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 2880×1800 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 2560×1600 resolution, too.
Or ask your tablet-using friends. The latest premium slates all have gorgeous IPS screens with high pixel densities: 2048×1536 for the new iPad and 1920×1200 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 1366×768 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 1920×1080 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 1440×900 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 1920×1080 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
10/100Mbps Ethernet (via USB 2.0 adapter)
|Input devices||Chiclet keyboard
|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 1600×900 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.
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 2880×1800 resolution has four times the pixel count of 1440×900, 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.
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.)
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.
Keyboard and touchpad
Looking at that flawed gem of a display, you might be hard-pressed to notice the keyboard and touchpad underneath. They’re there, and these components are almost as important as a good LCD panel when you’re on the road. I know some folks carry around their own Bluetooth mice, but this is 2012, and notebook touchpads really should be good enough for use as primary pointing devices.
Oh boy, stickers! Apparently, Intel needed not just one sticker to pimp the Core i5 processor, but also another one to confirm that, yes, this is an ultrabook. At least the stickers sort of match the brushed aluminum palm rest.
The keyboard looks a bit different from the one Asus featured on the original UX31. Gone are the fake-metal keys, which were really plastic with a silver coating. In their place are black chiclet keys with rounded corners, which you may have seen on… uh, just about every other notebook on the market, including Apple’s MacBooks.
Asus has also added some nifty LED backlighting under the keys. You can hit Fn-F3 and Fn-F4 to cycle between the four backlighting settings: bright, brighter, brightest, and no backlighting at all, for when stealth is paramount.
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||276 mm||110 mm||30,360 mm²||170 mm||50 mm||8,500 mm²|
|Versus full size||96%||100%||96%||99%||88%||87%|
The keyboard’s dimensions compare quite favorably to our non-chiclet reference. The alpha keys are admittedly not quite as tall, but they’re just as wide, and they don’t feel cramped by any stretch of the term.
More importantly, this keyboard feels good to type on. There’s a teeny little bit of flex in the center, but not a lot. The fact that the keyboard backplate is part of the same piece of carved aluminum as the rest of the body goes a long way. The keys have a nice, distinct bump to them, even if they they don’t feel quite as crisp as the ones on Apple keyboards.
The Zenbook Prime’s touchpad has a nice, broad surface area, and it offers full multi-touch input capabilities, so you can pinch, rotate, and swipe to your heart’s content. The driver software even lets you swipe down with three fingers to show the Windows desktop. Repeating the gesture backards unhides the windows. Nifty.
While we had some issues with the Zenbook UX31’s touchpad last year, the Zenbook Prime’s touchpad is much better-behaved. The tap-to-click functionality is a tad oversensitive, but other than that, we encountered no problems. My only other gripe is that the tracking surface is slightly too tacky, so my finger sometimes skips across it rather than gliding smoothly.
Connectivity and expansion
Look at all these ports! All… six of them.
Being an uber-slim ultrabook, the Zenbook Prime doesn’t exactly have room for much connectivity. Asus still covers the basics, though. The left edge has a USB 3.0 port, a dual-purpose headphone/mic jack, and an SD card reader. The right edge plays host to the AC connector, another USB 3.0 port, and a pair of display outputs: micro HDMI and Mini VGA.
Unlike, er, certain companies we shan’t mention, Asus doesn’t charge an arm and a leg for adapters. They’re shipped right in the box. There’s one to transform the Mini VGA output into a full-fledged VGA port, which should come in handy if you ever come across an old-fashioned projector or a monitor from the 1990s. The other adapter is a simple USB-to-Ethernet dongle.
Having Ethernet connectivity on an ultrabook can be a godsend in many situations, like, say, if you’re stuck in a hotel with crummy Wi-Fi. Don’t expect this dongle to offer a speed boost over Wi-Fi, though. The USB end only supports USB 2.0 transfer rates, and the Ethernet end maxes out at 100Mbps. I don’t know which is the bigger bottleneck, but large file copies seem to chug along at about 8-9MB/s or so—barely any faster than on the Wi-Fi.
