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ASUS Zenbook UX31 Ultrabook Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
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13,421
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Montreal
In the short time they’ve been around, Ultrabooks have become a new hope for the PC in a changing market. With svelte dimensions, long battery life, capabilities far beyond what a tablet can offer and respectable performance, many have gravitated towards them. Naturally, there are still some things holding these notebooks back but several manufacturers have tried to reduce the Ultrabook’s limitations without expanding its physical footprint.

ASUS currently has a limited range of Ultrabooks spread across their aptly-named Zenbook UX-21 and UX-31 series. There are a variety of configurations and range in price of just under a grand to over $1400. The difference between these two series is screen size with the UX-21 featuring a small 11.6” screen while its big brother uses a 13.3” panel. In today’s review we will be taking a look at the more expensive and quite popular UX-31, a notebook that’s built for mobility but doesn’t compromise on build quality.


Specifications wise, our $1250 configuration certainly wouldn’t be considered a barn burner on the performance front but it has the components necessary to deliver a responsive computing experience for everyday usage. An i5 2557M low voltage processor coupled with a HD 3000 graphics engine heads things off, accompanied by 4GB of DDR3 memory. These days, 4GB is the absolute minimum you’d want when running Windows 7 but it should be sufficient for this Ultrabook’s market. Storage space is limited with a 256GB Sandisk SSD being offered on this model but even higher end models don't come with an upgrade (past models featured a 128GB SSD though). However, the star of this show is the 1600x900 high resolution screen which is a step above the 1366x768 panels most competitors receive.

As with most other ASUS notebooks, the Zenbook receives a globally recognized 2 year warranty but unlike some other products, it doesn’t receive the optional accidental damage coverage. Nonetheless, this is a year more than most other companies offer, regardless of ASUS’ supposedly lackluster after sales support.


Most notebooks come without any “fluff” but ASUS tends to package their higher end units with some additional accessories. In the UX-31’s case, it comes with a durable, high strength carrying folio and another small bag for the included adaptors (more on those later). While this may not seem like much, getting anything for free should be considered a bonus these days.


The outer casing of ASUS’ Zenbook uses a single sheet of milled aluminum that has been polished in a rough circular shape, projecting outwards from the center logo. It looks absolutely stunning at but the lacquer used is far too receptive to fingerprints so your well designed Ultrabook will look like a sloppy mess in no time. Just make sure you bring along a microfiber cloth, because you’ll need it.


Opening up the Zenbook, we see a design that is roughly reflective of the exterior but instead of polishing and applying a lacquer, ASUS anodized the keyboard’s surrounding areas with a matte silver finish. The effect is still quite stunning and it doesn’t mark up as easily as the exterior. We also love the use of colour matching Windows and Intel stickers instead of the usual “look at me” blue. Meanwhile, the screen’s bezel is thoughtfully finished in a matte grey, hardened plastic that still remains true to the Zenbook’s overall design.

To some, the over usage of grey and silver may look a bit like a “me too” statement from ASUS, this has to be one of the best built notebooks we’ve come across. The cast aluminum frame and near seamless fabrication give it a feel of impeccable construction and the utmost quality of fabrication. In many ways, it one-ups every one of Apple’s products in this respect.


The goal of Intel’s Ultrabook platform is to give mobile users a thin, light, adaptable notebook that offers excellent battery life. ASUS’ solution certainly hits the two first two points since their Zenbook UX-31 is a mere 9mm thick at its largest point and weighs in at less than three pounds.



Due to this notebooks hair-thin profile, ASUS didn’t’ have a luxury of space for their I/O connectors. As such, the layout is basic at best and somewhat anemic at worst. On the right hand side, there’s a power input, a USB 3.0 port, a mini HDMI output and a single mini VGA connector. The opposite edge holds a 3.5mm mic / headphone jack, a two-in-one SD / MMC card reader and a single USB 2.0 port.


ASUS provides adaptors for both LAN and VGA but a mini HDMI to HDMI converter hasn’t been included which (in our opinion at least) is a glaring oversight on a nearly $1300 notebook. In addition, use of the wired LAN jack necessitates the use of a USB port, leaving only one available for use at any one time.


