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Asus' Zenbook Prime UX31A


1920x1080 pixels of IPS goodness—on a 13" ultrabook
— 8:23 PM on September 17, 2012

PC laptops don't get any love.

No, really. Ask your Mac-using friends. Some of them might already be toting Apple's new 15" Retina MacBook Pro, basking in the glory of its 2880x1800 IPS display. This isn't a cheap computer we're talking about, but at least it exists. Good luck finding something equivalent on the PC side. Rumor has it Apple is prepping a cheaper, 13" model with a 2560x1600 resolution, too.

Or ask your tablet-using friends. The latest premium slates all have gorgeous IPS screens with high pixel densities: 2048x1536 for the new iPad and 1920x1200 for the latest Transformer Pad from Asus. Heck, even the original iPad had an IPS display, and it came out over two years ago. Tablets and high-quality IPS panels seem to be inextricably tied together—most of the time, anyway.

Now look at your PC laptop. Take a good look at it. Oh, it might have the world's fastest hardware roaring away under the hood. It might even be quicker than your desktop. But that's no guarantee that the manufacturer hasn't saddled it with a TN panel, a 1366x768 display resolution, and a reflective coating—the trifecta of disappointing, generic blandness that pervades almost all Windows notebooks today. Even if you had the good fortune to find a machine with a 1080p screen, you probably had no way to avoid the the poor viewing angles and ugly color shifting of TN panel technology.

It's a sad, wretched state of affairs, and it's persisted for far too long. There may finally be hope, though.

I present you Asus' new Zenbook Prime UX31A, possibly the first PC laptop that hasn't made me long for the warm, fuzzy glow of my desktop monitors. This wedge-shaped ultrabook shatters convention by boasting a state-of-the-art, 13.3" IPS panel with a razor-sharp 1920x1080 resolution. Asus even sprang for a matte coating. The classical trifecta of disappointment is nowhere to be found, and in its place is something that comes awfully close to visual bliss.

Now, let's be clear. This isn't the Windows world's answer to the new MacBook Pro. It's a smaller system with substantially less impressive hardware, and its display density (166 PPI, by my count) pales in comparison to the to the 221 PPI of Apple's flagship. On the flip side, this up-and-comer from Asus has something entirely unattainable for the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro: a reasonable price tag.

Amazon lists the Zenbook Prime UX31A for just $1049.98 right now. That's literally less than half the cost of the MacBook Pro. It's actually $150 cheaper than the 13" MacBook Air, a system saddled with an unimpressive TN panel and a good-but-not-great 1440x900 resolution. Somehow, Asus found a way to deliver a premium display in a notebook without an equally premium price tag.

More amazing still, Asus has apparently pulled off this feat without cutting corners. One certainly gets that impression from just picking up the Zenbook Prime. The brushed aluminum chassis feels slick, sexy, and sturdy, and the hardware that lurks within is very much on the cutting edge. You've got one of Intel's latest 17W Ivy Bridge processors, a 128GB solid-state drive with 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity, and upscale amenities like USB 3.0 and Bluetooth 4.0. See for yourself:

Processor Intel Core i5-3317U 1.7GHz
Memory 4GB DDR3-1600 (2 modules)
Chipset Intel HM76 Express
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4000
Display 13.3" IPS panel with 1920x1080 resolution
Storage 128GB Adata XM11 solid-state drive
Audio HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 2 USB 3.0
1 micro HDMI
1 Mini VGA
1 analog headphone/analog microphone
Expansion slots 1 SD card reader
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Intel Centrino 6235
Bluetooth 4.0
10/100Mbps Ethernet (via USB 2.0 adapter)
Input devices Chiclet keyboard
Asus Smart-Pad
Internal microphone
Camera HD webcam
Dimensions 12.8" x 8.8" x 0.1-0.7" (325 x 223 x 3-18 mm)
Weight 3.08 lbs (1.40 kg)
3.48 lbs (1.58 kg) with AC adapter
Battery 50 Wh polymer battery

This thing is every bit as thin and light as an ultrabook ought to be, as well. It measures just one tenth of an inch at its thinnest point, 0.7" at its thickest, and weighs in at a little over three pounds. (Asus' official spec sheet quotes a weight of 2.86 lbs, but our postal scale disagrees.) Despite the size and weight, the Zenbook has a beefy 50 Wh polymer battery. Our experience with other ultrabooks suggests 50 Wh should be plenty to guarantee, if not all-day mobility, something awfully close to that.

The Zenbook Prime isn't Asus' first stab at a sexy ultrabook with solid specs, of course. Display and internals aside, the UX31A is the spitting image of its predecessor, the Zenbook UX31, which we reviewed nearly a year ago. That machine was based on Intel's first-generation ultrabook platform, with a 17W Sandy Bridge CPU and a matching 6-series chipset, but it had the same tapered chassis and distinctive "spun" finish on its brushed aluminum lid. The old Zenbook weighed about the same, had a similar battery, and was outfitted with equivalent complementary hardware. The display wasn't quite as good, though; Asus used a TN panel with a 1600x900 resolution. Oh, and the price tag was slightly higher, at $1,099.

In less than one year, Asus appears to have refined the Zenbook formula to offer faster hardware and a substantially better display for 50 bucks less. Is there a catch, or is this ultrabook really as good as it sounds? Let's find out.