Too bad Asus didn’t spring for a USB 3.0 to Gigabit Ethernet adapter. At least aftermarket ones are available, though. Newegg has some in stock for just over 30 bucks.
This is the part of our notebook reviews where we usually pop open the various doors and compartments on the underside, exposing memory slots, drive bays, and the like.
The Zenbook Prime saved us a bit of time, because it has no such compartments. The underside is as smooth as a baby’s butt (save for a few vents and some rubber pads), and it’s held shut by a set of Torx screws, which are PC manufacturer shorthand for “keep out.”
Not that this is out of the ordinary for an ultrabook. These things aren’t designed with geeks and tinkerers in mind.
We’ve got one last bit of hardware to examine before we move on to benchmarks: the AC adapter. This is the same kind of adapter Asus bundled with the original Zenbook, and it looks like a black version of what Apple ships with its MacBooks. The adapter adds about 0.4 lbs, or 180 g, to the weight of the Zenbook Prime, bringing it up to 3.48 lbs (1.58 kg).
Our grievances from a year ago remain: we wish the cable were longer (or that there were an option to replace the AC connector with an extension cable, as with the Apple adapter), and we’re not enamored with the DC connector, which feels a little flimsy, with its thin metal prong surrounded by an oversized chunk of plastic.
Our testing methods
Let’s now look at how this bad boy handles itself in our benchmarks. We don’t have numbers for the exact UX31 model we reviewed last year (we’ve changed our test suite since then), but we have figures for the UX31E, which is a little quicker than the original UX31 but otherwise very similar. To provide another, useful reference point, we’ve included data for the white-box Ivy Bridge ultrabook Intel sent us this spring. The other systems we tested were all full-sized laptops with higher-wattage processors, so we greyed them out in our bar charts.
Note that the UX31E, UX31A, and other Asus notebooks ship with special battery profiles configured by Asus. We used to test the “High Performance” and “Battery Saving” profiles in our reviews, but that posed several problems. It made our graphs harder to read, complicated comparisons with non-Asus laptops, and doubled the amount of time we spent running performance and battery tests. With our new laptop benchmark suite, we’re conducting tests with the same battery profile across all systems: Windows’ default “Balanced” profile. We tweaked that profile slightly to make sure our laptops didn’t prematurely go to sleep or shut down during testing, but otherwise, we kept it as-is.
We ran every test at least three times and reported the median of the scores produced. The test systems were configured like so:
|System||AMD A8-3500M test system||AMD A10-4600M test system||Asus N56VM||Asus N53S||Asus UX31A||Asus UX31E||Intel Core i5-3427U test system|
|Processor||AMD A8-3500M APU 1.5GHz||AMD A10-4600M 2.3GHz||Intel Core i7-3720QM 2.3GHz||Intel Core i7-2670QM 2.2GHz||Intel Core i5-3317U 1.7GHz||Intel Core i7-2677M 1.8GHz||Intel Core i5-3427U 1.8GHz|
|North bridge||AMD A70M FCH||AMD A70M FCH||Intel HM76 Express||Intel HM65 Express||Intel HM76 Express||Intel QS67 Express||Intel UM77 Express|
|Memory size||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz|
|Audio||IDT codec||IDT codec with 18.104.22.16877 drivers||Realtek codec with 22.214.171.12437 drivers||Realtek codec with 126.96.36.19963 drivers||Realtek codec with 188.8.131.5208 drivers||Realtek codec with 184.108.40.20677 drivers||Realtek codec with 220.127.116.1112 drivers|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 6620G + AMD Radeon HD 6630M
with Catalyst 12.4 drivers
|AMD Radeon HD 7660G with Catalyst 8.945 RC2 drivers||Intel HD Graphics 4000 with 18.104.22.16896 drivers
GeForce GT 630M with 296.54 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 22.214.171.1242 drivers
GeForce GT 630M with 296.54 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics 4000 with 126.96.36.19996||Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 188.8.131.529 drivers||Intel HD Graphics 4000 with 184.108.40.20625 drivers|
|Hard drive||Hitachi Travelstar 7K500 250GB 7,200 RPM||WD Scorpio Black 500GB 7,200 RPM||Seagate Momentus 750GB 7,200-RPM||Seagate Momentus 750GB 7,200-RPM||Adata XM11 128GB SSD||SanDisk U100 256GB SSD||Intel 520 Series 240GB SSD|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Ultimate x64||Windows 7 Ultimate x64||Windows 7 Professional x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64|
Thanks to AMD, Asus, and Intel for volunteering laptops for us to test.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- 7-Zip 9.20 64-bit
- TrueCrypt 7.1a
- Chromium 20.0.1096.0
- SunSpider 0.9.1
- The Panorama Factory 5.3 x64 Edition
- x264 HD benchmark 4.0
- Battlefield 3
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
- Batman: Arkham City
- FRAPS 3.5.0
The tests and methods we employ are usually publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
TrueCrypt disk encryption
TrueCrypt supports acceleration via Intel’s AES-NI instructions, so the encoding of the AES algorithm, in particular, should be very fast on the CPUs that support those instructions. We’ve also included results for another algorithm, Twofish, that isn’t accelerated via dedicated instructions.
