For over a year now, I’ve been using a 13” MacBook Air as my only laptop. Though it’s a bit underpowered and I prefer Windows to OS X, I was ultimately unable to resist Apple’s build quality compared to the Dell I had used previously.
However, I never fully resigned myself to accepting a dichotomy between quality construction and operating system. Thankfully, the recent proliferation of Windows-based Ultrabook™ machines seems to be rapidly bridging that divide.
Given my already-growing desire to find an alternative, when I was contacted about reviewing the ASUS’ Zenbook UX31 Ultrabook™, I decided to give it a go. I know I’m not alone in having been frustrated with a choice between machines that run Windows well and quality hardware, so I hope that you’ll find my experience of trying to move back from the MacBook hardware useful.
Disclaimer: Up front, I want you to know that I’m receiving a complementary UX31 in return for evaluating it and writing a few posts about that experience. I’ll give you my honest assessment of it and only recommend it if it meets my own standards, but I also think it’s important to be transparent and not potentially abuse your trust.
Lurking Inside the cardboard box that Amazon delivered it in, highly polished packaging awaited. ASUS did a great job with the unboxing experience, from overall presentation to ease of unpacking. It definitely reminded me of opening a high-end Apple product.
The UX31 comes encased in a protective plastic casing to keep the brushed aluminum’s finish pristine until you open the box, and its accessories are neatly packaged up with a canvas carrying pouch:
Along with its power adapter, the UX31 comes with a USB Ethernet adapter and VGA adapter that attaches to its mini-HDMI port. Nothing terribly unique, but both are nice to have right from the beginning (especially the ability to use a wired network connection for all the downloads that accompany initial setup of a machine that may be used for development).
The first thing you notice about the Zenbook is the distinctive top cover of its lid. None of the photos I’ve seen online do it justice, but we tried with this one:
When I saw the radial pattern in photos online, I worried that it might look overdone or gaudy, but it looks great in person. Color me pleasantly surprised.
Removing it from the packaging, the Zenbook immediately impressed me with its rock-solid construction. One of my favorite things about the MacBook Air is that its unibody case feels solid, and my opinion is that the Zenbook bests the Air in that category, with an even more rigid case.
Superficial or not, that attribute is a significant part of how I judge the quality of a laptop’s construction. A laptop case that flexes or creaks when I lift it from a corner annoys me to no end. Holding the Zenbook with one hand, even from the front corners, there’s not hint of flex in its chassis.
Contrasting with the rest of the case’s angular design, the lid’s convex curvature makes the machine feel more comfortable in my hand than my MacBook Air does when both are closed.
Also worth noting, I felt no flex in the lid when I squeezed it to lift and carry. That lid-flex is something I’ve always found unsettling about my Air (and the Dell before it).
Windows 7, now with Bing Bar?
It only took a few minutes to uninstall later, but having a required Bing toolbar installation at the OS level didn’t feel very zen to me. I understand that preinstalled software helps subsidize the machine, but this isn’t a $200 netbook.
The exterior of the machine sets a high bar, and it’s important that the interior hardware and software live up to that high expectation. Thankfully, the remainder of the UX31′s preinstalled software was more tasteful.
I’m listening to music on the laptop’s built-in speakers as I write this post, which is something I’d never bother with on the Air (or any laptop I’ve ever used, for that matter). But, since the Bang & Olufsen audio is something touted right on the case itself, I figured I ought to give it a try.
From the first note that played, I was astonished by the quality of sound that the UX31’s sound system produces. Of course, it’s no rival for a proper set of external speakers, but it’s amazing for concealed, self-contained speakers.
I’ve struggled a bit while typing this entire post on the UX31. The keyboard itself looks and feels very nice, with a setup that’s similar to the “chicklet” layout you’ll see on many modern keyboards:
Unfortunately, there’s something about how the keys respond to quick, light touch typing that I’m having a difficult time acclimating to. I’ve had adjustment periods with other keyboards in the past, so I’m hoping time will improve my ability to coax the desired result out of this one too.
More to come
This post has outlined my very initial impressions of using the UX31 for a few hours. I’ll be continuing to use it over the next couple of months and will publish another post after a few weeks and then a final review after a full two months of use. I hope that the end result is that I’ll be able to shelve my MacBook Air, but I’ll let you know how it turns out one way or the other.
How about those photos?
Those photos of the UX31 looked great, didn’t they? Almost… Professional. Well, that’s because they are. My good friends at 35 Atlanta came over, set up studio in my house, and took 55 amazing photos of the UX31 for me to use in these posts. If you need photos of just about any kind, check them out.