Asus is the company that pretty much launched the netbook market when it introduced the original Eee PC mini-laptop in 2007. A few years later Asus was one of the first computer makers to join Intel in launching a new brand of portable notebooks. The Asus Zenbook line of laptops were among the first ultrabooks to hit the streets, offering netbook-like portability with premium design and performance… along with a premium price tag.
Now Asus is selling a computer that could shake things up again: the Asus Zenbook UX305 is a 13.3 inch thin and light laptop with a fanless design, a high-resolution display, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.
But the laptop’s most compelling feature might be its price: At $699, the Zenbook UX305 is one of the most affordable ultrabooks on the market (unless you count older or refurbished models).
The notebook does lack a few features that you may find in more expensive models such as a backlit keyboard or touchscreen display. And the Asus Zenbook UX305 is powered by Intel’s low-power Core M processor instead of a higher-performance Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7 chip.
But the Asus Zenbook UX305 offers a sleek, compact design, reasonably good performance for most tasks, and decent battery life for just over half the price of Apple’s new MacBook.
Asus loaned me a Zenbook UX305 for the purposes of this review.
The Asus Zenbook UX305 is one of the thinnest notebooks available in early 2015, measuring 0.48 inches thick. It’s also pretty light, at about 2.65 pounds.
That makes it just as thin as the Samsung Series 9 notebook I bought a few years ago, but a tad heavier.
The Asus laptop has a few things going for it that my aging Samsung notebook does not though, including a higher-resolution display, a more efficient processor with better graphics performance (although slightly slower CPU performance), and a fanless design for silent operation.
My Samsung Series 9, on the other hand, has a backlit keyboard, so there’s that.
The Zenbook UX305 features a 13.3 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel IPS display with a matte finish. It’s less likely to reflect glare than the glossy screens that are so common on laptops these days.
The screen also has 178 degree viewing angles, which means pictures, video, and text remain readable and colors won’t look washed out if you tilt the screen back as far as it will go or view the laptop from the side.
While the computer has a thicker bezel around the display than the one on Dell’s new XPS 13 laptop, the Zenbook UX305 still manages to feel pretty small for a 13.3 inch laptop.
And unlike the Dell XPS 13, the Zenbook UX305 has a 720p webcam on top of the screen rather than below it, so you won’t accidentally get close-up shots of your fingers if you’re typing during a video chat.
Not only is the notebook slim and light, it’s also rather attractive, thanks to its aluminum case with a brushed metal lid (with a sort of circular pattern centered around the Asus logo).
Speaking of the lid, when you open it, the bottom actually juts down a little below the keyboard, lifting the back of the notebook up a tiny bit.
This tilts the keyboard toward you a little bit when you’re using the laptop on a desk or table. But it can make the Zenbook UX305 slightly uncomfortable to use on your lap, since the edge of the lid might poke into your legs.
Asus currently offers a model with an 800 MHz Intel Core M-5Y10 Broadwell processor and Intel HD 5300 graphics, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, Bluetooth 4.0, and 802.11ac WiFi for $699. But according to the Asus website, we may also see models with different specs, including:
- 1.2 GHz Core M-5Y71 processor
- 4GB or 8GB of RAM options
- 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB SSD options
- 1920 x 1080 and 3200 x 1800 pixel display options
- 802.11n or 802.11ac WiFi
So we may see other versions of this laptop in the future, possibly with lower or higher price tags, depending on the features.
Each model has three USB 3.0 ports, a micro HDMI port, a SD card slot, and a headset jack. Asus also provides a USB to Ethernet adapter in case you need to connect to a wired network.
While it’s nice to have a full-sized SD card reader, it’s worth noting that if you do plug in a memory card, it will stick out quite a bit.
You probably wouldn’t want to leave an SD card plugged in all the time, because it could easily break or fall out if you toss the laptop in your bag.
Fortunately, with 256GB of internal solid state storage, you probably don’t need to leave a storage card connected all the time. The card reader is most useful for transferring files from a camera or other device.
For some reason Asus created two separate partitions on the hard drive, but unless you have any individual files that are more than 100GB it shouldn’t cause any major problems.
The keyboard is recessed a bit from the palm rest, has an island-style layout, and decent travel on the keys.
If you press down hard in the center you may feel a little give, but overall I quite like the feel of the keyboard and find typing to be comfortable and fast.
My only complaint is that the power button is in the top row of keys right next to the Delete button.
Since I’m used to laptops with a power button that’s situated above the keyboard, on the side of the computer, or anywhere else that’s not on the keyboard itself, I found myself occasionally putting the Zenbook UX305 to sleep when I meant to press the Delete key. The more I got used to typing on this notebook the less frequently that happened though.
