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 1366×768 resolution and opting for a 1600×900 panel, instead.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-2557M 1.7GHz|
|Memory||4GB DDR3-1333 (2 DIMMs)|
|Graphics||Intel HD Graphics 3000|
|Display||13.3″ TFT with 1600×900 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
|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 1440×900 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.
The display and controls
As we noted earlier, the UX31’s display is 1600 by 900 pixels—a welcome departure from the unfortunately ubiquitous 1366×768 resolution that has become the norm on everything from 11.6″ ultraportables to 15.6″ desktop replacements. The higher resolution endows the Zenbook UX31’s display with an uncanny crispness, which is only enhanced by the surprisingly powerful LED backlight. (More on that in a moment.)
The bright, high-res panel and the brushed aluminum surfaces surrounding it give this notebook a decidedly premium feel. However, despite its sharpness, the display exhibits a kind of screen-door effect, where thin vertical lines between pixel columns can be seen if you look closely.
We started our battery of scientific display tests by taking a series of photos of the screen at different angles, all using the same camera settings, in order to gauge color and contrast shift. We photographed the display facing the camera at a 90° angle, then leaning forward at 70°, leaning back at 110°, and rotated to the side by 30°.
The fairly poor viewing angles betray the presence of a TN panel—high-resolution as it may be.
Next, we used X-Rite’s Eye-One Match v3.6.2 software to calibrate the display. While we don’t expect folks will go around using professional calibration tools on consumer laptops, this little exercise does tell us a few important things about how accurate the default colors are. In the screenshot below, the graph on the left shows the correction curves required to achieve “correct” colors per the specified gamma and color temperature settings (2.2 and 6500K, respectively). The diagram on the right shows the panel’s color gamut. Although the display can be set to higher brightness levels, we specified a luminosity target of 120 cd/m² and attempted to match it as closely as possible using the laptop’s brightness controls.
The graph on the left tells us the UX31’s color temperature is too high out of the box, which gives images on the screen a sort of blue-ish tinge. Our calibrator reported a somewhat constricted color gamut that’s smaller than what it detected on the display of the Asus A53T Llano notebook we reviewed not too long ago.
Next, we cranked up the display’s backlight to its maximum setting and measured luminance at nine points along the panel’s surface. Luminance readings are presented both as cd/m² figures, which were produced by the calibration software, and 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.
On the one hand, the UX31’s display is bright enough to put some desktop monitors to shame. On the other, its backlighting is awfully inconsistent. The contrast ratio at the center of the panel isn’t anything to write home about, either: just 164:1, based on the maximum and minimum luminance readings we took.
We could go on, er, picking nits all day, but let’s put things in perspective: the Zenbook’s display is crisp and bright, and that’s going to be enough to make most folks happy. Sure, you might want to look elsewhere for serious professional work, but Asus deserves praise for what it has managed to offer in such a thin enclosure.
Now that we’re done with the display, let’s take a look at the Zenbook UX31’s keyboard. This is a pretty conventional chiclet design with a metallic paint finish on the keys:
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||275 mm||100 mm||27,504 mm²||169 mm||50 mm||8,450 mm²|
|Versus full size||96%||91%||87%||98%||88%||86%|
In terms of size, the Zenbook’s keys are shorter than those on our reference, non-chiclet keyboard, but they’re plenty wide. Folks familiar with other chiclet keyboards should feel right at home.
All in all, this keyboard has lovely tactile response and feels great to type on. We didn’t detect much flex in the center of the keyboard, either. Considering how many ultra-slim laptops we’ve seen with awful, rubbery keyboards (Apple’s MacBooks excepted), typing on the Zenbook made for a pleasant surprise.
Speaking of MacBooks, Asus has taken a page from Apple’s playbook by outfitting the Zenbook UX31 with a large, multi-touch touchpad devoid of physical buttons. As on Apple’s laptops, pushing down the lower half of the touchpad’s surface will register a click. The touchpad figures out if you meant to left- or right-click depending on the position of your finger.
Unfortunately, this touchpad suffers from a couple of shortcomings. Its surface is too tacky, so your finger meets a little too much resistance when sliding across. Also, drag-and-drop functionality is frustratingly temperamental.
