The Asus Zenbook UX31 was one of the first ultrabooks to hit the market in late 2011. Four months later, there’s plenty of competition in the thin and light laptop space, but the UX31 is still one of the most impressive specimens of the ultrabook species.
It’s thin, light and attractive. It boots quickly and resumes from sleep almost ridiculously quickly. And the Asus Zenbook UX31 has something that’s difficult to find on other 13.3 inch notebooks: a high resolution, 1600 x 900 pixel display
But the Zenbook UX31 isn’t necessarily right for everyone. It has just two USB ports, lacks full-sized VGA and HDMI ports, and has a rather high starting price of around $1100 (although you can occasionally find one on sale for a bit less).
I’ve been using the Zenbook UX31 as my primary mobile workstation since finding one taped to the bottom of my seat at Intel’s CES press conference in January. I’m not particularly excited about sending it back after I finish this review — but I’m also not sure I want to spend more than a thousand dollars to buy one myself.
The model featured in this review is an Asus Zenbook UX31 with an Intel Core i5-2557M dual-core processor, Intel HD 3000 graphics, 4GB of DDR3 1333 MHz RAM, and a 128GB solid state disk.
By definition all ultrabooks are thin and light laptops. Intel coined the word to represent notebooks that measure less than 0.8 inches thick, weigh less than 4 pounds, feature either a solid state disk or a hard dive with fast solid state cache, and the latest Intel processors.
The Zenbook UX31 passes all those tests with flying colors. It measures 12.8″ x 8.8″ x 0.7″ at its thickest point, and just 0.1″ thick at its thinnest, since the computer has a sort of wedge-shaped design where the front is thinner than the back. Sure, the 0.1 inch point at the front feels a little like an aesthetic gimmick, but it still makes the laptop look even thinner than it is.
The ultrabook weighs in at just 2.9 pounds, making the 13.3 inch laptop lighter than some 10.1 inch netbooks.
It’s not just the laptop that’s small. Asus also designed the power adapter with portability in mind. Instead of the typical clunky power brick you get with most laptops, the UX31 power adapter is barely any larger than one you would expect to use for a smartphone.
While the laptop gets reasonably good battery life, it’s not that big a deal to grab the power cable and throw it in your bag if you think you might need to charge the UX31 on the go.
Asus designed the UX31 with a sturdy aluminum case that looks good and feels sturdy. There’s a dark brushed aluminum circular pattern on the lid, and the palm rest and keyboard area also has a brushed metal feel.
On the bottom of the laptop you’ll find a series of cooling vents. The fans tend to kick in when you’re performing CPU-intensive tasks, and they can cause the computer to sound a little noisy at times. But unless you’re in a pretty quiet room you probably won’t notice them most of the time.
The bottom of the ultrabook also gets a little warm to the touch after it’s been running for a little while.
Speaking of the bottom of the laptop — there are no access panels. You can’t easily remove the 50Whr battery or replace the RAM or solid state disk. There are a series of screws which you can remove if you really want to get at the insides, but you’ll probably void your warranty by doing so.
In other words, the Zenbook’s unibody design is attractive and helps keep the machine thin and light. But it makes upgrading the ultrabook difficult.
On the left side of the computer there’s a USB 2.0 port, a combo mic/headphone jack, and an SDHC card slot.
The right side features a USB 3.0 port, power jack, a mini-port for a VGA adapter, and a micro HDMI Port.
All told you get just 2 USB ports — which doesn’t seem like a problem until you realize that there’s no Ethernet port. Instead Asus ships the UX31 with a USB-to-Ethernet adapter. So if you’re trying to connect to a wired network you’ll need to use one port for that adapter. If you prefer a mouse to the touchpad, there goes the other USB port — and that doesn’t leave any free ports for USB flash drives or other peripherals.
Full-sized Ethernet, VGA, and HDMI ports would be nice, but it would clearly be difficult to fit them into the slim case. And to be honest, there’s not much need to plug in an external display, and when was the last time you needed to use an Ethernet cable?
Asus includes a slim case with the UX31 which is just big enough to hold the laptop and nothing else. While it’s not exactly a manila envelope, it’s almost as thin — and protects the computer while highlighting just how thin it is.
While netbooks and some other low-cost ultraportable laptops are designed as secondary computers, ultrabooks are designed so that they really can be used as primary computers. They have decent screen resolutions, fast processors, and most of the features you’d expect from a modern laptop — except for replaceable batteries.
The Asus Zenbook UX31 also has a 1600 x 900 pixel glossy display, which means that unless you really need to plug in a 1920 x 1080 monitor or want a dual-display setup, you probably won’t need to use an adapter very often anyway.