Below the keyboard is a large touchpad with support for taps, clicks, and swipes including multitouch and edge gestures.
Asus says the notebook features ICEpower audio with Bang & Olufsen technology, but honestly the speakers are nothing to write home about and I haven’t noticed anything spectacular about audio played through the headphone jack either.
You can certainly listen to music or watch videos using the built-in speakers. Just don’t expect it to be very loud or to offer a wide range of frequencies.
A note on display resolutions
Honestly, I kind of find 1920 x 1080 pixel screens to be problematic on 13.3 inch Windows laptops. Full-screen Windows Store apps look great, as do photos and videos. But you may need to dive into the Windows display settings and adjust the DPI settings in order make desktop apps usable.
At 100 percent, text, graphics, toolbars, and other items might be too tiny to see or interact with. But when you adjust the settings to 125 percent or higher you lose one of the key benefits of a high-res display: room to run multiple apps side by side or view more content on the screen.
You also have to trust that individual apps will respect your Windows settings. For example the Firefox web browser does, but Google Chrome doesn’t. If you’re a Chrome users you may need to dive into your browse settings and adjust the default zoom level for websites.
Personally I prefer my Samsung laptop’s 1600 x 900 pixel display. That’s a much less common screen resolution these days, but I don’t have to adjust the zoom level or DPI settings in order to view content and I can fit more content on the screen than I would with a 1366 x 768 pixel display.
When I buy my next laptop I’m tempted to either find another 1600 x 900 pixel model or opt for a machine with a 3200 x 1800 pixel screen (since you should be able to set the Windows display settings to 200 percent and have an effective 1600 x 900 pixel display with much crisper imagery).
I’ve had no problems getting work done with the Asus Zenbook UX305, using web browsers, office tools, and image editing software. It has a processor that’s fast enough for general purpose tasks and enough RAM that I just about never had problems multitasking or saw programs crash because of memory shortages.
On the other hand, there do seem to be some weird display driver issues: During the two weeks I spent testing the laptop, I saw the screen go black for a moment at least three or four times. Afterward, there’d usually be a messages about a display driver error. TechRadar also encountered a video driver crash when using the laptop to make a video call through Google Hangouts.
But generally I’ve had few problems streaming internet music or videos, composing articles for Liliputing, or performing other work and play tasks.
The notebook doesn’t really have the graphics chops to handle premium gaming, but you should be able to load up some older or simpler titles. Batman: Arkham Asylum felt sluggish on the Zenbook UX305, but The Lord of the Rings: War in the North and Deponia ran smoothly.
So where does the laptop get its power from? A 4.5 watt processor called the Intel Core M-5Y10.
Intel introduced the first Core M chips in late 2014. They’re low-power processors that fall somewhere in between the company’s inexpensive Atom chips and the pricier and higher-performance Core chips.
The Core M-5Y10 is an 800 MHz dual-core chip with support for hyperthreading and burst speeds up to 2 GHz. It’s a 14nm processor that’s based on the same architecture as the as the Core i5-5200U Broadwell processor found in the Dell XPS 13. But it uses less than a third as much power as that 15 watt processor while offering close to half the performance.
That all sounds pretty good… until you realize that the Dell XPS 13 has a starting price that’s just $100 more than that for the Zenbook UX305.
Still, the Asus laptop has a few advantages including an extra USB port and more RAM and storage than you get on the entry-level XPS 13, has a backlit keyboard, and similar battery life.
The Zenbook UX305 is also significantly faster than cheaper machines with Intel Bay Trail chips such as the Asus EeeBoox X205 or Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series, The laptop also came out slightly ahead of the Acer Aspire Switch 11, which has an 11.5 watt, Intel Core i3-4012y Haswell processor.
You can see the differences between these machines pretty clearly in performance tests: the Dell XPS 13 is at least twice as fast at CPU-heavy tasks such as converting audio and video files or creating ZIP files.
Still, I was surprised to note that the Zenbook UX305 was slower than my 3-year-old Samsung Series 9 notebook with a 17 watt Intel Core i5-2537M Sandy Bridge processor in most tests.
Again, if you plan to use the computer primarily for editing documents, surfing the web, or watching videos, it’s more than fast enough for any of those tasks.
But if you’re looking for a gaming machine or a computer that offers super-speedy number crunching performance, you might want to opt for a machine with a more powerful Broadwell chip… or even a Core i5 or faster Ivy Bridge or Haswell processor (Intel’s 3rd and 4th gen Core chips might not have the same level of graphics performance as the Core M Broadwell chips, but they should offer stronger CPU performance).