See that separator line at the bottom? To drag and drop, you’re supposed to push down left of the separator with your thumb, thereby triggering a left click, then perform the dragging with your index or middle finger. Synaptic’s ClickPads and Apple’s trackpads work in a similar fashion. On the Zenbook, keeping your thumb left of the line is easy enough, but it seems you can’t let your thumb protrude forward past where the line ends—if you do that, the touchpad will detect a right click as soon as you attempt dragging with your index or middle finger, even if the remainder of your thumb lies along the same latitude as the separator. This behavior persisted after we went into the touchpad’s control panel and disabled the option to right-click by tapping with two fingers.
I’m sure you could train your thumb to stay in the right position with a little practice, but I’ve been dragging and dropping things on an Apple trackpad for years without needing to worry about the exact position of my thumb. I don’t recall witnessing anything like this on a Synaptics ClickPad, either. Asus sourced this touchpad from a firm called Sentelic, and it seems like the drivers could use a little work. Incidentally, this isn’t the first time a great Asus laptop has been let down by a buggy touchpad from a company we’ve never heard of. Here’s hoping a future driver update will help alleviate the problem.
Connectivity and expansion
You can’t exactly cram a notebook this thin full of ports and connectors, so the UX31’s sides are largely empty, save for two small clusters gathered on either side of the rear hinge.
The right cluster plays host to the DC power socket, the USB 3.0 port, and two display outputs: Mini VGA and Micro HDMI. On the left, you’ll find just one USB 2.0 port, one dual-purpose 1/8″ audio jack, and a card reader.
Asus ships the UX31 with two port adapters: one a Micro-to-full-size VGA adapter, which could come in handy if you ever need to use an old projector, and one USB 2.0 to Ethernet adapter. Disappointingly, the Ethernet adapter only works at 100Mbps speeds, which means transfers won’t go much quicker than about 11MB/s. That might beat your wireless connection, but I found myself longing for a USB 3.0 Gigabit Ethernet adapter when copying our 12GB notebook benchmark suite across the network. Then again, I’m not sure that such adapters exist yet.
The smooth, solid, and unyielding bottom panel has some pretty clear subtext: keep out. The 10 Torx screws securing it in place punctuate the message. If you had any hopes of quickly and easily swapping the UX31’s battery or upgrading its memory, check those at the door.
The last piece of the puzzle is the Zenbook UX31’s AC adapter, which should look familiar to anyone who’s ever used a MacBook. The cable stretches out to a generous 8 feet and 4 inches (254 cm), and the whole contraption adds just over six ounces (175 g) to the weight of the notebook, bringing it to a total of 3.45 lbs (1.57 kg).
I like the power adapter’s compact size, but I’m less thrilled about the DC connector, which feels a little flimsy, thanks to a large-ish plastic shell and a very slim metal plug that wiggles around inside the machine’s DC port. (Ah, if only PC laptop makers would pry a MagSafe license from Apple.) Asus also decided to put the Windows 7 license sticker on the adapter, which could make things complicated if you ever need to use a second adapter or, heaven forbid, you lose the original.
Laptops pre-loaded with oodles of useful and not-so-useful software are, unfortunately, a fact of life these days. As part of our refreshed laptop test suite, we’re taking a closer look at just how much bloatware comes with each system. The boot time measurements later in this review will help highlight the performance impact of some of that bloat, too. For now, let’s see what this laptop comes with fresh out of the box.
Are desktop gadgets overtaking tray icons as the bloatware medium of choice for notebook vendors? The Zenbook UX31 certainly doesn’t skimp on them. There’s the Asus Instant On gadget, whose toggle button replaces the “Shut down” button with “Sleep” in the Start menu; the Asus Power4Gear gadget, which lets you toggle quickly between high-performance and power-saving battery profiles; and the Asus Power Wiz gadget, which calculates standby time, charge time, and remaining battery run times for different tasks like gaming and video playback. There’s a shortcut on the desktop for Intel’s Turbo Boost monitoring gadget, as well, which we weren’t particularly eager to open.
