It was just last week that we got to take home the Acer Aspire S3, the first Ultrabook to go on sale here in the States. Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to the pillars laid out by Intel: its performance trails similar machines, its battery craps out early and the design, while portable, is too chintzy to make it a bellwether for skinny Windows laptops. Our verdict, in a sentence, was that you'd be better off getting a MacBook Air, or at least considering other Ultrabooks -- namely, ASUS' line of Zenbooks.
As it turns out, one showed up on our doorstep just a few days later. In many ways, the UX31 is everything the S3 is not: it has a gorgeous all-metal design and comes standard with an SSD and 1600 x 900 display (not to mention, a case and two bundled adapters). And with a starting price of $1,099, it undercuts the entry-level (and similarly configured) MacBook Air by two hundred bucks. So is this the Ultrabook we've all been waiting for? We suggest pouring yourself a large beverage, settling into a comfy chair and meeting us past the break. We've got a lot to say on the subject. %Gallery-137239%
Look and feel
It's way too easy to dismiss Ultrabooks as MacBook Air wannabes. And yet, while the UX31 adds just enough pizazz so that you'd never mistake it for Apple's wafer-thin lappie, it is the most Air-inspired contender we've seen so far. Mostly, it's that all-metal build, spacious, buttonless trackpad and razor-thin silhouette that whittles down to some seriously sharp edges. In fact, if you have a gander at our comparison gallery down there, you'll see more of a similarity between the Air and UX31 than the S3, which tapers, but in a less pronounced way. Still, while they're both swaddled in aluminum, the 2.9-pound UX31 feels denser than the 2.96-pound Air. (The S3 weighs a smidge more, at three pounds, but we couldn't for the life of us tell the difference when we held that in one hand and the UX3 in the other.)
Now that we've acknowledged that fruity 800-pound Gorilla in the room, we just have to say... the UX31 is stunning in person. Here at Engadget, we see more products in a week than we have time to review and in general, it behooves us to take a detached, almost clinical approach to handling gadgets, lest we get distracted by the toys piled high on our desks. With the UX31, though, we couldn't help but feel struck by the tremendous craftsmanship. It just feels like an exceptionally solid, well-made product. The dark gray, metal lid has a pattern of etched concentric circles that lends it a modern, industrial look, backed up by a brushed aluminum deck and smooth metal keys. Even the bezel feels tough, while the lid is markedly sturdier than the S3's.
In addition to the design, though, ASUS packaged this thing with care. In the box, you'll find a brown fabric carrying case with a matching pouch that contains Ethernet and VGA adapters. As we were sifting through all this, another Engadget editor saw what we were doing and stopped to say this was a good-looking machine, and that those carrying cases weren't too shabby, either. Then again, back in 2008 ASUS bundled the leather-clad U2E with a Bluetooth mouse and carrying case, so we can't say we're too surprised the company gave us a generous helping of extras.
But -- and there is a but -- we wish ASUS didn't slap branding on it (and in a script font, no less!). Okay, so "UX31 Series Ultra Slim" isn't branding so much as the product name, but why does it have to be so prominent? And in such a frou-frou font? It's true, we're generally against gratuitous logos, but that font makes for an oddly frilly touch on what's otherwise a clean design.
Secondly -- and this is a more serious gripe -- this is the only Windows-based Ultrabook we know of that doesn't have an HDMI port. Acer, Lenovo and Toshiba all put one on theirs, but this just has mini-HDMI and mini-VGA ports. Yeah, we'll take that VGA adapter and bet some folks in the PowerPoint crowd will appreciate it, but basically, anyone who wants to hook this thing up to their TV to stream Breaking Bad from Netflix is going to have to supply their own mini-HDMI-to-HDMI cable (we're seeing them for less than three bucks on Amazon).
Completing our tour around the edges, you'll find a USB 2.0 port on the left side, along with an SD / MMC card reader and a dual headphone / mic port. Over on the right you'll find those mini-HDMI and mini-VGA ports, along with a USB 3.0 socket that promises faster charging of USB-powered gadgets.
Keyboard and trackpad
The thing about the UX31's metal keys is that they ultimately look better than they feel. Now it's true, this keyboard is as sturdy as it seems, and the keys have a not-too-slippery finish that feels just right beneath the fingers. They even make a quiet, low-pitched sound -- always a marker of sound build quality. And yet, we didn't do our best typing here. Like the S3's keys, these just don't have enough travel. As we typed, the keys often failed to register our presses if we moved too fast or dug our fingers in too lightly. We made fewer errors when we made a concerted effort to press keys firmly before moving on, but what experienced touch typist wants to do that? We slugged through, ultimately typing the bulk of this review on it, but man, did we make a lot of spelling errors -- ironic, in a way, given that the Enter, Backspace and Right Shift keys are all amply sized. (Tab, Caps Lock, left Shift and arrow keys are tiny, but for whatever reason we found this layout less cramped than the S3's.)
