When ASUS released the original Zenbook -- followed by the much-improved Zenbook Prime -- the company hoped to challenge the MacBook Air's dominance of the ultraportable market. Now, the Taiwanese manufacturer has set its sights on the MacBook Pro. The 15-inch Zenbook UX51Vz boasts the same sleek design as previous iterations of the Zenbook series, but crams in a Core i7 CPU, dual SSDs and Nvidia graphics. Is the $1,949 UX51V worth its Apple-esque price?
The UX51V sports the same beautiful brushed aluminum design as previous iterations of ASUS' svelte Zenbook series, with a thicker chassis designed to accommodate its discrete GPU. Like the Zenbook Prime, the lid features a subtle circular pattern that radiates from an embossed ASUS logo. A vertically striped pattern adorns the inside and the bottom of the notebook.
At 15.0 x 10.0 x 0.99-1.20 inches and 4.6 pounds, the 15-inch UX51V is noticeably thicker and heavier than the 13-inch Zenbook Prime (0.66 inches thick, 3.0 pounds), as well as the $2,199 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (0.71 inches thick, 4.46 pounds). The $2,499 Razer Blade (0.88 inches thick, 6.6 pounds) is also thinner than the UX51V, although it has the advantage of distributing its components throughout a 17-inch frame. Nevertheless, the UX51V is light and compact enough for travel.
The UX51V features two small speakers on each side of the notebook next to the deck. The clickpad rests slightly off-center below the G and H keys, and the spacious deck provides plenty of room on which to rest your wrists.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The UX51V features the same backlit, island-style layout as the Zenbook Prime, with the addition of a full number pad on the right. Thankfully, ASUS didn't shrink larger keys such as Backspace and Shift; instead, the number keys are smaller. We wish more manufacturers would adopt this approach.
The black chiclet-style keys proved springy and offered a pleasant amount of tactile feedback. Plus, we detected virtually no flex as we wrote this review. On the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, we achieved a rate of 63 words per minute, which is just below our average speed.
The 4.1 x 2.75-inch clickpad proved equally reliable. The cursor accurately tracked the movement of our finger across the pad, and multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, two-finger scrolling and edge swiping for Windows 8 gestures all worked consistently.
ASUS also handily includes a vertical line at the bottom of the clickpad to delineate the left and right mouse buttons. Given the frequency with which we accidentally press the wrong button on other clickpads, we appreciated its inclusion.
The UX51V's 15.6-inch LED IPS display boasts a razor-sharp resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels with wide viewing angles. With a measured brightness of 277 lux, the notebook beats the 15-inch laptop category average (234 lux), the MacBook Pro (223 lux) and the Blade (256 lux).
Colors looked rich when we watched a 1080p trailer for "The Hobbit." The pastoral vistas of the Shire popped off the screen. If you prefer a softer color palette, you can change the display settings using ASUS' Splendid Utility.
The lack of a touch screen will bother some, especially since you can get a touch-enabled Windows 8 notebook for $699. With its tile-based Start Screen and multiple touch-optimized apps, Windows 8 is best experienced using a touch screen. However, adding a touch panel would have increased the weight of this machine and decreased the battery life.
Don't be fooled by the size of the notebook's small side-mounted speakers. Powered by Bang & Olufsen's ICEPower technology, the UX51V pumped out accurate audio loud enough to fill a small room. When listening to Daft Punk's orchestral score to "Tron: Legacy," the staccato horns on the track "Outlands" rang out clearly, and we could easily discern the highs of the trumpets from the lows of the French horns.
ASUS includes the Waves MaxxAudio sound enhancement software, which allows users to make fine adjustments to individual audio settings such as bass, treble and dialogue. Another feature, MaxxLeveler, automatically adjusts the speakers to deliver the highest fidelity sound at maximum volume.
Although the UX51V remains fairly cool during everyday use, it generates quite a bit of heat when playing graphically intensive games such as "Batman: Arkham City." After playing for 15 minutes, the touchpad registered 83 degrees Fahrenheit, the underside an average of 93 degrees, and the G and H keys 104 degrees. The middle of the bottom near the rear vent reached a troubling 107 degrees. We consider anything above 95 degrees to be uncomfortable.
