ASUS is going luxe. The new Zenbook UX301 ditches the company's tired spun-aluminum frame for a Gorilla Glass lid, creating some scratch-resistant eye candy. Sporting a very sharp, 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1440-pixel touch screen display, this ultraportable is more than a great looking laptop. The UX310 (starting at $1,722, or $1,973 as configured) packs an Intel Core i7 CPU with Intel Iris graphics and fast dual-128GB SSDs, but is this the new Ultrabook to beat?
Someone over at ASUS must have heard our plaintive cries for a new design. Instead of the rote silver-aluminum finish of the previous models, the UX301 serves up a beautiful midnight blue Gorilla Glass 3 lid. The notebook retains the gorgeous concentric circle design of previous Zenbooks, which immediately summoned to mind images of a beautiful moonlit sky. A gleaming, bright chrome ASUS insignia in the center adds the right amount of flash.
Be sure to keep a polish rag handy, however, as the lid is highly susceptible to fingerprints. It's a shame, because smudges can quickly obscure the notebook's innate beauty.
The UX301's interior dials down the shine quotient dramatically, with a black-matte plastic deck. The keyboard rests in a depression above the touchpad. The power key sits adjacent to the delete key in the function key row.
This notebook cuts a slim, lightweight profile at 2.6 pounds, 12.8 x 8.8 x 0.6-inches. The Zenbook is lighter than the MacBook Pro with Retina Display (3.46 pounds, 12.35 x 8.62 x 0.71-inches), the MacBook Air (3 pounds, 12.8 x 8.94 x .68 inches) and the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (3.2 pounds, 12.6 x 8.8 x 0.54-inches). However, the Acer Aspire S7-392-6411 is still the king of slim, weighting 2.4 pounds and measuring 12.7 x 8.8 x 0.51 inches.
The UX301 is outfitted with a 13-inch, 2560 x 1440 WQHD touch screen display. That's not as sharp as the ATIV Book 9 Plus (3200 x 1800) or 13-inch MacBook Pro (2560 x 1600), but it's a higher resolution than the Acer Aspire S7 (1920 x 1080).
Currently, the Windows Store doesn't offer any apps that support such a high-res, Retina-like display. Text on sites like NYTimes.com, Jezebel and Clutchmagonline.com looked quite sharp, but we often had to zoom in to read articles.
To fully appreciate the UX301's screen, we loaded a 2560 x 1440 image of a placid fall vista, which offered a cacophony of bright oranges, browns and golds. However, we preferred the 13-inch MacBook Pro's 2560 x 1600 display in a side-by-side comparison with the UX301.
For example, the oak tree's leaves were a brilliant red on the MacBook, but had more of an orange tint on the UX301. The crystal blue sky was also deeper on the MacBook. The notebooks were pretty evenly matched on sharpness, allowing us to make out the individual dimples and ridges on the nearby rocks and logs.
The visual quality carried over to the 1080p trailer of "Contracted." While the brunette's hair had a lovely shimmer on the UX301, the MacBook did a better job of showing off her lowlights against the ashy brown backdrop of the house. We could also see the deliberate blotches and striations of the geisha painting in the background. The MacBook Pro delivered better viewing angles, as the UX301's display washed out past 45 degrees.
One area in which the Zenbook outshines the competition (literally) is brightness. The panel averaged 368 lux on our light meter, easily besting the 246-lux ultraportable average. The MacBook Pro followed close behind at 340 lux. Next came the Aspire S7 (326 lux) and the ATIV Book 9 Plus (251 lux).
The UX301's 10-point capacitive screen delivered smooth pinch-zoom action and Windows 8 gestures as we navigated the OS with our finger. It's just a shame that the panel picked up smudges when touched it.
Featuring side-mounted stereo speakers and Bang & Olufsen's ICEpower technology, the Zenbook packs some big noise into a relatively tiny frame. At full volume, the dual speakers filled our medium-sized testing room with loud, but sometimes harsh sound.
