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
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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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I didn't see any stickers, so you should be able to remove the HSF with a bit of effort. I didn't try to do this but the screws are easily accessible. I should note that I tried to disconnect the battery plug and gave up for fear of breaking something, though, so maybe it won't be so easy. LOL
  • j_c - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    "and stay away from the SanDisk U100 if you want decent SSD performance"

    More details on that particular issue would be nice.
    Do you know a way to distinguish between these two models?
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    AFAIK, ASUS is not shipping the U100 any longer because of the performance issues. You can see where the UX31E and UX21A (with U100) rate in the PCMark 7 Storage suite -- basically the slowest SSD solution we've tested recently. What I don't know is whether ASUS figured out something with the ADATA SF-2281 firmware; I never experienced errors, but the BSOD issue still remains on some laptops/desktops.
  • j_c - Thursday, August 30, 2012 - link

    Very interesting, because over here in Germany, it seems the Sandisk model is the only one available. One commenter on cites a call by Asus Customer Support, that no ADATA models will be available for now.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, September 8, 2012 - link

    Apparently there are plenty of U100 equipped units shipping; I've updated the conclusion.
  • Shadowmaster625 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Can anyone make an educated guesstimate on how much a typical ultrabook would cost if it included this specific display, only a 128GB SSD, 4GB of RAM and the cheapest trinity A8?
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    How much to make or how much it would sell for? In terms of BoM costs, it would probably be around $100 less than the Core i5 version ASUS is selling right now. Retail pricing is the real question. Right now, HP's Sleekbook 6z-1000 sells for $225 less than the Intel i5-3317U variant, but that's also with the A6-4455M which would be substantially slower than full voltage A8. The A10-4655M ought to be reasonably fast in graphics vs. Intel ULV, but we haven't been able to test it and it's $100 more than the A6 version ($125 less than Intel).

    The big problem is that no one is making 13.3" AMD-based "sleekbooks" that I know of -- links if you have them, please. And in fact, their AMD Sleekbooks are the worst thing I can think of: a 15.6" 1366x768 display with an ultra-thin form factor. Do people want 15.6" thin laptops that much? I feel most people going for ultra-thin are going to want 14" or smaller.

    Actually, the biggest problem is getting someone to make a 13.3" AMD laptop with a premium quality LCD. It's possible in theory, but getting the bean counters to agree to spend $100 more or whatever for a "premium" IPS 1080p display while going with a "budget" AMD APU is a very long shot. Heck, getting premium displays in consumer laptops in general is hard enough -- the 1080p UX21A/UX31A/UX32VD are the exception. Others might follow ASUS' lead in the future, but I expect all the quality LCDs to reside in $1000+ laptops for a while yet.
  • ReverendDC - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I understand that SSD is faster, but I would like more mention of the dependability or lack therein of SSD. I am not sure of the warranty on this device, but if it is a year, you may have issues, especially if you move large chunks on and off the drive regularly (as you probably would for movies and music when taking the laptop on travels). Most SSDs have a warranty of three years, and even AnandTech has stated that you should expect about 5 years of storage, but anything more is gravy.

    I have 15 year old spinning platters that still give data, although there are some bad sectors starting to crop up. Obviously, I am not willing to go backwards, but SSD is not the best use case in every scenario, especially if data fidelity is a top requirement, even if it is much speedier. What we really need is a price cut in SLC modules, which are far more reliable, with better capacity.

    That being said....thanks for the great review. Informative as always.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    SSD durability is still far greater than five years for all but the most strenuous use cases, so I'm not too concerned about that. If you're constantly writing data to SSDs, you can burn through it faster, but Anand did some testing where he calculated even extreme use cases would still last five years. Five years from now, I suspect other areas of the laptop are likely to be failing (fans, hinges, whatever), and when an SSD runs out of cycles you can still read data off of it.
  • Kristian Vättö - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    As we have stated in numerous SSD reviews, the endurance of current MLC NAND is not a problem for consumer use.

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