7-Zip file compression and decompression
The figures below were extracted from 7-Zip’s built-in benchmark.
We tested the latest SunSpider release, version 0.9.1, in a special build of Chromium (the open-source version of Chrome) that we keep around for such purposes.
In these productivity tests, the Zenbook Prime is about neck-and-neck with the older, Sandy Bridge-based Zenbook. It’s a little faster in TrueCrypt’s Twofish test and a little slower in the AES test, 7-Zip, and SunSpider.
That’s not bad, especially considering the UX31A’s Core i5-3317U processor is at somewhat of a disadvantage—it has a lower base clock speed, a lower Turbo speed, and less cache than the UX31E’s Sandy Bridge chip. The i5-3317U does benefit from Ivy Bridge’s IPC improvements, however, and it’s backed up by quicker RAM.
Oh, and obviously, the Zenbook Prime trails the Intel reference ultrabook. That machine features a quicker processor based on the same silicon as the i5-3317U.
As for the other machines with the greyed-out bars in the chart, well, those are all larger, more power-hungry systems. The N56VM, for instance, is a 15-inch behemoth with a quad-core, 45W Ivy Bridge processor, so there’s little question about its supremacy in these benchmarks. It’s worth noting that the 35W AMD APUs have a tendency to lag behind Intel’s 17W ultrabook silicon, though.
The Panorama Factory photo stitching
The Panorama Factory handles an increasingly popular image processing task: joining together multiple images to create a wide-aspect panorama. This task can require lots of memory and can be computationally intensive, so The Panorama Factory comes in a 64-bit version that’s widely multithreaded. We asked it to join four pictures, each eight megapixels, into a glorious panorama of the interior of Damage Labs.
x264 HD benchmark
This benchmark tests one of the most popular H.264 video encoders, the open-source x264. The results come in two parts, for the two passes the encoder makes through the video file. I’ve chosen to report them separately, since that’s typically how the results are reported in the public database of results for this benchmark.
Here, we see the Zenbook Prime start to spread its wings, outpacing the UX31E in both image stitching and x264 video compression. Its margin of victory is quite substantial in the latter.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Our Skyrim test involved running around the town of Whiterun, starting from the city gates, all the way up to Dragonsreach, and then back down again.
We tested at 1366×768 using the “medium” detail preset.
Now, we should preface the results below with a little primer on our testing methodology. Along with measuring average frames per second, we delve inside the second to look at frame rendering times. Studying the time taken to render each frame gives us a better sense of playability, because it highlights issues like stuttering that can occur—and be felt by the player—within the span of one second. Charting frame times shows these issues clear as day, while charting average frames per second obscures them.
For example, imagine one hypothetical second of gameplay. Almost all frames in that second are rendered in 16.7 ms, but the game briefly hangs, taking a disproportionate 100 ms to produce one frame and then catching up by cranking out the next frame in 5 ms—not an uncommon scenario. You’re going to feel the game hitch, but the FPS counter will only report a dip from 60 to 56 FPS, which would suggest a negligible, imperceptible change. Looking inside the second helps us detect such skips, as well as other issues that conventional frame rate data measured in FPS tends to obscure.
