Asus Zenbook UX305CA review

Asus achieves Ultrabook enlightenment with the near-perfect Zenbook UX305

Asus’ UX305 is the definitive affordable ultrabook.
Asus’ UX305 is the definitive affordable ultrabook.
Asus’ UX305 is the definitive affordable ultrabook.

Highs

  • Featherweight and super slim
  • Outstanding keyboard
  • High contrast, glare-free 1080p display
  • Very affordable

Lows

  • Modest performance

DT Editors' Rating

Home > Product Reviews > Laptop Reviews > Asus Zenbook UX305CA review

Editor’s Note: We originally reviewed the UX305 in April of 2015. The review has since been updated to reflect the most recent version of the notebook.

The Asus Zenbook was the notebook to buy when ultrabooks were first introduced, and over the intervening years it has remained one of the most impressive options available. Subsequent updates weren’t always been outstanding, but most were at least better than average, and a few pushed PC laptops to new limits. The outrageously expensive Zenbook NX500, with its Quantum Dot display, is one example.

Yet not all systems in the lineup are expensive. In fact, Asus has pushed hard to keep prices down, and the fruits of that labor can be seen in the UX305CA. This 13-inch notebook packs an Intel Core m3 6Y30 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB solid state drive and 1080p display. All of this is available for as little as $700.

On paper, at least, it compares well. The Dell XPS 13 is more expensive in base guise, but has less memory and storage space. Samsung’s 12-inch ATIV Book 9, meanwhile, retails for $1,200 despite mostly similar hardware. The LG gram 14Z950 and HP Spectre x360 also sell for several hundred more than this Asus. Can a $700 ultrabook really deliver, or does slashing the price mean cutting the quality?

What color is the laptop?

Trying to determine the color of the UX305 conjured horrific memories of the “what color is the dress?” debate. In different lights, to different people, it can appear silver, or gunmetal, or gray, or purple, and even the word cobalt was uttered once. The official name, which is “obsidian stone,” doesn’t help matters. Whatever you decide the color to be, there’s no debate it’s interesting, and uniquely Asus. The same can be said of the circular pattern etched into the laptop’s lid, a trait found nowhere else.

While previous Zenbooks could be accused of aping the MacBook Air, the new model has a style all its own. It’s extremely thin, yet lacks any taper, and its dark gunmental-gray-purple finish covers both the exterior and interior. It’s more ThinkPad than MacBook, though an Asus logo on the lid makes it impossible to mistake the system as anything except an Asus.

Related: Dell XPS 13 (2015) review

Connectivity is better than expected, given the UX305’s size. It has three USB 3.0 ports, an SDcard reader and a combo headphone/microphone jack. The only potential disappointment is the mini-HDMI port, since this is not as widely used as mini-DisplayPort (still, an adapter is easy to find). Speaking of adapters, Asus ships the system with a USB-to-Ethernet dongle. Wireless connectivity includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Thin laptops don’t have to have bad keyboards

We’ve run into a lot of mediocre laptops in thin chassis. Most notebooks, like the LG gram 14Z950 and Samsung ATIV Book 9, manage a reasonable experience, but cramped quarters and poor key travel are common issues.

While some past Zenbooks could be accused of aping the MacBook Air, the new model has astyle all its own.

Thankfully, the UX305 side-steps these issues entirely. It offers a spacious, supple key layout with an astonishing level of travel for the system’s thickness. There isn’t a Windows notebook on the market that’s less than half an inch thick, like this Zenbook, with a superior keyboard.

There is a sacrifice required to achieve this result, and it’s the keyboard backlight, which is not available standard or as an option. Such an omission is unusual for a system in this price range, and buyers will have to decide if the superior keyboard is worth giving up convenient after-hours use.

The touchpad doesn’t quite live up to the keyboard. There’s nothing wrong with it, exactly; its surface measures about four inches wide and three inches deep, which is respectable, and we had no issue with multi-touch scrolling. Yet it also doesn’t stand out, as it’s not overly large, or well textured, and the clicky left-right buttons have limited travel.

