The Keyboard & Trackpad

Despite being clearly ultraportable, ASUS makes very few sacrifices when it comes to the keyboard . The majority of the keys on the UX21 measure ~14.5 x 13.5 mm, while only the arrow keys and top row of function keys are significantly reduced. With the exception of the delete key, which is located in the top row next to the power button, there are absolutely no awkwardly placed keys on this keyboard. ASUS did its homework here because the UX21 requires absolutely no learning curve to pick up and start typing away at full speed. It wasn't too long ago when I couldn't make such a statement about an ultraportable PC, making the Zenbook's improvement a welcome change.

Keypresses are stiff and very distinct. The Zenbook's keyboard is almost too stiff for my tastes, although I definitely felt it loosen up over the course of this review (or I grew more used to it?). If you are a fan of keyboards that require a bit more effort to actuate the keys, the Zenbook delivers. If you're expecting a MacBook Air-like softness you won't find it here. It's not a major gripe and as I mentioned, it is something that you can get used to but it's one area where I don't believe the Zenbook is perfect. Part of the problem may actually be the material used for the keys; by using a harder material there's less give in the actual keys, which increases the impact force on your fingers.

The keyboard lacks any sort of backlight, which is only really a problem for finding which function key you're looking to hit in the dark (e.g. when trying to dim the screen in bed or on an overnight flight). While not a deal breaker, I was hoping ASUS had learned from Apple's mistake with the previous generation MacBook Air.

The system's power button is integrated into the keyboard in the upper right hand corner; it looks and feels just like a regular key. Hitting it brings up ASUS' own popup asking you what you'd like to do (sleep, shut down, restart):

The trackpad is equally well designed. It's a very large unit, something I hope we see more of across ASUS' product line, and is extremely smooth. The trackpad itself serves as a button, with the whole surface moving down with each click. Physical clicks that originate at the very bottom of the trackpad can map to left/right buttons depending on what side of the pad you click on. Anything north of there is treated as a left click. If you click with two fingers on the trackpad the click appears as a right click. Tap-to-click is enabled by default but there's no support for a tap-to-right-click. Click feedback is good and the trackpad is fairly accurate. I had to turn up the default pointer speed but otherwise left everything at stock.

The trackpad is driven by a Sentelic controller which supports multitouch gestures. You get two finger scrolling along both axes as well as three finger swipe in all four directions. You can use the three finger left/right swipe to go back/forward in a web browser, while up/down swipes will either trigger Windows + Tab or reveal the desktop, respectively. There's also pinch-to-zoom support. The gestures are pretty useful despite not being super tightly integrated into the OS.

For whatever reason, getting perfect trackpad operation is pretty difficult. I suspect it doesn't help that there are a few too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to OS, hardware, touchpad and driver development. ASUS has put its best foot forward with the Zenbook's trackpad and although it's not perfect, ASUS is promising significant updates in the coming weeks.

So where does it have problems? Let's start with what it can't do. In almost all cases, pointer movement is disabled if the trackpad detects more than one finger on its surface. This is particularly problematic if you are used to resting your thumb on the button while guiding the pointer with your index finger. ASUS does allow you to do this, but only if your thumb rests in the click zone at the very bottom of the trackpad. The moment it moves too high, all pointer movement shuts down. You either have to be very conscious of this barrier up front or avoid the situation entirely. I occasionally found myself wondering why the trackpad wasn't responding, only to realize that my thumb was resting a bit too high on the trackpad. This wouldn't be an issue except for the fact that as a button-less trackpad where the entire surface is designed to be a button, you really should support resting your thumb anywhere on its surface so the user can mouse arund with a finger and quickly click with a thumb. Ideally the trackpad's driver would be able to distinguish between a resting finger and the user attempting a two-finger scroll/gesture.

The other major quirk I noticed with the Zenbook's trackpad was a frequent high response time after even short periods of non-use. Basically I'd be typing for a little while, go to move my mouse cursor and encounter a second or so of lag before the pointer responds to my input. The issue isn't consistent and it never seems to happen if I'm continuously using the trackpad, which leads me to believe there may be an overly aggressive power saving component of the trackpad driver at work here.

