Asus UX31 Zenbook review

3.5 out of 5
£1000 (as tested)

For

Stylish, generous memory, fast boot times, excellent battery life

Against

Expensive, horrible ergonomics, terrible trackpad

There's more to life than good looks. And while looking good will get you so far, if you can't do anything useful, then there's no chance you'll ever be a success. Are we talking about Laptops or people here? Well, both, frankly.

The Asus Zenbook is a truly stunning-looking piece of equipment. Taking some cues from the best notebook computers on the market, and bringing a few tricks of its own to the party. But the question is: does it deliver a well-rounded package or is it just a beautiful facade?

Design

There's no possible way anyone could call the Zenbook ugly. It's taken some important cues from Apple's MacBooks. It's solidly-built for one, and has an all-metal body, which, while not a unibody, does feel very similar to the Mac in use.

Of course, this all means that this loses all the flexibility of upgrading the SSD, RAM and battery that other PCs have. Still, you pays your money, you makes your choice. For most people, a little reduction in upgradability will be easily offset by one of the best-looking laptops we've seen.

Of course, where metal is involved, there's also extra weight. The UX31 isn't overly heavy though, we slung it into a rucksack and carried it, barely noticing it was there. It's not as light as it could be, but it's still super-portable.

Ports

One area the Macbook Air lets itself down is in ports. This is partially a space consideration, and partly Apple's determination to adopt new standards and create machines that have a long lifespan. But, it's also deeply annoying for a lot of users.

It is great then to see the Zenbook pack an impressive set of connection options. There are two USB sockets, one of both 2.0 and 3.0 speeds. You'll also find mini HDMI and mini VGA sockets. You get a VGA adaptor in the box, but there's no supplied HDMI cable.

There is also an SD card slot, which is a very welcome addition, and one of those things that we've come to rely on extensively since most camcorders and digital cameras use this format.

There is also a headphone jack and a small power socket. In side-by-side comparisons with the MacBook Air, the Asus power adaptor is nearly as compact, but Apple's MagSafe is really something we miss on other laptops. Curiously, the Windows 7 activation code is located on the power adaptor. So do be careful not to lose this, or your life will get a bit more complicated.

You may notice there is no Ethernet socket built in. That's true, but Asus includes a USB adaptor in the box to allow you to connect to a wired network. Apple does this too, but it costs £25, which is a bit steep. We're glad to see Asus throwing one in, and when we tested it, it worked fine. We doubt you'll see the same throughput as you would with a proper network card, but even so, it's likely to be more reliable than Wi-Fi.

Bing off

One thing we noticed during the Windows setup was that we had to give the Bing bar permission to check up on us and report back to Microsoft. Without this, we wouldn't be able to use Windows as it refused to let us progress.

This is unacceptable, frankly. It's one thing to force a Bing bar on customers. It is quite another thing to not only force it on them, but actually render their machine unusable if they don't agree to let it talk to Microsoft about you, behind your back.

Keyboard and trackpad

The two things you use to communicate with your computer are obviously the two most important things about a laptop. With a desktop, if you don't like your mouse, then throw it away. With a laptop, it's always possible to add external input devices, but kind of invalidates the point of buying a laptop. Sadly, this is the area with which we were least impressed by the Asus.

Firstly, the keyboard. It looks good, but the key travel is a little too shallow for us. With this laptop, that seemed to translate to a very poor success rate with typing. Often letters would go missing, and it would be because either the key isn't sensitive enough, or we hadn't quite hit it dead on. This is in stark contrast to the Apple MacBook Air, which doesn't have a lot of travel either, but still manages to be a nice typing experience - although it isn't perfect either.

Then we look at the trackpad. And it's just horrible. Visually it mimics Apple's, but in terms of usability it's a significant way behind. Many of the multi-touch gestures you'd get on the Mac are here. Three fingers swiped upward will give you the Windows Flip interface. Annoyingly, it doesn't then allow you to scroll through the windows.

