(Pocket-lint) - The mid-range laptop market tends to be a sea of nondescript plastic. Who knows, perhaps that's an incentive to spend more cash for something a little more luxe. Not so with the Acer Zenbook UX305, however, which could well be the new poster boy for the mid-range. Hence its rather regal seating on a throne of plush purple cushions.
When we first saw the UX305 at the IFA show back in 2014 we were impressed by its beefed-up specification. For the UK market that's not how the final product has arrived, instead opting for a balance of price to features.
But that's not to undo what this Ultrabook does best: deliver a slim and good looking device that, dressed in the all metal purple jacket of this review sample, looks like an affordable Windows alternative to the MacBook Air.
Well priced, well made and, well, just about perfect then? We've been using the Asus Zenbook UX305 to see whether it's king of the affordable laptop market.
Designed beyond its class
To look at the Zenbook UX305 is every bit the £1,000 laptop. Only it isn't, because it costs around £649.
That metal exterior with its subtle brushed finish looks quality, while the 12.3mm thickness makes it almost a full 5mm slimmer than a MacBook Air. If it's slim laptop you want then, for a 13-inch model with full-size USB ports, you're not going to find anything slimmer than this Asus.
Ports come in relative plenty too: there are three USB 3.0 ports arranged across the two sides, along with a full-size SD card slot, micro HDMI out and 3.5mm headphones jack too.
Open the laptop - which is too fiddly, we must say, needing two hands and often a fingernail to separate the lid from base - and the visual theme continues to impress. A full size keyboard and trackpad waste no space in their layout.
It's in the smaller details, however, whereby the mid-range price point reveals its slight drawbacks. Principally it's the lack of a backlit keyboard that disappoints, but it's hardly the end of the world. The screen isn't touch-sensitive either, but if, like us, that's your preferential way of working then it's hardly a problem (and hey, nobody's ever seen it as an issue with the MacBook Air).
Solid screen for the cash
In its UK format the UX305 comes with a Full HD screen, meaning a 1920 x 1080 resolution is stretched across that 13.3-inch panel. It might not be the ultra-high 3200 x 1800 resolution that we saw in the prototype model (and available in some overseas configurations, we belive), but we're not exactly disappointed by that either. A Full HD panel at this scale does all we could reasonably ask of it.
It's a really bright display that we've successfully used both indoors and out without reflective issues. The colour balance may be a little on the cool side, but you'll not notice that in isolation.
Besides, everything is represented with enough pop and verve. Viewing angles are decent too, with little contrast falloff to be worried about whatever angle the screen is positioned at.
Critical to this screen resolution is how much longer it ought to make the battery last compared to a higher-resolution equivalent. Asus' official specification says it'll last for around 25 per cent longer. Of course that's meaningless unless you own both devices, but in our day-to-day tests we've been hitting around the 9-hours per charge mark - a decent innings by any standard.
Part of the reason the UX305 is so slim is that it doesn't need any fan cooling. Why? Because it's opted to use Intel Core M architecture. That means slim design and silent use, no sudden whirring of a fan kicking out and attracting stares when on the go.
Now it's no secret that Core M isn't technically as powerful as, say, an Intel Core i5 processor. But the difference in day-to-day operation is negligible, with the UX305's M-5Y10c chip faring well.
The 0.8Ghz clock speed might sound relatively low, but paired with the 8GB RAM as standard, a 128GB SSD (not standard HDD, so greater speed; however only around 85GB is available), and 64-bit Windows 8 it has cut through tasks with few issues.
Web pages pop-up with at pace, toggling between applications is no issue, Full HD video playback and even Adobe Bridge browsing of photos hasn't proved too taxing. No discreet graphics is a given, but Intel HD Graphics 5300 is on board.
Ok, so the Zenbook UX305 isn't going to be a gamers' laptop, nor will it be as fast as some more expensive and better specified machines, but for this price point and, importantly, the user base it's targeting that's of no issue. There might be some games that will run at a usable frame-rate from the Store, but not some of the higher-end AAA titles of today.
Although it appears that Microsoft Office is on board the UX305, you'll only get a free month to use Excel, Word and Powerpoint, then you'll need to sign up for the full package if that's what you want. Shame, as some cheaper Asus models such as the T100 Chi come with the Office Home and Student edition included.
There's some extra software lingering in the background too, but nothing we've found to pop-up to excess or be particularly problematic. Having TripAdvisor pre-installed in the Start menu is hardly a bother, as you either use it or don't.
Asus delivers some of its own software too, including its Webstorage cloud storage solution with 16GB capacity for users. It's not compulsory to use, but if you're not a fan of Google Drive, Dropbox or the like then it's a fair backup option.
To aid battery life there is an Intel HD Graphics Control Panel where 3D tasks can be configured to switch off anti-aliasing, or opt for power consumption limits (between performance, balanced, quality and custom settings).
Sound and daily use
We've been using the Asus Zenbook UX305 for some weeks - it's even travelled to China with us and has served well on a long-haul plane stint to watch video following the demise of our MacBook battery (yes, we carry two laptops, tech geeks that we are).
One thing that's sold as being extra special is the Bang & Olufsen ICEpower audio setup. With such a quality name we anticipated a great deal, but audio is fairly average overall.
The speakers positioned underneath the laptop base doesn't cause a big issue with sound projection though, as we expected it would, and the volume is ample - it's just not nearly as loud or quite as punchy as our MacBook Air. Turn things up a little too loud and the Asus struggles to keep the quality too. It's not bad audio by any means, just not as high-flying as billed.
Over the course of time the one thing that we've missed the most is having a backlit keyboard. The typing experience on the UX305 is otherwise a good one, let down by a feature that we're so used to seeing and using elsewhere. Can't have it all we suppose.
The trackpad, which sits almost flush with the body's surface, has a smooth finish that we like the feel of. Fingers glide over it easily, whether positioning a pointer or feeding gestures to whizz through the Start menu (you'll need these without a touchscreen too).
The Asus Zenbook UX305 is certainly in the running for king of the mid-range laptops. Of course there are more powerful and feature-heavy laptops out there, but at this £649 price point, with its Full HD 13.3-inch screen, metal build, full size keyboard, silent operation and super-slim build, it's hard to fault.
It's the pernickety things that hold it back from perfection: we'd like a backlit keyboard and a touchscreen wouldn't go amiss. But then we'd also like to maintain the price point too, so in the balance of things we think Asus has made a good judgement call with the UK specification of the UX305.
Even if it's not as spec heavy as the original maxed-out model shown at IFA last year, for the money you'll struggle to find many Windows laptops that can better the UX305. It injects a little much-needed excitement into the mid-range market.