The UX31's keyboard also isn't backlit, which should be a strike against it when people are deciding between this and the MacBook Air.
Before we even started playing with the UX31, we received a note from an ASUS rep, asking us to update the touchpad's driver. We can see why. At that time, the trackpad was so jumpy, so imprecise that it had the potential to hamstring the entire laptop. Fortunately, after we removed the driver and installed version 18.104.22.168 in its place, we noticed a huge boost in usability.
Still, it could use more fine-tuning. Even now, we don't always feel like we have complete control over the cursor, and the touchpad sometimes registers left clicks as right ones. (Thankfully, you can sidestep this by double tapping to right click.) Throughout our testing, highlighting text felt like a chore, and we sometimes selected text by accident when we only meant to drop the cursor somewhere. If you tend to rest both your thumb and index finger on the trackpad, you'll feel these bugs keenly, though we had less of a problem when we rested just our index finger on the pad. Not that any of you should have to change the way you use a touchpad.
The good news is that ASUS is well aware of the trackpad's lingering kinks, and is working toward a fix. In fact, a rep told us we could expect a driver update next week. So sit tight, early adopters.
Display and sound
Just when we had resigned ourselves to 1366 x 768 resolution on 99.9 percent of the 13-inch laptops we test, ASUS goes and unveils the UX31, which comes standard with 1600 x 900 pixels. That boost gave us plenty of space to scroll through web pages and documents, but it also made for some crisp movie playback. At one point during our testing, we played the 1080p trailer for the new Sherlock Holmes movie and were able to catch all sorts of detail -- puffs of smoke, the stubble on Robert Downey Jr.'s weathered face. Much to our surprise, the viewing angles are also impressive. Sure, if you watch from the sides you'll see the contrast ratio become slightly more exaggerated, but you can at least follow along with ease. Even with the lid dipped forward slightly we could make out the action on-screen -- something we can't say about every laptop we review.
ASUS also paired that bright, sharp panel with speakers powered by Bang & Olufsen's ICEpower technology. Though the speaker chambers are hidden in the chassis , believe us when we say they push out some surprisingly loud sound. Even at the median setting yours truly was good to go for a one-woman dance party, but we're sure that if we invited a few friends to join in, the max setting would have helped O.D.B and Mr. Notorious B.I.G. carry on over the din.
As ASUS explains it, the sound is ported through the hinge, with bass, specifically, passing through the upper keyboard area. The good news is that you'll get lots of sound and not much fury: the quality is minimally tinny -- at least for a laptop -- and that richness doesn't get distorted when you crank the volume to the top setting. The truth is that booming sound might not have made our shortlist of things we wanted to see in Ultrabooks (not ahead of portability and battery life, anyway), but we are, of course, delighted to have it anyway. Also, come to think of it, that startlingly good sound underscores a broader truth about the UX31: this skinny wisp of a laptop is, indeed, robust enough to be someone's primary machine.
Performance and graphics
The entry-level configuration we tested sports a 1.7GHz Core i5-2557M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB ADATA SandForce SF2281 solid-state drive. That drive claims max read speeds of 550 MB/s and top write speeds of 500 MB/s. Indeed, when we ran the benchmark ATTO, simulating a 1GB transfer, our read / write rates peaked at those numbers. Needless to say, that's leaps and bounds ahead of what you'll get with the Aspire S3, which has a 320GB HDD for accessing files and 20GB of solid-state storage for storing the OS. In that same test, the S3 reached read speeds of about 80 MB/s and max write speeds of roughly 75 MB/s. And while the S3 booted in 45 seconds, the UX31 was consistently up and running in just 16. The UX31 also resumes from sleep in about two seconds, as promised (the S3 does the same). Through it all, the UX31 mostly remained cool and quiet, though it grew noisy and warm after playing a short 1080p trailer in Quicktime.
And that's not all. If benchmarks are any indication, the UX31 matches -- and sometimes bests -- the Air's performance. In PCMark Vantage, for instance, it managed an impressive score of 10,218, compared with 9,484 for the Air. In 3DMark06 it notched 4,171, while the Air landed a similar score of 4,223. Frankly, we're not surprised the two are well-matched. As soon as we heard the UX31 would have all-flash storage and the same graphics card and 4GB of memory, we had a suspicion they'd play in the same league.
You should know that the UX31 comes with two preset Power2Go power management settings --battery saving and entertainment -- and even when the machine is plugged in, benchmark scores vary wildly depending on which profile you choose. That PCMark Vantage score of 10,218 fell to 5,032 in battery saving mode, while its score of 4,171 in 3DMark06 dropped to 1,528. According to an ASUS rep, that's because the battery saving mode essentially disables Turbo and throttles the GPU to near idle speeds. Additionally, we ran these tests with the balanced Windows power plan enabled, and saw scores similar to what we got in the Power2Go entertainment mode. With those power settings, the UX31 notched 10,508 in PCMark Vantage and 4,209 in 3DMark06. Since all of our laptop benchmarks assume that balanced power plan, these are the scores we chose to use in our chart below.
