Gaming laptops are traditionally full of compromises.
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A Ultrabook review
Zenbook Prime UX31A: an Ultrabook with a superb screen, fast performance and much improved user comfort
- Fast performance
- Stunning Full HD, IPS screen
- Respectable battery life
- Strong build quality
- Touchpad can be a nuisance
- Ambient light sensor not great
- Space bar squeaked on our model
Excellent overall performance and a stunning screen are just two important features that the ASUS Zenbook UX31A brings to the table. It's thin, light, has a backlit keyboard and its battery life is impressive. It still isn't perfect, and our primary gripe with this model is its touchpad, but it doesn't overshadow the strong Ivy Bridge-based configuration and the beautiful IPS-based screen.
Price$ 2,199.00 (AUD)
The 13.3in ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A was the most anticipated Ultrabook release of the year — for us, at least. Its specifications made sure of that, not to mention the promise of ASUS fixing the problems that surfaced with the original Zenbook. Now that we've finally got our hands on it, we can understand the hype behind this machine and we can see that ASUS has indeed fixed a lot of what was wrong with the original. However, as much as the Zenbook Prime is a vast improvement over the original Zenbook, there are still a couple of niggling issues that are present. They aren't big enough issues to allow one to completely dismiss this Ultrabook though — at the moment, it's definitely one of the top units in the Aussie market.
Design and features
The Zenbook Prime retains the same wedge shape and the strong build quality of the original Zenbook. It feels very sturdy in the hand thanks to its all aluminium construction, and at around 18mm at its thickest point (including the rubber feet on the base), it's an impressively slim laptop. You can carry this thing to and from work with ease thanks to this slim profile and a light weight of 1.4kg. Although, to be fair, this weight is at the high end of the scale for an Ultrabook. Thankfully, carrying its power adapter doesn't make the overall package much heavier; it's a simple wall wart rather than a power brick with cables sticking out of each end, which ensures that it's one of the smallest and lightest laptop power supplies on the Australian market, and it won't take up much room in a bag.
Along its thin, tapering sides, the Zenbook Prime features two USB 3.0 ports (one on either side), a full-sized SD card slot, a combination microphone and headphone port, micro HDMI and a custom connection for a VGA dongle. A VGA dongle is included in the box, as is a USB-based Gigabit Ethernet adapter, should you ever need to plug in to a wired network. If you want to use HDMI to connect to your TV, you'll have to get an adapter or a cable with a micro connection on one end. Bluetooth is present, and the wireless networking module has been upgraded to an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235. This is a big improvement over the Atheros (AR9485WB) module that we saw in the original Zenbook: it supports dual-band and Wi-Di, and it performed reliably during our tests.
Two slits on either side of the chassis provide a passage for sound to escape from the Zenbook Prime's speakers. They are of good quality considering the slight dimensions of this laptop, even though they are not very loud. In a quiet room, they can make for enjoyable music listening and YouTube viewing. A good thing about their location is that you can't muffle them unless you are pressing both sides of the laptop into your thighs while using it on your lap.
You can't easily access the internal components of the ZenBook Prime, but it's not designed to be end-user serviceable. It has a panel on its base that is held together by a series of tiny torx screws. Unless you have a set of such tiny torx screwdrivers, your hopes and dreams of playing with this laptop's gizzards will go unfulfilled. It's this integrated, non-user-serviceable design that has allowed ASUS to make the Zenbook Prime so thin. It has also allowed it to implement a configuration that is very impressive for such a thin laptop.
Specifications and performance
Running the Zenbook Prime show is a third generation (Ivy Bridge) Intel Core i7-3517U CPU, which is an ultra-low-voltage (17W) CPU with a 1.9GHz frequency (it can go up to 2.4GHz in this Ultrabook in Turbo Boost mode), two cores and Hyper-Threading. It's a CPU that gives this Ultrabook a lot of power for regular office tasks, and it can also be used for transcoding media files (when you want to convert files for use on a mobile device, for example). It's accompanied by 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM (1600MHz) and a 256GB SanDisk U100 solid state drive, which has a formatted capacity of 220GB. It's a strong configuration all up, and it allowed the Zenbook Prime to put up good results in our tests.
In our Blender 3D rendering and iTunes MP3 encoding tests, the Prime returned times of 42sec and 48sec, respectively. In our AutoGordianKnot DVD-to-Xvid conversion test, a time of 50min was achieved — anything under one hour for an Ultrabook in this test is outstanding — while in the ArcSoft Media Encoding test, where we convert a DVD file to an MKV file, it took just over 10min. We enjoyed using this Ultrabook very much for daily work and entertainment tasks; applications loaded swiftly and multitasking was a breeze (especially with the large screen resolution).
The ZenBook Prime uses integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics processing, which provide much better performance over previous generation Intel HD 3000 graphics. In 3DMark06, the Zenbook Prime reached a mark of 5150, which is almost a 50 per cent improvement in performance over the first-gen Zenbook. The adapter drives a Full HD screen that looks stunning, and we'll get to that in a moment.
For storage, the 256GB SSD provides ample space for a mobile computer — it's plenty for lots of applications and the operating system, as well as for carrying around a selection of media files for when you're on the road. It's also very quick. In CrystalDiskMark, it achieved sequential read and write speeds of 461 megabytes per second (MBps) and 352MBps, respectively, and these actually exceed the manufacturer's stated ratings for this SSD. In our file duplication tests, the speed was also impressive, recording 57.12MBps. It's a better overall result than the storage system in the Ultrabook, but the Dell XPS 13's storage still leads the way in our file duplication test, with a recorded rate over 160MBps.