Janelle Monae's usually sweet first soprano and the gentle synthesized instrumentals were grating as we listened to "It's Code." We had a similar experience when listening to the Jill Scott/Darius Rucker collaboration "Sometimes I Wonder." The organ and electric guitar were distorted, and the vocalists' warm melodies sounded a little flat. In both instances, the bass was noticeably absent.
The good news is that you can improve the audio by tweaking a simple setting. When using the ASUS AudioWizard control panel, we discovered that the Music setting was the worst, while the Movies setting delivered the best result.
On the LAPTOP Audio Test, which measures decibel output at 23 inches from the laptop, the UX301 registered 80 dB, slightly below the 83 dB average.
ASUS added the Nuance-powered Dragon Assistant to the UX301, allowing users to interact with the notebook via voice commands. Setup is relatively easy; we went through a 2-to-3-minute process in which we trained the software to recognize our voice by reading some pre-loaded phrases.
Once this process was completed, we accessed the software by saying "Hello Dragon." From there, we could perform a number of tasks, including searching via Google or Bing, posting updates on our social networking accounts, playing music or making a Skype call.
The software was very quick, taking less than a second to wake from sleep, and 1 to 2 seconds to carry out most commands. You have to be within a 1-foot circumference for the software to pick up your voice, but it managed to hear us over the noisy din of our office. The voice recognition was reasonably accurate, picking up our commands approximately 80 percent of the time.
Unfortunately, Dragon Assistant isn't as smart or broad as the Moto X's Touchless control or Apple's Siri. Despite training the software to our voice, the Assistant responded to other people whose voices were much different than ours. It's also very limited in its function set. While we could ask Siri or Google Now the score of the last Yankees' game or the quickest route home, Dragon Assistant is confined to about 30 commands.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Zenbook's island-style keyboard is spacious, with large, flat keys and strong, springy feedback. During the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, we scored 63 words per minute, noticeably higher than our usual 55 wpm. The backlighting could be a little brighter, as the keyboard was somewhat difficult to see in a dim room.
Performing gestures on the 3.9 x 2.6-inch ASUS Touchpad was fast and responsive, particularly for such multi-touch gestures as pinch-zoom, two-finger scroll and three-finger flick. Our favorite gesture is the two-finger rotate that delivers a slick rotation animation. The Windows 8 gestures were quick on the draw, too, allowing us to seamlessly cycle among apps and pull up the Charms menu.
When we ran the Laptop Heat Test (streaming from Netflix for 15 minutes at full screen), the touchpad measured a cool 83 degrees Fahrenheit. The notebook's undercarriage and the space between the G and H keys both hit 93 degrees, just below our 95-degree comfort threshold.
The 720p webcam did a fairly decent job of capturing our warm, chocolaty skin tone. But our boyfriend's caramel skin looked slightly blown out. Worse, the camera rendered his normally voluminous beard as a patchy mess.
A USB 3.0 port sits on the right side of the UX301 with a mini-DisplayPort and a SD Card reader. Another USB 3.0 port, a mini-HMDI and jacks for headphones and power sit on the right.
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The ASUS Zenbook UX301's 2.8-GHz Intel Core i7-4558U processor with 8GB of RAM is quite the powerhouse. The notebook ably streamed an episode of "The Astonishing X-Men" while performing a full system scan with eight open tabs in Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer and Google Chrome.
The UX301 notched 6,862 on Geekbench 3, far more than the 4,445 ultraportable average. The Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina Display's 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5 processor hit 6,294. The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus and its 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-4200U CPU notched 4,150.
The Zenbook torched the PCMark7 average of 3,851, scoring 5,838. The Acer Aspire S7's 1.6-GHz i5-4200 CPU hit 5051, while the ATIV Book 9 Plus scored 5,017.
Outfitted with dual 128GB SSDs, the UX301 booted Windows 8 Professional in 12 seconds, beating the 19-second average. The ATIV Book 9 Plus' 128GB SSD was a hair faster at 11 seconds, but the Aspire S7's 128GB SSD was the fastest at 9 seconds.
When we ran the LAPTOP File Transfer Test, the Zenbook duplicated 4.97GB of multimedia files in 23 seconds. That's a transfer rate of 221 MBps, effectively lapping the 108 MBps category average. The ATIV Book 9 Plus and Aspire S7 turned in 127 MBps and 113 MBps, respectively. However, the MacBook Pro blew the competition out the water with a blistering 299 MBps.