128GB solid-state drive be damned, the Zenbook UX31 has plenty of pre-installed software, from classics like Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security and an Office 2010 trial to more avant-garde forms of bloatware and trialware, like the Bing bar for Internet Explorer and the Nuance PDF Reader. A substantial amount of the software on that list originates from Asus itself, though
The pre-installed Asus tools are many, so we won’t cover them all here. Some of the more useful ones include Power4Gear and LiveUpdate, which let you tweak the pre-configured power profiles and fetch the latest drivers for the machine, respectively. Like other Asus laptops, the UX31 comes with four custom power profiles: Battery Saving, Quiet Office, Entertainment, and High Performance. The Battery Saving profile is fairly aggressive, disabling Aero and limiting the CPU speed to 60% of its 1.7GHz peak. We’ll see in our testing what kinds of dividends that aggressiveness pays in terms of battery life.
Our testing methods
We’ve run a great many laptops through our test suite, so for the sake of informativeness (and entertainment), we’ve included all the results in the graphs on the following pages. To make things readable, we’ve greyed out the results for everything but the Zenbook UX31.
We ran the UX31 through our test suite twice: once using the Power4Gear High Performance preset, which lets everything run at full tilt, and again using the Battery Saving preset, which limits the CPU speed to 60% of its maximum and takes other energy-saving steps like disabling Windows 7’s Aero theme.
Before we go forward, we should talk about the other machines we tested in more than one state. The A53T, N82Jv, U33Jc, Eee PC 1015PN, and T235D were all tested using special battery-saving profiles, and the A53T, N82Jv, U33Jc, and 1015PN were run in high-performance mode, too.
With the N82Jv, we recorded our Battery Saving results with Asus’ Super Hybrid Engine on, which dropped the CPU clock speed from 2.4GHz to 0.9-1GHz depending on the load. The U33Jc also has a Super Hybrid Engine mode, but we didn’t enable it for testing. On the U33Jc, the high-performance profile included by Asus raises the maximum CPU clock speed from 2.4 to 2.57GHz. On the N82Jv, the same profile leaves the CPU running at default speeds, i.e. up to 2.66GHz when Turbo Boost kicks in. Finally, with the Eee PC, the low-power profile limits the CPU to about 1GHz and disables the Nvidia GPU, while the high-performance profile raises the CPU speed by a whole 25MHz.
The Samsung Series 9 was tested both plugged in and unplugged, since the default battery profile limits the CPU clock speed to 50% of its maximum when the machine is running off the battery.
With the exception of battery life, all tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of those runs.
|System||AMD A8-3500M test system||Acer Aspire 1810TZ||Acer Aspire 1830TZ||Acer Aspire One 522||Asus A53T||Asus K53E||Asus Eee PC 1015PN||Asus N82Jv||Asus U33Jc||Asus UX31||HP Pavilion dm1z||HP ProBook 6460b||Intel Core i7-2820QM 17″ review notebook||Samsung Series 9 (900X3A)||Toshiba Satellite T235D-S1435|
|Processor||AMD A8-3500M APU 1.5GHz||Intel Pentium SU4100 1.3GHz||Intel Pentium U5400 1.2GHz||AMD C-50 1.0GHz||AMD A6-3400M 1.4GHz||Intel Core i5-2520M 2.5GHz||Intel Atom N550 1.5GHz||Intel Core i5-450M 2.4GHz||Intel Core i3-370M 2.4GHz||Intel Core i5-2557M 1.7GHz||AMD E-350 1.6GHz||Intel Core i5-2410M 2.3GHz||Intel Core i7-2820QM 2.3GHz||Intel Core i5-2537M 1.4GHz||AMD Turion II Neo K625 1.5GHz|
|North bridge||AMD A70M FCH||Intel GS45 Express||Intel HM55 Express||AMD Hudson FCH||AMD A70M FCH||Intel HM67 Express||Intel NM10||Intel HM55 Express||Intel HM55 Express||Intel QS67||AMD Hudson FCH||Intel HM65||Intel HM67 Express||Intel HM65 Express||AMD M880G|
|South bridge||Intel ICH9||AMD SB820|
|Memory size||4GB||3GB (2 DIMMs)||3GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (1 DIMM)||6GB (2 DIMMs)||6GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (1 DIMM)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||3GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB||4GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||DDR3 SDRAM||DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz|