Two finger scrolling works okay, but it's not sensitive enough, and tweaking it doesn't help. We also couldn't make the edge scrolling work, despite enabling it in the trackpad setup. Worst of all though was the pinch zoom. We seemed to spend all our time accidentally zooming in on webpages, well, that is until we disabled the option for it. Perhaps we're not cut out for gestures, or perhaps we've got clumsy digits, but for us, this is not a good area for the Zenbook.

But, by far the worst sin of all is the poorly-designed case on the U31. Sitting at a desk, typing, meant that the edge of the laptop was sticking into the base of our palm. Very quickly this became highly uncomfortable and really made us hate using the machine. Combine this with less than stellar keyboard and pointing device action, and you start to feel pretty cross about the UX31.

Yes, of course, you could carry a small wireless keyboard and mouse around with you, but for a laptop, that's really not the point. Out in the field, where you don't sit at a desk, the digging in of the chassis is less likely to annoy, but you'll still have to contend with a sub-optimal keyboard and mouse combination.

Video, audio and screen performance

The Asus' screen did strike us as a little washed out most of the time. It doesn't seem to have a lot of contrast, although it can be very bright if it wants. The viewing angle isn't terrific either, with further colour being lost if you look at the screen from any angle other than straight on. The 13.3-inch unit does have plenty of detail though with a 1600 x 900 pixel resolution, which is good. Certainly for day-to-day web surfing and video watching, it is more than capable.

Video quality with a 1080p clip was very good indeed. We turned the screen brightness down to minimum, and that recovered a little more contrast, and the image was still bright enough and crammed full of beautiful detail.

Audio is mostly decent. The speaker system branded by Bang and Olufsen, though how much the audio firm did, we're not sure. Certainly, audio was clear at low- and mid-volume, but get too high and it distorted unpleasantly. This probably won't be a huge problem, as there is more than enough power in the speakers to make sure you don't need them at full volume. We liked how the Asus handled downmixing DTS audio via VLC. Dialogue was crystal clear, and while bass wasn't that impressive, we did like the overall sound.

Performance

In battery saving mode the Asus really choked badly at our 1080p movie clip, delivering only a badly broken-up image. While we understand and appreciate why this is, we would like to see the PC employ a little more common sense. Either a message to tell you that it can't play video properly in this mode, or automatically switch to full-power, might be sensible. Certainly, non-technical owners might not understand why their new laptop isn't just playing video back.

In the normal mode though, the Asus is snappy as hell and a joy to use. The i7 2577M processor handles all common tasks brilliantly, and the 4GB of memory is enough to see you through all but the very most challenging of scenarios.

Battery life

Day-to-day use was impressive. We powered the laptop on at 10am, with a little less than full charge, and we were still working on it at 3pm. We'd estimate that in normal use - we used Ethernet, not Wi-Fi - you'd see 5 hours quite easily, Asus states it will give you 7 hours. This is impressive for a machine so small, and more than enough for most uses.

The Asus power-plans seem well designed too, and the battery-prediction app told us we could get a lot more life out of our charge if we made a few compromises. For word processing and web browsing, this is no problem, but if you're watching HD video, you'll have to put up with the standard battery life.

Verdict

The Asus Zenbook is like Angelina Jolie. It's hot to look at, but you know full well that a long-term relationship is going to be painful and difficult. Well, we know that, because we've tested the Zenbook and have heard lots about Angelina Jolie having her partner's blood in a container around her neck.

Its design, while sleek, wreaks havoc with our hands. The bezel is just torture to rest on for any length of time.

The trackpad is bad too. Despite its clear effort to copy Apple's system, it is slow, unresponsive and frustrating to use. The buttons are a good idea though, and we like to see the flexibility offered by both gestures and physical keys. The problem was, gestures are horrible to use. Pinch zoom is so bad, we had to turn it off and we didn't find the two finger scroll all that relibable either.

We loved the styling of the Zenbook, we think the power and battery are brilliant. We love the fact that there are a decent number of ports, and that there are included breakout adaptors for Ethernet and VGA. We also love the supplied case.

The Zenbook is a good package, but with a laptop, not being able to type comfortably and use a reliable trackpad is kind of a deal breaker. Definitely one to try before you buy.

This review was first published on 21 October 2011.

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