Tablets have introduced a number of great features that are currently without equal in the notebook space. They’re ultra light, extremely responsive, have tremendous life of the battery and are generally instant-on devices. Tablets however, aren’t exceptional for being productive on, leaving good reason to still carry around a notebook. As both platforms keep growing you’ll see them learn from one another. Updates towards the tablet experience in iOS 5 for instance are clearly built around improving productivity. How about the notebook PC though? What is being done there to make it more tablet-like? This is where Intel’s Ultrabook category of notebook PCs is necessary.
Ultrabooks today are simply ultra portable notebooks with a few requirements. They need to be thin, light, possess a fast CPU (Sandy Bridge will do for now) and use some form of solid state storage. The SSD requirement helps OEMs guarantee that these Ultrabooks will have reasonable response time (application, boot and wake). Regardless of the tablet comparison, Ultrabooks aren’t meant to go up against ARM based tablets. Intel will ultimately have an Atom powered answer in that space, although we likely won’t view it until Windows 8 ships.
Hardware specs alone aren’t enough to bridge the tablet gap, which is why Intel views new features through software as a major part of the Ultrabook play. Intel expects Ultrabooks won’t really go mainstream until between late 2012-2013, so this first wave of notebooks are actually nothing more than ultraportable PCs. Should you look close enough, they might even look like MacBook Air clones. With the Ivy Bridge and Haswell updates, Intel is expecting to expand the impact of what Ultrabooks mean but today they are pretty much well designed notebooks with a fancy name.
The Zenbook is made out of an all-aluminum chassis. ASUS starts with a block of aluminum and uses a CNC mill to create the chassis. The resulting chassis is extremely rigid and devoid of all perceivable flex. The only removable panel around the Zenbook is underneath the chassis, limiting anyone’s interaction with non-keyboard components that are not built out of a single piece of metal. The main chassis has a vertically brushed pattern onto it while a circular brushing pattern is used on the display lid. the two parts of the Zenbook will also be colored differently, with the main body having a platinum silver as the display uses a darker steel color.
In a nod to just how design focused ASUS was with the Zenbook, even the 10 screws on the bottom of the chassis feature the same brushed pattern because the rest of the chassis. ASUS elected to use torx bits instead of standard phillips heads to higher match the industrial style of the system. While I appreciate the attention to detail I believe I’d be happier if ASUS had stuck to standard screws.
The result is both elegant and functional. In using and benchmarking the system I definitely heard the fans spin up, however the chassis never got uncomfortably warm-even when looping Cinebench while typing this paragraph. Part of that is due to Intel’s reduced voltage Sandy Bridge CPU, but part of it is because ASUS’ design isn’t embarassed to admit it needs air to cool the CPU. The UX21′s two speakers point downward and together create a surprisingly decent sound. It’s better than the 11-inch MacBook Air for sure.
ASUS includes a small lip around the display cover to assist in actually getting the machine open. Lifting the lid on any of these ultra slim machines is hard (as you’re prone to lift the entire laptop rather than the lid) but the lip does help a bit. The display hinge is reasonably stiff. I’m able to hold the Zenbook up with the display perpendicular to the ground and not have the hinge give under the force of gravity. Obtaining the Zenbook and shaking it a little will allow the hinge to maneuver as you’d expect, but overall it appears pretty resistent to unintended motion.
ASUS printed a pattern of very small hexagons on the surface of the hinge, giving the impression of perforation. On my sample one of those printed hexagons appeared slightly out of place, which in turn made it appeared as if my Zenbook had a clogged pore on its hinge. If you’re the OCD type you best hope yours works out perfectly.
With that minor exception I have to really commend ASUS on the job well done with the Zenbook’s design. It’s easily the most amazing PC notebook That i have ever laid hands (and eyes) on and even stands out more than a MacBook Air thanks to its brushed aluminum surface. Apple’s design does look a bit more cohesive in my eyes, while the ASUS’ Zenbook is more on the tastefully flashy side. Either way it’s absolutely gorgeous and something of those things you just have to see to appreciate. I’ve not been able to take a photograph of the Zenbook that I believe adequately captures precisely how good this thing looks.
The design is quite functional as well. Thanks to the slim profile from the Zenbook and its diminutive weight, the UX21 is definitely an absolute pleasure to hold. It’s the pinnacle of portability without having to sacrifice the functionality of a keyboard. A tablet sure is nicer to hold, but the UX21 is much easier to type on.
The entire design is a bit more curvy compared to current MacBook Air however it feels great with you. If you’re used to Apple’s aluminum the Zenbook may feel a bit tougher but the edge is something you get used to over time. After a couple of days of using it, the Zenbook UX21 felt just like comfortable to me because the MacBook Air. I’m personally keen on the 11-inch form factor as I believe, with Sandy Bridge, it offers a great balance of portability and performance. If you do a lot of writing, it’s a great companion.
Given the lack of any Intel-specific Ultrabook software I’m reluctant to even call this thing an Ultrabook. There’s also the fact that, at least in the case of Intel Rapid Start Technology, being much more of an Ultrabook in that sense would’ve been one step back in performance. In fact, I see no real reason to use that brand at all-which is likely why ASUS ended up calling it a Zenbook to start with. So how well did ASUS do with its first Ultrabook…er Zenbook? I’d say very well, but not quite perfect.
The design, aesthetics and performance are top notch. I’m a fan of the LV Sandy Bridge parts; I find that they deliver enough CPU performance for you to get work done without requiring a significantly larger chassis. I’ve been a vocal advocate of SSD use in OEM systems for years now so you’re going to see my praise of ASUS’ SSD choice a great deal here. Although Sandy Bridge is an extremely fast CPU architecture, it is the ADATA SSD that actually helps make the Zenbook UX21 respond so quickly whenever you ask anything of it. Boot and wake times are generally incredibly quick; they’re among the fastest currently available.
The old tradeoff of IO performance for portability doesn’t come anywhere close to the Zenbook. The system feels fast and can likely continue to feel fast even while your Windows installation ages and it is burdened by additional software thanks to this SSD. Gaming performance isn’t all there but this really is more of a productivity companion than anything else. Battery life is reasonable for the sort of portability you’re getting. Granted it isn’t enough to get via a full day on a single charge, but if you regularly have access to a power outlet the Zenbook can manage.