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


View All Comments

  • DanNeely - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    After my pata HDD decomissioning project I ended up with several sets containing torx bits. I started out with a large set of sears bits that included some torx ones I originally bought for other uses; added a set of 1/4" socket wrench style torx bits from an autozone because my sears set didn't go to anything smaller, and finally ended up ordering a set of mini bits from amazon after discovering I needed an even smaller size to crack open a few of the laptop drives. Reply
  • krumme - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    Lets pretend this can play 1080 flash video
    Lets pretend this is for all day computing
    Lets pretend all those BM have anything to do with real world usage pattern
    Lets pretend this will sell

    ARM15 and win 8 will end all the wet dreams that is left if it matter now it will not sell, and if you dont need the 28nm powerhouse of a bobcat AMD derived core.

    This looks more like a comercial to me than a review. This is more stupid than a BD for desktop.
  • morousg - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    I guess the legal battle will beguin soon. This is a perfect copy of fabrication processes, chassis dessing and even component selection and component placement inside the "CopyAir".

    They are copying even almost the price!!

    There are slight differences on I/O ports and the back color of the screen, but the ventilation system is also copied. It's the first PC I've ever seen copying the entire form factor and design from a Mac. The HP Envy line of PC's where very similar to MacBook Pros, but almost where made of plastic, and there where more differences. This time, it's every thing!!

    The battery is divided and disposed sa in the Macbook Air, and it occupies a similar proportion of space.
    The SSD has the same form farctor.
    The trackpad, is almost as big as the Macbook Air's.
    The screen even has a black edge, just to don't confuse you to think this is not a copy.
    Even the rubber around the age of the screen, is the same.
    And of course, as Apple does and so proudly exposes, Asus has taken a solid block of aluminum, and craved it to make a copy of the Apple's Unibody notebook chassis.
    You know what? Even the charger has a very similar shape.

    Is there any body able to create something new instead of always copying Apple??
  • Roland00Address - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    Let sue the bread companies for their bread is almost virtually identical to the almighty wonder bread. Reply
  • morousg - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    Let's say I have a patent about bread fabrication that makes my bread able to be preserved in a certain manner and do a certain final process in any bakery or even supermarket in a fast and cheap way.

    Let's say no one else (until I patented it) has done it before (in real life not in movies...) and I spent time and a suffered big amount of bucks to develop that process.

    Now, some on else copy it for free.

    If it where legal, we would provably still fight with rocks, because no body would invest on R+D. Don't forget the D, from Development. This is a costy part, from ideas to reality. There are lots of try-and-error steps, that consume worker hours and material. No body should dismiss that in the name of progress.

    And now, ask your self why oh why the bread is so cheap. Because it has always been? Think again.
  • karlostomy - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    morousg says "Is there any body able to create something new instead of always copying Apple?? "

    No offence, but that is just nonsense.

    Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg that you seem to be blissfully unaware of.
    How strange that you have been brainwashed to think other companies copy apple, when in the reverse is evidently true.
  • morousg - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    Thank you for the links. They where enlightening.

    But you, as many others, are missing "one more thing". The Development of the ideas.

    Having ideas is a fun thing to do. Any one can do it, mixing other ideas, changing them a bit etc… But few are so brave to try to do things (maybe the same things) but in a new way, or with something that no one has ever DEVELOPED.

    Trying to DEVELOP a new feature that erases others that are more or less well stablished (like the stylus or the notebook million pieces typical PC structure) is risky and costly. Few business do that, or if they do, the first failure makes them stop or reduce their efforts on R+D.

    That's the good thing from Apple, they never stop trying, even if they do some mistakes. Is good that someone invests in creating new thigs, or imporving existing things in a way that they seem completely new, because they have something much better and unique (again unique in the sense of being the first to develop it).

    So I think that is a good thing that a business that believes in R+D, tries to protect their investments in both R+D.

    I fact, probably, during the D part you are creating something new, like a fabrication process. A notebook is a notebook. But a traditional notebook chassis is definitely not a unibody chassis, and the technology involved is definitely not the same.