So what good is a 1600 x 900 pixel display on a 13.3 inch laptop. In a nutshell: a lot. The high resolution display provides enough space to open two web pages side by side and view most of the content without scrolling.
As someone who spends most of my day working in a web browser, reading in one window and writing in another, this makes the UX31 far more useful than a notebook with a 1366 x 768 pixel screen or a 1024 x 600 pixel display.
Windows 7 doesn’t do a great job of handling high resolutions on small screens — so some users may find text or images to be too small. You can adjust the Windows DPI settings to increase some system fonts, but this is only a partial fix.
Hopefully Windows 8 will do a better job with high pixel densities. Mobile operating systems such as iOS and Android have already shown that devices with high pixel densities can look pretty darn good when the software is well designed.
For the most part I love the high resolution screen, as it makes it much easier to get work done on the UX31. If you don’t see any value at running two browser windows or other applications side by side, this might not be a big selling point for you though.
While the display resolution is excellent the viewing angles for the display are about average. If you tilt back the screen or view it from the sides, colors will start to wash out. This isn’t a big problem if you’re sitting directly in front of the PC, but if you want to share photos or videos with someone sitting next to you, they may not look as good in their eyes as yours.
The keyboard features an island or chiclet-style layout with flat keys and small gaps between each key. When I first received the UX31 my colleague Chippy from Ultrabook News warned me that the keyboard was problematic — and indeed for the first few days I used the laptop I found myself making fairly frequent typos due to missed keys or keys that hadn’t been pressed as hard as I thought.
I feel like the keys might be a little more spread out than on other keyboards I’ve tried. But it didn’t take long to get used to the keyboard and after a week or two of use I found I could type quickly and comfortably on the ultrabook. In fact, I nearly forgot that I’d had any problems with the keyboard until I started writing this section of the review.
I wouldn’t mind slightly smaller keys if it meant that Asus could fit a row of dedicated keys for PgUp, PgDn, Home, and End functions on the right side of the keyboard.
The company’s older UL20A laptop with a 12.1 inch screen makes room for those keys, but the larger UX31 does not. Instead you have to hold the Fn key while pressing the arrow keys to access those functions.
It’s also worth noting that the Zenbook UX31 does not have a backlit keyboard. That’s not normally something I would point out, but it’s a feature that’s found in some cheaper ultrabooks such as the HP Folio 13.
Below the keyboard you’ll find a large touchpad. There are no buttons below the touchpad. Instead you can press down anywhere on the surface for a left-click, or press the lower right corner for a right-click.
I’m not a huge fan of touchpads with integrated click areas, and find that I have to push a little harder than I’d like in order to click. But for the most part the touchpad works reasonably well when I’m using the ultrabook on my lap. When I’m using it at a desk or table I typically prefer to plug in a mouse. I’m old fashioned that way.
OK, so the ZenBook UX31 is portable and pretty. But how well does it actually function as a laptop?
Pretty well, actually. In fact, it’s probably the fastest computer I’ve ever spent any serious time with.
Bear in mind, Liliputing is a website focused on affordable portable laptops, so most of the machines I’ve reviewed over the past few years have featured low power, inexpensive components.
But odds are if you’re looking for a replacement for a laptop you bought more than a year or two ago, the UX31 will probably be a faster, more capable machine. It fares reasonably well on benchmarks, handles HD video playback with ease, has no problems multitasking, and gets decent battery life to boot.
Speaking of booting, one of the most impressive tricks the UX31 has up its sleeve is its quick boot, shutdown, and resume from sleep speeds. In general if you close the lid the laptop will go to sleep in just a few seconds. But while most Windows 7 laptops take 10 or 15 seconds or longer to resume from sleep, the UX31 wakes up almost as soon as you open the lid, letting you pick up where you left off in 3 seconds or less.
If you completely shut down the laptop it takes just 25 seconds or less to go from off to on. And by on, I mean you have a fully usable Windows desktop, and the computer is already connected to your WiFi network.
The fast boot and resume speeds come from the fast processor, the fast 128GB SATA III solid state disk, and software tweaks from Asus and Intel.
Another nifty feature that Intel is baking into the ultrabook platform is a smart connect technology that allows ultrabooks to connect to the internet periodically even when they’re sleeping. That means if you close the lid on your ultrabook while your browser is open to Gmail or Google Reader, for instance, the latest email messages or news articles will be ready for you when you open your laptop again.
