ASUS UX31A: Meet Today’s Best Ultrabook

After having reviewed and handled nearly a dozen Ultrabooks during the past year, the flaws with the platform have become glaringly obvious. The requirements for Ultrabooks are that they need to be very thin, they need to use an Intel ULV CPU, they must deliver decent battery life (5+ hours, though the load isn’t specified), and they have to use some form of solid state storage. There are some other elements of Ultrabooks as well, but Intel doesn’t seem to enforce those all that much—pricing details for example are nebulous; at one point they were supposed to start at under $1000, but now it looks like that means each manufacturer only needs one model that starts somewhere under $1000. For the intended market (on-the-go users), most of the requirements look fine, but the solid state requirement needs a bit more elaboration.

If you’ve had the chance to use a modern laptop with an SSD as the primary storage, you know how much of a difference it can make. Boot times are faster, but more importantly all of the post-boot utility and application initialization that can really get in the way of using a laptop. Long-term the differences become even more noticeable, as hard drive performance can become severely degraded with fragmentation; with a good SSD fragmentation shouldn’t be a problem. Throw in an active anti-virus scanner along with other software and utilities and it becomes very painful to go back to conventional storage. All of that is what makes an SSD great for storage, but there’s a problem with Ultrabooks: SSDs aren’t strictly required.

What Ultrabooks are required to have is some form of solid state storage, but that ranges from a dedicated SSD to smaller caching SSDs to laptops that only appear to use the SSD for the hibernation file. SSD caching certainly helps performance, but the problem is that with a default Windows 7 installation sucking up roughly 30GB of space, toss in a few common applications like Office and your web browser and you can easily exhaust the size of the SSD cache. These days, there’s not even really that much of an advantage in terms of pricing if you go with a 32GB SSD cache—hard drive prices are still quite high after the Thailand flooding, so the cost of a typical 500GB HDD with 32GB mSATA SSD is going to be pretty comparable to that of a 128GB dedicated SSD. Sure you get a lot more storage with a hard drive, but for Ultrabooks I have a difficult time believing most users are going to need a ton of storage, and I’d happily give up raw capacity for the overall responsiveness of an SSD.

With that sidebar out of the way, ASUS delivers the UX31A in a variety of configurations. If you’re trying to save a buck and get under that mystical $1000 barrier, it’s difficult to include a 1080p IPS display with an i7 CPU, a dedicated SSD, and plenty of RAM; not surprisingly it’s precisely those areas where ASUS makes some compromises. The least expensive UX31A models come with a 1600x900 TN panel (likely the same panel that ASUS used in the previous generation UX31E), an i5-3517U CPU, and a 128GB SSD; thankfully, ASUS doesn’t ditch dedicated SSDs on the lower cost models, but they do standardize on 4GB DDR3-1600 for all UX31A models and that might be too little for some people. Right now you can find the base model UX31A-R5102H going for $950 online with the 1600x900 TN panel. For our review unit, ASUS shipped us their highest-spec UX31A-DB71, which has all the currently available upgrades.

ASUS UX31A-DB71 Specifications
Processor Intel i7-3517U
(Dual-core 1.90-3.00GHz, 4MB L3, 22nm, 17W)
Chipset HM76
Memory 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600 Elpida
Note: RAM is soldered onto motherboard
Graphics Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1150MHz)
Display 13.3" WLED Matte 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(Chi Mei Innolux N133HSE-EA1)
Storage 256GB ADATA XM11 SSD
Note: Proprietary ASUS connector
Optical Drive N/A
Networking 802.11n WiFi (Intel Advanced-N 6235)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel)
Audio Realtek ALC269
Stereo Speakers
Headphone jack
Battery/Power 6-cell, 7.4V, ~6840mAh, ~50Wh
45W Max AC Adapter
Front Side N/A
Left Side Memory Card Reader
Headphone jack
1 x USB 3.0
Right Side Mini-HDMI
Mini-VGA
1 x USB 3.0 (with Charging)
AC Power Connection
Back Side Exhaust vent (under hinge)
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 12.8" x 8.78" x 0.11-0.71" (WxDxH)
(325mm x 223mm x 3-18mm)
Weight 2.86 lbs (1.3kg)
Extras HD Webcam
82-Key Backlit Keyboard
Flash reader (MMC /SD)
USB 2.0 Fast Ethernet adapter
Mini-VGA to VGA adapter
Warranty 2-year limited international warranty (varies by country)
Price Starting at $1434 online (8/27/2012)

The core design for the various UX31A models is identical, but the DB71 model comes with a 256GB SSD (an ADATA model with SF-2281 hardware), Core i7-3517U CPU, and a 1080p IPS display. There are a few other in-between models that offer some combination of the i7 CPU, the 256GB SSD, and the 1080p IPS display, but if you want all three you’ll end up paying quite a large premium. The MSRP for the DB71 appears to be $1499 and the cheapest we could find it at the time of writing is $1434, putting it squarely into the realm of high-end Ultrabooks. I’ve already stated that this is the best Ultrabook that I’ve laid hands on, and that’s a great starting point, but I have to be honest: even $1400 is more than I think most people are willing to pay, especially with only 4GB of non-upgradeable RAM. Unfortunately, the SSD is also basically non-upgradeable, as ASUS uses a proprietary form factor, so you’re pretty much stuck with what you order (or the possibility of upgrading to the 256GB SSD if you can find this one). That being the case, if you’re set on purchasing a current generation Ivy Bridge Ultrabook, ASUS’ UX31A-DB71 is the one I’d recommend.

Most of the remaining elements are common among Ultrabooks—the Core i5 and i7 CPUs are the primary choices, with the latter offering slightly better performance for another healthy price premium. You get two USB 3.0 ports, and ASUS goes with the slightly cheaper HM76 chipset (rather than the more power efficient—in theory—UM77). Other than the general design and aesthetic, the standout item is the 1080p IPS display. I’ll let you know right now that it’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than any other Ultrabook display that it might as well be. 1080p in a 13.3” display is already incredibly difficult to find (Sony’s VAIO Z is about the only other 13” 1080p laptop that springs to mind), but to get IPS as well puts it in a category all on its own. The DPI is actually on the too-small side for Windows 7, so you pretty much have to use Windows’ DPI scaling (125% Medium is the default)—unless you happen to have eagle eyes I suppose.

A Closer Look at the ASUS UX31A
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  • Belard - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Those issues are typical of ultrabooks... okay, other than the non-standard proprietary SSD connector.

    For a notebook in this this class, it seems ASUS hits most of the marks. But it also shows their stupidity of using non-standard SSD and the crappy generic keyboard. Only an idiot would have the power button where IT DOESN'T BELONG. It a cheap way of doing things. Otherwise, it looks like a beautiful ultrabook, its brushed metal looks great.

    For business users, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is still better BUT it doesn't have a 1080p screen at this time. I'm guessing within a year or so, 1080p SHOULD be standard but on the sub $600 notebooks.

    The keyboard on the ThinkPad is still the best. The screen is matte. The memory (LIKE pretty much ALL UB) is soldered - its a space issue. The X1 comes with 4 or 8GB of RAM. For typical users, 4GB is still more than enough. Still, Ultrabooks are really nothing more than the PC version of the Apple Air, priced and aimed at the high end user, willing to spend an extra $500~1000 on a notebook. People with money do this... but for a typical WORK computer, its idiotic.

    Look at the ThinkPad T430s, its just under 4lbs and only 1" thick, its not a wedge shape... its very expandable 4/8/16GB, any kind of drive you want and even includes a dead-weight optical drive. I bet they could shave off 1/2 a pound by ditching the optical drive... but it does have its uses (not needed an external.

    And of course, going with a standard 5~6lb notebook means you are paying $500~700 for about the same performance.

    Here is an example (as close to possible same spec):

    $1600 Ultrabook - Carbon X1 - i7-3667 (3.2Ghz max) 4GB RAM 128GB SSD - 8hr battery
    14" screen (1600x900) Mini DP / USB 2 (1) / USB 3 (1) Audio and SD Card reader.
    * Oddly, the 8GB version only comes with a slower i5 2.8Ghz CPU for $1680 base.

    $1225 SlimBook - T430s - i5-3320M (3.3Ghz max) 4GB RAM 128GB SSD - 7hr battery
    14" screen (1600x900) Mini DP / USB 2 (1)Pwr / USB 3 (2) Audio SD Card reader & VGA. Ethernet. * the i5 on this notebook is still faster than the i7 in the ultrabook. ** Option to swap out the DVD-RW drive for 2nd battery or 2nd HD.

    $1329 Notebook - T430 (Same specs above, including DVD-RW swap) - Yeah, the price is wonky... when configured to match the 430s, it ends up costing more... but is usually about $200 less than the T430s. A 2nd battery adds upto another 4hrs.

    * All above configured with same memory/SSD and WWAN communications / back-lit keyboards.

    I'd rather pocket the $400 to forgo the 1lb savings. Get the extra USB port and far easier to expand notebook that will hold ANY 2.5" drive I want to upgrade to later.

    Of course, my needs and others aren't the same. I have a 15" and a 12" thinkpads for different uses. Expandability in a .75" form-factor is not allowed with todays tech and I don't find the price to be all that good. Mind you, its better than 3-4 years ago when Lenovo had the X1 ThinkPad which was the FIRST "Apple AIR" like notebook on the market, it too was $2000.

    For the usual computer user (mom / web-user - facebook blah) - a $400 6lb 15" notebook or $400 tablet will do just fine. For $330, picked up a semi-bottom end Lenovo with an i3-CPU, 4GB, 320GB HD, 15" 1366x768 screen, almost not crap-ware installed (just the AV program, I think McAffe) - it was more than enough.

    Hence, for the PC market, Ultrabooks are for those who want to spend $1000+
    Reply
  • bji - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    It probably seems overly picky, but I would never consider the Thinkpad line because of the pointer nub in the middle of the keyboard.

    That is so 1990s. Yeah I know there are a few stalwart fans who still want a pointer nub, but for everyone else, it's a needless appendage, and it actually interferes with my typing (I don't touch type, I have my typing style which is reasonably fast and accurate but gets tripped by the nub).

    Also the screen is 16:9, which I guess is acceptable in the PC world since it's all anyone seems to offer, but I vastly prefer the 16:10 aspect ratio on my retina macbook pro.
    Reply
  • Belard - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I'm okay with the pointy stick... ThinkPad clones by HP & Dell have thrown that in as well. Considering on the latest revised keyboards (which still feel very much the same and allow for back-lighting) - they kept it and it takes up a bit more space than it should. I think it can go... I'm not die hard for it, I still prefer a mouse. My two ThinkPads DO NOT have a touch pad.

    Also, the current keyboard still has the stupid Fn <> CTRL keys switched. They can be flipped in BIOS (A hint that they SHOULD change the keys). Whatever, the keyboard is still better than the ASUS one above... but not as good as their previous layout style. I would have loved to have seen a mixture of the two. New shape with back-lighting with previous layout and drop the point-stick.

    yeah yeah... I hear you on the screen size. Everyone has gone 16:9 which I bloody hate. 16:10 was easily better. Here is an example, a Thinkpad 15" 16:9 we had bought was defective (junky L series) and replaced it with a 14" model 16:10. The 14" screen is just as TALL as the 15". So during that transition, I ordered more 14" models... saved weight and space.

    Going 16:9 as a standard has its benefits. Doing video output in 1080 is the same as the notebook (if its 1080) and keeps things from looking strange. Other than that... i hate it. When ever I get a new thinkpad, I'll be stuck getting such a screen.... sigh.
    Reply
  • Impulses - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I've only skimmed the review, I'll be reading it from start to finish later, but I didn't see any mention of the included Ethernet adapter or even the AC charger like on past UX reviews... I assume they're both the same ones we've seen bundled before but not everyone might realize that. I've actually been looking for a GigE USB 3.0 adapter without much luck, probably why ASUS didn't upgrade from the Ethernet one. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I added those to the "Extras" section of the table; without GbE, though, it's not much faster than WiFi at best and it's slower in some cases. Large files over the WiFi connection (particularly with 5GHz) can hit 18MB/s, where 100Mb Ethernet maxes out around 12.5MB/s. Lots of smaller files are still much faster over Ethernet, though, due to latency. Reply
  • MadMan007 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Proprietary SSD connector = fail. Reply
  • MichaelD - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Yup. One of the "joys" of laptop ownership for me is the ability to upgrade things down the road. I keep my portable devices for a long time. Even my single-core, 1.2GHz AMD-based laptop is relatively speedy with 2GB of RAM and a hybrid HD in it, for example. Reply
  • janderk - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Asus got you covered. If buy the slightly thicker UX32VD you can put in it your own SSD and one stick of RAM. Reply
  • Belard - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Yep, I kind of learned this problem myself with the first ThinkPad T400s, it uses a 1.8" drive form factor, which until recently - was not available for SSD, or at least rarely.

    Proprietary connector for a standard device = stupid.
    Reply
  • GotThumbs - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Agreed. Add in the fact that the memory so soldered....and with ONLY 4 gigs.

    While I can see companies seeing the Billions of profits Apple gets with this kind of "one size fits all" approach. It doesn't fly with everyone. Building for the masses seems to be the approach taken here as with Apple. No choices...just take what your given...and like it. Not for me and I'm guessing most readers on this site.

    It looks nice but that's as far as it goes IMO.

    Pass.
    Reply

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