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Asus' Zenbook UX31 ultrabook


Here comes the razor's edge
— 10:30 AM on October 31, 2011

Manufacturer Asus
Model Zenbook UX31E-DH52
Price (Street)
$1,099
Availability Now

The word "ultrabook" seems to be on everyone's lips lately. Ever since Intel's May 31 announcement at Computex, we've been treated to an endless deluge of rumors and reports about what upcoming ultrabooks will look like, how much they'll cost, which manufacturers plan to have the first systems out the door, and whether we'll see any Hello Kitty-branded models.

What is an ultrabook? Intel defines this new category of systems as "thin, light and beautiful designs that are less than 21mm (0.8 inch) thick, and [positioned] at mainstream prices." We were told at Computex that Intel aims for ultrabooks to cost less than $1000. Sandy Bridge processors are part of the formula, and word is that Intel mandates rapid boot times, as well. Hardware makers are meeting that last criterion with solid-state storage, either on its own or backed by a high-capacity mechanical hard drive.

In more concise terms, you could say ultrabooks are essentially cheaper, Windows-espousing cousins of the MacBook Air. That characterization might sound unfair, but there's a pretty strong resemblance—from the tapered aluminum unibody designs to the chiclet keyboards and king-sized touchpads that adorn the first ultrabooks.

One of those trailblazing ultrabooks is the Asus Zenbook UX31, which launched on October 11 and made its way into our labs a little over a week ago. MacBook Air lookalike or not, this is a thing of beauty:

Asus clads the entire system in artfully finished pieces of brushed aluminum. Even the bezel around the display, traditionally a repository for black, glossy plastic, has gotten the brushed aluminum treatment. Oh joy! Other parts of the system may still collect smudges and fingerprints, because Asus has given the aluminum an ever-so-slightly reflective finish. Still, shiny brushed aluminum looks several orders of magnitudes classier than glossy plastic—even with a few fingerprints here and there.

The Zenbook UX31's beauty isn't skin deep—far from it. Inside this marvel of engineering resides state-of-the-art hardware, including a dual-core Sandy Bridge CPU, a 128GB solid-state drive, USB 3.0 connectivity, and Bluetooth 4.0. Asus has even splurged on the display, forgoing the all-too-common 1366x768 resolution and opting for a 1600x900 panel, instead.

Processor Intel Core i5-2557M 1.7GHz
Memory 4GB DDR3-1333 (2 DIMMs)
Chipset Intel QS67
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 3000
Display 13.3" TFT with 1600x900 resolution and LED backlight
Storage 128GB Adata XM11 solid-state drive
Audio HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 1 USB 3.0
1 USB 2.0
1 Micro HDMI
1 Mini VGA
1 analog headphone/mic port
Expansion slots 1 SD card reader
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Atheros AR9485WB-EG
Bluetooth 4.0 + HS via Atheros AR3012
Input devices Chiclet keyboard
Sentelic Finger Sensing Pad touchpad
Internal microphone
Camera 0.3-megapixel webcam
Dimensions 12.8" x 8.8" x 0.11-0.71" (325 x 224 x 3-18 mm)
Weight 3.06 lbs (1.39 kg)
Battery 50 Wh polymer battery

That Core i5-2557M processor has a 17W thermal envelope, in case you're wondering, which is actually surprisingly tight given the chip's two cores, four threads, 2.7GHz Turbo peak, and Intel HD Graphics 3000—that's the fully enabled version of Intel's latest integrated graphics processor. The IGP's 350MHz base speed does fall short of what higher-spec models pull off (up to 650MHz), but its 1.2GHz peak Turbo speed is in the same ballpark as higher-wattage offerings.

Asus claims the Zenbook UX31 can wake from sleep in just two seconds and remain in standby for as long as two weeks. That's no doubt thanks to the built-in SSD, an Adata XM11 drive powered by SandForce's SF-2281 controller—the same chip that powers SSDs like OCZ's Vertex 3. Asus even talks up the speakers, which purportedly feature "four times the sound output of other ultrabooks" thanks to "SonicMaster technology . . . co-developed with Bang & Olufsen ICEpower®." There's still a 3.5-mm headphone jack on the side of the machine, though. No matter how powerful or refined, laptop speakers are still... well, laptop speakers.

In spite of its potency, the Zenbook is remarkably light, tipping the scales at just over three pounds. (Asus actually quotes a weight of 2.89 lbs, but our postal scale begs to differ.) That weight puts it in the same league as the 13-inch MacBook Air—a machine that, by the way, costs $200 more despite having similar specs and a lower-resolution 1440x900 display.

The Zenbook is also remarkably thin. Its front edge measures just a few millimeters in thickness, while the laptop's booty is less than three quarters of an inch thick (about the same as the diameter of a dime). The Zenbook isn't a featureless aluminum wedge when closed, though; there are four thick rubber feet that keep it off the ground, helping air to flow underneath the chassis.

Asus completes the package with a 50 watt-hour polymer battery, presumably squished and flattened as much as it can bear, which gives the system a rather impressive run-time rating: over seven hours. Ultra-slim notebooks aren't always known for spectacular endurance, so it'll be interesting to see how long the Zenbook lasts in our battery-life tests.

Unfortunately for penny pinchers, Asus overshot Intel's sub-$1,000 target for ultrabooks somewhat, pricing the base Zenbook UX31 (which we're looking at today) at $1,099. Variants of this machine with faster processors and 256GB solid-state drives are available for $1,349 and $1,449. The only ultrabook Asus offers under a thousand bucks is the UX21, an 11.6-inch model that starts at $999.

Is the Zenbook UX31 worth its $1,099 asking price, and is it as tantalizing in reality as it looks on paper? Let's find out.