The Asus Zenbook UX31 (model CUX31E-RY010V) is a 13.3-inch Ultrabook that holds tremendous appeal, not only because of its looks, but also because of its specifications. It features an Intel Core i7 CPU and a 256GB solid state drive, and it comes with USB 3.0, Ethernet and HDMI (albeit in micro form).
However, it's a laptop that has a few issues when it comes to user-friendliness and we're not sure that it's a great unit for those of you who will spend a lot of time typing on it. We had to contend with driver updates to get a couple of the laptop's key components working properly.
Design and build quality
The Asus Zenbook UX31 has a style that's not all it's own — when you see its profile, the first thing you think of is a MacBook Air. When you open its lid and peer at the keyboard, you also get taken back to Appleland. However, it does attempt to offer a little more of its own character: it has a wonderful 'spin' pattern on its lid and a brushed palm rest. There is a combination air vent and speaker grille along the spine of the chassis and we have to say, the Zenbook supplies better audio output from its speakers than any other ultraportable laptop that we've reviewed to date. The speakers still produce distortion at high volume levels, but overall, you can definitely enjoy listening to music through this laptop's speakers.
The profile of the Zenbook UX31 is around 18mm thick at the rear and it tapers towards the front, where it troubles the measuring tape at just 3mm. That is with the lid closed. When you open the lid, the front of the laptop is only 1mm thick and it's also square. This is a problem when typing because the chassis just digs into your wrists and makes things painful. It's especially so if you use it low in your lap or on a relatively high desk. This review was typed while this reviewer was sitting on the couch. While only three paragraphs deep, this reviewers wrists already sported lines from the edge of the chassis, much like a face temporarily embossed with marks from an uncomfortable pillow case. If you type with your wrists slightly raised, then the chassis won't be bothersome, but we'd love to see Asus work its design magic on some rounded edges for future models of this Ultrabook.
Metal construction makes the Zenbook rigid. It displays some flex when you forcibly bend its chassis, but it will easily withstand the rigours of everyday travel and the occasional knock. Survival is aided by the lack of a spinning hard drive, with the only moving part in this ultraportable laptop being its extraction fan. This fan gets a little loud when the system is under a full load, but we didn't find it annoying at all. The chassis can get noticeably warm after long periods of usage, and depending on the tasks you are performing and how hard the laptop is working, this heat can become uncomfortable. Furthermore, the aluminium chassis acts as a heat sink of sorts and heat can be felt along the sides of the keyboard and on the right palm rest. But during regular Web surfing and light document creation tasks, it should remain comfortably cool.
The screen is also rigid and balanced against the chassis in such a way that allows the lid to be opened with one hand without the chassis lifting up off the table. However, the hinges don't do a great job of holding the screen in place when it's tilted approximately two thirds of the way back. There is a point where the screen just drops back on its own when the laptop is moved and this can be frustrating when you're trying to get the viewing just right. After all, the glossy screen may be very bright (it has a rating of 450 nits), but its vertical viewing angles are similar to most other mainstream laptops on the market — they are very narrow.
We're not sure if it's by design or not, but the ports on the sides of the Zenbook UX31 (two USB ports and a power port) maintain loose connections. When charging the laptop, the adapter's plug wriggled around a lot and popped out quite easily. We had to be mindful of it when moving the laptop. Luckily, there is an indicator light on the plug that's green when it's not plugged in and charging the laptop, and amber when it's plugged in and charging the laptop. USB cables and thumb drives also sat very loosely, but we didn't have any problems with lost connections, just problems with our peace of mind.
We found the keyboard on the Zenbook U31 to be decent, but far from great. Its keys rest in a chiclet style and they feel solid against the chassis. They are perhaps a little too solid for our liking and we ended up making lots of typing errors because we didn't hit some keys hard enough. In future models, we would like them to feel a little softer and to possess a little more travel; on a laptop this thin, that might be hard to implement. What definitely needs to be implemented is a backlight system. Like the Acer Aspire S3, the Zenbook was rushed to market without one and we think this is a large drawback.
A couple of other things annoyed us about the keyboard. Mainly, the position of the power button in the top-right corner (like the MacBook Air), which we pressed many times thinking it was the Delete key. Asus suspected people would be doing that a lot so each time it's pressed a little pop-up comes up asking if you really meant to press it. The other annoyance was a slightly squeaky down arrow key, which got on our nerves, especially while navigating documents line by line in a quiet room. The touchad sometimes got in the way while typing, but when the Asus SmartSense setting was enabled in the touchpad's driver, unintentional movement was detected and the pointer never deviated from where it was supposed to be.
