There are countless trends competing for attention in the gaming notebook and laptop space but not all of them are either useful or benefit the core gaming experience.
ASUS Zenbook UX301LA
A fourth generation Intel Core i7 CPU with Iris graphics, a RAID 0 array, and a 1440p screen all make the latest ASUS Zenbook one of the most appealing Ultrabooks on the market
- High resolution screen
- RAID 0 array
- Well built and comfortable to use
- The SD card slot leaves cards half exposed
- Relatively short battery life
ASUS has made a few changes to its Zenbook since we last saw it, both in terms of looks and configuration options. It continues to be an appealing Ultrabook, especially if you want a high resolution screen and fast performance, but it still needs a little refining.
ASUS has done a lot to make the Zenbook UX301LA Ultrabook a standout device. It’s well built, good looking, and it has a comfortable feel to it. Furthermore, its screen has one of the highest resolutions on the market. In a way, it’s the perfect Ultrabook for those of you who want a portable computer on which to view and edit high resolution photos, as well as use any other software that can benefit from the extra resolution, especially software with lots of tool palettes and visible options.
A better-than-Full HD screen
The UX301L has a 13.3in screen and a native resolution of 2560x1440 pixels. It’s designed for users who can take advantage of so many pixels, be they photographers, people who edit video, or simply enthusiasts who want to have as much real estate as possible when working with Windows. Indeed, the plethora of pixels is perfect for lining up at least two windows side by side when you’re multitasking, and we see this as being the major benefit of this screen.
However, while the 2560x1440-pixel resolution is the standout feature of this Ultrabook, there’s no doubt that a resolution this fine on a 13.3in screen isn’t for everybody. Some of you might find the high resolution uncomfortable to look at for long periods of time, mainly because text will look very small and you might have to strain your eyes or get your face close to the screen to see what’s going on.
There are a couple of things you can do: you can change the scaling of text and icons through Windows 8’s display properties, though this won’t work with all applications (Chrome, for example, still displayed text at the native resolution of the screen during our tests while Firefox enlarged it), or you can change the resolution to 1920x1080, at which the screen will still look quite sharp while displaying slightly larger text and icons.
In addition to the higher-than-usual resolution, the screen also supports touch. You can easily use it to traverse the Windows 8 Modern UI, but it can be difficult to tap on icons and text when using the touchscreen within the Desktop environment. At most, we used the touchscreen to flick through and zoom in on photos displayed with Windows Photo Viewer, and we also used our fingers to drag windows across the screen.
The screen doesn’t tilt all the way, nor can it twist or turn so that you can use the Zenbook as a tablet — it’s based on a standard clamshell form factor. The touch functionality is there simply as another option for navigating the operating system, and, as we’ve already mentioned, it’s best used to browse and launch apps in the Windows 8 Modern UI.
As for quality, the screen is crisp, and it has wide viewing angles. We found it to be comfortable on the eyes for the most part, and enjoyed the rich colours it rendered when we viewed images and videos. It’s a glossy screen, though, due to the Gorilla Glass 3 that protects the panel, and this means that reflections will be noticeable, especially when viewing images or videos with dark colours. These reflections will be more noticeable in an office environment where the lighting can’t be directly controlled.
Specifications and performance
Controlling the screen is Intel’s Iris 5100 graphics processor, which is integrated in the Intel Core i7-4558U CPU that runs the Zenbook UX301LA. There is also 8GB of RAM installed. It’s a combination that supplies plenty of speed for crunching graphics information, and for everyday processing tasks. Furthermore, the overall processing performance of the Zenbook is very good, and you can definitely use it if you want to transcode or edit video, or edit high resolution photos.
In our Blender 3D rendering test, the Zenbook got a time of 36sec, which is one of the best times we’ve seen for an Ultrabook, while in Handbrake it took just over 18min to turn a DVD file into an MP4. As for the graphics, they recorded 51819 in 3DMark’s Ice Storm test, 5774 in the Cloud Gate test, and 879 in the Fire Strike test. For comparison, a similar system with non-Iris graphics (that is, Intel HD 4400 graphics), gets about 4500 marks in the mid-range Ice Storm test, and about 650 marks in the high-end Fire Strike test, so you can see that the Zenbook with Iris graphics is very good in this area.
Storage is another area in which the Zenbook UX301LA is above average. Instead of relying on just one solid state drive (SSD), ASUS has installed two SSDs in a RAID 0, which combine to produce a fast single drive with a usable capacity of 216GB. In CrystalDiskMark, this RAID 0 array recorded a read rate of 899 megabytes per second (MBps), and a write rate of 544MBps.
These transfer rates are almost twice as fast as what a typical SSD can do on its own, and the RAID 0 array really does give the Zenbook a noticeable zip when it comes to loading applications and moving data around. Additionally, boot up time was a barely noticeable 6sec (from the time the power button was pressed until the Windows 8 login screen appeared), and the system awoke from sleeping almost immediately when we lifted the lid. These results were with the 'fast boot' option enabled in the BIOS. Incidentally, if you want to enter the BIOS, you'll have to be very quick to press F2 immediately after you press the power button.
