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The display
Hmm, where to begin...

Well, probably with the display. This is the pièce de resistance, after all. The display is the centerpiece of the Zenbook Prime formula; the one feature that makes the UX31A unique, and thus the one attribute that could break it. If this IPS panel fails to deliver, then perhaps you'll be better off considering another, cheaper ultrabook.

At least with the naked eye, the Zenbook Prime's display seems every bit as good as it ought to be. The colors are vivid, the backlighting is delightfully powerful, and the viewing angles are excellent. To compensate for the higher resolution, the default, bloatware-infused Windows installation cranks up the UI scaling setting from 100% to 125%. While widgets and text look the right size, they're substantially crisper than what you see on a typical display—even a desktop one. Using 25% more pixels to draw each on-screen object will do that.

Unfortunately, higher-than-normal pixel densities have their drawbacks. Nowhere is that more obvious than in a freshly opened browser window.

While the browser's UI scales beautifully, the web doesn't. You've got three choices. You can stick to the 100% setting, where text is much too tiny for comfortable reading. (See above. The fonts in Windows Explorer are the right size for the display; the ones on TR aren't.) You can scale text independently of graphics, which often breaks page layouts. The third option is to tell the browser to scale up the page by 25%, and that wreaks havoc with images.

Oh, photos might look okay. You might not even notice the difference in text-heavy websites like Reddit or Craigslist, since fonts scale without putting up a fight. Go to any graphically heavy page, though, and you'll see blurry pixels and scaling artifacts if you look close. Some browsers scale graphics better than others, but no matter what you do, the web is always going to look either too small or too ugly.

Apple's Retina MacBook Pro deals with this problem with a little more elegance. The system's 2880x1800 resolution has four times the pixel count of 1440x900, its reference resolution for UI scaling. In most of the operating system—and in Retina-ready apps—objects are drawn with exactly four times the number of pixels. When Retina-ready graphics aren't available, like on the web, each source pixel is simply mapped to four pixels on the display. You get jaggies, naturally, but at least scaling is consistent, proportional, and free of weird artifacts.

The Zenbook isn't so lucky.

I don't think it's fair to blame Asus for the scaling woes of unfit software, though. Even without a perfect 1:4 scaling ratio, Windows browsers could do a far better job of scaling content without mangling graphics and botching CSS positioning. (IE9 seems particularly inept, and even Chrome and Firefox make mistakes.) More to the point, high-PPI displays are destined to take over. While they may be the exception right now, they'll probably be the norm in a few years' time. We already know Windows 8 will have better support for them, and software vendors everywhere will have to follow suit. One should think of the Zenbook Prime not as an eccentric fringe case, then, but as one the vanguards in an exciting but likely arduous transition.

With all that said, just look at the viewing angles on this thing. Yowza!

Clockwise, the images above show the display rotated to the side by 30°, leaning back at 110°, facing the camera at 90°, and leaning forward at 70°. For reference, check out how the previous-gen Zenbook UX31 handled itself in the exact same conditions. Note how the old Zenbook's screen looks way darker at 110° and completely washed-out at 70°. Its horizontal viewing angles aren't catastrophic, but the Zenbook Prime still exhibits less color shift when rotated 30° to the side.

That, folks, is why IPS displays are the bee's knees. The Zenbook Prime gives you the same image with (roughly) the same level of contrast regardless of whether you're slouching, leaning over the thing, or watching it from the side while someone else paws at it.

And now, some diagrams. We generated these by whipping out our colorimeter, an X-Rite EyeOne Display 2, and running HFCR after setting our display's brightness as close to 120 cd/m² as possible.

This is our first time using HFCR in a laptop review, and since we've had to send back pretty much all of our past samples, we unfortunately don't have diagrams for other, competing systems. I did, however, run the software on my HP ZR24w—a relatively upscale 24" desktop monitor with an S-IPS panel—just to see how it would stack up against the Zenbook Prime's screen. Click the buttons below each diagram to switch back and forth.

Zenbook Prime


Zenbook Prime

Clearly, the Zenbook Prime does well. It errs closer to the neutral 6500K color temperature than the ZR24w at the factory settings, and its gamut coverage is excellent, despite being a tad overzealous in the greens and reds.

Next, we cranked up the display's backlight to its maximum setting and measured luminance at nine points along the panel's surface. This gave us a rough sense of backlight uniformity. The luminance readings below are presented both as cd/m² figures as percentages of the most luminous point we measured. (Note that luminance and perceived brightness follow different scales, so the display appears more uniform than the chart below might suggest.)

403 cd/m²
(96%)
419 cd/m²
(100%)
418 cd/m²
(99%)
412 cd/m²
(98%)
419 cd/m²
(100%)
407 cd/m²
(97%)
421 cd/m²
(100%)
401 cd/m²
(95%)
396 cd/m²
(94%)

That's a very respecatble showing for the Zenbook Prime—especially considering how poorly the Zenbook UX31 did in the same test last year. We're looking at variance of only around 25 cd/m² for the Zenbook Prime, compared to 88 cd/m² for ye olde Zenbook UX31.

(Speaking of brightness, the Zenbook Prime takes a page from the Apple playbook by using a light sensor to adjust brightness dynamically. There doesn't seem to be a control panel setting to disable it, but Asus provides a handy keyboard shortcut to turn it on and off: Fn-A. The sensor controls the keyboard's backlight, too.)

So far, then, the Zenbook Prime's panel seems to be downright impeccable. There's no way it's that perfect, though. Surely it has some kind of achilles' heel. How about backlight leakage?

Ah-ha! Look at that bottom-right corner. Busted!

Okay, so this isn't as bad as it looks. If you stare at the lower-right corner of the screen in a pitch-black room while viewing a dark image, then sure, you'll see the leakage. Otherwise, you may be hard-pressed to notice it. I couldn't detect it myself when watching a letterboxed video with the blinds shut. I had to take the Zenbook Prime into the bathroom and close the door with the light off—and even then, the display's high contrast made the leakage difficult to detect unless I was viewing a particularly murky frame.

Could Asus have done better? Absolutely. They probably should have, too. But given the panel's otherwise great performance, I find this small transgression easy to forgive. My two desktop IPS monitors both suffer from some amount of backlight leakage, as well, and that doesn't detract from their immaculate image quality.