This isn’t quite the same thing as ARM-based smartphones or tablets which enter low power mode while the screen is off but still receive push notifications. Ultrabooks like the UX31 only go online periodically, so your information might not be quite as up to date. But it’s still a pretty nice value-added feature.
In day to day usage, the UX31 never felt sluggish. During this year’s Consumer Electronics Show I used the laptop to transcode dozens of 720p HD videos into files with lower bit rates so I could upload them to YouTube. The UX31 was able to transcode videos using Handbrake about 3 times faster than my aging Asus UL20A notebook.
I also ran a handful of benchmarks on the laptop and confirmed empirically that it’s the fastest machine I’ve ever tested — at least in terms of raw CPU power. The Intel HD 3000 graphics aren’t exactly designed for hardcore 3D gaming.
The Liliputing benchmarks involve transcoding a video file, transcoding an audio file, and creating a large zip archive containing more than 2100 individual files.
I’ve been running these tests for a few years and the apps I’m using (VirtualDub, WinLAME, and 7-zip) may not be designed to take advantage of all the features in the latest processors — but the Asus UX31 still trounced the competition in the transcoding tests and held its own in the file compression test.
For purposes of comparison, I included scores for a Samsung Series 7 Slate with an Intel Core i5 CPU, an Asus UL30A with an Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 CPU, and an Asus Eee PC 1215B with and AMD E-350 CPU.
The 3DMark06 benchmark looks at how well a computer can handle 3D video gaming. The UX31 isn’t exactly a gaming machine, but it still came out ahead of the other computers I’ve tested.
But not all tests are created equal — and when I ran the Street Fighter IV benchmark, the UX31 came out behind the Asus Eee PC 1215B which has a slower processor, but AMD Radeon HD graphics.
You should be able to play older video games or games that don’t require bleeding edge graphics on the Asus Zenbook UX31. But it’s not a gaming machine, and I don’t think you’ll find an ultrabook that really is one anytime soon.
Since the UX31 doesn’t have a user replaceable battery it’s a good thing that it gets reasonably good battery life. I found I could regularly get between 5 and 6 hours of run time while surfing the web, listening to music, and performing other light-weight tasks.
Watching video or performing CPU-intensive tasks (such as, for example, running benchmarks or transcoding video) will reduce the battery life.
Like most other Asus notebooks the Zenbook UX31 has a version of the Asus Hybrid Engine which gives you four different performance modes to choose from: High Performance, Quiet Office, Battery Saving, and Entertainment Mode.
You can toggle between these modes by hitting the Fn key and space bar. For most day to day tasks, the Battery Saving or Quiet Office modes will suffice, but I typically kicked into High Performance mode when I needed to transcode video, since Handbrake ran about twice as fast in that mode.
Your battery life will probably vary depending on which mode you use. You can also fire up the Power4Gear Hybrid app to adjust settings such as CPU speed, screen brightness, and screen timeout.
The Asus Zenbook UX31 is an attractive laptop. It’s a fast laptop. For the month that I’ve had it, it’s been my favorite computer in the house. But I’m getting ready to box it up and ship it back to Intel and I’m not sure I’m ready to spend $1100 to buy my own Zenbook.
Because let’s face it: It’s better than every other computer I own. But I’m not sure if it’s enough better to consider replacing any my existing desktop or laptop computer. They still largely fill my needs.
More importantly, I’m not sure it’s enough better to justify the price tag: It costs more than twice as much as the Asus UL20A I’m still using as my laptop.
That’s the problem I think ultrabooks face in the market today. Solid State disks don’t come cheap. Intel Core processors don’t come cheap. Thin but sturdy cases don’t come cheap.
But all of those things feel like incremental upgrades. If you opt for a laptop with a 320GB hard drive you can save a lot of money and you might not notice that much of a performance difference. Get one with a slower processor and you’ll still probably be able to do most of the things you want to do with a computer. And you’ll save money.
If the Asus Zenbook UX31 were $800 or less, I’d have no qualms recommending it. At $1100, it’s probably still worth the money — if you’re willing to spend money on a top of the line machine. There aren’t many notebooks with similar features available for less.
But when you can pick up an HP Pavilion DM1z, NP350, or other reasonably thin and light computers with AMD or Intel processors for half the price, it’s kind of tough to justify the premium price for the UX31 even if it does have premium features.
Hopefully ultrabook prices will fall in the coming months and it will be easier to recommend this type of computer. For now, I have my eye on the Sony Vaio SA3 which is one of the only other 13.3 inch notebooks with a 1600 x 900 pixel display, but at $900 it’s still a little pricey for my taste.