ASUS tells me it is studying the behavior of Apple's (and other competing) trackpads and is working on significant updates to the driver over the coming weeks. In fact, just after receiving my review unit there was a driver update that alone improved overall trackpad behavior. I believe ASUS when it tells me that it is quickly revving the trackpad drivers; what I'm not convinced of is where the trackpad will ultimately end up from a behavior standpoint. Is a goal of perfection feasible? I'm not sure to be honest.

Two SSD Options: SandForce and SanDisk The Display
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  • CallumS - Saturday, October 22, 2011 - link

    Looks like a brilliant design and in my opinion has better aesthetics than the MBA. What I would really like to see though is Thunderbolt or a decent alternative introduced across the line.

    Personally for basic web and coding I find ultra-portables perfectly capable at the task, especially with SSDs. However I would still like the option to plug in a maximum of two cables to get >FHD resolutions and everything else connected. I truly believe that including Thunderbolt was a brilliant idea for Apple. It really did open up a lot of opportunities.

    BTW: Never owned a Mac and can't use OSX due to work applications. Looking for the best Windows alternative or to purchase a MBA to run Windows 7. The best alternative at the moment that I am aware of being a Thinkpad x220/x1/T420s with SSDs and docking station.
    Reply
  • kaiedmek - Saturday, October 22, 2011 - link

    A brilliant design!!! Come on, They just stole MBA design.... they didn't work on there own design, wished they did, but instead they just copied others design.
    To produce brilliant computer they should do their own design, so they can match the internal hardware with the design and of course the software performance.
    Reply
  • CallumS - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    I never said an original design. =)

    I do agree though, it does look far too much like the MBA. Probably more so than the Samsung 10.1 tablet and the iPad; Which was banned here in Australia.

    However there are key differences and as my post was pointing out, I believe these are to the advantage of the of the MBA; apart from aesthetics.

    I think it would also be naive to suggest that the MBA was a completely original design also. There were many other notebooks with similar shapes and ambitions. Apple did however put them together very nicely though. I certainly do respect Apple's ability to accomplish such tasks.

    Unfortunately not very helpful when most business applications are purely designed for the Windows environment at present. Hopefully in time we can see that change and some better innovation from Microsoft too. Windows 7 has certainly set a great foundation and Windows 8 is looking promising.
    Reply
  • GeorgeH - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    Yep, without Thunderbolt and a docking station that allows more connectivity and the ability to attach a real (and hopefully upgradeable) GPU I'm just not interested. Otherwise this is just a slightly more useful tablet - an expensive niche within a niche.

    So here's hoping that the Ivy Bridge refresh brings a better screen, Thunderbolt, and a reasonably priced (I'm looking at you, Sony) external and upgradeable GPU.
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    It's the battery life that really disappoints me. I'd like something with more performance than my netbook; but my 1st gen models 6 hour battery never lasted me a full day at a convention. Reply
  • Roland00Address - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    I dislike the term "cells" for laptop batteries for it doesn't really tell you the capacity of the battery like the term Whr does.

    A 6 cell battery for a laptop would usually have a 40 Whr to 60Whr. This laptop has a 35Whr battery.

    4 to 5 hours is pretty good for a 4 cell battery that is not running something dirt slow like atom
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    the runtime isn't unreasonable for the CPU+battery combination; but it's well short of what I'd need to be able to retire my netbook for something a bit speedier. Reply
  • netmann - Saturday, October 22, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the great review as usual. Is there a chance the future update to this review would include performance comparison of Asus UX21 with 11-inch MacBook Air with Windows 7 (through Boot Camp) and OWC 6 GB/s SSD installed in it? I believe some of like the Apple hardware better than PC but prefer running Windows OS. Reply
  • vol7ron - Saturday, October 22, 2011 - link

    Great review, two things:

    1) I wouldn't trust ASUS testing - thinking back to how horrible it is to contact their support, and how they had issues with their mobo's for the C2D (and so many other things)

    2) It looks like the Skype images are on OSX, not Win7 :)
    Reply
  • digitheatre - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    It is because they want to test the UX21's video camera quality, so the screenshot is captured from MBA :P Reply

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