Making the most of matte

Opening the UX305 sprung a surprise on us; the system has a matte 1080p display (a 3,200 x 1,800 panel is option). That’s rare in systems not built explicitly for business use. The screen also doesn’t support touch, and that feature is not available as an option.

Ditching gloss tends to limit maximum brightness and thus contrast, but the UX305 bucks that trend. The maximum brightness of 298 lux is similar to other notebooks. An Asus T300 Chi can hit 287 lux, and the Samsung ATIV Book 9 can reap an incredible 418 lux. The anti-glare coat is very effective, so this Zenbook is more usable in bright lighting than any of its competitors.

Asus Zenbook UX305C
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Image quality was solid, if not exceptional. We measured a maximum contrast ratio of 720:1, which is excellent for any matte screen, and beats most notebooks we’ve tested. Color accuracy was solid, beating the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and LG gram 14Z950, though coming behind the HP Spectre x360 and the Dell XPS 13 by a hair. Black levels were solid at most brightness settings, though a bit high at maximum brightness, resulting in a slight loss of contrast from the maximum of 720:1 (achieved at 50 percent of maximum) to ratio of 680:1.

Related: LG gram 14Z950 ultrabook review

In practice, the solid image quality numbers translate to an enjoyable experience. Images looked accurate and thankfully avoided the washed-out appearance that can plague matte screens. Skin tones were rendered appropriately, which helped actors look their best, and the contrast ratio provided a sense of depth. I did notice that shadow details were at times obscured, however. Silhouettes in dark movies can become completely invisible as they blend into the rest of a scene.

The spacious keyboard is excellent for an Ultrabook – or any laptop.

But here’s the thing to remember — this is a $700 notebook. For the price, there are very few screens that can come close. The only notebook with more image quality for your buck is Acer’s Chromebook 15 with a 1080p display.

Audio quality takes a functional approach. Maximum volume was just enough to fill a small room with sound and there wasn’t much bass. The mid-range was crisp, however, so dialogue was easy to understand. That’s a good trait for fans of podcasts, audio books and video calls.

Jogging to the finish line

The UX305 was one of the first notebooks to embrace Intel’s Core m, and latest revision does not change course. It has th  Intel Core m3 6Y30, a chip with a measly 900MHz base clock but impressive 2.2GHz Turbo Boost. What does that mean for performance?

Geekbench

It seems this particular generational leap isn’t much of a leap at all, as the new UX305CA performs essentially the same as the old UX305FA, which had an M-5Y10 processor clocked at a base of 800MHz with a 2GHz Turbo Boost. Compared to other systems we’ve recently tested, the UX305 is certainly slower. The Surface Pro 4 is almost 50 percent quicker in multi-core performance and 40 percent quicker in single-core testing.

This is not to say the Zenbook is inadequate or feels slow consistently, though, and it seems as if Intel has refined how the new chip performs in real-world situations. The old UX305FA dragged at times, especially while multi-tasking, but the UX305CA’s chip feels rather snappy. It does drag noticeably in demanding tasks — you’ll have to grab a beer and wait for almost an hour to encode even a short 4K video, for example — but for everyday use, the UX305 is sufficient, and it doesn’t feel slower than other systems in its price range.

A 256GB solid state drive is standard on the UX305, which is notable. Most competitors have a 128GB SSD and ask at least $100 to double their storage. CrystalDiskMark recorded sequential read speeds of 467 megabytes per second and sequential writes of 422MB/s. These numbers are about average. The LG 14Z950 and HP Spectre x360 score similarly, but the Surface Pro 4 doubles the UX305CA’s write score, hitting 927MB/s.

3DMark BenchMark

The Zenbook’s Intel HD 515 graphics solution put up a decent fight in 3DMark. Its Sky Diver test score of 2,699 is better than that achieved by the old model, and also beats the LG 14Z950, HP Spectre x360 and Dell XPS 13 we last tested.

