Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UA review

Amid a new fleet of budget laptops, the ZenBook 13 sails where others sink

The ZenBook 13 UX331UA is the best laptop you can buy for $800.
The ZenBook 13 UX331UA is the best laptop you can buy for $800.
The ZenBook 13 UX331UA is the best laptop you can buy for $800.

Highs

  • Thin, light design
  • Good productivity performance
  • Fantastic web browsing battery life
  • Comfortable keyboard
  • Great value

Lows

  • SATA SSD isn’t the fastest
  • Screen is a bit dim
  • Doesn’t use latest Intel CPUs

There are legitimate reasons to spend over a thousand bucks on a laptop, whether it’s cutting-edge industrial design or durable build quality. But each year, the reasons are fewer and fewer.

The Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UA, which starts at $800, is yet another point against extravagantly expensive laptops.

Its predecessors have long been our go-to recommendation at this price point, and Asus has followed it up with a worthy successor. With a quad-core processor, a lightweight build, and ambitious battery life claims, is the UX331UA the little ZenBook that could?

Finding the right balance

Set the ZenBook 13 UX331UA next to a Surface Laptop 2, MacBook Pro, or Dell XPS 13, and you’ll immediately see the difference. All three might be thin and silver on the outside, but a discerning eye will spot where Asus cut costs. Everything from the shiny, concentric style of the lid to the plastic bezels feels, well, cheap – because it is less expensive.

But that’s comparing apples and oranges.

Unlike those expensive devices, the ZenBook 13 lands at just $800, which happens to be right in the price range most people consider affordable. At that price, the ZenBook 13 fits in with its contemporaries, offering a modern design. We like the look of the Lenovo Yoga S730 and IdeaPad 530S better, but the ZenBook is right behind them.

Asus delivered a fantastic typing experience; we found ourselves typing quicker and more accurately on the UX330A

Weight and thickness are where this ZenBook really shines. At just 2.5 pounds and 0.55 inches thick, the ZenBook 13 is lighter and thinner than a MacBook Pro! It’s not the champion in this area. Compared to competitors in the same price, the $800 Lenovo Yoga S730 is slightly thinner and lighter. However, the Zenbook handily beats the affordable HP Envy 13t, or the Dell Inspiron 13 7000. It’s also lighter than the Dell XPS 13, though only just.

Though thin and light, the ZenBook 13 doesn’t feel flimsy. There are spots in the keyboard deck where there’s some flex if you push hard, but you have to go looking for this flaw to notice it. The hinge, meanwhile, feels sturdy and can be opened with one finger.

The ZenBook 13 has a standard array of ports, including an HDMI port, USB-C port, two USB-A 3.1 ports, and a miniSD card slot. That’s a bit of something for everyone. We’d prefer a USB-C charging port over the proprietary barrel plug, but that’s our only complaint, and it’s not one most its competitors solve.

You can have a good keyboard on a budget

The keyboard is a crucial area of the laptop where Asus could have cut quality. Instead, Asus has delivered a fantastic typing experience. We found ourselves typing quicker and more accurately than on lower-travel keyboards like the MacBook Pro. The bottoming action feels right in the sweet spot of firm without being stiff.

Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UA
Riley Young/Digital Trends

As much as we enjoyed the keyboard, we do have one complaint. The function row of keys at the top of the deck require holding down one of the function keys to work. It’s a nitpick, but it required for accessing things like volume and brightness control. This is a common laptop tactic that makes accidental presses less likely, but we prefer immediate access without having to tap the function key.

The touchpad lets the keyboard down and is the laptop’s biggest flaw. It’s useable, but the tracking of precise movement often feels off. The touchpad seems to lack crisp response, leaving an ambiguous grey area between a tap, a drag, and a click. While it’s a Windows Precision touchpad, gestures like two-finger swipes felt clumsy, as did precise controls like selecting text.

The ZenBook 13 UX331UA does not include a touchscreen, a 360 display, or stylus support, instead opting for a traditional laptop experience.

Not perfect, but a beautiful display

Displays on laptops under $1,000 tend to be dull, and over-saturated. Most of the ZenBook 13 UX331UA’s contemporaries do poorly, whether that’s the Acer Swift 3 or the Lenovo IdeaPad 530S. Asus has, on the other hand, continues to defy the odds and include excellent displays in its ZenBook 13 laptops. In fact, this 13.3-inch, Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) IPS display is one of the better screens we’ve ever tested, especially in several key categories.

Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UA
Riley Young/Digital Trends

The first is contrast. The UX331UA has a high contrast ratio and fantastic black levels. That makes it a perfect screen for watching movies, as the lighting appears just as the director of the film intended it to be. Go ahead and watch a horror film with the lights turned out on this laptop — we dare you.

The color gamut and accuracy also impress. In fact, it’s not a bad option for an amateur photographer looking for a display they can trust. That’s not something we can say about most mid-range laptops.

The only real problem with the UX331UA’s display is brightness. It maxed out at 256 nits in our reading, which is a bit under our preferred minimum of 300. Most competitors offer a brighter display. That said, we found brightness adequate in most situations, even under the bright lights of our office. Credit the matte screen, which reduces glare.

The speakers are weaker. They’re down-firing, which isn’t ideal for clarity or volume, and the ZenBook 13 has problem offering enough of either. Most owners will want to rely on headphones or external speakers.

