Look and feel
We've lost count of how many times we've written "spun metal" in reviews of Zenbook machines, and it's no surprise that the UX31A Touch has the same all-metal chassis and subtly textured lid we've seen on other Zenbooks. And while we've described the look of this lineup ad nauseam, at least we like it -- ASUS found a sleek, silvery aesthetic and stuck with it, which was certainly the right call.
This ultraportable has the same solid build quality of its Zenbook brethren. The metal chassis won't buckle under pressure, but it still feels refreshingly light. And it's nice to see that the touchscreen didn't detract from the UX31A's famously thin frame. At 2.9 pounds (1.3 kg), the machine weighs the same as the non-touch UX31A. It also shares dimensions with its predecessor: 12.8 x 8.8 x 0.11-0.71 inches. Along the left edge, there's a USB 3.0 port, a headphone jack and an SD card slot. The right side is home to the power port, another USB 3.0 connection, Display Port and micro-HDMI.
ASUS has really hopped on the bundled accessories bandwagon -- we've seen a mini-subwoofer and a mini-VGA-to-VGA adapter included with the UX51Vz. And indeed the company sells the UX31A Touch with a textured brown laptop sleeve plus an Ethernet adapter and mini-VGA-to-VGA adapter packed in a compact pouch. We'll never say no to an extra layer of protection for our gadgets, and the same goes for free peripherals.
Keyboard and touchpad
Like the metal chassis, the backlit keyboard on this ultraportable is an old friend. We've seen the slightly recessed, island-style layout on other Zenbooks -- most recently the UX51Vz -- and it's as comfortable as ever. You'll pick up your usual pace quickly, as the chiclets offer plenty of travel and are spaced far enough to prevent hitting adjacent keys. We notched our usual score on a typing test, with a very low error rate.
Historically, we've had mixed experiences with Zenbook touchpads, but they're winners as of late. We had no problem executing typical Windows 8 gestures like swiping in from the right to bring up the Charms Bar, and two-finger scrolling in web pages was fluid as well. The touchpad feels a bit sticky when you navigate with just one finger; you may occasionally have to press a field more than once for your click to register.
Display and audio
A high-res IPS display is pretty much a given on ASUS' Ultrabooks, and the 1,920 x 1,080 (165 ppi) panel here is as sharp and bright as you'd expect. Even with brightness set to about 70 percent, the screen kicked back bright and accurate colors. Viewing angles are very wide, but the display's glossy finish doesn't eliminate all glare -- you'll want to find an optimal, reflection-free position before settling into a Netflix marathon.
That 13.3-inch capacitive touchscreen is the marquee feature of the UX31A Touch, and it's very responsive to all the swiping and pinching to zoom that you'll be doing in Windows 8. When we took a look at the Zenbook UX51Vz, we weren't terribly bothered by the absence of a touch display (although the price certainly warranted its inclusion!) given the machine's good keyboard and touchpad, but it's certainly nice to have finger input as an option. After reviewing all types of Win 8 devices, we've instinctively poked at non-touch displays more times than we'd like to admit -- it's just an intuitive way to navigate the Live Tile-based OS.
When we kicked back with a few Arrested Development episodes, dialogue came through loud and clear. When we streamed a Spotify playlist, though, music sounded rather tinny and harsh. With volume maxed out, you'll be able to fill a medium-sized room, but a pair of external speakers will go a long way toward a better party.
Performance and battery life
The UX31A Touch's specs are the makings of a high-end laptop: a 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U processor with 4GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD made by ADATA and Intel HD Graphics 4000. Its scores on benchmark tests such as PCMark7 surpassed even similarly configured machines like the Acer Aspire S7, and it offered blazing read and write speeds in the disk benchmark ATTO: a max of 554 MB/s and 523 MB/s, respectively.
