- Review Date: 10/26/11
- Bottom line:
The Asus Zenbook UX31 is the clear leader in the nascent ultrabook category, with better overall performance and battery life than any competitor. It also has a brilliant display, superb sound, and solid construction.
Ultra Low-Voltage Core i5 processor is efficient. USB 3.0. Bright, high-resolution display. Superb Bang & Olufsen sound. Slim and sturdy monoshell construction. Security features provide peace of mind. Includes mini VGA-to-VGA and USB-to-Ethernet dongles for added connectivity. Solid-state drive offers instant boot-up and resume time.
SSD offers smaller storage capacity than competitors with spinning drives. Mini HDMI port instead of full-size.
When we first saw the Asus Zenbook UX31 ($1,099 direct), we knew it would take a top spot in the new laptop ultrabook category, thanks to its well-crafted all-metal construction, superb Bang & Olufsen audio, and a keyboard that rivals the trend-setting Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) ($1,299.99 direct, 4 stars) for comfort. And testing in our Labs showed that it provides more than six hours of battery life, as well as more features and better all-around performance than any other slim-bodied laptop we've reviewed. It's our first Editors' Choice for the new category, but with new players coming into the ultrabook space this November, the question is how long will it reign?
The Zenbook UX31 measures 0.66 by 12.79 by 8.78 inches (HWD), and is roughly the same size as the Apple MacBook Air and Acer Aspire S3 ($899.99 direct, 3.5 stars). The UX31's chassis has a spun finish, with tight concentric circles radiating out from the logo etched into its aluminum lid. Asus has emulated Apple's "unibody" construction with an all-metal "monoshell" chassis. But in contrast Apple's seamless single-piece construction, Asus has sandwiched together the palm rest and the underside of the chassis and bolted the two together. The palm rest has an attractive vertical brushed pattern. There was no perceptible flexing in the screen or chassis, and holds up to a firm palm press on the lid.
Compared with the plastic construction of the Acer Aspire S3, the Zenbook UX31 feels sturdier and much more substantial, even though it tapers down to 0.11 inch thick at its thinnest point and 0.66 inches at its thickest. The UX31 weighs 2.86 pounds, lighter than the MacBook Air (2.9 pounds), Acer Aspire S3 (2.94 pounds), and Samsung Series 9 (NP900X3A) ($1,599 street, 4 stars) (2.9 pounds).
The Zenbook UX31 has a 13.3-inch widescreen that displays in 1,600-by-900 resolution—higher than the 1,366-by-768 display on the Acer S3 and 1,440-by-900 one on the MacBook Air. At 450 nits, it's brighter than the display on the Samsung Series 9 and matches the bright backlit screen of the Acer Aspire S3. The Zenbook UX31 also has wider viewing angles than the Acer S3, making it better suited to sharing the screen with another person. The audio on the UX31 is also impressive, powered by Bang & Olufsen's ICEpower. The resulting sound on the Zenbook is crystal clear and consistent at high volumes—and you can get a surprising amount of volume out of this little laptop. While you can fill a room with sound, you won't be rumbling with bass. For movies and music, you'll definitely want to add a subwoofer to the mix.
The Zenbook UX31 has a chiclet-style keyboard that shares the square tile layout of the MacBook Air 13-inch, but adds a new luxurious element with metal keys. While the keys have the same low height and shallow keystrokes as the MacBook Air, the backlight is sadly absent. The glass-topped touchpad is smooth and expansive, measuring five inches diagonally. The broad touch surface supports multitouch gestures, and though it has distinct right and left mouse buttons, it also features a clickpad. The bottom right and left corners—which serve as nearly silent mouse buttons—click more easily than the clickpad surface, making the use of the clickpad optional for those who want the more familiar experience of a standard trackpad.
The thin-sliced proportions of an ultrabook are achieved, in part, by jettisoning many of the features you would find in a standard mainstream laptop, like the optical drive. Despite the limited space available, Asus has managed to include a few features you won't find on the Acer S3. On the left hand side of the Zenbook UX31, you'll find a USB 2.0 port, a combined headphone and microphone jack, and a built-in card reader (SD/MMC). On the right, there's a USB 3.0 port, a mini VGA connection, and a microHDMI port. Neither the MacBook Air or the Acer Aspire S3 offer USB 3.0, and the microHDMI output can be used on a much broader array of monitors and HDTVs than Apple's Thunderbolt port, though it may require an adapter.
In addition to these on-board ports, Asus includes two additional adapters with the Zenbook—a mini VGA-to-VGA adapter (allowing greater use with monitors and projectors), and a USB-to-Ethernet adapter (allowing a wired LAN connection). The Samsung Series 9 also requires (and included) an Ethernet adapter. Integrated 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 technologies are onboard the UX31. Asus bundles a protective laptop sleeve, an attractive fabric and faux-leather envelope with a soft padded lining, and a small matching case for the dongles themselves.