However, we haven’t seen versions of those systems with a 6th generation Core chip yet. The Surface Pro 4, which had Intel’s new HD 520 graphics, beat the UX305 with ease. The UX305 is okay, but it’s no powerhouse, and it’s not going to play new 3D games well.

That was proven by a quick romp in Heroes of the Storm. At 1080p resolution and low setings, with anti-aliasing off, the game averaged only 26 frames per second. Turning the detail all the way up reduced the already shaky gameplay to an average of 6 FPS. That’s certainly not playable.

Core M doesn’t deliver in battery life, again

Official specifications list the Zenbook at 12.3 millimeters thick, which works out to a hair less than half an inch. While the chassis is rounded at the edges, it’s not significantly tapered, so the official figure holds true throughout. We weighed the system at two and seventh-tenths pounds, which is slightly less than the 13-inch MacBook Air, and about on par with the Surface Book Pro 4 (when the Type Cover is attached). The LG gram 14Z950 is lighter, but most others in this category are a tad heavier.

Intel’s Core M processor feels adequately quick, but only just.

The Peacekeeper web browsing benchmark, a loop that runs until the battery dies, ate through a full charge in five hours and 25 minutes. Our web browsing loop, which is less demanding and includes some idle time, extended life to seven hours and two minutes. That’s a modest result, but it’ll be enough to put many users through a work day (since most people don’t use their laptop on battery every waking moment).

On the other hand, the Asus’ life still feels a bit disappointing. Excellent portability is expected from a thin and light system like the UX305, but the only slightly more expensive Dell XPS 13 lasts far longer. The HP Spectre x360 and Microsoft Surface Pro 4 perform similarly. However, these competitors have standard Core processors, and so outperform this Asus in benchmarks.

Related: Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (2013) review

Power draw figures were typical for a modern notebook. We recorded seven watts of power consumption at idle with the display at half brightness, and eight watts with the display at maximum brightness. Full system load spiked at just 14 watts. These figures are low across the board, so the UX305 is a solid pick if you’d like a system with minimal power draw.

Silent heat

Like every passively cooled system, the UX305 has no fan to generate noise, which means it is perfectly silent. That’s a win for anyone who hates the whirr of a PC in the background.

At idle the system’s external temperature reaches a maximum of 84.1 degrees Fahrenheit, which is extremely comfortable. The older HP Spectre x360 with 5th-gen Core processor was cooler, but the XPS 13 idled at 90 degrees, and keep in mind both of those alternatives have active cooling.

ASUS UX305 speaker
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

At full load, the UX305 with Skylake only hits 100 degrees Fahrenhetti. That’s warm, but not for a system of its size, and certainly not for a laptop without a cooling fan. In this area the new UX305 not only beats the previous version, but also beats all the competitors we’ve recently tested.

Warranty

Like most laptops, the Asus Zenbook UX305 ships with a one year warranty on parts and labor. It is rare for a PC to ship with a standard warranty longer than this.

Conclusion

Asus’ Zenbook UX305 reaffirms the brand’s position as the premier building of budget ultrabooks. A mere $700 will snag you a lightweight system with a solid 1080p display, class-leading keyboard and twice the hard drive capacity found in most competitors. When all the pros and cons are tallied, this Asus stands out as one of the best values around.

Intel’s Core M remains a bit weak, however. The chip consistently failed to deliver the incredible battery life it was supposedly built for. Sure, it sips power at idle, but under load it doesn’t seem much more efficient than any other Core processor.

Of course, without Core M, the UX305 wouldn’t be as thin or as light as it is, nor could it be passively cooled. As compromises go, those asked by this Zenbook aren’t bad, and the downsides are offset by the price. There’s no competitor at $700 that offers so much for so little. Even the Dell XPS 13, though generally superior, delivers half the hard drive capacity and RAM at its entry-level $800 price point.

If you’re on a budget and need a capable, portable laptop, look no further. The Asus Zenbook UX305 is for you.

Highs

  • Featherweight and super slim
  • Outstanding keyboard
  • High contrast, glare-free 1080p display
  • Very affordable

Lows

  • Modest performance