Great performance for the price

The ZenBook 13 UX331UA comes with an Intel Core i5-8250U processor, which is the same chip we saw in the previous UX330UA. It’s a fast, nimble processor, and the perfect fit for a $800 laptop like this one. It multitasks like a champ, even if your typical workload includes dozens of open tabs, running applications, and streaming music simultaneously. At no point did we wish for a Core i7 instead.

Looking at the results of a synthetic benchmark like Geekbench, the UX331UA outpaces many laptops with the same processor, especially in multi-core performance. Results were middling in the Handbrake test, which measures how long it takes the laptop to encode a 4K video. It’s in tasks like that where the higher clock speeds of laptops with a Core i7 can flex their muscles.

You should note this ZenBook’s chip is part of the Kaby Lake-R series, announced in late 2017, and not the Core i5-8265U from the newer Whisky Lake series. While we don’t expect that to greatly change day-to-day performance, it’s missing a couple of features such as gigabyte Wi-Fi and a (supposed) increased battery life.

Fortnite won’t play well without turning the settings all the way down, but you could play a light game like Rocket League

The storage included on the UX331UA is one area where a sacrifice had to be made. Although it’s a solid-state drive, the Micron 1100 in our test unit connected over the SATA standard instead of the faster PCIe connection. Compared to high-end laptops like the MacBook Pro or Dell XPS 13, the read and write speeds are often cut in half. It’s common to see SATA SSDs or even old-school hard disk drives on laptops in this price range, but some laptops like the Lenovo IdeaPad 530s include a PCIe drive.

We wish Asus could’ve done the same, but we also think this is an acceptable sacrifice. The solid-state drive remains quick enough to offer snappy day to day performance, and you won’t notice a difference unless you regularly handle very large files.

Want to play Fortnite? Buy a different laptop

The UX331UA is not meant for games, as it lacks a GPU from AMD or Nvidia. You can’t enjoy Fortnite at playable framerates without turning settings all the way down and changing the resolution to 720p.

Asus Zenbook UX330UA review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

However, a light game like Rocket League can play smooth using just the laptop’s integrated Intel 620 UHD graphics at 1080p resolution. You’ll have to turn down some of the render quality, but we achieved a smooth 50 frames per second once we did.

Because it doesn’t include a Thunderbolt 3 port, you can’t depend on the UX331UA to power an external GPU. Asus does offer a model with a Nvidia MX150 in it, known as the UX331UN, but that pushes the price up to $1,000.

Battery life

Excellent battery life was a strength this laptop’s predecessors offered, and that similarly-priced laptops lacked. This year, Asus reduced the size of the battery from 57 to 50 watt-hours, which worried us heading into our battery tests.

The first we tried was a video loop test, which plays a 1080p trailer on repeat until the battery dies. It lasted for nine and a half hours, which isn’t bad, but it’s a full hour and a half less than the older UX330UA. It even depleted the battery faster than the Acer Swift 3, which cleared 10 and a half hours.

It’s a similar story in the Basemark benchmark, which tests the battery against an intensive workload. This resulted in a 31 percent drop in battery life from the previous version — and again, is below the Swift 3.

Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UA
Riley Young/Digital Trends

There is a silver lining to the ZenBook’s battery life, and that’s in web browsing. The UX331UA lasted over 10 and a half hours, which is extremely impressive. In fact, it sets a record in this benchmark, outside outliers like the Surface Book 2 (which has a second battery in the tablet portion) or the Asus NovaGo (which uses a Qualcomm processor). It even beats the Dell XPS 13, with its larger 60 watt-hour battery.

We don’t love the results of the first two tests, but none of the results are disaster, and web browsing best replicates what the average person will do with this laptop. Taken together, our tests make it clear you can rely on the ZenBook 13 to endure a full work day of use.

Our Take

The ZenBook 13 UX331UA once again proves Asus is the king of budget Windows laptops. It’s not perfect — we’d still prefer a more interesting design, a faster SSD, and even a better touchpad. But when it comes to the basics that really matter in a laptop, like portability and performance, the ZenBook 13 has it in spades. If $800 is your max budget, your hunt for a laptop is officially over.

Is there a better alternative?

The closest alternative is the Acer Swift 3, which was recently been updated with new processors and thinner bezels around the screen. However, we prefer the ZenBook UX331UA for its longer web browsing battery life and better display.

The other close competitor is the $800 Lenovo Yoga S730, which hasn’t been released. We were left impressed with the design, updated processor, keyboard, and size of the device in our short time with it, but we haven’t yet tested important features like battery life and display quality.

If you’re willing to add a couple hundred dollars to your budget, you can buy many great laptops, such as the $900 Dell XPS 13. The Core i3 processor will be a bit slower, though the premium design and faster SSD might be a worthy tradeoff. Lastly, you could always opt for the older ZenBook UX330UA, which isn’t much worse and saves you $50.

How long will it last?

The ZenBook UX331UA should last you at least a few years. Although you can’t upgrade the internal components, they are all up-to-date and high in quality. There’s even a USB-C port thrown in for good measure.

Asus’ customer service is another question. The one-year warranty that comes bundled is typical for a laptop, but Asus customer service isn’t as reliable as some competitors. The company’s support website is particularly difficult to navigate.

Should you buy it?

Yes. This is the best laptop at this price-point – and probably all the laptop you actually need.

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