alongside the keyboard, Asus has included a large, central touchpad. We had doubts about the inbuilt buttons and lack of a textured surface at first, but these were soon laid to rest.
The response is swift and because of the larger size, it is possible to use your thumb on the touchpad without moving your hands from the typing position. Occasionally you might brush the touchpad when typing but this is a rare occurrence.
However, we really don't like the mouse buttons. The touch isn't very definite, while it can be quite hard to do selections or multiple presses. Things could be a lot better here.
Another noteworthy feature of the Zenbook is the external speaker running across the base of the 13.3-inch, 1,600 x 900 16:9 Super-TFT screen. Developed by Bang & Olufsen and called ICEpower, the speaker is monitored by in-built Asus techcalled SonicMaster to keepthe balance even.
The Zenbook will hit a reassuringly loud volume without disintegrating into either a tinny treble or a fuzzy bass. It sounded impressive both in our expansive office and at home in a fully furnished room.
For the record, there's also a 0.3 megapixel webcam for video conferencing or Skype.
The Zenbook weighs in at 1.4kg, exactly the same as the 13.1-inch Macbook Air. It's hardly noticeable when carried around for the day and, because of the svelte design; it won't take up too much space in your bag.
Thankfully Asus hasn't filled the Zenbook with too much add-on software, but there is an annoying Live Update engine that keeps on popping up messages from the taskbar, while there's also a battery life gadget (actually useful but it remains in your taskbar), as well as backup tools and a webcam app.
We're sure there are some people that think it's nice to have this kind of stuff, but we're not among them. Moreover, much of the software is simply unnecessary.
And then there's the graphics that appear when you turn the volume up, change the brightness or switch the power mode. To be honest, they're horribly ugly and we're simply not impressed.
It's a shame the same attention that was paid to the external design wasn't paid to the add-ons within the OS.
Cinebench 10: 8726
3D Mark '06: 3623
Battery Eater '05: 253 mins
Both processors in the 13-inch are from Intel's second-generation Sandy Bridge family and mean the Zenbook can easily handle multi-tasking, varioius demanding apps and multiple displays using the Sandy Bridge chips' in-built HD 3000 graphics capabilities.
However. the lack of non-dedicated graphics from AMD or Nvidia does hit the Zenbook in the performance pocket - hence our relatively modest 3D Mark score.
We felt the display wasn't the best - dark colours and especially blacks seem a little washed out - but definition is good. We also found the viewing angle wasn't great for watching video and working alongside others.
Speed, clearly, is the focus of the ultrabook range and the Zenbook is no slouch. The instant-on feature means you can be up and running in just two seconds from sleep mode and standby time will hit two weeks on a single charge.
The Core i7 unit featured here performs brilliantly and it was able to handle multiple browsers, Outlook and Word 2010, Spotify, FileZilla and image editing apps all concurrently. You really find you can do what you want, when you want.
There were a couple of times when we found this wasn't the case - several times when switching power states suddenly (like unplugging the charger) meant that the whole system seemed to struggle to adapt - browsing became slow and we had to let the system calm completely down. Also we found that using more intensive apps could make things hang - handling a load of images inside Microsoft Publisher, for example.
Even with heavy use during our testing, the Zenbook's battery lasted for an impressive 253 minutes. And when the battery does dip below 5 per cent, the Zenbook will automatically save any files in progress to avoid you losing all your work when the machine shuts down.
The battery can seem like it's draining reasonably quickly when doing any tasks on high performance but on power saving mode this thing is positively frugal, going for around six hours if you're careful. Asus quotes seven, but you'll have to barely use it to get that. So we're not at the all-day battery life scenario yet, but we're getting closer.
The slim design means physical connectivity isn't as abundant as regular laptops, but there's still enough here to satisfy most users.
Asus has included two USB ports, one of which is USB 3.0 as well as an SD card slot plus a mini HDMI and mini DislayPort for connecting the ultrabok to an external TV or monitor. The Zenbook also has 802.11n Wi-Fi and cutting edge Bluetooth 4.0 wireless connectivity.
Although the 13.3-inch Zenbook will set you back from £999, that;s still £100 less than the cheapest 13.3-inch Macbook Air.
Similarly, Asus has matched Apple with pricing for the 11.6-inch model which, like the smaller Macbook Air comes in at £849. Considering the technology and the form factor, a starting price point of under a thousand pounds is good value for money - especially when you consider other such ultraportables have cost as much as £1,500 in the past.
Overall we were very impressed with the Asus Zenbook. Neither power nor portability has been sacrificed in pursuit of the other and features that traditionally suffer, such as audio quality and battery life, have not been neglected.
Battery life, especially, isn't the worry it usually is with the Zenbook, but you need to make sure it's in the right power state - running on high performance means that the system flies - but it comes at a cost. For most purposes, running in power saving mode is more than enough.
There's so much to like about this laptop. It's a real PC ultraportable - the design is fantastic and it goes like stink.
Beautiful design can only come into its own when there's performance to match.And it's all here in spades.
The instant sleep and resume is exactly what you want in a laptop like this, and you'll find yourself quickly adapting to never shutting down. Unless, that is. Windows wants to install updates!
There's surprisingly little we disliked about the Zenbook, but it must be said that the trackpad buttons grate especially. They are truly awful and mean that a mouse is recommended for serious work.
The keyboard takes a bit of getting used to and isn't as good as many - however, you quickly get to know it and it's not too much of an issue. The lack of a backlight is also a problem.
Graphics performance could be better but we realise that's slightly unrealistic for a machine of this type - we also weren't huge fans of the display.
Finally, you could say the design - though fantastic - is rather derivative. Still, unless you're a real design freak, you'll almost certainly find that you're not that fussed.
While price may preclude some from purchasing the Zenbook, we have no problem in recommending it as one of the best ultraportables we've seen.
It's certainly a match for the impressive MacBook Air - and a real tonic to those who have wanted a performanceWindowsultraportable at a price point that doesn't require a remortgage. Yes, it's expensive. But it's so worth it.