Overall though, the $699 Asus Zenbook UX305 is exactly the kind of device I was hoping we’d see when Intel first launched the Core M processor in 2014. It’s cheaper than a top-tier ultrabook, but it offers much better performance than an Intel Atom, Celeron, or Pentium-powered notebook or convertible tablet.
Up until recently most of the Core M-powered devices I’ve seen have been priced closer to $1,000. It’s nice to see a solid option in the $700 range.
During extended sessions the bottom of the system can get a little warm during use, but it never feels too hot to hold.
The Asus Zenbook UX305 has a 45 Whr non-removable battery. Asus says you should be able to get up to 10 hours of battery life from the notebook, and some reviewers have managed to get even longer run time while watching videos.
But I never managed to get more than 7 hours of battery life when using the notebook for work. As a blogger, my work day involves using a web browser with up to a dozen tabs open at a time while connected to WiFi and occasionally streaming audio or video over the internet.
At first I wondered if the reason I wasn’t seeing the advertised battery life was because I was using Google Chrome, but I had the same results when I tried using Firefox for a day.
So while I believe it may be possible to get longer battery life depending on the way you use the laptop, I typically get between 5 and 7 hours of usage.
Fortunately the power adapter for the Zenbook UX305 is pretty compact: in fact, while it’s not a USB charger, the adapter isn’t much larger than a typical smartphone charger.
A note on running alternate operating systems
Want to run Ubuntu, Fedora, or another Linux distribution on the Zenbook UX305? You should be able to do that, but it might take a little work depending on which operating system you want to use.
I had no luck booting Linux Mint from a USB flash drive, even though legacy boot is supported and pressing Esc during boot brings up a boot device menu that shows my flash drive.
I wasn’t the first person to encounter this problem when trying to boot a GNU/Linux operating system, so I tried burning Linux Mint to a DVD and booting from a USB disc drive instead of a flash drive. This only worked a little better: I was able to get to the GRUB boot menu, but then the operating system would fail to load and when I rebooted the computer it would only occasionally even notice the disc drive.
So I went back to the USB flash drive method and this time tried a nightly build of Ubuntu 15.04 64-bit. This time everything worked perfectly.
I had no problems connecting to my WiFi network, streaming videos from YouTube, or using two-finger scrolling in Ubuntu. The keyboard shortcuts for volume controls also seem to work out of the box, although the keys for making the screen dimmer or brighter do not.
Note that you’ll need a 64-bit build of Ubuntu (or another supported operating system). I initially tried a 32-bit version and it wouldn’t load.
I’ve only tested Ubuntu running from a Live USB image, but other users have successfully installed the operating system to the internal storage of the Zenbook UX305.
The Asus Zenbook UX305 is an affordable portable ultrabook that almost feels like a no-compromise machine. Clearly you shouldn’t expect the same kind of performance from a $699 laptop as you’d get from a high-end device that sells for twice the price, but in terms of design, build quality, and even performance, the Zenbook UX305 certainly seems like a notebook that punches above its weight class.
But it can be hard to recommend this laptop without at least suggesting you also consider the Dell XPS 13, which has a starting price of $799.
That notebook has a processor that’s about twice as fast, similar battery life, a backlit keyboard, and a smaller profile thanks to ultra-thin bezels around the display.
On the other hand, the Asus Zenbook UX305 has twice as much RAM, twice as much storage, an extra USB port, and a fanless design. Dell’s laptop also requires a $60 adapter if you want to use Ethernet or HDMI cables, while the Asus notebook has a micro HDMI port and comes with a USB to Ethernet adapter. So there are certainly some reasons to choose the Zenbook UX305 over the XPS 13.
All told, Asus packed a lot of value into this little laptop, showing that there may be room for a middle ground between inexpensive, netbook-class computers and high-priced, high-performance ultrabooks.
While I wouldn’t typically recommend anyone pick up a $200 Asus EeeBook X205 and use it as their only computer, it makes a decent secondary computer. The Zenbook UX305, meanwhile, could be the only computer you need — as long as you don’t want a high-performance gaming rig or a system that reliably gets 10+ hours of battery life.
Personally the two things holding me back from picking one up for myself is that it’s not any faster than my 3-year-old ultrabook with a Sandy Bridge processor, and I’d like to see if Asus eventually launches the promised model with a faster Core M-5Y71 processor and a 3200 x 1800 display.
The Asus Zenbook UX305 is available from the Microsoft Store for $699.