We’re going to start by charting frame times over the totality of a representative run for each system—though we conducted five runs per system to sure our results are solid. These plots should give us an at-a-glance impression of overall playability, warts and all. (Note that, since we’re looking at frame latencies, plots sitting lower on the Y axis indicate quicker solutions.)
We can slice and dice our raw frame-time data in other ways to show different facets of the performance picture. Let’s start with something we’re all familiar with: average frames per second. Though this metric doesn’t account for irregularities in frame latencies, it does give us some sense of typical performance.
Next, we can demarcate the threshold below which 99% of frames are rendered. The lower the threshold, the more fluid the game. This metric offers a sense of overall frame latency, but it filters out fringe cases.
Of course, the 99th percentile result only shows a single point along the latency curve. We can show you that whole curve, as well. With integrated graphics or single-GPU configs, the right hand-side of the graph—and especially the last 10% or so—is where you’ll want to look. That section tends to be where the best and worst solutions diverge.
Finally, we can rank solutions based on how long they spent working on frames that took longer than 50 ms to render. The results should ideally be “0” across the board, because the illusion of motion becomes hard to maintain once frame latencies rise above 50-ms or so. (50 ms frame times are equivalent to a 20 FPS average.) Simply put, this metric is a measure of “badness.” It tells us about the scope of delays in frame delivery during the test scenario.
No question about it, the Zenbook Prime eats the older Zenbook for breakfast. The difference in average FPS may not amount to much, but as our over-50-ms graph demonstrates, the Zenbook’s HD 3000 IGP spends considerably more time struggling with unusually long frame latencies than the Prime’s HD 4000.
That said, Skyrim is simply not playable at these settings on either system. The game feels very choppy and doesn’t respond quickly to input. Achieving playable frame times will involve at least stepping down to the “Low” detail preset, and no matter what, you’re not going to enjoy this game at the Zenbook Prime’s native 1080p resolution.
Batman: Arkham City
We grappled and glided our way around Gotham, occasionally touching down to mingle with the inhabitants.
Arkham City was tested at 1366×768 using medium detail and medium FXAA, with v-sync disabled.
The Zenbook Prime’s performance in Arkham City is less disenheartening than in Skyrim. We’re seeing a fair number of latency spikes, no doubt because the game constantly has to stream content in order to render the city seamlessly, but the Zenbook Prime strays much closer to what we’d call playable than the Zenbook UX31E.
I still wouldn’t call the experience optimal, though. We’re looking at a 99th-percentile frame latency of 93.2 ms—which, if maintained for a whole second, would work out to about 11 FPS. Not exactly anything to be proud of.
We tested Battlefield 3 by playing through the start of the Kaffarov mission, right after the player lands. Our 90-second runs involved walking through the woods and getting into a firefight with a group of hostiles, who fired and lobbed grenades at us.
BF3 wasn’t really playable at anything but the lowest detail preset using these IGPs—so that’s what we used.
Battlefield 3 is basically just as awful as Skyrim on the Zenbook Prime. By that I mean the game can be played, but not really enjoyed… well, unless laggy input and slideshow-like combat are your idea of a good time.
If it’s any consolation, the Zenbook UX31E fares even worse than the Prime here. Battlefield 3 makes Sandy Bridge’s HD 3000 IGP soil itself, apparently. Frame times are ridiculously high, and the game is choc-full of visual artifacts on that system.
Battery run times
We tested battery run times twice: once running TR Browserbench 1.0, a web browsing simulator of our own design, and again looping a 720p Game of Thrones episode in Windows Media Player. (In case you’re curious, TR Browserbench is a static version of TR’s old home page rigged to refresh every 45 seconds. It cycles through various permutations of text content, images, and Flash ads, with some cache-busting code to keep things realistic.)