|Audio||IDT codec||Realtek codec with 22.214.171.1249 drivers||Realtek codec with 126.96.36.19943 drivers||Conexant codec with 188.8.131.52 drivers||Realtek codec with 184.108.40.20673 drivers||Realtek codec with 220.127.116.1173 drivers||Realtek codec with 18.104.22.16886 drivers||Realtek codec with 22.214.171.12424 drivers||Realtek codec with 126.96.36.19929 drivers||Realtek codec with 188.8.131.5246 drivers||IDT codec with 6.10.6302.0 drivers||IDT codec with 6.10.6328.0 drivers||Conexant codec with 184.108.40.206 drivers||Realtek codec with 220.127.116.1171 drivers||Realtek codec with 18.104.22.16872 drivers|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 6620G + AMD Radeon HD 6630M
with Catalyst 8.862 RC1 drivers
|Intel GMA 4500MHD with 22.214.171.1242 drivers||Intel HD Graphics with 126.96.36.1997 drivers||AMD Radeon HD 6250||AMD Radeon HD 6520G + AMD Radeon HD 6650M 1GB
with Catalyst 8.861.0.0 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 188.8.131.521 drivers||Intel GMA 3150 with 184.108.40.2067 drivers
Nvidia Ion with 220.127.116.1112 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics with 18.104.22.1689 drivers
Nvidia GeForce 335M with 22.214.171.12496 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics with 126.96.36.1999 drivers
Nvidia GeForce 310M with 188.8.131.5221 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 184.108.40.2066 drivers UX33||AMD Radeon HD 6310 with 8.821.0.0 drivers||Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 220.127.116.111 drivers||Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 18.104.22.1686 drivers||Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 22.214.171.1246 drivers||AMD Mobility Radeon HD 4225 with 8.723.2.1000 drivers|
|Hard drive||Hitachi Travelstar 7K500 250GB 7,200 RPM||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB 5,400-RPM||Toshiba MK3265GSX 320GB 5,400 RPM||500GB Seagate Momentus 7,200-RPM||Seagate Momentus 640GB 5,400-RPM||Toshiba MK2565GSX 250GB 5,400 RPM||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB 5,400-RPM||Seagate Momentus 7200.4 500GB 7,200-RPM||Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400-RPM||Adata XM11 128GB solid-state drive||Hitachi Travelstar 7K500 320GB 7,200-RPM hard drive||Hitachi Travelstar 7K500 320GB 7,200 RPM||Intel X25-M G2 160GB solid-state drive||256GB Samsung MZ8PA256HMDR solid-state drive||Toshiba MK3265GSX 320GB 5,400 RPM|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Starter x86||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Ultimate x64||Windows 7 Starter x86||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64 SP1||Windows 7 Professional x64||Windows 7 Ultimate x64||Windows 7 Professional x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64|
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Firefox 3.6.9
- Adobe Flash 10.1.82.76
- x264 HD Benchmark 3.19
- 7-Zip 4.65 x64
- TrueCrypt 7.0a
- Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 1.7
- Far Cry 2 1.03
- CPU-Z 1.56
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
We realize this is an old version of Firefox. However, the point of this benchmark is to compare web browsing performance across multiple systems, and we can do a good job of that now that we’ve accumulated a reasonable data set.
Yow, that’s fast. We should note that the three top performers are Asus systems with Power4Gear “High Performance” battery profiles selected, and at least on the UX31, the profile prevents the CPU from throttling itself to save power when the system is plugged into the wall. The UX31 doesn’t have the highest-clocked CPU of the three, but it is the only one with a Sandy Bridge chip, which may explain its strong showing here.
7-Zip has a handy built-in benchmark that lets us test both compression and decompression performance.
x264 video encoding
The x264 video encoding benchmark doesn’t call on the GPU to accelerate the encoding process, leaving us with a good look at how the various mobile CPUs stack up.
The UX31 doesn’t do quite as well in these tests as it did in SunSpider, but the Zenbook still sits among the top performers—quite a strong showing for such a thin and light machine. Enabling the Battery Saving profile cuts performance quite dramatically, though. In that mode, which we tested with the system unplugged to simulate actual on-the-go performance, the UX31 rubs elbows only with older consumer ultraportables.
This latest version of TrueCrypt makes use of the AES-NI instructions built into Intel’s Westmere and Sandy Bridge CPUs.