In any case, since the machine comes set to Power2Go's battery saving profile, you should be sure to choose entertainment mode or tinker with the advanced settings if you really want screaming performance. Also, you can override the Power2Go utility by going into Windows power settings, clicking "Show additional plans" and selecting a stock power management profile.
ASUS Zenbook UX31 (1.7 GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
Acer Aspire Ultrabook S3 (1.6 GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7 GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
Samsung Series 9 (1.7 GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.
Now this is more like it. After testing the S3, which lasted little more than four hours, we were sure another Ultrabook could do better. Happily, we were right: the UX31 held out five hours and 41 minutes in our standard battery rundown test, which entails looping the same movie off the hard drive with WiFi enabled and the brightness fixed at 65 percent. That's on par with the Air, which managed a similar five hours and 32 minutes out of the box in its native Mac OS X (in Windows, it lasted four hours and twelve minutes -- almost exactly the same runtime as the Aspire S3). That's also in line with ASUS' own expectations -- a rep confirmed that the company's engineers are seeing almost seven hours with light use, and a little less than six with video streaming (again, to be fair, we play our movie off of the internal drive).
The UX31 comes with a raft of pre-installed software, but for the most part, these are ASUS' own apps that go unseen unless you actually need them. These run the gamut from Live Update to a power management utility to the software used for facial recognition. Again, a non-invasive bunch, with the one exception being the company's registration page, which pops up as soon as you boot up.
As far as third-party apps go, you'll see a trial version of Microsoft Office 2010 -- a staple on Windows laptops, really -- and Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security. In general, we're not opposed to OEMs putting some kind of starter security software on there so that people are protected out of the box, but we have to say that Trend Micro's suite, in particular, ran so discreetly we forgot it was there.
Configuration options and the competition
The UX31 is available in three configurations. We tested the $1,099 entry level model, which, again, has a Core i5-2557M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SATA III drive. For $1,349, you can get it with the same processor and a larger 256GB drive. Lastly, the top-end $1,449 configuration combines a 256GB drive and a Core i7-2677M CPU. Across the board, you'll get 4GB of RAM.
For what it is, it's aggressively priced. Now it's true, we were all expecting Ultrabooks to ring in at less than $1,000 -- à la the Aspire S3 -- but considering the entry-level UX31 has better specs than the base MacBook Air and undercuts it by two hundred dollars, it's a pretty sweet deal. Allow us to explain: both laptops have a 1.7GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of solid-state storage, though the UX31 packs a SATA III drive, in particular. The Air's 1440 x 900 display is lower-res, but then again, it's also indisputably gorgeous.
On the other hand, if you opt for an Air you'll be getting a comfier keyboard and a more precise trackpad. And in terms of ports, the two are well-matched: while the Air has a Thunderbolt port, the UX31 has mini-HDMI and mini-VGA. Either way, you'll forgo HDMI -- something Toshiba and Lenovo's Ultrabooks offer.
For what it's worth, the UX31 also includes a case and two adapters, though you'd be crazy if you let that decide your purchasing decision. %Gallery-137030%
On the lower end, we already know that Acer's $899 S3 is the least expensive deal in town -- and that you'll be giving up design flair, long battery life and fast transfer rates. So while you'll be paying the lowest price for an Ultrabook, you won't be getting the best deal, per se.
Then there are the Ultrabooks we haven't tested yet. If you're hemming and hawing over the UX31, you might want to consider the Toshiba Portege Z830 and the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s -- both have 13-inch displays (albeit, with 1366 x 768 resolution), USB 3.0 and HDMI output. Naturally, we're curious to see how these stack up, but we can't in good faith say much now, other than that they, too, look promising.
After the first Ultrabook left us feeling lukewarm, we grew hopeful that maybe, just maybe, ASUS' Zenbooks would get it right. While the S3 has little more to offer than a low price point, the UX31 has an arresting design and SATA III SSD that promises superior battery life and performance. And it still manages to undercut the Air by two hundred dollars, even though the two have similar specs.
So is the UX31 everything we thought it would be? For the most part, yes. With the exception of one nagging design quirk, it's as stunning in person as it is in the press shots. It's fast -- faster than the Air, arguably -- and its battery life is comparable. It offers the highest-res display we've seen in an Ultrabook and the sound quality is disarmingly good. The MacBook Air still gets high marks -- not least because of its reliable trackpad and comfier (backlit!) keyboard. But if you can deal with the UX31's shallow keys and have faith that ASUS will find its way with the touchpad, we have a feeling you'll be very happy with this guy. It's true, we still need to take a closer look at what Lenovo and Toshiba have to offer, but for now this is indeed the Ultrabook they need to beat.