Review - Asus Zenbook UX31E

The Asus Zenbook UX31E is the Asus reply to Intel's plea to Windows laptop makers to copy the Apple MacBook Air

Intel’s thin-and-light Ultrabook concept has been gathering steam over the past few months, with a whole host of players looking to take on Apple’s hugely popular MacBook Air. Proudly leading the charge is Asus with its 13in Zenbook UX31E. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and this little laptop looks startlingly familiar.

From the design of the box to the hardware itself, it seems Asus has been taking notes from Apple, but the Zenbook is still strikingly attractive in its own right – it isn’t only pretty by Ultrabook standards, it ranks among the prettiest laptops to sport a Windows sticker. Concentric circles shimmer across the dark grey lid, the brushed-metal finish softening to a lighter grey on the base, and the combination of sharp angles and smooth curves makes for a beautiful design.

Measuring mere millimetres-thick at its front edge and tapering to a delicate 17mm at the rear, the Zenbook weighs only 1.4kg. That’s nowhere near light enough to trouble Sony’s flagship VAIO Z Series – that pricey ultraportable weighs only 1.15kg – but where many thin laptops sacrifice durability, the Zenbook feels unyieldingly stout. It’s far sturdier in the hand than either the Sony or Samsung’s Series 9 – so much so, you’re likely to pull a muscle before you eke any flex from the rock-solid base.

One of the principal appeals of the Ultrabook concept is that style and a light weight come with serious power, and the Zenbook achieves that. The Core i7-2677M processor is an ultra-low-voltage part, but with its nominal 1.8GHz clock speed boosting right up to 2.9GHz when required, and a blazingly quick 128GB Sandforce SSD alongside, the Zenbook romped through our Real World Benchmarks to a result of 0.62. That’s just ahead of Apple’s Core i5-equipped MacBook Air.

It makes for a responsive system. Applications spring in and out of view with lightning-speed, and Asus’ claims that it wakes from sleep in two seconds are spot on. Even from a cold boot, the Zenbook UX31E raced to the Windows desktop in 20 seconds. It isn’t just quick, either: we recorded an impressive 8hrs 53mins in our light-use battery test.

Sound tumbles from the integrated Bang & Olufsen speakers with surprising loudness and clarity, and when you add the blindingly bright 13.3in display above, the Zenbook looks a perfectly capable little entertainment centre.

However, on closer examination the chinks in the armour begin to appear. While the 1,600 x 900 panel makes for a spacious Windows desktop, and gives a stunning 506cd/m2 maximum brightness, image quality is average at best. Colour accuracy is wayward, with the panel’s high-colour temperature leaving skintones and images dogged with a bluish tint. The contrast ratio of only 203:1 is disappointingly low, and the darkest greys are crushed into black.

After the luxurious looks and rock-solid build, the Scrabble-tile keyboard also comes as a disappointment. It isn’t backlit, which is a shame, and while the short-travel keys initially have a luxurious, firm action, we often found keypresses failed to register, forcing us to track back through our copy to add missing characters. The final annoyance is the wristrest, whose unpleasantly sharp front edge digs into the wrists while typing.

The touchpad has its own issues. Asus has opted for a glass touchpad, so it feels gorgeously smooth under the finger, but it’s dogged by an almost imperceptible lag, and cursor control was occasionally erratic – a stray thumb hovering a little too near the pad’s bottom corner often sent the cursor pinging across the screen. The basic pinch-to-zoom and scrolling multitouch gestures work, but the three-finger upward swipe to activate Flip 3D often didn’t register, leaving us clawing impotently. It’s a far cry from the slick, responsive gesture control of the MacBook Air.

As you’d expect from such a slender figure, connectivity is also fairly limited. Single-band 802.11n and Bluetooth cover the wireless side of things; a USB 2 port, SD card reader and 3.5mm audio output adorn the left-hand side; with USB 3, mini-VGA and mini-HDMI on the right. There’s no room for full-sized video ports or an Ethernet socket, though, so you’ll just have to make sure to have the supplied adapters to hand when you need them.

Again, however, there are annoyances. The first is the positioning of the power socket right alongside the USB 3 port, a decision that made it impossible to connect our (admittedly wide) Patriot USB 3 thumb drive and charge the Zenbook at the same time. Then there’s the delicate-feeling nib of the power supply itself – it’s a minor detail, but the loose, plasticky charger feels out of place on an otherwise classy-feeling device. When compared to Apple’s MagSafe charger, it feels like a toy.

Whether it’s these nagging design details, or the more serious flaws in its construction, the Zenbook UX31E makes some big trade-offs. There’s no doubt it gets some things emphatically right – the beauty, brawn and stamina are all worthy of praise – but it’s inconsistent in the most crucial aspects of any laptop’s design. That makes it impossible to fully recommend right now, but one thing is for sure: the battle of the Ultrabooks has only just begun.
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