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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  • nerd1 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I'd like to see some quality review of sammy's series 9 laptop. So far I have only seen crappy amateurish reviews so far (*ahem* engadget *ahem* theverge *ahem*) and I think it is one of two best ultrabook options out there with 1600*900 matte PLS display. Reply
  • Toshio - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    notebookreview.com has a decent review:
    http://www.notebookreview.com/default.asp?newsID=6...
    also they reviewed the 15" version, pretty interesting:
    http://www.notebookreview.com/default.asp?newsID=6...

    an Anandtech review would be pretty good whatsoever ;)
    Reply
  • nerd1 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    That's old gen model with sandby bridge. Engadget review reports 7 hrs of battery life with new laptop - I'd like 'proper' review here. ;] Reply
  • JohnMD1022 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    PC Decrapifier

    http://pcdecrapifier.com/
    Reply
  • ajp_anton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    "ASUS did provide an updated Realtek driver that seemed to improve the audio quality slightly"

    Does this mean ASUS has tweaked the drivers themselves, or that it's just a newer version and I don't lose anything by upgrading from Realtek's website myself sometime in the future?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    It looks like stock Realtek, but I could be wrong. Reply
  • geniekid - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Let's not forget the predecessors to these new fancy ultrabooks - the Asus UL series! My laptop at the moment is the Asus UL80Vt and even with its G210M, I can still run TF2, Civ 5, Diablo 3 and Guild Wars 2 on this machine, albeit at low quality and 1366x768 resolution. And this is a 3 year old laptop that cost me $850.

    These days, I won't be happy without a 650M and 900p resolution on a 14" screen, but the UL80Vt will always have a warm spot in my heart.
    Reply
  • falc0ne - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I really don't see all the fuzz about ASUS.
    I had quite a few issues with ASUS products, most recent being with a brand new laptop featuring Sandy Bridge platform with core i7 processor that came with the hard drive DOA. I've only seen this happening with Acer or other OEMs that sell 'value' products. But ASUS is charging you premium prices. I just see them charging for premium quality but that quality just isn't there...
    From my past experiences I have 2 other desktops that I built and the motherboards failed. One failed in 3 months, the other 9-11 months. I have to mention the laptop the came DOA was in the range of $1600 and the latest motherboard that failed in the $150 price range - so not cheap ones at all.
    Anyone else had issues with their products?
    Reply
  • Roland00Address - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Why can't AMD make an ultrathin that is about $500 dollars that uses the a6 or a10 ulv
    It would be so easy for AMD to get an OEM to actually build an ultrathin that is cheap and actually good just by swapping out a few parts.

    Use a standard 11.6" netbook case. Many oems have cases that can take 17w processors in this form factor that are cheap remember the e series of amd processors have the same tdp as the a6 ulv. The faster celeron and pentium ulv dual cores also use 17w for tdp. For example hm dm1, Sony YB, Sony E11, my favorite the Lenovo Thinkpad x130, Lenovo x131, etc and the Acer Aspire One 756 (they finally got rid of the floating island crap and are now use chicklet). I am going to be talking more about the Acer Aspire One 756 below

    Place at least 4 GBs of ram in the computer but it has to be in dual channel mode. If you can't do 2x2GBs then 6 GBs (1x2gb+1x4gb) or 8 GBs. Note all the models I listed above have two memory slots.

    At least a 320gb hard drive or a 128 gb ssd. Note all the models I listed above use standard harddrives though some are limited to 7mm high models. The cheapest 320gb 7mm hard drives on the open market cost about $55 to 60, a samsung 830 128gb 7mm height ssd goes for about $100. So lets say $40 dollars extra for ssd.

    A 1366x768 screen, it doesn't need to have a high rest just good viewing angles. Currently TN panels are all you can find in the 11.6 form factor, but with the rise of tablets and windows 8 tablets coming out this fall I won't be suprised we will see 11.6 ips screens starting to appear. To put it in comparison a 11.6 inch screen with 768 pixels height in the 16x9 ratio is 10.11" by 5.68" the ipad 2 4x3 ratio with 768 pixels 7.75" by 5.83." Chinese OEMs have complete ips tablets in the 9.7" form factor going for $120 so the screen cost isn't exhorborant if someone is actually making that size and form factor. Problem is no one is currently making this form factor but I hope for windows 8 to change all this.
    -------
    To put it in comparison. Acer has a Acer Aspire One 756 with a celeron dual core, 4gbs of ram, and 500gb hard drive, with 7 home premium going for $349 final price on the open market. (Full model is AO756-2808-US) It weights 3.04 lbs with its 4 cell battery and is 1.1" inch tall.

    AMD has $150 dollars to play with (if they can convince acer to build it) to put the a6 ulv dual core and place an extra stick of memory and suddenly they are in the $500 dollar price market where people will seriously consider buying an amd ultra portable. I know the a6 ulv price that oems pay is nowhere near the difference of a celeron price+$150 since the tray price (which is not neccessary what acer pays intel) of the 3rd generation ultrabook i5 ulv is $225.00. (Intel and AMD don't publish tray prices for their celeron ulv or the a6 4455m)

    So why hasn't amd been able to convince anyone to do this? There are only two computer I have seen with the a6 4455m is the 15.6" hp sleekbook. I personally consider this computer fail for it is a 15.6" that weights as much as a 14" and still costs over $600 dollars. Why would someone pay that much, for an item that is so big, yet the have to go with the sacrifices of a ulv processor.

    There is also a samsung series 5 13.3" that uses the a6 4455m but its going price is $660 to $700. This computer is more my style but when the 3rd generation i5 version is going for the same price $660 to 700 why the hell would you go with the slower AMD option? (To top it off the Samsung uses the 500gb seagate hybrid drive while the AMD system does not.)
    Reply
  • nevertell - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I'd love to see an article about an ultraportable or atleast a laptop with a 17w i7 dualcore with an express card slot with an external GPU. I know that there is some guerilla hardware involved in these setups and these are the exception, not the rule, but I've always entertained the idea of a portable that doubles as a desktop once you put it in a dock.
    Ultrabooks by themselves are never going to get further than they are now, since you don't need an i5 to browse the web, but to do anything more, the form factor is sort of limiting the machine. I don't really understand the fuss behind ultrabooks, if intel isn't making it a rule for them to have thunderbolt, as that WOULD solve most of the problems at this point in time I have with ultrabooks. Whilst you wouldn't have a special dock for extra cooling to exceed the thermal limits of the platform, you would at least have a way to connect an external GPU, high speed and high capacity storage and other peripherals.

    At this point in time I don't really need a modern ultrabook, I already have one from the 2009- the X200s. It's keyboard is far superior to any of the chiclet keyboards that are trending nowadays, I can easily get 5 hours of usage on my 9 cell battery on wifi (7 and more if I am just writing stuff) and it still is easy to carry around. The only thing I would love to have is a unified high speed interface to connect peripheral devices as the express card slot is too slow. Or, in other words, THUNDERBOLT! Since these ultrabooks have hardware limitations. I can't really do any serious work on them anyway, so why would I need more processing power than I have at the moment from a ultra low voltage Core 2 processor, if it is sufficient enough for the same usage model the ultrabook (as it is now implemented) is intended.

    TL/DR version- if there is no thunderbolt, then even a 4 year old ultraportable would suffice to do the ultrabooks job as the form factor and hardware of ultrabooks limit their usage model.
    Reply

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