Windows users don't need to hide in shame whenever they see someone whip out a MacBook Air at the local Starbucks. The ASUS Zenbook UX31 is a slim, stylish Ultrabook that not only packs a robust Core i5 processor and 128GB SSD into its 3-pound unibody aluminum chassis, but a high-res 1600 x 900 display and excellent audio. The super-thin laptop also wakes up from sleep almost as soon as you lift the spun-metal lid. Starting at $1,099, the UX31 is one of the sexiest Windows notebooks we've ever seen, and it costs $200 less than the 13-inch MacBook Air. Read on to find out if this machine can take down the champ.
Editors' Note: ASUS sent us a second version of the UX31 with a new touchpad made by Elan. The improved usability of this touchpad was so dramatic we decided to increase the rating of this Ultrabook from 3.5 to 4 stars. See below for more details.
Now, this is what an Ultrabook should look like. From the first moment we saw the ASUS Zenbook UX31, we were immediately taken with the brushed-aluminum chassis and slim design. The circular spun-metal pattern on the lid is slightly darker in color, and the deck has a linear brush pattern. It's subtle, but it's a nice touch. The metal island-style keys are set off by a black background. The hinge area gets its own treatment, with a fine dot pattern and "UX31 Series Ultra Slim" written in script.
[Ultrabook Buying Guide: 5 Things to Look for in a Super-Slim Laptop]
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Yes, the UX31 looks similar to the 13-inch MacBook Air, but ASUS added enough original elements to make it its own. The UX31's unibody design is certainly far more attractive than the Acer Aspire S3, whose plastic construction felt cheap for a $900 system.
At 3 pounds and measuring 13.3 x 8.9 x 0.1-0.7 inches, the UX31 is the same weight as the Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook and the 13-inch MacBook Air, but about0.05 inches thicker than both. We didn't really notice the difference.
ASUS bundles the UX31 with a padded brown fabric sleeve, a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, and a micro VGA-to-VGA adapter. The adapters also get their own little pouch.
Island-style keyboards are rapidly becoming de rigeur for premium notebooks, and the ASUS UX31 follows suit. We liked the large, well-spaced metal keys, and even though they were flat, our fingers stuck to them well. The arrow keys are smaller than what you'll find on the 13-inch Air, but they were pretty easy to find by feel.
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Overall, typing this review on the UX31 was a pleasant experience, but we had to hit the keys slightly harder than we're used to make sure the notebook registered all of our presses. What's missing is backlighting, which will be a big omission for some. We also wish ASUS would reverse the function keys so that you could adjust the volume or brightness without having to press Fn first.
What a difference a new touchpad makes. While the first iteration of the UX31 featured a clickpad made by Sentelic, ASUS wisely swapped it out with one made by Elan. The result is much less frustration. It still measures a large 4.1 x 2.75 inches, but the cursor doesn't jump like it did before and it takes much fewer swipes to get across the desktop. Two-finger scrolling is now smoother in both documents and on webpages, while pinch to zoom is nearly flawless when viewing photos. This same gesture stuttered on Internet Explorer and Chrome, so that's more of a software issue.
Other gestures worked better this time around, too. We had no trouble rotating photos with two fingers, and we could easily flick through images with three fingers. You can also swipe down with three fingers to show the desktop at any time, or swipe up to show your open apps and then three-finger swipe sideways to cycle through them. Our only complaint is that sometimes the touchpad misinterpreted a left click for a right click, such as when selecting text in a Word document. Overall, though, the touchpad on this Ultrabook is now good enough for us to boost this review from 3.5 stars to 4 stars.
After streaming a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad on the UX31 was a cool 76 degrees, the space between the G and H keys was just 81, and the middle of the underside measured 84 degrees. All are well below what we consider uncomfortable--95 degrees.
We were thrilled when we found out that the UX31's 13.3-inch display would have a resolution of 1600 x 900; it's far more fitting for a premium system than the standard 1366 x 768, and even higher than the MacBook Air's 1440 x 900 panel. We liked that we could see more of web pages and even have two documents open side by side.
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When we watched the 1080p trailer for The Avengers, explosions were wonderfully fiery, but blacks could be truer, and we noticed some pixelation in darker areas. Also, viewing angles leave something to be desired compared to the MacBook Air. Three people watching the same movie would have to snuggle up pretty close to see the image clearly.
You can't see the speakers on the UX31, but they make their presence felt. Audio, by Bang & Olufsen's ICEpower and ASUS SonicMaster, radiates from underneath the keyboard, and is not only surprisingly loud, but quite good considering the limitations of the UX31's size.
The cymbals and guitar riffs on the Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Y Control" were relatively free of distortion even at max volume. Bass wasn't overwhelming, but was present. Curiously, the speakers would cause the entire deck to reverberate, especially on thumping dance tracks, such as September's "Cry For You" and LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem." Overall, the UX31 offers more robust sound than the 13-inch Air.
