$1,449.99 (as reviewed)
This week I am writing the last in a series of reviews on the newest generation of Windows notebooks—Ultrabooks. I have looked at entries from Dell, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba. This week, I take a look at the Asus Zenbook UX31E, which was purchased for the office.
When I wrote about the HP Folio 13, I said that after a while the Ultrabooks I’ve looked at all blended together. That was before the Zenbook UX31E. On looks alone, the Zenbook is head and shoulders above anything I’ve seen. It is, in a word, gorgeous. The unibody aluminum chassis is a work of art. It also serves a functional purpose: it feels very sturdy, while being relatively light at 2.86 pounds. Its weight is second only to the Toshiba Portege’s 2.5 pounds. It is lighter than the Macbook Air Ultrabooks it was designed to compete against, which weigh 2.96 pounds. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that a microfiber carrying bag was included to protect the metal case from scratches.
The Zenbook UX31E measures 12.8 inches wide by 8.8 inches deep, making its footprint slightly larger than some of the other Ultrabooks I’ve looked at. Its thickness ranges from 0.12 inches to 0.7 inches. The Zenbook has a 13.3-inch display, which is reasonably stable and barely wobbles when typing. Unlike many Ultrabooks on the market, the UX31E has a 1600-by-900 resolution instead of the sub-par 1366 by 768, which seems to have become an Ultrabook standard. It is even better than the 1440-by-900 resolution of the comparable Macbook Air. As a result, you are treated to a crisp, bright viewing experience. Furthermore, off-axis viewing is clearer than on most of the other Ultrabooks. Colors do diminish, but not nearly to the extent I’ve found elsewhere. Kudos to Asus for opting for the higher-resolution display.
The touchpad is a bit hyper-sensitive; I found the cursor jumping across the screen from time to time. However, it does a better job with multi-touch gesturing than the other Ultrabooks I’ve tested. The right and left buttons are responsive, although they are integrated into the touchpad (a feature I really don’t like). You must turn the touchpad on or off via a function key, instead of the typical tapping it on and off.
When it comes to the keyboard, Asus engineers ruined what was on its way to becoming my top-rated Ultrabook. To be blunt: IT. IS. AWFUL. I wrote this review on the UX31E and gnashed my teeth as I mucked my way through it. The keys themselves are well-proportioned and, generally speaking, aren’t badly laid out (more on this in a moment). The problem is that the keys are almost flush with the surface, so it is difficult to distinguish individual keys if you are a true touch-typist. The shallow keystrokes also reduce the tactile experience, so it is harder to tell if you have actually pressed the key. As a result, I spent a lot of time correcting mistakes. Even for someone like me, a hybrid hunt-and-peck/touch-typist, it was the worst typing experience I have had in all my years using laptops, notebooks or netbooks. I would even opt for the cramped keyboard of an Asus EeePC over the Zenbook’s. To compound the problem, Asus opted not to offer a backlit keyboard, a glaring omission for such a high-end piece of equipment. Furthermore, the function keys are not dedicated; you must use the Fn key to operate them.
When it comes to the keyboard layout, there are a couple of things worth noting. First, some people may not like the mini arrow keys, but this is something I have run across on other Ultrabooks, so it is forgivable. What isn’t forgivable, however, is the location of the power button, which is integrated into the top-right of the keyboard, next to the delete key and above the backspace. As a result, I kept having to cancel out of requests to shut down the system or have it go into sleep or hibernate mode. I have no idea why Asus did this, but they really should consider relocating the power button on future models. Overall, the keyboard was a deal-breaker for me.
The UX31E’s Bang & Olufsen ICEpower audio technology delivers the best sound quality I’ve heard on an Ultrabook. The speaker bar runs the width of the screen and puts out an amazing amount of sound. The sound is full and crisp, and the bass—although not overpowering—comes through better than on most other systems.