Before testing, we conditioned the batteries by fully discharging and then recharging each system twice in a row. We also used our colorimeter to equalize the display luminosity at around 100 cd/m². That meant brightness levels of 25% for the Zenbook Prime, 20% for the UX31E, 25% for the Ivy ultrabook, 45% for the N53S, 25% for the N56VM, 40% for the Trinity system, and 70% for the Llano machine. The N53S and N56VM had larger panels than the other machines, though, which might have affected power consumption.
We should note one other caveat: these systems didn’t all have the same battery capacities. The batteries in the two quad-core Intel notebooks both had 56 Wh ratings. The Llano laptop had a 58 Wh battery, and the Trinity system’s battery was rated for 54 Wh. As for our ultrabooks, the Ivy whitebook system was rated for 49.4 Wh, and both the Zenbook UX31E and the Zenbook Prime UX31A had 50 Wh battery ratings.
Well, there you have it. The Zenbook Prime’s gorgeous, high-density IPS display doesn’t seem to curtail battery life one bit. In fact, the system pulls off the best runs times we’ve measured using our new suite.
These numbers are especially impressive considering the Zenbook Prime has the same battery capacity and roughly the same weight as the old UX31E. The Prime is actually lighter than the Intel ultrabook by a couple of ounces.
The video playback tests from our old mobile test suite were originally conceived with netbooks in mind, so we decided to up the ante a little with our new suite. We located two versions of the second trailer for Rian Johnson’s Looper: one in 1080p H.264 format from the Apple website and the other, also in 1080p format, on YouTube. We played back the former in Windows Media Player and the latter in Chrome 21 with the built-in Flash 11.3 plug-in, and we used Windows’ Performance Monitor utility to record CPU utlization.
|CPU % (low)||CPU % (high)||Result|
|Looper H.264 1080p||0.0||8.0||Perfect|
|Looper YouTube 1080p (Flash 11.3)||0.2||20.4||Perfect|
No big surprise here; this state-of-the-art Ivy Bridge ultrabook has no problems at all handling 1080p video, even in Flash.
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.
This puppy runs ever-so-slightly hotter than the original UX31, but the difference amounts to only 4°C at most, and some spots are the exact same temperature on both systems. The Zenbook Prime didn’t cause any discomfort when perched on my lap.
Over the past few pages, we’ve seen that the Zenbook Prime’s display really does live up to the hype. We’ve seen that this sexy little ultrabook is just as fast, if not faster, than its Sandy Bridge-powered predecessor. (Its graphics performance is certainly a step above the previous generation, even if it’s not anywhere near good enough to play the latest games at decent settings. Casual titles and older games would be a better fit for this machine.) More importantly, we’ve seen that the Zenbook Prime has terrific battery life, beating both the previous-gen machine and Intel’s reference Ivy Bridge ultrabook.
Asus has made other refinements, too. It’s added keyboard backlighting and USB 3.0 connectivity, and it’s ironed out the issues we had with the first Zenbook’s touchpad a year ago. The extra polish is palpable. Yet somehow, the Zenbook Prime costs less than the original Zenbook did last year. The $1050 price tag is even lower than that of Apple’s current-gen 13″ MacBook Air, which doesn’t have nearly as good a display.
If that’s not a bargain, I don’t know what is.
Sadly, there’s one little flaw that prevents us from giving this ultrabook a full-fledged TR Editor’s Choice award. The problem isn’t Asus’ fault by any means—indeed, we need more notebook makers to take the plunge and offer high-PPI laptops, lest the status quo remain unchanged. But the issue is bound to annoy prospective users just the same.
That problem, as you’ve probably guessed, is spotty software support for the high-PPI display. Folks shouldn’t have to compromise between ugly graphics scaling and Lilliputian fonts when browsing the web, but it’s a sad reality that must be confronted with the Zenbook Prime. Other Windows apps also exhibit an occasional reticence to bend themselves to the system’s DPI setting. Windows 8 may improve or even resolve the situation entirely, but this ultrabook ships with Windows 7 right now, and wishful thinking about future fixes isn’t enough to warrant a more solid endorsement.