The Asus Zenbook UX305 line of laptops, are thin, light, and surprisingly cheap when you look at their spec sheets.

Asus launched the first model in early 2015, offering a 2.7 pound laptop with 8GB of RAM, 256GB of solid state storage, and an Intel Core M processor for just $699. It certainly wasn’t the most powerful notebook available, but I was impressed enough with the design, build quality, and performance to call the original Zenbook UX305 a laptop that almost felt like a no-compromise machine.

Since I published that review, Asus has introduced several other models, including a $699 model with a newer/faster Core M Skylake chip and a $799 version with the same processor, but a higher-resolution display.

The latest addition to the lineup is the most powerful model to date: the Asus Zenbook UX305UA looks virtually identical to the model I reviewed last year. But for just $50 more, it has an Intel Core i5 Skylake processor that offers substantially better performance.

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The $750 Asus Zenbook UX305UA is available in the US exclusively from Amazon. Asus loaned me a model which I’ve been testing for the past few weeks. So is it a no-compromise laptop?

Not quite… but it comes even closer than the earlier models.

The bad

Let’s just get the things I don’t love about this laptop out of the way, so we can move onto the features that make it such a great value.

First up, there’s the keyboard. It’s not backlit, which I don’t really mind, but some people might not want to spend $750 on a notebook that doesn’t have an illuminated keyboard.

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My bigger issue is the placement of the power button at the top right corner of the keyboard. Most laptops have power buttons that are located in distinct positions above the keyboard, or maybe on the side of the computer.

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Since the power button on the Zenbook UX305 is in the upper right corner, and since it’s a pretty small button, it’s relatively easy to hit it by accident when you’re aiming for the Backspace or Del key. I put the laptop to sleep when trying to delete text about a half dozen times before I got used to the placement.

If the Zenbook UX305UA is your only computer, you can probably get used to the power button placement pretty quickly. But if you regularly switch between, say, a work computer and this notebook, you might find the power button frustrating.

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Other than that, the keyboard is pretty good, with decent separation between the flat keys, making it pretty easy to touch type on the notebook.

I’m less impressed by the touchpad. It doesn’t feel all that responsive — sometimes I had to tap or click it several times before it noticed what I was trying to do.

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Palm rejection also doesn’t seem to be very good — sometimes while typing on the keyboard, I noticed the cursor position change abruptly, causing me to enter text in the wrong place. That’s because I had accidentally swiped the touchpad with my palm.

Since the laptop doesn’t have a “precision” touchpad, you can’t adjust touchpad settings through the Windows 10 Settings menu. Instead, you have to open the Asus Smart Gesture app to enable or disable reverse scrolling, two-finger gestures, and other options.

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I do have one last nit to pick: it’s not unusual for thin and light laptops to lack Ethernet jacks.

There’s just not enough room on the case for a full-sized RJ45 port. But the Asus Zenbook XU305 I reviewed in 2015 came with a USB-to-Ethernet adapter. The model Asus sent me this year does not. So if you want to connect to a wired network, you’ll need to buy an adapter separately.

The Good

Nothing listed above is really a deal-breaker for me… especially given this laptop’s reasonably low price tag. Because here’s what you get for $750: a 2.9 pound notebook that measures about 0.6 inches thick, has an all-metal case, and excellent all-around performance.

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The model Asus loaned me features an Intel Core i5-6200U processor with Intel HD 520 graphics, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of solid state storage. It has a 13.3 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel matte IPS display with excellent viewing angles, decent color, and little glare.

There’s also an ambient light sensor that can adjust the screen brightness automatically depending on your environment to balance visibility and power consumption. You can disable the automatic brightness feature by hitting Fn + A if you’d prefer to adjust things manually (by hitting Fn +F5 or Fn + F6).

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According to the Asus website there may also be some models with Core i7 chips, 3200 x 1800 pixel screens, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB or 512GB of storage. But the specs listed above describe the version currently available in the US from Amazon.

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Other features include 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, two USB 4.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port, a micro HDMI port, a headset jack, and an SDXC card reader.

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While the laptop costs just $50 more than the original Zenbook UX305, it’s around twice as fast in most of the benchmarks I threw at it.

The Core i5 Skylake model scored 2-3 times higher in most 3DMark graphics benchmarks, up to twice as fast at video transcoding with Handbrake (depending on the video codec used), and significantly faster in the aging Liliputing Benchmarks I’ve been using to test notebooks for much of the past decade.

I also compared the laptop’s performance to two notebooks I tested last year: the Dell XPS 13 with a Core i5-5200U Broadwell processor, and the Dell Inspiron 13 7352 convertible with a Core i7-5500U chip. The 2016 Zenbook with a Core i5 chip was the hands-down winner in the 3DMark graphics tests, and it was one of the fastest in all other tests.

In terms of real-world performance, this isn’t a bleeding edge gaming system. But it should be able to handle some modern games with 3D graphics, as well as plenty of older titles that would have required a discrete graphics card 5 or 6 years ago.

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The computer never seemed to get bogged down by the amount of work I was asking it to do while editing photos, watching or transcoding videos, surfing the web, or editing documents. It’s one of the fastest computers I’ve tested to date… although to be fair, it’s also one of the first Core i5 Skylake systems I’ve tested.

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The processor probably doesn’t get all of the credit though. Asus also equipped the system with a pretty fast solid state drive: benchmarks show it has read speeds as high as 549 MB/s and write speeds as high as 477 MB/s.

It also probably helps that the Zenbook UX305UA doesn’t have a lot of bloatware. The unit Asus loaned me has a pretty clean install of Windows 10 Home 64-bit. It did have a Microsoft Office free trial pre-loaded, and in addition to the Asus Smart Gesture utility there are a few other Asus apps including the Asus Splendid tool for adjusting screen color settings.

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But there’s no anti-virus software or WildTangent-style bloatware taking up too much unnecessary space or slowing down the system.

If you buy an Asus Zenbook UX305 model with a 4.5 watt Intel Core M processor, you’ll get a fanless system that uses passive cooling.

Since the model featured in this review has a 15 watt Core i5 processor, it generates more heat and requires a more powerful cooling system. So this model does have a fan. But it’s not particularly loud and I rarely noticed any real fan noise.

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Asus also includes a fairly compact power adapter with the Zenbook UX305UA. It’s not quite as small as a cellphone charger, but it’s pretty close, and it won’t take up a lot of space in your bag if you decide to carry it with you on the go.

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Not a fan of Windows 10? No problem. Loading an alternate operating system is pretty simple.

You can boot from an external disc drive, hard drive, or flash drive by connecting it to a USB port and hitting the Esc key when the computer boots. Then just select the drive you want to boot from.

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For example, I took Ubuntu MATE 16.04 for a spin and found that it worked pretty much perfectly out of the box. WiFi and audio both worked without any problems, and I was able to use keyboard shortcuts to control the computer’s volume, among other things.

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I did have to go into MATE’s touchpad settings to enable two-finger scrolling, but once I did that, the touchpad was at least as easy to use with Ubuntu as with Windows 10.

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While I didn’t need to disable secure boot in order to run Ubuntu MATE from a USB flash drive, some other operating systems might not work with secure boot enabled.

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Fortunately all you need to do is hit the F2 key during startup to get into the computer’s UEFI settings, where you can enable or disable secure boot and a number of other features.

The Meh

Asus says you should be able to get up to 10 hours of battery life from this laptop, but in my tests, 6-7 hours seems like a more accurate estimate… at least if you’re using the notebook the way I did, which generally involved opening around a dozen browser tabs in Google Chrome while listening to music.

Like most thin and light laptops, the Asus Zenbook UX305UA has a non-replaceable battery. It also has non-replaceable RAM.

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The case isn’t designed to be opened up, although you can do it if you want to replace the M.2 SSD (which is just about the only thing you can easily replace, since the RAM is soldered to the motherboard). You’ll need a torx screwdriver to get at the visible screws on the bottom of the laptop, and then you’ll need to remove the rubber feet to get at four Phillips screws.

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The notebook has stereo speakers on the bottom of the case which can get reasonably loud, and which sound decent (but not great) when you’re sitting directly in front of the Zenbook UX305UA while it rests on a table or desk. But audio can be a bit muffled if you place the notebook on your lap, and the sound is pretty tinny (lacking in bass) if you aren’t directly in front of the computer.

I’m also still a little underwhelmed by the behavior of Windows on notebooks with small, high-resolution displays. Some items can look a little too small at the default settings, so I went into the Windows “change the size of text, apps, and other items” settings menu and chose 125 percent. This made desktop icons, the taskbar, and content in most apps look bigger. Universal Windows Platform apps all looked great at this setting.

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But classic desktop apps, (also known as Win32) apps still have an inconsistent user interface when you do this. For example, web pages look a little bigger in Google Chrome at this setting, but the browser’s menu items are still pretty small. Not unusably small, but small nonetheless.

Things are better on the high-res display front than they used to be though, and after spending a little time with the Zenbook UX305UA, I started to get use to the way things looked at the 125 percent setting.




Verdict

The Asus Zenbook UX305UA offers a lot of bang for the buck. It offers about twice the performance of a model with a Core M Broadwell processor, but sells for just $50 more.

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Interestingly, while this model has a significantly more powerful CPU and better graphics performance, there’s no much difference in battery life. In my tests, both versions lasted for around 6 or 7 hours of typical use.

That said, the Zenbook UX305UA certainly isn’t the cheapest notebook around, and the $750 price tag might seem a bit high at a time when you can find plenty of decent notebooks for half the price. But few of those notebooks will check all the following boxes:

  • Under 3 pounds
  • Core i5 Skylake processor
  • 8GB of RAM
  • 256GB of storage
  • Matte display

A few other laptop makers are also offering thin, light, and powerful systems with reasonably low starting prices. The Dell XPS 13, for example, sells for $800 and up. But at that price you only get a model with a Core i3 chip, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage.

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There are a few premium features this Zenbook UX305UA lacks. If you want a backlit keyboard or a touchscreen display, you’ll have to look elsewhere. And honestly, if you’re looking for a good touchpad, I’d recommend avoiding this laptop too.

Personally I just don’t use the touchpad very much. When I want to spend a few hours working on the laptop, I connect a wireless mouse. The only time I use the touchpad is when I turn on the laptop for a few minutes to look something up or add something to my calendar and then put the machine back to sleep.

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With those caveats out of the way, I’ve been pretty impressed with the Zenbook UX305UA and would certainly consider picking one up if my Samsung Series 9 notebook died on me… even though the Asus notebook is a little thicker and heavier.

If you like the look of the Asus Zenbook UX305, but want some of the features that are missing from this model, you might want to check out the UX303 series. These laptops do have backlit keyboards and glossy, touchscreen displays. And while the Zenbook UX303UA with a core i5 Skylake CPU usually sells for $899 and up, you can sometimes find it on sale for $100 off… which makes it just a little more expensive than the UX305UA.



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