Our star contender falls further behind in TrueCrypt. With the Battery Saving mode enabled, the UX31 is barely any faster than a dual-core Atom netbook.
Startup and wake times
For this round of tests, we busted out a stopwatch and timed how long it took for the notebooks to boot and wake from hibernation. For the startup test, we started timing as soon as the power button was hit and stopped when the Windows 7 hourglass cursor went away. For the wake-up test, we measured the time it took to bring up the log-in screen after hitting the power button.
And that, folks, is why SSDs are so appealing. Watching a trialware-laden Windows 7 installation boot in 20 seconds flat is a sight to behold.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
We tested the original Modern Warfare by running a custom timedemo, first at 800×600 with the lowest detail options, then again at 1366×768 with everything cranked up except for vsync, antialiasing, and anisotropic filtering, which were all left disabled. With the Eee PC and Aspire One 522, we opted for respective native resolutions of 1024×600 and 1280×720 instead of 1366×768.
Both of the graphics processors in the A53T’s Dual Graphics team, the Llano IGP and the discrete Radeon GPU, were enabled throughout our gaming tests. However, since Dual Graphics only supports games that use DirectX 10 and 11, some of the games we tested couldn’t make use of both GPUs.
Far Cry 2
In Far Cry 2, we selected the “Action” scene from the game’s built-in benchmark and ran it in two configurations: first at 1366×768 in DirectX 10 mode with detail cranked up, and then at that same resolution in DX9 mode with the lowest detail preset. Vsync and antialiasing were left disabled in both cases. Again, the Eee PC and Aspire One 522 were run at 1024×600 and 1280×720, respectively.
Asus has no pretentions about the Zenbook UX31’s gaming chops, and it’s pretty clear why. In three of our four gaming benchmarks, the Zenbook’s Intel HD Graphics 3000 IGP fails to produce frame rates we’d consider playable.
Off the beaten path
Despite those discouraging results, we still felt like trying some seat-of-the-pants testing with a handful of other games—if only to satisfy our curiosity.
We kicked things off with Rage, wondering how id’s new shooter would handle texture scaling on such spartan integrated graphics. The answer? It didn’t. No matter how many times we tried, Rage kept crashing in the middle of the opening Zenimax logo animation.
Ubisoft Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution was more cooperative. The Zenbook cranked out frame rates in the 20-40 FPS range while I ran around the Detroit City Streets map. However, obtaining those frame rates required bumping down the resolution to 1024×768 and selecting the lowest graphical settings on offer. Even at those settings, the game didn’t feel terribly smooth or look particularly pretty.
We rounded out our subjective game tests with Portal 2‘s “Smooth Jazz” challenge, which ran quite a bit better than Deus Ex. At 1366×768 with antialiasing and vsync disabled, trilinear filtering, low shaders, medium effects, and high model and texture detail, frame rates ranged from 30 FPS in large areas and when looking through portals to over 100 FPS in smaller nooks and crannies. Portal 2 was, for the most part, playable and enjoyable.
In short, the Zenbook will let you run many recent games, but playing them is another matter. You’re probably better off sticking with older, less demanding titles and indie games. Being able to play Portal 2 on this thing is a nice perk for sure, though.
Video decoding performance was tested using the Iron Man 2 trailer in multiple formats. Windows Media Player was used for the H.264 QuickTime clips, while Firefox hosted the windowed YouTube test. We tested a bit differently this time. Windows 7’s Performance Monitor was still used to log CPU utilization for the duration of the trailer, but we played each video three times and grabbed the lowest numbers for each. This method should provide representative numbers largely untarnished by CPU utilization from background processes.
We ran our video tests first using the high-performance battery profile…
|Iron Man 2 H.264 480p||0-6.8%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 H.264 720p||0-5.2%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 H.264 1080p||0-5.2%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 YouTube 720p windowed
…then a second time with the Battery Saving profile.
|Iron Man 2 H.264 480p||0-13.4%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 H.264 720p||0-9.9%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 H.264 1080p||0-16.5%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 YouTube 720p windowed
|10.7-26.7%||Smooth, some dropped frames|
HD YouTube video isn’t as smooth in the Battery Saving mode, but otherwise, video performance on the Zenbook is excellent.
