- Review Date: 07/19/2012
- Bottom line: Although it has its shortcomings, the Asus UX31A-DB51 (Zenbook Prime) is worthy of consideration by everyday users looking to jump into the ultrabook foray thanks to its gorgeous design, portability, and eye-popping display.
- Pros: Gorgeously designed. Third-generation Intel Core i5 processor. Impressive 1080p display with IPS panel. WiDi.
- Cons: Some bloatware. Battery could be better. 4GB of RAM hampers performance. Limited storage space. Limited port selection.
In a tech world preoccupied with the ongoing pursuit of ever-smaller gizmos, it's unsurprising that ultrabooks are occupying an increasingly larger sliver of the market. The Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A-DB51 ($1,099 list) is an apt illustration of why this trend has caught fire. Equal parts brains and beauty, its sleek aluminum chassis packs Intel's third-generation processor and an eye-popping 1080p display with a built-in IPS panel. It isn't, however, entirely free of faults, as demonstrated by its paucity of RAM or storage capacity. All said, though, it's a great system worthy of consideration by everyday users looking to take a leap into the ultrabook world. A caveat, however: readers interested in this system are advised to comparison shop, as Asus has also released the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A-R5102F ($999 list, 3.5 stars), a virtually identical ultrabook that sells for $100 less. Accordingly, if you find yourself in a store checking the UX31A-DB51, do yourself a favor and look around to see if the UX31A-R5102F is available – you'll get the same system and save a hundred bucks.
When you pull the UX31A-DB51 out of its included fabric sleeve for the first time, it's understandable to be taken aback by its gorgeous brushed aluminum chassis. Its svelte profile measures 0.11 by 12.8 by 8.8 inches (HWD), and at 3.03 pounds, it's a smidge heavier than the 2.9-pound MacBook Air 13-inch (Mid 2012) ($1,199 direct, 4 stars), putting it at the lighter end of the ultrabook category (by way of comparison, our former Editors' Choice for ultraportables, the Toshiba Portege R858-P88 ($849.99 list, 4.5 stars), weighs 3.2 pounds). Opening the UX31A-DB51 reveals a design that takes a good deal of its design cues from the MacBook Air, particularly its unibody construction and black tiled keyboard.
But there are also some distinguishing characteristics. For starters, the UX31A-DB51's palm rest is slightly smaller. Moreover, its Bang & Olufsen ICEpower speaker is horizontally oriented not unlike a home theatre soundbar and is built into the 13.3-inch LED display's hinge. I tested the audio quality with "Five Seconds" by Twin Shadow and was pleased with the clean and crisp sound, though the maximum volume level isn't nearly high enough to fill a room (unless the room in question happens to be a dorm). Regardless of the size of the room you're in, however, the display will definitely turn heads. Thanks to its built-in IPS (in plane switching) panel, the non-reflective matte coated display features excellent color reproduction and wide viewing angles that complement its class-leading 1080p resolution, a huge step above the 1,366-by-768 resolution typically found in most 13- and 14-inch panels. The closest any competing system comes to entering this rarefied territory is the Dell XPS 14 (Summer 2012) ($899 direct, 3.5 stars), which has a 1,600-by-900 resolution 14-inch LED display.
Although a slightly larger palmrest would have been more suitable for my admittedly spindly fingers, typing on the UX31A-DB51 was an overall comfortable endeavor. The backlit keys were responsive, and the keyboard itself felt appreciably sturdy, avoiding the shallow sensation one might expect from such a slim profile. The generously sized clickpad is equally comfortable, and incorporates right- and left- clicking onto a single surface while providing the right amount of tactile feedback without feeling too clacky. Likewise, two-finger scrolling and pinch-zooming felt natural.
Much of the UX31A-DB51's streamlined look is attributable to its judicious port selection and arrangement. Each side of the system sports a USB 3.0 port. Additionally, the left side features a microphone-in/headphone out combo port and a multicard (SD, MMC) reader. On the right, you'll find Micro HDMI and mini VGA ports, the latter of which can be outfitted with the included mini VGA to VGA dongle. And that's it in terms of ports. It's a bare-bones approach that complements the system's minimalist style, though peripheral-happy users will doubtless be turned off by the limited port selection.
Like the Toshiba Portege R835, Dell Inspiron 14z-5423 ($899 direct, 3.5 stars), and Dell XPS 14, the UX31A-DB51 comes equipped with Intel's Wireless Display technology (WiDi 2.0), letting you stream HD video from your system to any television outfitted with an adapter, like the Netgear Push2TV ($99 list). There's a decent amount of software preloaded on the UX31A-DB51, including Microsoft Office 2010 Starter and a slew of proprietary software ranging in usefulness, from Cloud-based backup (Asus WebStorage) to multimedia and games (Asus Vibe 2.0).