Considering its ultra thin profile and a body which is constructed out of single aluminum sheets, some may be wondering how the Zenbook remains cool without transferring heat onto the lap of an unsuspecting user. There are several well placed ventilation holes at the back edge and hidden within the hinge whose sole purpose is to efficiently allow cool air into the chassis while directing heat away from areas touching your skin.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Keyboard & Touchpad / Upgrade Options

Keyboard & Touchpad



Instead of starting with the keyboard, let’s cover the touchpad first since there is quite a bit to say about it. If you’ve read our previous notebook reviews, you’ll be well accustomed to our hate of buttonless trackpads and the one used on the Zenbook doesn’t improve our opinion of them by one iota.

While the surface ASUS used provides just the right amount of friction of accurate use and all of the usual commands (pinch to zoom, two finger scrolling and so on) work well, its two integrated buttons are annoyance incarnate. Due to the touchpad’s rocker-style design necessitated by the left and right nature of these buttons, you’ll constantly find yourself clicking on the wrong one, or both at the same time. The problem here is a complete lack of tactile feedback which results in missed inputs and shoddy input tracking. Granted, using a pair of physical, separated buttons would have taken away from the Zenbook’s sleek looks but we would have much preferred a small lapse in aesthetics over this design.


The UX-31 uses a chiclet-style keyboard that features well spaced keys and an excellent layout. It isn’t often that we come across a 13.3” notebook that doesn’t at least make a few concessions in this area in order to keep the keyboard within its limited constraints. The Zenbook’s function keys have been downsized but we were pleasantly surprised with the scale of the spacebar, enter and shift keys in particular.

While the layout may be one of the best we’ve seen, the Zenbook certainly isn’t the easiest notebook to type on. The keyboard has serious issues registering inputs if you don’t hit the keys hard enough and its feedback is next to nonexistent. This will be a huge issue if you tend to touch-type and forget about effort-free writing as writing this review felt like chore rather than an enjoyable experience. Due to space constraints, it isn’t backlit either.

We can’t recommend the UX-31 for anyone that composes long dissertations but most of these issues are likely due to the limited depth the keyboard is given to work with. With such a slim design, something had to be sacrificed and in this case, key throw distance was cut down to nearly unacceptable levels. With that being said, this Ultrabook’s keyboard shows a distinct lack of flex and even though aluminum was used, your palms will stay firmly planted in their typing position.


Upgrade Options



Unfortunately, due to the UX-31’s near seamless construction, getting access to its internals is nearly impossible without damaging the exterior finish. There are a number of screws spread around the corners but after those are removed, getting the upper and lower casings to separate is a job best left to a professional service technician.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
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Screen & Audio Quality / Included Software

Screen Quality



Like so many other ultra portables, the Zenbook uses a highly reflective glossy screen which is nearly impossible to see in bright areas. This is particularly unfortunate since by its very nature, an Ultrabook is supposed to be used in a wide variety of situations, from airports to classrooms to outside on a park bench and a mirror-like screen coating makes the viewing experience anything but enjoyable.


With a 1600x900 resolution, this screen gives a large amount of viewing real estate for its comparably small size. However, the use of a lower quality TN panel may result in good brightness output (which partially compensates for a horribly reflective screen) but contrast isn’t all that great and colours are anything but accurate. There’s also a slight blue shift which tends to make images look overly cool but this can be easily overcome with a few easy control panel changes. While basic viewing shouldn’t be an issue, photo editing is absolutely out of the question.


Viewing angles aren’t all that great either, with a serious reduction in contrast when the panel is viewed at anything but head-on. This is a typical issue with TN panels and it once again repeats itself here.


Audio Quality



Ready for a surprise? The Zenbook may be ultra slim, making speaker integration a challenge, but the sound it pumps out is nothing short of incredible. Supplied by Bang & Olufsen, the ICEPower system has been carefully integrated into the lower screen bezel and incorporates several micro-sized speakers that –when working together- can pump out size-defying sound. Both treble and bass are accurately exhibited without excessive tonal variance and distortion is virtually nonexistent until the absolute upper volume ranges.

Throughout testing, people would stop and stare open mouthed at the Zenbook as it output sound that literally filled a room. It may sound like we giving a dramatic to its accomplishments but this is one notebook you have to hear firsthand to believe. It is truly unfortunate that most of this Ultrabook’s audio time will be spent with headphones plugged in.