Ports and Webcam
The UX51V sports a robust selection of ports, including an Ethernet port, HDMI port and two USB 3.0 ports on the right, and a VGA mini D-sub port, mini-DisplayPort, USB 3.0 port, MMC/SDHC card reader and dual headphone/microphone jack on the left. Although thicker than previous models of the Zenbook series, the UX51V isn't quite large enough to accommodate an optical drive.
The notebook's 2-megapixel camera proved disappointing. Although colorful, pictures taken with the camera (1280 x 720 max resolution) appeared noticeably grainy. Video (640 x 480 max resolution) suffered from similar graininess, as well as significant motion blurring during playback.
For many, the UX51V will mark their first encounter with Windows 8. Although Microsoft's new operating system is faster than its predecessor, Windows 8 neophytes may be bewildered by the many changes to the traditional Windows experience.
From the Start Screen, you can launch apps by clicking their respective tiles, or you can open a complete list of apps by right-clicking on the Start Screen itself. To close an open app, left-click and drag it from the top of the screen to the bottom. The tiles themselves update depending on their context and usage. For instance, the Photos tile displays the latest picture you've taken with the UX51V's webcam, while the News tile shows the most recent headline and its accompanying photograph.
You can cycle through open apps by swiping your finger from the left side of the clickpad toward the center. Performing the same action, while keeping your finger on the app, allows you to open two apps simultaneously in split-screen mode.
Swiping your finger from the right side of the clickpad toward the center launches the Charms menu, from which you can return to the Start Screen, search for programs and files, share content, connect to devices and adjust settings. The settings sub-menu contains options to manage wireless settings, adjust volume, hide notifications, switch keyboard mode and turn off or restart the PC. But you'll need to use the control panel in desktop mode to access more settings.
The Windows 8 desktop looks identical to its predecessor in Windows 7, with one glaring difference -- there's no Start Menu. Your best bet is to pin your favorite apps not just to the Start screen, but to the taskbar as well.
The UX51V ships with a number of applications from ASUS. Preloaded software includes ASUS Installation Wizard, which lets you install drivers and applications such as Cyberlink Power2Go from a single location; ASUS Tutor, which provides tutorials for using Windows 8; Splendid Utility for modifying the display color settings; and WebStorage Sync Agent for syncing data on your PC with your phone or tablet.
ASUS also includes a few Modern style apps, including its own calculator app and an application called ASUS Converter, which can convert units of measurement to and from the metric system.
Microsoft-branded applications include SkyDrive, Skype and Maps, as well as a variety of games. Fresh Paint, for instance, lets you create images using various brushes and colors, while "Wordament" is an online game in which you compete against others in a race to find words in a jumble of letters.
Powered by a 2.1-GHz Intel Core i7-3612QM quad-core processor, 8GB of RAM and dual 128GB SSDs in a RAID 0 configuration, the UX51V blew past our averages on every benchmark. When we ran Geekbench, which measures CPU and memory performance, the UX51V scored 9,970, more than 3,000 points higher than the average 15-inch notebook. The Dell XPS 15 (same Core i7 CPU, 8GB RAM, a 750GB 7,200-rpm hard drive plus 32GB mSATA SSD, Nvidia GeForce GT 640M GPU) scored a slightly lower 9,394.
On the other hand, the Razer Blade (2.2-GHz quad-core Core i7-3632QM CPU, 8GB of RAM and 500GB 7,200-rpm HDD with 64GB SSD) and the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (2.3-GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD) both scored higher than the UX51V, turning in 10,644 and 11,049, respectively.
Nevertheless, the UX51V's dual 128GB SSDs proved the speediest of the lot. On the LAPTOP File Transfer Test, the notebook copied 4.97GB of mixed media files in just 21 seconds, good for a jaw-dropping rate of 237.8 MBps. This is exactly 200 MBps faster than the category average, and almost 150 MBps faster than the Razer Blade's 500GB 7,200-rpm hard drive. The MacBook Pro, which also boasts a 256GB SSD, came closest to matching the UX51V with a transfer rate of 196 MBps. The XPS 15's hard drive (37 MBps) isn't in the same league.