Overall, it's hard to fault the Zenbook Prime's performance. The Core i7 CPU and the fast solid state drive ensure that things move along swiftly. Using the out-of-box configuration, boot-up time for the Ultrabook was clocked at 20sec from a cold start, and resume time from sleep mode was a mere 2sec. Using the laptop for hours in our lap for tasks such as word processing, emails and Web browsing, the base of the unit got slightly warm, but not enough to become uncomfortable (although it is winter).
Noise also wasn't an issue with this Ultrabook. The fan inside the chassis piped up when the processing load was full, and it worked intermittently during other times, but it was never bothersome, unlike the fan in the Fujitsu U772, for example. Air intake vents are located on the rear of the base and can easily be blocked while using the Ultrabook on your lap, but there are lots of them and the chances are you probably won't block them all at the same time. Warm air exits up through the vents on the spine of the chassis, just in front of the screen.
The stand-out feature of the Zenbook Prime is its 13.3in screen. It has a Full HD resolution of 1920x1080, which is the highest resolution currently available for a thin-and-light laptop, and it's perfect for multitasking — we're writing this right now with two windows comfortably open side by side: one for Google Docs in which we are writing, and one for Gmail, which is making it hard to ignore work emails. More than the resolution though, the screen is excellent because it's an IPS panel that possesses wide vertical and horizontal viewing angles. We didn't have to adjust the screen at all during our tests in order to make the picture look right. Colours, contrast and brightness are all top-notch on this screen and it's definitely the best we've seen on an Ultrabook — it's better than the Samsung Series 9's screen thanks to the higher resolution.
The hinges that hold the screen could be better though. The Zenbook Prime is slightly heavier at the rear, near the screen and the hinges sometimes give way when the notebook is moved. You can have the screen positioned at the angle you desire, but picking up the Ultrabook to move it to another location, for example, can cause the screen to tilt back all the way — it doesn't happen all the time though.
The keyboard is one of the other areas that has been improved over the previous Zenbook. It's now backlit (there are four intensity levels to choose from) and it looks great. Not only that, the keys are full-sized, and they possess plenty of travel and responsiveness, which is impressive for a notebook with such a thin chassis. Long story short: it's a pleasure to type with this keyboard. It can take a while to get used to the power button being in the top-right corner, but it doesn't spell doom if you accidentally press it thinking it's the delete key — a simple hit will do nothing, and a prolonged press will bring up an on-screen menu asking you if you want to shut down or perform another task. The only thing that was annoying with the keyboard was a slight squeaking that developed in the space bar. The ambient light sensor that controls the keyboard backlight could also stand to be a little more sensitive (also, we noticed that this sensor only controlled the keyboard light and not the screen, which we would have liked).
The ELAN touchpad in the Zenbook Prime is also an improvement over the Sentelic pad that was used in the original Zenbook, but it's still far from perfect. It got in the way regularly while we typed on the laptop, causing the pointer to skip all over the screen and sometimes select and overwrite text. It's possible to adjust the palm rejection area and make it larger through the "ASUS Smart Detector" feature of the driver, and this is what we had to do to try to counter this problem, but it didn't work well. Apart from that and some slight stickiness now and then (the same type of stickiness we noticed in Samsung's Series 9), the touchpad was responsive and worked well, even allowing us to perform right-click-and-drag operations without any problems. Three-finger swipes and two-finger scrolling gestures were comfortable to use. However, the driver doesn't support four-finger gestures, which is a shame considering the pad is a large 115x71mm.
Despite the squeaking space bar and a cursor that sometimes skipped all over the screen as we typed, the Zenbook Prime offers a much better overall user experience than its predecessor. It's comfortable for lap use, its keyboard is enjoyable to type on and, above all, it's screen is simply beautiful to look at, whether you're working on documents, editing photos or watching movies.
A 50 Watt-hour battery is installed in the chassis and it provides the Zenbook Prime with a very useful lifespan while it's away from an outlet. In our standardised rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video, the battery lasted 3hr 29min. This is a little lower than other Ultrabooks, such as the Samsung Series 9 and even larger Ultrabooks such as the Dell XPS 14, but considering the high-quality, Full HD screen that the battery has to drive, we feel that it's a respectable result.
While using the Zenbook Prime for everyday tasks such as word processing, Web browsing, watching the odd YouTube video and listening to music now and then, it lasted close to five and half hours, which is a great result. That was with the screen brightness at the halfway point, the keyboard backlight enabled at its lowest intensity, and with the system at the high performance power setting.
With solid construction, a superb, Full HD screen, a backlit keyboard, fast performance and good battery life, the Zenbook Prime is a strong candidate for Ultrabook of the year. It does have some niggling problems, such as a touchpad that can sometimes make typing difficult, an ambient light sensor that isn't overly sensitive, as well as a squeaking space bar (on our test model at least), but overall it's a very good unit that's worthy of your consideration. Official pricing that we were given for this unit at the time of publication was
$1799 $2199. Online searches turned up pricing that was closer to $2000, so it pays to shop around. The Core i5 version with a 128GB SSD costs closer to $1600.
Note: This review was updated on 13 July with the correct pricing from ASUS.
Related notebook reviews:
• Fujitsu Lifebook U772 Ivy Bridge Ultrabook
• Dell XPS 14 Ivy Bridge Ultrabook
• Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook
• Lenovo ThinkPad X230 Ivy Bridge laptop
• Apple MacBook Pro (15in with Retina display)
• ASUS N56VM Ivy Bridge laptop
• Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 Ultrabook
• Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E530 Ivy Bridge laptop
• Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook
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