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A Techy's View of the Zenbook UX32A
on 10 February 2013
Short conclusion: Asus has had to make some sacrifices to get the UX32A to this price point, but it's still worth every penny. Consider this, seriously, for your highly portable productivity companion on the go.
I have been interested in getting a thin and light laptop as a productivity companion on the go, when I'm away from my main machine at home. I had tried Asus' own Transformer Prime, that was an Android tablet with a keyboard dock, providing the capability for productivity while also giving the "play" aspects of a tablet. However, this did not prove too fruitful, as many productivity applications on there functioned slowly or we're just not as full featured as I needed them to be. So my return to Windows on a proper laptop came about. And my purchasing decision lands on the UX32A, the stripped back version of the full-on UX31A (AKA the Zenbook Prime).
Asus have a very good design team (though one could argue Apple are their largest influence). In the UX32A they have designed a beautiful, solid piece of work. The silver aluminium contrasted by black chiclet keys is certainly reminiscent of the Mac Book line of products, however the aluminium itself is vertically brushed instead of a matted feel that Apple's line gives. This actually gives a much cleaner look, as well as reinforcing the industrial design. The lid is a more contrasting gun-metal/grey hue that is once again brushed aluminium, however it is orbitally brushed instead of in a straight line. This gives any light bouncing off the lid an interesting circular style reflection. The ASUS logo can be found on both the center of the lid, and centrally positioned underneath the screen, facing the user. This is in an unbrushed, polished metal.
The laptop isn't the thinnest Intel's Ultrabook collection has to offer (the Samsung Series 9 being thinner), however it still can hold its own. It measures, at the spine, just a few millimeters thicker than the Mac Book Air and tapers off as it moves to the foot of the laptop. Despite the ultra thinness, Asus has still managed to engineer three USB 3.0 ports, a full sized HDMI port, a mini DisplayPort, and a SD Card reader, a 3.5mm audio jack, and a proprietary looking power connection into the thin frame. This gives a gamut of connection options, in general storage, devices, and displays. Interestingly, no mini Ethernet port is present, and neither is it present in the UX31A. Asus have obviously made the assumption that buyers are going "all wireless" with this laptop. USB adapters are easily obtainable, however. This should be apparent, by now, but there is no optical drive with this laptop, as it is just too thin to accomodate one. If you are wanting a thin(ish) laptop that has an optical drive, Asus' own S56CM will be the next port of call for you.
The chiclet keys are nicely spaced, and are backlit. They key travel could be a little further to really give the feeling of the key being pressed. However this niggle is forgiven with how thin a frame we are talking about in the UX32A. The trackpad will be covered in hardware.
The Asus UX32A is a stripped back version of the UX31, which is the big daddy Asus sells for £1500. Obviously, to cut the price by over half, Asus have had to make some sacrifices.
Instead of the I7 found in the UX31, the UX32A see's an I5 clocked for a top speed of 2.6 GHz, and can operate as low as 800MHz. This isn't a huge deal, both chips are Ivy Bridge architecture, meaning that you are getting the very low power operation this architecture affords. You only lose a more aggressive clock speed management paradigm, and hyperthreading. Hyperthreading is an ability of Intel's I7 chips to run two simultaneous threads into each core of the processor at once. The long and short of this means that you're going to lose performance if CAD/CAM or other heavily processor dependent applications are your thing. Still, the I5 performs admirably, to the level you can expect from an Intel chip.
Instead of a 256GB SSD, the UX32A get's a conventional 5400RPM hard drive with 500GB of capacity. Also, you get a 24GB SSD that acts as a sort of cache between the hard drive and the processor/memory. While this will theoretically speed up the laptop by not needing to access the physical drive as much, it is questionable just how much of a performance benefit this gives. However this cache is what Asus deems responsible for it's "instant on" technology. While a conventional hard drive (and a 5400RPM one at that, come on Asus, it isn't 2011 anymore) may be a hard pill to swallow when compared to what it replaced, the extra capacity means you can store more media and programs on there. And you don't need to worry about the hard drive "wearing out" as SSD's will inevitably do over time. The sugar coating on the bitter pill, however, is that hard drive is swappable. Meaning that if you fancy making an upgrade later down the line, you are totally green-lit to slip in an SSD of your own. At the time of writing this review, a 256 GB SSD can go for as little as £130, while a decent quality one usually goes for £150. They are expected to drop even further this year (2013), so do keep that in mind.
The same 4GB of RAM you get in the UX31 is what you get here. To be precise, you get 4GB of 1600MHz DDR3 at CAS 10. Interestingly, 2GB of this memory is freely upgrade-able, like the hard drive. The other 2GB is soldered to the mainboard, and is thus untouchable. So if you ever wished to upgrade the RAM, you only have 2GB to upgrade. Meaning that if you wanted to replace the 2GB stick with a 4GB stick, you could end up with 6GB overall. It's a bizarre situation, however one I suspect Asus wanted to make possible without sacrificing any of the thinness.