Asus has made a point of keeping your information secure with several Asus branded tools, including Asus Secure Delete and Asus Face Logon, which combines facial recognition and a built-in webcam to make logging onto the Zenbook UX31 as easy as looking at the screen. Automatic data backup and recovery kicks in whenever the battery level dips below five percent, ensuring that even when left in standby mode for several weeks, your work won't be lost. A 60-day trail of Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security also provides protection, though only for a limited time.
The UX31 is equipped with a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD), and access to Asus's Web Storage which lets you offload storage to the cloud. Asus provides 2GB of free storage space for a year, and unlimited space can be bought for a modest subscription fee—ranging from $8.99 for a three-month subscription to $54.99 for two years. Though the SSD doesn't offer the 320GB offered by the Acer Aspire S3's spinning hard drive—or the lower cost—it does have the benefit of being more durable than traditional spinning drives, and allows practically instant boot-up and resume times. Our own testing confirmed Asus' claims of 15-second cold start and 2-second resume from sleep.
There are a few preinstalled programs. In addition to the aforementioned security software trial for Trend Micro, there's also Microsoft Office Starter 2010, a Bing toolbar, and Nuance PDF reader. There are also several Asus-branded utilities, including Asus Tools, and Asus Vibe 2.0, which includes a multimedia library and games. On the desktop are utilities for toggling Instant-On on and off, and PowerWiz, which gauges your current power usage and provides a running estimate of remaining battery life. Asus covers the Zenbook UX31 with a one-year warranty, which includes accident protection, and a second one-year warranty covering the battery.
Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the Zenbook UX31 is its performance. Asus equipped the UX31 with a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M dual-core ultra low voltage processor and 4GB of RAM, the same components found in the MacBook Air 13-inch. It's also a step up from the processor used in the Acer S3 and the upcoming Lenovo IdeaPad U300 ($1,199, stay tuned for our review), which uses the same Core i5-2467M processor found in the smaller Apple MacBook Air 11-inch (Thunderbolt) ($1,199 direct, 3.5 stars). Despite the similar hardware, the UX31 outperformed the 13-inch MacBook in PCMark 7 (3,531 points) and Cinebench R11.5 (2.19 points)—the 13-inch MacBook Air scored 3,186 points and 2.17 points, respectively. It also produced the best performance in multimedia tasks, with leading scores in both Handbrake (2:08) and Photoshop CS5 (4:37). This performance pulled ahead the MacBook Air (2:09 in Handbrake; 4:55 in CS5), Acer Aspire (2:36 in Handbrake; 5:37 in CS5), and Samsung Series 9 (4:45 in Handbrake; 5:53 in CS5).
Though it outperformed the MacBook Air in processor performance, the MacBook Air produced better graphics scores using the same integrated Intel graphics chipset. In 3DMark 06 the Zenbook UX31 scored 4,023 points at medium detail settings and 1,024-by-768 resolution. With these same settings the MacBook Air scored 4,781 points. The Acer S3 fell behind with 3,530 points. In our Crysis and Lost Planet 2 gaming benchmark tests, the Zenbook UX31 (18.4 frames per second in Crysis; 17.1fps in Lost Planet 2) and MacBook Air were close (18.8 fps in Crysis; 21.2 frames per second in Lost planet 2), but the Acer S3 only scored 16.3fps in Crysis and couldn't run Lost Planet 2.
One of the defining characteristics of the ultrabook category is long battery life. Though Asus has claimed the 50Wh battery in the UX31 will provide up to eight hours of continuous use, it lasted only 6 hours 32 minutes in MobileMark 2007. However, this test was performed with all battery-extending features turned off, making it possible to eke out more time with power-saving measures in place. So far, the only comparable laptop to break the six-hour mark is the Samsung Series 9 (6:04, capacity not specified), while the Apple MacBook Air lasted 5:46 (with a 50Wh battery) and Acer Aspire S3 lasted 5:20 with a smaller capacity 36Wh battery. Asus also claims that the Zenbook has up to 14 days of standby time, which is considerably shorter than the 30 days claimed by the MacBook Air or 50 days claimed by the Acer Aspire S3. We couldn't test this standby estimate overnight, but you should still feel confident leaving the UX31 in standby mode for days at a time.
The Asus Zenbook UX31 may be early to the ultrabook party, being one of only two on the market, but it tops the spiritual progenitors of the ultrabook category, the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch and the Samsung Series 9. While it may not be as affordable as the Acer Aspire S3, it more than makes up for it in superior construction, a fuller feature set, and stronger performance. With models on the horizon from Toshiba and Lenovo (both coming in November), it may face some stiff competition soon, but for the time being, the Zenbook UX31 is our Editors' Choice and the ultrabook to beat.