The UX301 matched 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses in 4 minutes and 5 seconds during the OpenOffice Test, more than enough to top the 6:44 average. The MacBook Pro was a distant second with a time of 5:02. The Aspire S7 and the ATIV Book 9 Plus were neck and neck at 5:12 and 5:13.
The Intel HD Graphics 5100 (Iris) GPU inside the ASUS Zenbook UX301 is no match for a discrete GPU from Nvidia or AMD, but you can get playable frame rates on mainstream games at lower resolutions.
On the 3DMark11 benchmark, the UX301 scored 1,373, topping the 693 ultraportable average. The Intel HD Graphics 4400-powered Samsung ATIV Book 9 and Acer Aspire S7 hit 913 and 895, respectively.
During the "World of Warcraft" test, the Zenbook delivered 62 frames per second at 1366 x 768, with the settings on low. However, that number dropped to a sluggish 26 fps at native resolution (2560 x 1440) on Autodetect.
On the same game, the ATIV Book 9 Plus (3200 x 1800) notched 24 fps, while the MacBook Pro hit 20 fps at 2560 x 1600. The Aspire S7 mustered a higher 29 fps, but that was on a lower-res (1920 x 1080) screen.
During the Laptop Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), the ASUS Zenbook UX301 lasted 7 hours and 54 minutes, beating the 6:30 category average. The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus notched 8:06, while the Acer Aspire S7 clocked in at 8:53. The MacBook Pro was the last notebook standing, with an impressive runtime of 9:31, though its beefier chassis has room for a larger battery.
Software and Warranty
The only thing slimmer than the ASUS Zenbook UX301 is its software catalog. Aside from the usual Windows 8 apps (Mail, Calendar, News and SkyDrive), the bloatware is practically non-existent. There's the ASUS Installation Wizard that lets users cherry pick which apps and drivers are installed. Splendid Technology allows you to adjust the hue and saturation of the display. MyBitcast helps you sync notes with your ASUS WebStorage account.
Third-party apps include Amazon Kindle, FreshPaint, Music Maker Jam, Netflix and a slew of Wild Tangent games.
The ASUS Zenbook UX301 comes with one-year international warranty, with one year of accidental damage, 30-day zero bright dot and 24-7 tech support. See how ASUS fared in our Tech Support Showdown and Best & Worst Brands report.
The UX301 comes in multiple configurations. Our model, the UX301LA-DH71T, features a 1.8-GHz Intel Core i7-4558U CPU, 8GB of RAM and dual 128GB SSDs. Those with money to burn can step up to the UX301LA-XH72T, which packs all of the above specs but adds dual 256GB SSDs.
If you're looking to save some cash, the $1,722.99 UX301LA-DH51T comes with a 1.6-GHz Core i5-4200U processor, 8GB of RAM and dual 128GB SSDs.
Zenbook UX301 vs. the Competition
Consumers searching for a notebook with a richer display, over 9 hours of battery life and even faster flash memory should consider the cheaper MacBook Pro ($1,799 similarly configured to the ASUS). However, the MacBook weighs more, making it less suited for frequent travel.
Windows 8 fans should also take a gander at the $1,349 Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus, which offers a sharper, 3200 x 1800-pixel screen but a slower Core i5 CPU and shallower keyboard. Keep in mind that (at least for now) you can't get this Samsung with more than 128GB of flash memory or a Core i7 CPU, as you can with the UX301.
Va-va-voom! ASUS is turning heads with the Zenbook UX301 for all the right reasons. We love the new blue Gorilla Glass lid (even if you need a polish rag at all times). The Intel Core i7 processor Iris Graphics and dual SSDs make this Ultrabook one of the prettiest workhorses we've had the pleasure of using. However, for a fairly steep $1,973, we'd hope for wider viewing angles on the sharp QHD display.
Assuming they have the means, though, shoppers searching for an ultraportable that offers equal parts beauty, power and endurance will find their match in the ASUS Zenbook UX301.