You'll notice that same snappiness in everyday use. Cold-booting into Windows 8 takes just eight seconds, and we didn't notice any lag when switching between apps and running Internet Explorer with several tabs open. The integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip doesn't have the mettle for serious gaming, but it's enough to see players through some casual sessions. In Mafia II, we notched 20 to 30 frames-per-second -- and the underside of the machine got noticeably warmer only a few minutes into the demo. But again, the UX31A Touch is what it is -- an Ultrabook -- and considering that, it offers decent graphics performance. On the 3DMark11 graphics benchmark, it scored on par with the Aspire S7.
ASUS rates the UX31A Touch for seven hours of battery life, but the Ultrabook's 50W battery turned in a significantly shorter time on our battery-rundown test: five hours and 15 minutes. It's not like we're surprised; Windows 8 hasn't exactly been kind to laptops' battery lives -- the longest time we've logged is the IdeaPad Yoga 13's five hours and 32 minutes. We wouldn't go so far as to say that this machine's battery life is a dealbreaker, but suffice it to say we're hoping this new year ushers in longer-lasting Win 8 Ultrabooks.
Software and warranty
You'll find no shortage of bloatware on the UX31A Touch. Pre-loaded programs include ASUS utilities such as Calculator, Converter, InstantOn and Tutor, plus CyberLink ColorDirector and PowerDirector, a trial of McAfee anti-virus software, the Nest organizer, Skype and QuickTime. Microsoft Solitaire and Taptiles are also onboard, as is the drawing program Fresh Paint.
The Zenbook UX31A Touch comes with a one-year warranty, which covers parts and labor plus accidental damage. It also includes 24/7 phone support.
Configuration options and the competition
There are two versions of the UX31A Touch, starting with the entry-level model with a 1.7GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. The Core i7 version that we reviewed includes a 1.9GHz Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. ASUS has yet to release pricing for this higher-end model, so you have time to shop around. Another high-end Ultrabook is the previously mentioned Acer Aspire S7. It packs a Core i7 processor -- clocked at 2.4 GHz, no less -- along with a 256GB SSD, and it sports a 13.3-inch 1080p touchscreen. We like the S7's design and ease of use, but its battery life is even more paltry than the UX31A Touch's: four hours and 18 minutes. The going rate is $1,650, though, so you'll certainly be paying for that top-level performance.
There's also Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga 13, which includes a 1,600 x 900 capacitive touchscreen and can flip between tablet and laptop modes. If you're reading this review, you may not be looking for a two-in-one product, but the Yoga 13 offers good Core i5 performance (you can step up to a Core i7 model for $1,300). We weren't enamored of the machine's flaky touchpad, but overall it's a good product at a slightly lower price point than the S7 and UX31A Touch.
If you want a touch-enabled Ultrabrook on the (relatively) cheap, you could settle for one of several options with traditional hard drives rather than SSDs. Samsung's Series 5 UltraTouch packs a lower-res (1,366 x 768) 13.3-inch touchscreen, a Core i5 processor and a 500GB hard drive with 24GB of ExpressCache. If you'd consider a slightly larger form factor, there's the 14-inch Toshiba Satellite P845t. At $750, it's significantly cheaper than the UX31A and the Aspire S7, but its touchscreen sports a standard 1,366 x 768 resolution and a 750GB hard drive. It does, however, offer an optical drive -- in a heavier 4.3-pound design.
And if you're game for a 15.6-inch display, the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart may suit your fancy. For $1,400, you get the same solid build we liked in the non-touch HP Envy Spectre XT, but with a 1,920 x 1,080 IPS display. The downsides are shorter battery life (it's rated for three hours and 45 minutes!), a hard drive versus an SSD and a heavier, 4.96-pound design.
ASUS' Zenbook Prime line of Ultrabooks is a good thing that keeps getting better. The beautiful all-metal design paired with good performance has been a constant, and the keyboard and touchpad have improved over the last year. The UX31A Touch is very much an evolutionary update of the 13-inch Zenbook, as the real change here is just the touch-capable display -- and Windows 8, of course. The one remaining question mark is the price for this Core i7 model, and we imagine the cost of admission will be high. Still, this UX31A is a promising contender: it's certainly the best Zenbook available now, and it's one of the most capable Ultrabooks as well.
Zach Honig contributed to this report.