When it came to raw processing power, the UX31A-DB51's third-generation 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor and Intel HD Graphics 4000 integrated graphics combination yielded impressive results. This was evident in its PCMark 7 score of 4,303 points, which catapulted it to the top of its class and left the distant second place finisher, the Dell XPS 14 (Summer 2012) (3,348) in the dust. When the focus wasn't primarily on processing power, however, the UX31A-DB51 wasn't as sure-footed since it only comes equipped with 4GB of DDR3 RAM, whereas most other systems in its class typically sport at least 6GB; the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Mid 2012), Dell XPS 14, and Dell Inspiron 14z each pack 8GB. Unsurprisingly, UX31A-DB51 consequently came up short in our other tests. Its 3DMark 2006 scores of 4,511 in 1,024 by 768 resolution with anti-aliasing turned off and 2,131 in the native 1,920 by 1080 resolution and 4x anti-aliasing landed it at the bottom of the pack, with the class-leading Dell XPS 14 sprinting ahead by a significant margin (7,047 in 1,024 by 768 resolution with anti-aliasing turned off; 5,929 in native 1,600 by 900 resolution and 4x anti-aliasing).
The same goes for the UX31A-DB51's multimedia performance. It completed our Handbrake video encoding test in 1:57, a second faster than the Dell Inspiron 14z-5423 (1:58) but eleven seconds slower than the class-leading Toshiba Portege R835 (1:46). Its Cinebench R11.5 score of 2.32 was beaten by the rest by varying degrees, narrowly falling short of the Inspiron 14z (2.40) but by a much greater extent compared to the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Mid 2012) (2.85). Likewise, its Photoshop CS5 test scores fell on the lower end of the spectrum, albeit this can be attributed to one further wrinkle: because of the higher resolution in the UX31A-DB51's display and less system memory, it consequently takes more time to render image effects in Photoshop. Hence its time of 4:43, eight seconds longer than the Inspiron 14z (4:35) and a whole 1 minutes 9 seconds longer than the pack-leading Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Mid 2012) (3:54). It's worth noting, though, that despite the UX31A-DB51's somewhat slower Photoshop performance, its higher resolution ensures that you'll have much more screen real estate for tinkering with your photos than would be the case with most other ultrabooks.
The UX31A-DB51 is obviously not a gaming rig, and its performance in this arena confirms this basic reality. Although it produced unplayable scores in Crysis (18 fps with medium-quality settings, 7 fps with high-quality settings), it was not alone: every system in its class failed to cross the 30 fps threshold, the sole exception being the Inspiron 14z's 41fps in medium quality settings thanks to its 1GB ATI Radeon HD 7570 GPU. Like the rest of its class, the UX31A-DB51 failed to pump out 30fps in Lost Planet 2 (19 fps in medium quality, 6 fps in high quality), although the Dell XPS 14 came awfully close (29fps in medium quality).
The UX31A-DB51's 50Whr battery is sealed inside its aluminum chassis. We were unable to run our usual MobileMark 2007 test to assess the the battery life, however, so we used a ten-hour video rundown test instead. Although this method is not as accurate as MobileMark, it's nonetheless useful as a rough approximation of battery performance. Accordingly, running with the display dimmed to 50 percent and both Wi-Fi and keyboard backlight activated, the UX31A-DB51's battery lasted for six hours eleven minutes, twenty six minutes shy of what Asus claims. It's a decent battery life, but nonetheless falls towards the lower end of the spectrum, trailing the MacBook Pro 13-inch (Mid 2012) (6 hours 24 minutes), which we'd also assessed using the video rundown test. A quick comparison to the MobleMark scores of other systems in its class reveals a nearly uniform trouncing of the UX31A-DB51's battery performance, with the Dell XPS 14 (9:37) and the Toshiba Portege R835 (8:40) both summarily blowing it out of the water by margins wide enough to ultimately obscure whatever minor inaccuracy our video-rundown may have produced.
The Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A-DB51 is not perfect. At the same time, however, it's an excellent example of why you should take a closer look at ultrabooks: it's gorgeous, portable, and fun to use. Although it may not necessarily be the most muscular system out there, it's nonetheless an able performer for most daily computing tasks. Power users looking to enter the ultrabook fray, on the other hand, should check out new Editors' Choice for ultrabooks, the Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD-DB71 ($1299 list, 4 stars), it has the same screen, but it sits at the top of its class thanks to its robust Intel Core i7-5317UM 1.7GHz and discrete 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 620M combination. For everyday users though, the UX31A-DB51 is a great option, though it's worth reiterating my original caveat that smart shoppers should ascertain whether the virtually identical Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A-R5102F is on sale before making their final decision.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.