To gauge run times, we conditioned our systems’ batteries by cycling them two times. For the web browsing test, we used TR Browserbench 1.0, which consists of a static version of the TR home page that cycles through different text content, Flash ads, and images, all the while refreshing every 45 seconds. Then, we tested video playback in Windows Media Player by looping an episode of CSI: New York encoded with H.264 at 480p resolution (straight from an HTPC). Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were enabled for the web browsing test and disabled for movie playback.
We attempted to keep the display brightness consistent across all systems, choosing levels corresponding to a readable brightness in indoor lighting. A 40% brightness setting was used on the Acer 1810TZ, Asus A53T, Asus K53E, Asus N82Jv, Eee PC 1015PN (in its “Super Performance” mode), HP Pavilion dm1z, Toshiba Satellite T235D. We used a 50% setting on the Aspire One 522, Eee PC 1015PN in “Battery Saving” mode (since disabling the Nvidia GPU seemed to reduce brightness), as well as on the U33Jc. Because of their dim, matte displays, the HP ProBook 6460b and AMD A8-3500M systems were tested at 70% brightness settings. Conversely, because of their high display luminosities, the Zenbook UX31 was tested at a 25% brightness level and the Series 9 was tested at 30% (and with its adaptive brightness setting disabled).
Wow. Over six hours of web-browsing run time on a notebook this thin, light, and powerful is quite a feat, to say the least. Even more impressive is the fact that switching to the uncompromising high-performance profile doesn’t put much of a dent in run times.
We measured temperatures using an infrared thermometer at a distance of 1″ from the system after it had been running TR Browserbench 1.0 for about an hour.
No surprises here. To get such long battery run times in such a tight chassis, the Zenbook UX31 needs power-efficient hardware—and power-efficient hardware doesn’t dissipate a ton of heat. Besides, the aluminum enclosure helps dissipate that heat better than, say, plastic. That’s probably why the Zenbook is whisper-quiet in most situations. Even when the cooling fan goes off, the noise produced is more of a breathy whooshing sound than a whine or hum.
As one of the first few ultrabooks on the market, Asus’ Zenbook UX31 has a lot to prove. The good news is that, for the most part, it’s a shining example of the potential of ultrabooks in general and of Asus’ engineering chops in particular.
Here’s a system that’s impossibly thin, surprisingly fast, and shockingly mobile thanks to its six-hour battery and three-pound weight. At the same time, the Zenbook is tastefully designed, fashioned out of the same sort of aluminum panels that have given Apple’s MacBooks a reputation for tough elegance—not to mention build quality light years beyond what PC makers have traditionally offered. To top it off, Asus has undercut Apple’s pricing by a couple hundred bucks despite offering similar hardware and and a higher-resolution display. Sure, Asus also overshot Intel’s sub-$1,000 target by about $100, but you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
The Zenbook gets nearly everything right, but it gets a handful of things wrong, too. For starters, the touchpad’s temperamental drag-and-drop functionality has no place on a modern notebook. Apple got that feature right on its MacBooks three years ago, so it’s hard to excuse a modern system that opens a contextual menu when you’re trying to drag an icon or window. Also, the DC connector feels awfully flimsy. Perhaps size constraints are mostly to blame there, but still, does it really have to wiggle in place even when plugged in all the way?
Finally, I noticed after finishing testing that the Zenbook’s four feet aren’t perfectly level, so the machine wobbles ever so slightly on flat surfaces. It’s awfully hard to tell what’s wrong, but I’m tempted to say the bottom panel is a tiny bit warped. That’s something even Apple has struggled with, though, presumably due to the malleability of aluminum. I think we can forgive Asus for that transgression, provided most Zenbooks don’t exhibit the problem and Asus takes care of those that do.
In conclusion, it’s safe to say the Zenbook is an extremely impressive first showing. If the aforementioned kinks get addressed (especially the temperamental touchpad), I might even be tempted to pick one of these babies up for myself. Or perhaps I’ll wait for those $600, Ivy Bridge-powered ultrabooks Asus has been quietly teasing. Either way, this is a very exciting time for the industry. If more manufacturers manage to serve up Apple-like build quality with these kinds of features and prices, the world of Windows notebooks could soon change for the better.