Wake and Boot from Sleep
One of the requirements that Intel laid down for Ultrabooks is that they be able to boot very quickly and resume nearly instantly from sleep. This requires an SSD. The UX31 booted Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) in a fast 29 seconds, half that of the category average (59 seconds). It was only bested by the MacBook Air, which launched OSX Lion in just 17 seconds, and the Samsung Series 9 (25 seconds).
The Acer Aspire S3 has a 20GB SSD, but that drive is only used as a hibernation partition for saving memory to disk to enable quick resumes, not for booting or loading applications. All the action, including the bootup, occurs on the mechanical 320GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive, which is why it took a much longer 65 seconds to load Windows.
Like the MacBook Air, the UX31 resumed from sleep in about 1-2 seconds. It really is great to use a Windows notebook that's ready to go back to work when you are. The S3 took about a second longer than that.
Ports and Webcam
The UX31 has a USB 3.0 on the right side, but it uses micro-sized HDMI and VGA ports instead of full-size ones, which some will find annoying. We like that ASUS ships a VGA adapter with the UX31, but we wish there was a microHDMI adapter as well. The left side of the notebook has a USB 2.0 port, headphone jack, and an SD card slot.
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During a Skype call, the 0.3-megapixel webcam on the UX31 offered clear, but somewhat pallid images. A caller said that video lacked some detail, too. On the plus side, the ASUS FaceLogon Manager took less than 30 seconds to record an image of our face, and logged us into the system in less than a second.
Inside our UX31 is a 1.7-GHz Intel Core i5-2557M processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB Adata solid state drive. Though this is the starting configuration for the UX31, we found it more than powerful. On the PCMark Vantage benchmark, the system scored 10,233, which is almost double the ultraportable average (4,902) and the Acer Aspire S3 (5,409). The Samsung Series 9 was closer (6,857), but only the MacBook Air--which also has a Core i5 processor and an SSD--topped it with a score of 11,230.
On our OpenOffice test completing a VLOOKUP operation of 20,000 names--the UX31 took 5 minutes and 50 seconds, about 25 seconds faster than average, and about two minutes faster than the S3 (8:03).
Having an SSD really makes a difference. Duplicating a 4.97GB folder of multimedia took just 52 seconds, a rate of 97.9 MBps. That's nearly three times faster than the category average (36.8 MBps) and falls between the MacBook Air (127 MBps) and the Series 9 (68.8 MBps), both of which have SSDs.
While the Intel HD graphics in the UX31 aren't going to win the hearts of gamers, it fared fairly well. Its score of 3,761 in 3DMark06 is about 900 points above average (2,880), and lies between the MacBook Air (4,236) and the S3 (3,257).
When we ran our World of Warcraft benchmark with the screen set to native resolution (1600 x 900) and effects at Good, the UX31 averaged 26 fps, which is the same as the S3--just barely playable--and well below the average (43 fps) and the MacBook Air (59 fps at 1440 x 900). However, when we dropped the resolution to 1366 x 768, the UX31's frame rates increased to 40 fps.
The built-in battery on the UX31 lasted 5 hours and 58 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing via Wi-Fi). That's about half an hour less than the ultraportable average (6:33) as well as the MacBook Air (6:25), but almost 50 minutes longer than the Samsung Series 9 (5:11) and well beyond the Acer S3 (4:23). You should be able to get through most of the day on a charge with this notebook.
Our starting model, the UX31E-DH52, costs $1,099 and has a 1.7-GHz Intel Core i5-2557M processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. The UX31E-DH53 will cost $1,349 and have the same processor and RAM, but a larger 256GB SSD. The top of-the-line model, the UX31E-DH72, will have an Intel Core i7-2677M processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, and will retail for $1,449.
Software and Warranty
ASUS keeps the software load pretty light, which is good considering there's not a ton of space on the 128GB SSD. The most prominent utility is the ASUS PowerWiz gadget, which not only tells you at a glance how much battery life is left, but how much time remains if you were to surf the web, play videos, games, or perform office-related tasks. Another gadget lets you disable instant on.
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ASUS also bundled its utilities into the AsusTools folder, which sits on the desktop and gives you quick access to everything from Backup and Restore to the webcam. Other ASUS apps include its Vibe Center, a games and multimedia entertainment portal and ASUS WebStorage (online backup).
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Of course, no Windows notebook would be complete without Microsoft Office Starter 2010 and a trial version of security software, in this case Trend Micro Titanium.
The UX31 comes with a two-year global warranty and one year of accidental damage protection, 24/7 tech support, free two-way shipping, and a 30-day guarantee that the panel won't have dead pixels. See how ASUS fared in our Tech Support Showdown and Best & Worst Brands report.
The ASUS Zenbook UX31 takes a lot of what we loved about the 13-inch MacBook Air--a wafer-thin aluminum chassis, fast performance, instant resume, and good battery life--and adds even better audio and a higher-resolution display. Even better, the UX31 costs $200 less than the Air. The design of the ASUS also looks and feels more premium, thanks to the brushed-metal treatment. While we wish the keyboard was backlit, the much-improved touchpad is among the better ones you'll find on this class of machine. Overall, the Zenbook UX31 is one of our favorite Ultrabooks.