    Why should I spend money and time on trying to improve things, if others will copy my improvement or invention, and I won't get any benefit from the investment I did?

    Patents exist to protect PROGRESS, that is quite much more than just having nice ideas, and putting them on a movie.
  • Sunburn74 - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    What tradeoffs are people complaining about? All of these parts are parts found in lots of other notebooks out there. The only actual tradeoff I see here is the battery life for form factor trade.

    Those of you who are asking for HD screens, IPS panels, thunderbolt connectors, external gpus, and etc should realize Asus makes laptops for everyone, not just the 1% who know what an external gpu is. If you are one of those people asking for these things, be told very clearly now, you are in the <1% of people could care, could use, know how to use, and would actually use these things. The rest of us are perfectly happy working on our TN panels at 1366x766 surfing the web, checking email, typing up word documents, talking via skype with our webcams, and enjoying our beautiful form factor PC. We don't care about benchmarks when it comes to laptops, how many gflops my processor does or how many FPS my laptop gets in Civ 5. We care about how much fun it actually is to use the damn thing. My PC desktop screams, absolutely screams, but when it comes to laptops thats the only thing I care about and I'm as close to a normal person as you're gonna get on this forum. Done are my days of lugging around a 17in beast of a powerhouse laptop that was embarassing to pull out when all I wanted to do was check an email at the airport or write a quick note. All I care about now is how fun and easy and reliable the laptop is to use for my simple daily tasks. This represents the viewpoint of most people. If you disagree you are a moron because its that exploiting that very same viewpoints that has propelled apple to where they are today. Apple doesn't make the products with the most badass hardware. They make the products that are the most badass to actuall use.

    There are niches to laptops. Don't forget that. There are gaming laptops, there are pro/workstation laptops, there are ultraportables, and there are now ultrabooks (a refinement, be it more expensive refinement) of the ultraportable. Understand that, get a girlfriend, and shut up.
  • madmark4 - Thursday, November 03, 2011 - link

    Yes, exactly.

    If you want a laptop to replace your gaming desktop rig, this isn't for you.

    If you want something you can actually CARRY WITH YOU, and want to take on a plane, or even just drop in a bag for a trip to the coffee shop, this is nearly a perfect machine.

    I have an HP Elitebook 8440W with quad core i7, 8gb ram, and two hard drives. It has a 14" screen, and is smokin fast.

    It sits at home, whenever I go somewhere, because it also weighs 7 pounds, gets about 3 hours of battery life (which requires extra weight carrying the charger everywhere) and won't fit in something the size of a mailing envelope.

    I should also note that 1) no one but apple does anything with Thunderbolt. and 2) all those extra features mean higher costs. Would this be your 'ideal' laptop if it was twice as thick, weighed twice as much, and cost 700$ more because it had an IPS screen, thunderbolt, another USB 3 port, and a docking station plug? If so, they already make those, its called an HP Elitebook 8440W.

    My primary goal in a laptop is to get something that is fast enough to run what I want to run, even if it isn't the fastest at it, but it needs to do that while being portable enough that I will actually take it with me TO run those things. Ease of use and portability are worth more to me than an external GPU plug. I'm not buying this intending to run COD3 on it. I'm buying it to surf, run eclipse for programming jobs, use Word/Excel, and otherwise be productive.
  • shompa - Sunday, October 23, 2011 - link

    This machine is silicon art, just like the Macbook Air.

    I wish that Asus supported thunderbolt. With Apples thunderbolt display you get a complete setup, something that Asus can't deliver.

    Thunderbolt --> USB/Firewire and gigabith ethernet. All in just one cable.

    When will BIOS die? UEFI have been around for 10 years. Why play around with a 1970 technology?

    With PCI-E thunderbolt cases. You can buy an macbook air and connect the latest AMD/Nvidia graphic card to it an play games.

    The only reason you should buy this product instead of Apple is if you hate Apple and want a couple % better speed. The reason why you should buy Apple is that you get world class support, can use both Windows and OSX, thunderbolt, rapid start, iCloud, Ilife and so on.

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