Thanks to the one-two combination of its fast SSDs and Windows 8's built-in efficiency, the UX51V booted into Windows in a mere 13 seconds. The Windows 7-powered Razer Blade, by contrast, took 28 seconds to load the OS, while the mainstream notebook average -- which includes Windows 7 notebooks -- is a whopping 51 seconds.
On the LAPTOP Spreadsheet Macro test, the UX51V matched 20,000 names and addresses in 4 minutes and 59 seconds. Although this beats the category average by nearly a minute, it falls just 25 seconds shy of the Razer Blade. The Dell XPS 15 turned in a comparable 4:54.
Packing an Nvidia GeForce GT650M GPU with 2GB of VRAM, the UX51V delivered impressive performance on our synthetic benchmarks. On 3DMark11, a benchmark that measures overall graphics performance, the UX51V scored 2,289. This beats the mainstream notebook average by 1,200 points, and squeaks past the MacBook Pro (which uses the same GT650 GPU) by a mere 14 points. The Dell XPS 15 (1,801) also trailed this ASUS. The Razer Blade (Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M GPU with 2GB of VRAM) outperformed the UX51V with a score of 2,636.
When we ran 3DMark Vantage, which measures gaming performance, the UX51V trounced the category average (6,407) with its score of 10,848. The MacBook Pro achieved a respectable 8,903, but still couldn't match the UX51V. Again, the Dell XPS 15 fell behind with a score of 8,072.
When we played "Batman: Arkham City" on Low Settings with the resolution at 1920 x 1080, the UX51V averaged a playable 32 frames per second. The Dell XPS 15 (28 fps) couldn't quite keep up. The beefier GPU inside the Razer Blade paced that gaming Ultrabook to a score of 38 fps. That's the same frame rate of the average 15-inch notebook, but many of those systems don't have full HD screens.
When we cranked the graphics up to Very High on the UX51, the frame rate dropped to an unplayable 20 fps. Although this beats the category average by 3 frames per second, it falls just shy of the Razer Blade (24 fps). Lowering the resolution to 1366 x 768 increased performance slightly on the UX51V, to 40 fps on Low settings and 28 fps on Very High.
The UX51V can easily handle mainstream games. When we ran "World of Warcraft" on Good settings with the resolution set to 1920 x 1080, the notebook averaged 103 frames per second, beating the average mainstream notebook by almost 40 fps. The Razer Blade achieved a comparable rate of 104 fps. The game remained playable even we turned the graphics up to Ultra, with an average of 43 frames per second. Once again, this beats the category average (35 fps).
On the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing via Wi-Fi on 40 percent brightness), the UX51V lasted 5 hours and 56 minutes. This run time beats both the mainstream notebook average (5:39) and the Razer Blade (3:50). The Dell XPS 15 lasted a decent 5:07. By contrast, the Zenbook Prime -- which lacks a discrete GPU -- lasted 6:28. The 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, with its best-in-class battery life of 8:02, remains in a league of its own.
Configurations and Warranty
In addition to the $1,949 configuration we tested, the UX51V comes in a higher-end XH71 configuration that features Windows 8 Professional, dual 256GB SSDs and a choice of more powerful Core i7 processors. The pricing ranges from $2,299 to $2,499.
The UX51V comes with a standard one-year parts and labor warranty, including 24/7 tech support, as well as a 30-day zero bright dot panel warranty. See how ASUS fared in our annual Tech Support Showdown and Best and Worst Brands Report.
With a quad-core Core i7 processor, blazing-fast SSDs and a powerful Nvidia GPU, the $1,949 ASUS Zenbook UX51V packs a ton of power into a slim and portable frame. While we wished the 15-inch screen supported touch, we appreciate the full HD resolution and wide viewing angles. This Ultrabook also lasts almost 6 hours on a charge and boasts excellent speakers. We just wish the UX51V ran cooler when playing games.
Ultimately, the UX51V's most direct competitor is the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Apple's machine sports a sharper and brighter screen and much longer battery life in a slightly lighter design, but it also costs $250 more. Plus, the game selection for Mac, while improving, trails Windows. Bottom line: The ASUS UX51V isn't just a great MacBook Pro alternative; it's one of the best premium 15-inch Ultrabooks yet.