This year the laptop space is all buzzing with this one word: Ultrabook. The market is flooded with ultra-thin, super-light notebooks which offer the ultra blazing speed of a high-end laptop with the portability of relatively cheap netbooks. To be noted is the fact that ultrabooks is not a different category of laptops altogether. Rather it is a marketing gimmick, and a quite successful one, played by none other than Intel to describe a superior breed of laptops, powered by it’s low power 22nm Ivy Bridge processors, having a frame no thicker that 0.83 inches, offering a humongous battery backup and available at a price point of around $1000. In short, every device that aims to be a Macbook Air killer, has the right to be called an ultrabook. Asus UX31 is one of those machines, which not only perform it’s intended function with aplomb, but also offer some serious competition to every other device in its category.
One look at the device and you wonder if this is the best looking laptop ever built. Design is one part where Asus has got almost everything right. The all aluminium chassis and slim form factor gives it a futuristic feel. The lid has dark metallic surface with circular pattern and the deck has a linear brush pattern. Measuring 0.7” (17mm) at its thickest point and an incredible 0.1” at its thinnest, the Zenbook has a wedge-shaped design, with the edges of the notebook tapered to give an impression that the notebook is thinner than it actually is. The machine weighs a measly 1.3 kg, making it easier to carry around. The overall feel is as robust as it can get, with every part of the notebook giving an exceptional example of superior craftsmanship.
Keyboard & Touchpad
The UX31 features an island-styled keyboard which is fast becoming the standard in all premium notebooks. Keys are well spaced, carved out of aluminium and are set-off against a black background. Typing on the ultrabook was an ordinary experience, with some keys needing to be pressed a little harder than usual. Also the longer keys (such as Shift and Enter) do not sit entirely on level. What is annoying is that one can actually move them back and forth if pressed on their ends without registering an input while typing. One of the biggest gripe we had with the ultrabook was the lack of a backlit keyboard.
The touchpad is based on the glass trackpads, which is usually the stuff we find on Macbooks. Measuring five inches diagonally, the touchpad is smooth and provides the user a large surface for responsive feedback. Unsurprisingly it supports multi-touch scrolling and has the left and right mouse buttons built into the surface.
Display and Sound
Unlike most of the other 13 inches laptops which come with a native resolution of 1366 *768, the Asus UX31 packs in 1600*900 pixels, which clearly offer it a distinctive edge over the competition. Not only the increase in resolution offers plenty of space for reading a document or scrolling a web page, but it also enhances the quality of video playback on the device, with the 1080p resolution videos playing as crisply as we have ever seen. The display has better viewing angles than most of its competition and has enough brightness that makes it usable under all kinds of lighting.
We were in for yet another pleasant surprise when we decided to check the audio quality of the device. Supported with Bang & Olufsen’s ICEpower technology, the speakers offers loud sound even at median volume settings. As is evident, the sound comes through the hinge while the bass travels through the keyboard. The speakers use the whole deck to reverberate the sound offering a more complete and robust feel. Sound is rich, with minimum distortions even at higher volumes, even if it is not as bass-rich as we would like it to be. But given the size and other dynamics we could only expect this much from the machine.
Heat management : The laptop remains cool and emits little fan noise for most part of its operational duration. But extended use makes the right rear bottom of the laptop quite warm, to the extent of 95 degrees. Different stress tests, graphic extensive applications like games also had an effect on its temperature, raising it to as high as 103 degrees, making the laptop unsuitable for lap use.
Ports and other features
Considering the thin form-factor of the machine, we can easily forgive Asus for jettisoning features like an optical drive and multiple USB ports. However, the fact which is worth noting is it still managed to include more features than its direct competitor, the Macbook Air. On the left side we have USB 2.0 port, a headphone jack and a SD card slot. On the right hand side the Zenbook packs in a USB 3.0 port, a mini VGA connection and a microHDMI port. USB 3.0 is relatively a new phenomenon and by including this Asus has made its intention very clear that it has its sight set on the future. The ultrabook has a 0.3- mega pixel webcam on the front which takes images of acceptable quality. Asus has shipped with the laptop one USB-to-Ethernet adapter as well as a mini VGA-to-VGA adapter. Other than the standard integrated 802.11n Wi-Fi, the UX31 comes equipped with the latest Bluetooth 4.0 technologies are onboard.
Performance & Graphics
Our test unit was the top end version of the models launched in the Zenbook series and it came with a 1.8-GHz core i7-2677 CPU, 4 GB of RAM and a 256 GB Adata Solid State Drive. Various benchmark tests were performed which revealed a slew of statistics. The PCMARK 7 score of UX31 was 3293, slightly better than the score of Macbook Air at 3186. The Core i7-2677M is one of the best ultra-low voltage processors, which are offered with Turbo Boost 2.0 technology. Using this feature, the processor can be overclocked from it’s base clock rate of 1.80 GHz to 2.9 GHz. The 256 GB SanDisk SSD also performed beyond expectations and managed to achieve read speeds of 451.3 MB/s and write speed of 242.9 MB/s. The Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics included in the UX31 aren't too exceptional, even though we couldn’t have imagined Asus fitting in a dedicated graphic card in that extremely lean frame of the machine. Definitely not a gamer’s paradise, but nonetheless it performs well while rendering the frames of latest games like Crysis and others.
The UX31 packs in quite a punch with its internal 50Wh polymer battery. The standard tests, which include surfing the web via WiFi and watching movies without a break set at a brightness level of 70 percent, revealed a battery life of 5 hours 35 minutes which is on par with its competitors including the Macbook Air. You should be able to get through most of the day on a single charge with this notebook.
As is the case with all the other laptops, the Asus UX31 also comes with a range of pre-installed software. Some call it bloatware, and for the most part of it, these applications seldom serve any meaningful purpose, unless you actually need them. Software shipped range from Live Update to a power management utility to the software used for facial recognition. Most of these can be ignored safely and neither do they invade your space in any form. Our test machine also had some third party apps installed like a trial version of Microsoft Office 2010 and the Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security.
The UX31 is available in three configurations. Our test unit was the top end model, which has a Core i7-2677M CPU, a 256 GB SATA III drive and 4GBof RAM. This premium model is priced at $1,499. The entry level model, priced at a convenient $1,099, has a Core i5-2557M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SATA III drive. For a larger hard drive (256 GB) you will have to spend $200 more.
The Asus Zenbook UX31 is one fine product, packing in all the right elements just at the right price point. It is undoubtedly one of the most competitive machines in the ultrabook space and will remain so in the near future also. The refreshing design featuring wafer-thin aluminium chasis, super fast resume from sleep, incredible performance, and a more than satisfactory battery life all make the Zenbook one device you will not regret shelling out for. The excellent 1600 * 900 resolution is one thing which you will not find in many 13.3 inch notebooks. Outstanding audio quality and a well carved out keypad are other major selling points of the UX31 Zenbook. A backlit keyboard and lack of user-upgradeable parts is a couple of the areas where Asus left us wishing for more. On question whether the Asus Zenbook UX31 is a Macbook killer or not you can have a healthy comparison between the two machines and answer for yourself.
But at $1,099 MSRP for the base model, the ASUS Zenbook proves as a clear winner in the still infant ultrabook space while providing a tempting alternative to the more-expensive MacBook Air.