Pre Installed Software



Like many of ASUS’ notebooks, the UX-31 has a fair amount of bloatware installed and this causes something of a problem. On platforms that feature 6GB or more of pre-installed memory, we wouldn’t normally have concerns but the background processes on this unit eat up a good 1.5GB, or more than a quarter of the system memory. In addition, all of this pre installed software eats up valuable space on the relatively small capacity SSD, cutting down on its already limited storage space. Are items like the Nuance PDF reader, Bing Bar, ASUS LifeFrame and resource hungry Trend Micro virus software really needed? Absolutely not but ASUS uses their inclusion to partially subsidize the price of their Zenbook.

While may never happen, we believe it is time Intel and Microsoft join forces in an effort to mandate a reduction of pre installed software on Ultrabooks. These systems just don’t have the capacity or performance to spare by running unnecessary software.


Among the more useful programs are ASUS’ own Instant On which allows for quick booting from a hibernating state and the Power4Gear Hybrid power management software that allows for easy access to various non-Windows controlled performance states. The PowerWiz desktop gadget is somewhat less useful but it does allow you to quickly view battery life in Standby, Performance and Battery Saver modes.
 

SKYMTL

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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.







Ultrabooks have never focused upon bleeding edge performance and the Zenbook is no exception. Processor-centric tasks lag significantly behind the accomplishments of full-sized notebooks but for a thin and light solution, the Zenbook’s numbers are decent.

One of the primary benefits of this Ultrabook is the inclusion of a high performance SSD. While its capacity may be nothing spectacular, it effectively masks many shortcomings in the raw performance department by minimizing startup / shutdown times and accelerating program loads. The SSD also artificially skews the Zenbook’s PCMark score but that was to be expected considering the amount of emphasis that benchmark puts upon the storage subsystem tests.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.






As our tests move on towards processor intensive real world applications, we can see the Zenbook gradually falling behind more powerful notebooks. Once again though, its ultra fast storage subsystem allows for increased performance in some circumstances but don’t expect this Ultrabook to excel in transcoding or image editing tasks.
 

SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks / Wireless Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI or DisplayPort to a 1080P HDTV.




High definition content really isn’t a problem for most modern systems but video decoding still takes up a lion’s share of the Zenbook’s resources.


Wireless Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.



ASUS uses an Atheros WiFi module on the Zenbook and as with our previous experience with this hardware, its WiFi performance leaves much to be desired. Being able to successfully complete a file transfer to a mere two network points puts it near the bottom of our charts, right next to the lackluster Dell 14z. That’s hardly a good accomplishment for a $1300 Ultrabook. Luckily, the included Bluetooth module was rock solid throughout testing and provided at least 20 feet of continuous range.
 

SKYMTL

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Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11, DX10 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.





As is typically, the case, don’t expect to be doing a ton of gaming on an Ultrabook. While the Zenbook does provide a decent experience at the lowest detail settings in some basic games, its screen’s 1600x900 resolution simply chokes out the integrated GPU’s ability to provide playable framerates.
 

SKYMTL

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Battery Life

Battery Life


Battery longevity is one of (if not THE) most important aspect of any mobile device which is why we are breaking this section down into three distinct tests. The “Standard Workload” represents relatively light usage with a Flash-enabled web page being refreshed every 30 seconds. Our “Heavy Workload” runs a looped 10 minute automatic script that reflects a professional usage pattern of photo manipulation (Photoshop CS5), word processing (Microsoft Word), drafting (AutoCAD 2011) and file compression (WinRAR). Finally, the “Gaming” test runs a timedemo loop of Far Cry 2 DX9.

All tests are run until the battery reaches 5% with the Balanced battery mode enabled and the screen at 75% brightness. Wireless is also turned on but any backlit keyboard functionality is turned off.



One of the hallmarks of Ultrabooks is their supposed ability to provide all-day computing on a single charge. ASUS’ version is actually one of the first we’ve tested to actually come close to this claim. With nearly six hours of continual usage under its belt, the Zenbook holds a lofty position in our charts. We’re sure that with a bit of coaxing (lowering the backlight and using less intensive applications like MS Word) a single charge could be stretched to over seven hours.

