Asus Zenbook UX31 Review

For some buyers, the scales will tip in favor of this laptop: It is one of the quickest Ultrabooks, and its portability can’t be ignored. But the design issues keep it from obtaining a broader recommendation.
For some buyers, the scales will tip in favor of this laptop: It is one of the quickest Ultrabooks, and its portability can’t be ignored. But the design issues keep it from obtaining a broader recommendation.
For some buyers, the scales will tip in favor of this laptop: It is one of the quickest Ultrabooks, and its portability can’t be ignored. But the design issues keep it from obtaining a broader recommendation.

Highs

  • High-resolution display
  • Good sound quality
  • Great performance for an Ultrabook
  • Above-average battery life

Lows

  • Disappointing design and build quality
  • Keyboard lacks quality feel
  • Runs warm
  • Expensive

The UX31 is more than just a flagship in Asus’ notebook lineup; it’s a flagship among Ultrabooks in general. It was one of the first products to hit the market, and also one of the most expensive. You’ll still have to spend about $1,049 to acquire a base model, but if you want some upgrades, you could end up spending up to $1,700.

That’s a lot of money for a 13.3-inch laptop that doesn’t have an Apple logo on the back. In return for your coin, you receive typical, but strong, Ultrabook hardware. Our review unit arrived with a Core i5-2557M processor clocked at 1.7GHz with a maximum Turbo Boost of 2.7GHz. This is paired with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid state hard drive.

In other words, the hardware is basically the same as most other Ultrabooks. Which isn’t a surprise — Intel’s put down some fairly right specifications, and there’s not any way to meet them without a combination of parts similar to this.

There’s more to the Ultrabook then a specific collection of hardware, however. It’s all about being sexy, portable and cool. If this Asus laptop is going to justify its high price, it will do so because of its aesthetics. Let’s see how looks next to its competition.

Slim, but not that sexy

From afar, the UX31’s silver aluminum body looks very similar to the MacBook Air. Upon closer inspection, however, the display lid sets this laptop apart. It has a spiral pattern etched in to the aluminum that radiates out from the Asus brand logo. This is the exact same aesthetic touch that is used on the Transformer Prime tablet, and it works just as well here, serving to break up the monotony of metal surfaces.

Unfortunately the interior is not as distinct. Brushed aluminum is the order of the day here, and unlike the lid, there aren’t any neat textures to quell the tedium. We’re calling it right now — bare aluminum is over. The parade of metal-clad Ultrabooks has taken all the rarity and excitement out of the material.

We’re not saying the UX31 is ugly. If you’ve never laid eyes on an Ultrabook before, it will probably look downright striking. But this is basically the way all similar laptops are being designed. It’s becoming common at the speed of light.

asus-zenbook-ux31-review-angle-lid-open

The use of aluminum doesn’t automatically guarantee rigidity. While the display lid is exceptionally sturdy, the lower chassis has some flex to it. Press anywhere on or around the keyboard and you’ll see flex span from the point of contact to the corners. Picking up the laptop from the corners has an unfortunate tendency to elicit groans of protest, as well. In these areas, this laptop clearly falls short of the rock-solid MacBook Air.

Connectivity is provided by two USB ports, mini-DisplayPort, mini-HDMI, a combo headphone-microphone jack, and a card reader. Ethernet and VGA are provided by adapters that ship with the laptop, but they’ll eat up your ports. Limited connectivity is a common issue of Ultrabooks, so the UX31 is not bad for its class. You’ll simply need to decide if buying a thin-and-light laptop is worth putting up with this downside.

Keyboard troubles

The keyboard on the UX31 could be better. The primary problem is a lack of key travel. With so little vertical height to work with, there’s not much room for keys to move. As a result you don’t receive much feedback when you are touch-typing. It’s easy to miss a key and not even realize it until you see that you’re missing a letter.

Some minor build quality issues reared their heads while I was using the keyboard. The flex, although disappointing, is not annoying. What is annoying is the tendency for the longer keys (such as Shift and Enter) to not sit entirely level. You can actually move them back and forth if you press on their ends. We also noticed that the far right corners of the right-side Enter and Shift keys do not work. It’s possible to depress one end of the key without the laptop registering any input.

asus-zenbook-ux31-review-keyboard

The touchpad does help save the situation somewhat. Based on the glass trackpads found on the MacBooks (of course), it offers a large surface that is responsive and handles multi-touch scrolling well (for a Windows) laptop.

Instead of physical keys, the touchpad integrates the left and right mouse buttons into the surface. Some Windows laptops fudge this a bit, but I had no problem with the setup used here. The spring used to provide feedback when you “click” the touchpad is not overly stiff and there aren’t any dead zones that fail to register.

Surprisingly solid entertainment

Our review unit came with the standard 1600 x 900 display, and the difference in sharpness between it and the 1366 x 768 resolution you’ll normally find on a laptop of this size is instantly noticeable. Text is extremely crisp, and video content looks razor sharp if you’re viewing a 1080p source (720p isn’t bad, either).

Black levels are low for a laptop display, though when they do cut out, they seem to do so abruptly. Display brightness is fairly high at maximum, but you will need it to cut through the glossy display. It’s happy to reflect anything and everything placed in front of it. Though not without its flaws, this display is better than average and usable in most situations.

asus-zenbook-ux31-review-front-screen

One major surprise is the audio quality, which is strong. Though there is a predictable lack of bass, volume is high at maximum and there’s not much distortion. You could easily watch a movie on this laptop and not feel annoyed at the results, or you could jam out to your favorite tunes in a pinch. Some thicker laptops like the HP Envy 15 are better overall, but given the size of the UX31, you end up with more than you’d expect.

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