Battery life isn’t great, though. It’s the one area that this laptop failed to impress. In our rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness, and loop a video file in Windows Media Player, the Zenbook UX301LA lasted only 3hr 24min. Considering many Ultrabooks that we’ve seen recently can last upwards of 5hr in this same test, the Zenbook’s battery is a disappointment, but it’s a factor of the high-resolution screen. That said, even the Toshiba KIRA, which also has a 2560x1440 screen, lasted 4hr 24min in our test. When we used the Zenbook for typical Web browsing and with a low brightness, we managed to just over 4hr out of it.
One thing that was annoying about the Zenbook during our tests was the constant switching of the power profile. We mainly wanted to run the Ultrabook in high performance mode, both in battery mode and when plugged in, but it always reverted back to the ASUS-specific Power4Gear Power Saving (or Power4Gear High Performance) profile when we switched from plugged-in to battery mode. It never used the specific profile that we set.
Design and build quality
Physically, the Zenbook UX301LA has a flashy lid that's reflective, yet still blessed with a spiral pattern that emanates from the central ASUS logo. That logo lights up whenever the laptop is powered on. The palm rest has a matte finish that feels good against the skin, and combined with a chiclet-style, backlit keyboard, the Zenbook provides a comfortable overall typing experience.
When the lid is lifted to 90 degrees and beyond, it has the effect of lifting the chassis up off the table. There are little bumps on the lid to accommodate this so that the lid itself doesn't get scratched when this happens, though ASUS claims the finish is scratch resistant. We can only guess that this design has been implemented in order to give the vents at the bottom of the laptop some room to draw in external air. If these are blocked while you use the Zenbook on your lap and the CPU has to do hard work, then the chassis warms up noticeably. There are extraction vents along the spine of the chassis, through which warm air is pushed up in front of the screen.
As for connectivity, the sides have two USB 3.0 ports, a headset port, an SD card slot, a micro-HDMI port, and a mini-DisplayPort. It comes with a USB-based Ethernet adapter, and also a VGA adapter that plugs in to the DisplayPort. You'll need an adapter to hook up a TV or external monitor. On the inside, you get Bluetooth 4.0, which is great for hooking this Ultrabook up to a stereo of Bluetooth speaker, but in saying that, the speakers on the Zenbook are very good, and definitely capable of providing enjoyable sounds if you want to listen to some tunes.
There is also dual-band Wi-Fi in the form of an Intel Wireless-AC 7260 adapter. it transferred large files at a rate of about 20MBps on our standard 450Mbps Linksys router, which is a good (and expected) result. However, we did notice that the 5GHz network sometimes dropped out for no apparent reason. The unit we tested didn't come with retail-ready software, though, so we're guessing this was just a quirk of our unit.
The SD card slot needs a warning though: SD cards don't sit all the way inside this slot. Instead, any cards you insert will stick halfway out of the chassis. This could be a problem if you somehow forget that you've inserted a card and accidentally move the laptop in a way that can potentially bend or crunch the card.
Overall, though, we like the build quality and design of the Zenbook UX301LA, which looks good in addition to being very solid, and it's comfortable to use and to carry around on a daily basis (it weighs just above 1.4kg, and it's about 18mm thick at its thickest point).
Keyboard and touchpad
The keys feel solid, they have adequate travel, and the keyboard tray doesn't move at all as the keys are hit. Our only problem with the keyboard is the power button, which is located in the top-right corner of the keyboard where the Delete key would ordinarily be. We pressed it many times by accident and put the computer into sleep mode. Previous designs we've seen that use the power button in this location have a delay on the button in case it's accidentally pressed, but our test laptop didn't and we couldn't find a setting to change this.
The touchpad is a large one (99x67mm), and it's centred according to the chassis, rather than the space bar. It felt smooth under our fingers and it was generally responsive. However, the software that drives this pad isn't great, as there is no scope for changing things such as scrolling behaviour. Swipe-in gestures for Windows 8 were also a little too sensitive, and there were many times when we inadvertently brought up the Charms or switched apps. As is the case with many recent ASUS touchpads we've seen recently, the three-finger swipe gesture didn't work for us when we used Firefox. As usual, ASUS still needs to put more work into the touchpad, even on a premium laptop such as this one.
There's a lot to like about the ASUS Zenbook UX301LA, including its high resolution screen and overall performance. The RAID 0 storage array is particularly impressive. We also found its keyboard to be very good, and we enjoyed the styling and the build quality. All up, it's an impressive unit. However, it could use some refining: in particular, we're not fans of the SD card slot leaving cards half exposed, we wish the driver for the touchpad was more extensive, and we think the battery life is too short for an Ultrabook.
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