Naturally, once the tasks ramp up in requirements, battery life takes a nosedive but once again the Zenbook excelled with nearly four hours of unplugged, intensive work under its belt.
 

SKYMTL

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Temperatures / Acoustical Testing

Temperatures


Temperature testing is quite straightforward: we load the system with a loop of Far Cry 2 in order to stress the dedicated GPU (if there is one) while the CPU load is handled by a loop of WPrime 32M. Battery power is used during these tests. Temperatures are recorded with HWInfo and GPU-Z. Remember that this is a worst case scenario test so typical usage patterns will result in slightly lower temperatures.

Meanwhile, exterior temperatures are taken with a calibrated Fluke infrared thermometer at various locations on the notebook chassis. For comparison’s sake, we consider exterior readings of under 85°F to be perfectly suitable for on-lap usage while temperatures between 85°F and 95°F will start to feel a bit toasty. Anything above 95°F is uncomfortable and care should be given before placing it on your lap.



Even though it is incredibly thin, the Zenbook exhibits CPU temperatures that are well within normal operating limits. One of the main reasons for this is the ability of the unibody aluminum construction to distribute some of the heat through the chassis. Unfortunately, as we see below, this does tend to boost average exterior temperatures.



All in all the Zenbook doesn’t feature any areas of ultra high, lap-searing exterior temperatures but due to its design, its temperatures in most areas are on average higher than those of other notebooks. This shows us that the aluminum body is efficiently dispersing heat over a wide surface rather than concentrating it in one particular area.


Acoustical Testing


No one likes a loud laptop so in order to objectively determine acoustical properties, we use a calibrated decibel meter which is placed 16” away from the keyboard. A loop of WPrime is used to load the system and replicate a high usage scenario.

Any result under 35dB can be considered no louder than general background noise and usually won’t be noticed. Between 35dB and 45dB is still perfectly acceptable for notebooks yet will be much more noticeable than lower frequencies and likely won’t be heard over the noise of typing. Finally, we consider any result above 45dB to be unacceptable for a mobile device.



Even when running full tilt, ASUS’ premium Ultrabook is whisper quiet which is particularly impressive since its temperatures are so low.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
13,421
Location
Montreal
Conclusion

Conclusion


The ASUS Zenbook is one of those products that PC users just want to like. It is slim, well built, performs reasonably well and incorporates all of the design marquees that make the Apple competition “unique” without the high cost normally associated with fruit-labeled notebooks. Unfortunately, in a headlong drive to make a bona fide Mac competitor, ASUS has fallen into some of the very pitfalls they initially set out to avoid.

From a performance standpoint, the UX-31 isn’t anything to write home about. Like many Apple products it focuses upon show rather than go, which is understandable since many are willing to sacrifice in some areas to have an eye catching notebook on their laps. With that being said, the SSD allows for a very responsive computing experience, effectively masking the Zenbook’s lack of raw processing power. It even tends to artificially inflate the Zenbook’s scores in some synthetic tests but a meager capacity of just 256GB may not be enough for some segments of today’s demanding market.

In order to provide such a slim design, ASUS had to make significant reductions in some key areas. The battery provides more than enough life to get you through a mid haul flight or a day of classes but it can’t be replaced, swapped out or upgraded. External temperatures can also become a concern, particularly on hot summer days when the aluminum body literally radiates heat. Finally, wireless performance is nowhere near acceptable and using the keyboard / touchpad combo quickly becomes a frustrating experience.

While there may be some minor issues, there are many things to like here. ASUS’ Zenbook is a wonder to behold, has great battery life, comes with a rare 2 year warranty, boasts enough connectivity options for almost everyone (though an HDMI adaptor would have been nice) and is actually one of the most versatile notebooks we have come across in a while. A high resolution 1600x900 screen that puts most other Ultrabooks to shame is particularly welcome here as well. Even its speaker system sets a new benchmark in the slim and light category with rich, vibrant tones. However, we have to wonder about the inclusion of such a high end audio setup on a notebook that will spend most of its time plugged into headphones.

The UX-31 certainly has something for everyone and its mere presence in the market adds legitimacy to Intel’s Ultrabook focus. Many will likely be turned off by its relatively high price, lackluster wireless performance, limited storage space and sub-par keyboard but there are plenty of items hiding under the surface which make this one of the better Ultrabooks on the market.
 
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