Asus didn’t skimp on input ports, although some of their choices are somewhat suspect. On the left side is a USB 2.0 port and 3.5mm headphone jack. There is also an SSD/MMC slot, something I wish more Ultrabooks had. On the right side is a USB 3.0 slot, as well as mini-HDMI and mini-VGA ports and the power jack. While it’s nice that Asus provided these connectors, especially the VGA port for connecting to an older monitor or projector, it’s a hassle that you need an adapter (although Asus was kind enough to provide the VGA and HDMI adapters). Once again, I voice my displeasure at the lack of side-by-side USB ports.
For wireless connectivity, the Zenbook UX31E offers integrated 802.11b/g/n and built-in Bluetooth 4.0. However, it is lacking an Ethernet port for wired network connections.
The Zenbook I reviewed came with a second-generation Intel Core i7-2677M 1.8GHz processor, giving it added power over the typical Ultrabook. To save some money, you can opt for a Core i5-2557M 1.7GHz processor, which should satisfy all but the most power-hungry users. The Zenbook also comes with 4 GB of memory and either a 128 GB or 256 GB solid-state drive.
For video conferencing and chatting, there is an integrated webcam that seems to suffer more than most in low-light conditions.
The system I reviewed has Windows 7 Home Premium (64 bit) installed, but you also have the option of Home Basic (64 bit) or Professional (64 bit).
Asus, to their credit, doesn’t load the Zenbook down with a lot of bloatware. There are a few Asus utilities, but they are not in-your-face, unlike some other Ultrabooks. One of these that is worth mentioning is the PowerWhiz gadget, which not only tells you how much battery life is left, but how much time remains depending on what you are doing (surfing the web, playing videos or games, or performing office-related tasks). Microsoft Office Starter and Trend Micro Titaniumare also included.
The i7 processor gives the Zenbook a leg up over those systems that only offer the i5, but I feel that this is an added expense that most users don’t need. Looking at various performance tests for the i5 processor, the Zenbook consistently ranks at or near the top among competing Ultrabooks.
The SSD seems to lag a bit, though, in terms of boot speed. From a cold boot, it took 30 seconds for the Zenbook to start, which ranks last among the Ultrabooks I’ve reviewed. However, from sleep mode, the Zenbook resumed in about a second, putting it at the top of the list. For the typical user, however, just having the speed of an SSD is all that really matters.
The Zenbook UX31E that I tested gave me about six hours of battery life for typical use, including Wi-Fi and various power-saving settings. This falls short of the HP Folio 13 and Toshiba Portege Z830 by about an hour, but exceeds the Dell XPS by roughly the same amount.
This was probably the most disappointing of all the Ultrabook reviews I’ve written. The Asus UX31E has the looks of a top-notch system with the specs to match. It is easy to overlook the lack of full-sized HDMI and VGA ports, but the lack of a backlit keyboard is less forgivable. The Zenbook’s gorgeous looks, vibrant display and impressive sound make up for these shortcomings. Add in the speedy performance and strong battery life, and it’s easy to see why people have so many good things to say about the Zenbook.
However, the keyboard is a sin I cannot overlook or forgive. I am not being overly dramatic when I say it is the worst keyboard I have ever used. It’s difficult to imagine how Asus could have done such a bad job with this keyboard. I know I am finicky when it comes to my keyboards, but I have never had an experience so excruciatingly painful.
Lastly, the Zenbook isn’t cheap. The model I reviewed cost $1,449.99 from Newegg.com, making it one of the priciest Ultrabooks out there, albeit with a 256 GB SSD and Core i7 processor. With a 128 GB SSD and Core i5 processor, the price is a bit more reasonable: $1,049.99. Still, I wouldn’t be able to justify paying that much for something that I found to be so exasperating to use. If you are willing to deal with the keyboard, then the Zenbook is the Ultrabook for you.
$1,449.99 (as reviewed) from Newegg.com
Wayne A. Thorp, CFA, is the author of “Gadget Corner.” All reviews are based on firsthand experience of the product or service. No third-party compensation is received for opinions on products, services, websites or topics. However, sometimes the author is not required by the manufacturer or their PR firm to return the product under review. In such instances, it is our policy to convey this within the review. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are strictly those of the author. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider.