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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  • ReverendDC - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    GM failed partially because of "planned obsolescence." Would SSDs not be put into the same category, regardless of how long they last in the end?

    Tortoise vs hare, in my opinion (as small and non-majority it may be). We are starting to see low-end SSDs coming with only three years or two years of warrenty (thanks for the ever-informative reveiws, guys!). This means that, whether or not they continue to work, they aren't expected to work after 2-3 years. This is definitely inside the range of the average consumer's purchasing cycle, which usually stretches to 4-5 years.

    This type of thinking is much more in line with CPUs and RAM, which will be obsolete within 2-3 years and need to be replaced (Moore's Law). Hard drives really haven't changed all that much in 15-20 years, and, really, are similar to the old tape spool drives in how they operate (speaking of tape, it is still used for mass storage...because it is reliable and lasts forever*, although tear-jerkingly slow...).

    Just throwing it out there that there is still a (shrinking) contingency that will put up with double the boot times to get better reliablity. Not trying to be a jerk, just offer a different opinion (AND STAY OFF MY LAWN!).

    *Forever=your mileage may vary
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Just because something is out of warranty doesn't mean it stops working. For the record, I've had five people I know come to me in the past six months with dead/dying hard drives as a problem. Three were on laptops, two were on desktops, and only one drive allowed me to recover data (after putting it in the deep freeze). The oldest drive was around five years, three were less than two years old, and all were out of warranty because they came with an OEM PC (1-year to 3-year warranty).

    I can't imagine SSDs are really any less reliable than HDDs, which in my experience aren't worth keeping after 3-4 years regardless. They get incredibly loud (bearing noise), fragmentation of files means massive performance degradation, and most consumer drives are now designed to last 3-4 years before all bets are off. In four years, I'm certainly not going to be sad to have to replace a $200 256GB SSD with a $200 1TB+ SSD that will likely run at even higher speeds.

    Put another way: when was the last time you even thought about reusing a 3+ year old hard drive in a new PC build? Every time I help someone put together a new PC and they ask, "Can't I just use my old hard drive?" I respond with an emphatic "NO!" Then I explain that technically, yes, they can, but when $70 gets you a modern 1TB drive that will be more reliable and faster, do you really want to use your 4+ year old drive that might fail at any time? If they insist, I usually refer them to someone else, because I won't be responsible for putting together that sort of system and then having to provide support when things go south.

    When have you needed to get the data off an old IDE drive where the data wasn't already backed up somewhere else? Even old SATA drives are now retired to the scrap heap (after copying data off, if necessary/possible). If people are keeping drives for 10 years and not backing things up, they're going to lose that data at some point.

    SSDs aren't necessarily more reliable in any of these areas, but I've had enough issues with HDDs over the years that I wouldn't trust them as far as I can throw them. HDDs to sail pretty far on a good toss, though.... ;-)
    Reply
  • rickon66 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Three reasons ultrabooks have not caught on.
    1. Price
    2. Price
    3. Price

    The mainstream public will not pay the price for an ultrabook, when they see a laptop for $350 sitting next to it. I know the advantages of an ultrabook, but the general citizen does not care enought to pay 3x or 4x the price. It is still somewhat a niche product.
    Reply
  • milkod2001 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I've read some articles(not on this web) how is Intel going to push prices for Ultrabooks dows to 700-800 level while this one almost doubles it.

    U'll get nice screen but NoN upgradeable RAM(4GB max) NoN upgradeable SSD...would not pay more then $700 for that, it's just now worth it

    I only hope ultrathins based on Trinity will bring some nice alternative because copying Apple designs and asking same money for it is just a bad JOKE
    Reply
  • flashbacck - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    It's 2012. Seriously. Why can no one make a frigg'n touchpad that just works? Reply
  • Paedric - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Sadly, it's probably because of patents. Reply
  • KPOM - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    The ASUS sounds like the top Ultrabook right now. I wonder why they didn't make an 8GB option, though, since it's available in the MacBook Air, and for the most part ASUS has taken its design cues directly from Apple with this particular line. The 1080 IPS screen is a nice touch, and it's good to see that battery life is still pretty good.

    What does it take to get a Silver or Gold from AnandTech? The top ultraportables (ASUS UX31A and MacBook Air) get Bronze. I think Silver would be well warranted for both. The ASUS has the best screen in the business, and the Air has 8GB RAM and 512GB SSD options.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    8GB and a touchpad that doesn't come with any caveats would have been Gold. Each of those items dropped it a notch in my book. The pricing is also somewhat of a factor, as a lot of people are going to shy away from $1400, though the $1030 model DB51 is at least a bit more reasonable. Reply
  • Aikouka - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    You touched on it in your review, but I'd highly recommend that you try installing the Elantech drivers. I have a UX31A-DB51 (128GB SSD variant), and I've been using the Elantech drivers with no problems. Here are my qualms with it though...

    * The touchpad is too big and it's not recessed. I have the same problems with my Transformer TF300, but the fact that the touchpad is rather large and not recessed means that it's very easy to hit it with your palm while typing. I don't have this problem on my old Dell XPS M1530, because the touchpad isn't that large and it's recessed. Although, it doesn't seem to ever register my palm taps near the top as clicks, which is a good thing. I typed up a few forum posts on it last night, and the worst that I did was move around the cursor a little bit.

    * No middle mouse button. I've gotten pretty used to using the left mouse button + right mouse button to act as the middle mouse button. I mostly use it for doing things like closing browser tabs (middle clicking on the tab itself closes it). However, this doesn't work with the UX31, which might be an issue with the Elantech drivers?

    * Only has USB 3. This is mostly an issue if you're neurotic like me and refuse to use the default Windows install. Since Windows 7 does not support USB 3 by default, I had to jump through a few hoops just to reinstall Windows and put my drivers on the laptop. However, a fellow forum goer said that turning the USB legacy option to "always on" (instead of "smart") would allow the Ethernet adapter to work. This at least will allow you to download the drivers.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Can you direct me to a link where I can get the Elantech drivers? I commented on this in the review, and I can't find any non-ASUS drivers for Elantech out there. As for middle-click, I put in a request with ASUS to add that functionality. Reply

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