- Review Date: 02/08/2012
- Bottom line:
A mix of ultrabook and ultraportable, the Asus Zenbook UX21E-DH52 is a formidable challenger to the 11-inch MacBook Air.
Marvelously thin and light. Bright screen. Nifty AC adapter. VGA and Ethernet dongles and case included.
Stiff, non-backlit keyboard. Reflective screen. No memory-card slot. Lethal power button position.
What's more ultraportable than an ultrabook? The ultrabooks we've tested to date, such as the Asus Zenbook UX31-RSL8 ($1,049 list, 4 stars), have had 13.3-inch displays. But if even a 2.9-pound sliver is too bulky for you, Asus also makes a 2.25-pound splinter: The Asus Zenbook UX21E-DH52 ($999 list) has an 11.6-inch screen, an Intel Core i5 processor, and the same 4GB of RAM and 128GB solid-state drive as its bigger sibling. In terms of high performance in a trivially light package, it's a netbook's worst nightmare. But though it's no nightmare to users, it has a couple of shortcomings that keep it from being a purely sweet dream, either.
Just as 13.3-inch ultrabooks are invariably compared to the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) ($1,299 direct, 4 stars), the UX21E-DH52 gets mentioned in the same breath as the MacBook Air 11-inch (Thunderbolt) ($999 direct, 3.5 stars). Besides the same price and same processor, the UX21E-DH52 and 11-inch MacBook Air share the same aluminum unibody construction, screen size, and resolution (1,366 by 768 pixels). The former has a USB 3.0 port, the latter a Thunderbolt port. But the MacBook Air 11-inch, though it outshines the UX21E-DH52 with a backlit keyboard, has only half the memory and storage (2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD).
The UX21E-DH52 looks like a slightly shrunken (7.7 by 11.7 by 0.7 inches) version of the UX31 series, which is to say, gorgeous. It's machined from one piece of aluminum, with a vertically brushed pattern on the bottom and palmrest and slightly darker circular pattern on the lid. The unobtrusive FCC notice stenciled into the clean silver underside and monochromatic versions of the inescapable Intel and Windows stickers beneath the keyboard help make the UX21E-DH52 look starkly modern and easily as slick as the MacBook Air. It's also absolutely solid: Grasp the display's top corners, and you'll move the whole system rather than flexing the screen.
A little piece of modern sculpture in its own right is the ultrabook's AC adapter or power brick, a pocket-sized (2.25 by 2.25 by 1 inch, HWD) block with flip-up, two-prong plug. Another goody in the UX21E-DH52's box is a nylon sleeve or case for the computer (like a small interoffice envelope with a magnetic snap closure).
Icons and text on the 11.6-inch screen are on the small side, but sharp enough to be quite legible. The screen is very glossy—I got used to reading through the reflection of the ceiling fluorescents at work—and exceptionally bright (it's easy to save battery power by turning the backlight halfway down). Colors are vivid, though blacks are a bit pale or grayish.
The keyboard isn't cramped (although the cursor arrows, with Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn doubled up on them, are small), but its typing feel is stiff and shallow. Light-fingered typists will find it takes considerable force for a keypress to register—I was reminded of the original, clackety IBM PC desktop keyboard, though the UX21E isn't quite that bad—and face a definite period of adjustment.
To make the latter more interesting, Asus has also thrown in a booby trap: The power button is part of the regular keyboard, in the top right corner where your fingers expect to find the identically shaped and sized Delete key. It's like putting a kill switch for your car's ignition next to the radio dial, though Asus has made it safer by providing a software pop-up: Reach for the Delete key, and you get a menu asking whether you really intended the PC to sleep, shut down, hibernate, or do nothing.
The touchpad works smoothly, though some of its gestures (illustrated by a supplied Asus Tutor utility) take practice. Its lower corners serve as left and right mouse buttons that click quietly and need little force to operate.
On the UX21E-DH52's left side are mini-VGA and USB 2.0 ports and a headphone/microphone jack. On the right are micro-HDMI and USB 3.0 ports. Asus provides a dongle for the VGA but not the HDMI output, and also supplies a USB to Ethernet (100Mbps, not Gigabit) adapter for users seeking to connect to wired office LANs. Naturally, 802.11n Wi-Fi is built in; I had no trouble making a wireless connection for Web surfing and software downloading.
Bluetooth wireless is standard as well, but Intel's Wireless Display (WiDi) screen-beaming technology is absent. Also AWOL is a memory card reader for digital camera or other data transfers. Except for an "Asus Vibe Fun Center" Web link for e-book and audiobook downloads and online radio and games, the system is almost free of bloatware, with just the usual Microsoft Office Starter 2010 and Windows Live apps plus a Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security trial.
The UX21E-DH52's downward-facing speakers produce better-than-expected sound. Its cooling fan produces a faintly audible teakettle hiss, but only when the PC is working hard as it was during our benchmark tests—productivity applications didn't trigger it. Asus's one-year warranty includes accident protection against liquid spills, drops, and electrical surges, though a clause in the fine print excludes "abuse, neglect, acts of war, space invasions, [or] improper maintenance."
The UX21E-DH52 is built around the 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M dual-core CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a snappy SandForce-controller-equipped ADATA 128GB SSD. The results, well, made us decide to list it alongside other ultrabooks in our benchmark spreadsheet even though the latter have larger screens, because listing the speedy UX21E-DH52 alongside netbook-class ultraportables would have been brutal. Take the 11.6-inch, AMD E-350-based HP Pavilion dm1-3010nr (Verizon), for instance: Its PCMark 7 score is 909 versus the UX21E-DH52's 3,601. Or the Editors' Choice HP Pavilion dm1z netbook: It took over 15 minutes to complete the Photoshop CS5 image-editing routine that the UX21E-DH52 did in 5 minutes 27 seconds.
The UX21E-DH52's Photoshop result ties that of the Editors' Choice HP Folio 13, which the UX21E-DH52 also virtually tied in our Handbrake (2:32 versus 2:30) and Cinebench (1.89 versus 1.93) tests—as it did with its UX31-RSL8 sibling in PCMark 7. The UX21E-DH52 also posted several virtual draws with the 11-inch MacBook Air, though it trailed the Apple in graphics—4,557 to 4,307 in 3DMark06—and gaming—18.3 to a sad 6.6 frames per second in Crysis.
For a small laptop with a small (35Wh) battery, the UX21E-DH52 lasted a respectable 4 hours 40 minutes in our MobileMark 2007 rundown test—almost three hours less than the 7:35 of the Toshiba Portege Z835-P330 ($799.99 at Best Buy, 3.5 stars) with its 47Wh battery, but an hour longer than the 11-inch MacBook Air (3:41 with a 35Wh battery).
It's hard to imagine a lighter, more elegant, closer-to-desktop-performance package than the Asus Zenbook UX21E-DH52. On the other hand, it's easy to imagine a better value proposition, particularly with both the Toshiba Z835-P330 and HP Folio 13 offering more spacious 13.3-inch screens; more comfortable, backlit keyboards; and lower prices with virtually equal portability (okay, you might notice the HP Folio 13's additional pound in your briefcase, but you'll never notice the Toshiba's additional four ounces). The Asus UX31-RSL8, too, gives you a lot more than the UX21E-DH52 for only $50 extra. For now, consider the UX21E-DH52 as a status symbol—about as small and as stylish as laptops get.