The pointing device on the Zenbook is from Sentelic and it was a source of frustration for us when we initially started testing this unit. The pointer either lagged or jumped and was infuriatingly inaccurate, especially when trying to hit small targets. On a screen with a 1600x900 resolution, which is larger than the typical fare of 1366x768, this was unacceptable. We had to update the drivers and tinker a lot with the settings to make it better, but we never did get completely comfortable with it. It would be great if Asus ships future models of the Zenbook with a Synaptics pad instead.
With a size of 104x71mm, the touchpad is huge. The reason for this is that the left- and right-click buttons are placed underneath the pad and the pad clicks onto them. It's a similar design to the Aspire S3, but unlike that laptop, the extra pad space over the top of the buttons is not usable. This can be annoying when you're attempting to move the pointer or perform a gesture as there is no physical barrier to let you know that your fingers are about to go 'out of bounds'. Incidentally, we never could get three-finger swipes to work in Firefox.
Getting connected to our wireless network proved to be a frustrating experience the first time, too. We experienced frequent drop-outs throughout our initial tests until we were able to update the Atheros (AR9485WB) wireless adapter's driver. To do this we plugged in the USB-based Ethernet adapter that ships with the unit and connected the laptop directly to our router. After updating the driver, we experienced constant connectivity. However, the laptop still proved to be problematic when it came to networking — it kept dropping off the network every 20 minutes or so.
These driver issues were frustrating for us and we think that if the average user experiences them they will be put off. Not to mention users who might not have the technical nous to seek and install drivers for the problematic components of this laptop. We hope that other shipping versions of the Zenbook UX31 at least have the latest drivers installed from the factory and that everything works well straight out of the box.
Specifications and performance
On the inside, the Zenbook has an Intel Core i7-2677M CPU, which is a low-voltage CPU that runs at 1.8GHz and has two cores with support for Hyper-Threading. It also comes with 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM, a 256GB solid state drive and it makes use of Intel HD 3000 graphics. In our Blender 3D rendering test, it recorded a result of 47sec, while in the iTunes MP3 encoding test it got a time of 1min 4sec. In our DVD-to-Xvid transcoding test, a time of 1hr 6min was recorded. Its 3DMark06 score was 3644 points.
These are all expected results that compare favourably against other ULV laptops that we've seen recently. The Core i7 with its 1.8GHz frequency and 4MB of L3 cache memory supplies a tidy bump in performance over the Core i5 CPU in those laptops, but it also increases the weight of the laptop to 1.4kg as it requires a little extra cooling. The Core i5 version of the UX31 has a manufacturer-stated weight of 1.1kg. At this point we will state that the UX31 does actually feel a little too heavy for what it is.
The 256GB solid state drive proved to be quite fast in CrystalDiskMark, where it recorded superb rates of 450 MB/s for reading and 241.4 MB/s for writing. In our own file copy tests, the drive recorded a more modest 36.55 MB/s.
Basically though, the Zenbook UX31 is great for everyday office work, Web browsing and even multimedia tasks. It's not well suited to tasks that require a lot of processing, such as file conversions, but it will nevertheless be able to accomplish these tasks, too. it's a laptop that definitely offers plenty of performance for its thin and relatively light nature. Another thing to note is that it offers a fast boot up time of around 20sec, and it also comes out of sleep mode in under 2sec.
The battery life of the Zenbook UX31 proved to be quite good in our rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video. It recorded a time of 3hr 38min in this test, which may not seem all that good, but it compares favourably against other 13.3-inch models we've seen, especially when you consider that the Asus has a Core i7 CPU, and also a 450 nit screen, which is brighter than most laptops and therefore sucks down a little more juice.
When we used the laptop at low brightness for Web browsing and document creation, we got around six hours worth of usage before having to find an outlet. Of course, how much life you get will depend on how you use the laptop, but overall we are happy with this unit's battery performance.
During our tests, the Zenbook reverted to the Power4Gear battery saving scheme each time we rebooted it, ignoring the fact that we chose to use maximum performance. This was a little frustrating, but it's probably a power scheme that you should use if you want to get the most out of this laptop while on the road. We like the little widget on the desktop that shows you an approximation of how much battery life and standby time remains.
There's no doubt that the Asus Zenbook UX31 is a stylish and solid laptop that should appeal to those of you who want good performance out of a thin-and-light unit. However, we feel that it has been rushed to market and that its user friendliness suffers as a result. Its input devices are not very good, it doesn't have a backlit keyboard, we found it uncomfortable to type on and we had to fiddle with drivers to get things working properly out of the box. This is disappointing, especially considering all the hype behind this product.
We don't have any issues with its performance, which we found to be quite good thanks to the Core i7 CPU and fast solid state drive, but if you're considering a Zenbook, we think that you can get away just fine by opting for the cheaper Core i5 version, especially if all you'll be doing is working on office documents and Web-based tasks.