Now, to the big sacrifice. The 1080p IPS panel of the UX31 is replaced by a 1366 x 768 TN panel in the UX32A. Screen resolution and quality is a big thing for many people. If this is the case for you, then do consider yourself warned. This panel is distinctly average, 768p being a very common resolution at this screen size. The TN panel has worse viewing angle data than IPS displays, and isn't as bright as the UX31. Despite this, it functions fine, and when you think of the kind of price point Asus is wanting to hit with this laptop, it's an inevitable sacrifice.
Sound is handled by a Bang and Olufsen, most notable for their premium quality sound systems reserved for the very top end of buyers and audio enthusiasts. Sound is above average for a laptop of this thinness. The B&O speakers can really output some sound from them, and provide a bit of bass, too, which is uncommon.
Graphics are handled by the I5's inbuilt HD4000 graphics processor. You're not going to be gaming or using Photoshop on this thing, but you will be able to do most tasks without needing to worry about graphics processing power.
Wifi and Bluetooth is handled by an Intel 6235 card. This connects via a standard mini PCI-E slot, which is appreciated in a laptop as thin as this (you'd expect such things to be soldered to the board, and thus not upgrade-able).
The 2MP webcam is par for the course. It will provide an image when video conferencing, though for a laptop of this price, you would have expected something a little higher spec.
The battery is a 7.2V, 6520mAh, 48Whr Lithium Ion unit, weighing in at 280 grams (around 20% of the overall weight). In battery saving mode (CPU clocked at 800MHz, screen brightness low, keyboard backlight off), the laptop will give you between 4 and 5 hours use, which is average for laptops of this ilk. Cranking up to a performance mode will see this time cut by up to half depending on what you're doing.
Windows 7 is Windows 7. You get the 64 Bit iteration of Windows, which is good, it means you're accessing all 4GB of that memory, and are using the I5 to its fullest potential.
Asus packages a comprehensive, but mostly bloatware, software suite. This includes software that can access Asus' cloud service, useless connecting options, some facial recognition software for logon (that I wouldn't touch with a 10ft pole for security reasons), and many other things you'll never bother with. The only useful additions Asus add are a widget for switching power profiles, multi-touch gestures, and "Asus Tutor", which essentially shows you all the stuff you can do with the gestures etc. The instant on technology certainly does work, however a fast boot is native to Windows 7 anyway, so I'm unsure why they've added in something that's already there. The best multi-touch gesture Asus have built in is the three finger swipe upwards that goes into Window's Aero Flip mode. From there, a three finger swipe either left or right flips through previews all your open applications; and then a three finger swipe back down will bring on top the application you selected. It operates quite similar to Mac OS's "Expose" gesture, and is a great time saver. Two finger scrolling is a given, and is mostly accurate, with only some applications being funny with it. Talking about the trackpad, overall, it isn't as good as one found on one of Apple's products. However it is responsive in its own right, and mostly accurate. You only suffer from some inaccuracy and slowdown when trying to make some finer movements.
McAfee AV software is pre-installed, and you have a year's license. It is advised you get rid of McAfee immediately, as it truly does bloat down your laptop and make it feel very sluggish. As soon as I removed it (and installed another AV software, ESET Smart Security 6), the laptop sped up considerably. This could be seen not only in the responsiveness, but the hard drive access light didn't flicker half as much as it did with McAfee. While it's sad you're wasting a year's license by removing it, the benefits of doing so far outweigh the benefits of running the license through.
Bizarrely, the hard drive has two partitions, one for the OS, and one called "data". Why Asus didn't just leave the partition as one is a mystery. But you will have to deal with two partitions. A hidden recovery partition is accessible from the BIOS that restores your laptop to factory settings. If you ever chose to replace the hard drive or completely wipe the existing one, Asus' support site has a comprehensive and easy to access list of drivers for the UX32A available for free download. This ensures that even deleting the recovery partition will not render your laptop unusable, Asus are very good in that sense.
Be warned that I could not find the Windows Serial Key sticker anywhere on the outside of the laptop. Research has suggested that the sticker is actually on the inside, near the battery, however I have not confirmed that myself. If you want to know your key without having to open up the laptop, Google "KeyFinder" and you will find a freeware tool that accesses all of the serial keys for all programs on your system.
Remember, if you are ever going to re install Windows fresh, or even upgrade to 8, you will need to do it from a USB or an external DVD drive!
Extras and Peripherals:
The charging unit is not a plug-to-brick situation, it's a complete plug-and-transformer unit that goes straight into the wall. Leading out from that is a very thin power cable that goes into the right side of the laptop. Charging usually takes an hour or two from flat.
The UX31 comes with a full gamut of extras, including a brown leather case to go in a bag. The UX32A, however, only comes with a D-SUB display adapter for plugging into older monitors or projectors. Warrenty documentation and a quick manual are also included. So you'll need to get your own case for this.
The UX32A is clearly a product of sacrifice and price point targeting. However, the product Asus builds is, overall, incredibly good. The thin, solid aluminium frame means you're going to be turning heads and attracting questions from peers; and the performance means you can show it off with confidence. If you're wanting a good looking, well performing laptop as a productivity companion on the go that can slip nicely into a bad and not weigh you down, then the UX32A should be on your shortlist for consideration.