With the Zenbook line, Asus has intentionally copied many design aspects of Apple's MacBook Air, such as its familiar wedge shape, chiclet-style keys, surrounded by a smooth ceramic material, and roomy trackpad. That's no bad thing, as the MacBook Air is an excellent ultra-portable computer, so the Zenbook represents a way for Windows users to have a thin-and-light laptop that resembles the Air's look and feel.
The first Zenbook models matched the Air's silver aluminium chassis as well, but with the UX301LA, the Zenbook now comes in dark blue plastic, with a Gorilla Glass coating over the lid, that's particularly glossy. It looks stylish when first removed from the packaging, but the downside to this coating is fingerprint marks, which covered the entire chassis in less than five minutes of use.
The UX301LA costs considerably more than the current top-end MacBook Air though. This could be explained by some aspects of its specification. The display is higher resolution, and touch-sensitive, with a high-PPI 2,560 x 1,440 option available. In the configuration we received, there were also two Sandisk 128GB SSDs set up in RAID 0.
There's a typical limited array of ports you find on an Ultrabook: two USB 3.0, DisplayPort and an SD card slot. HDMI is included, but oddly in its Micro HDMI form, presumably to allow for more space on the side. For audio, there's a single 3.5mm audio connector, which is used for both input and output.
Its power button is located at the very top right of the keyboard, where it may be easy to press accidentally, in a further tribute to one of Apple's less well-received recent design choices.
The main section of the laptop is solid and refused to bend, even under considerable pressure. The same cant be said of the screen, where light twisting caused it to flex considerably.
Although there are no physical trackpad buttons, the lower part can be pressed inwards for left and right mouse clicks at the bottom. Asus has its own software which allows for customisable multi-touch gesture inputs on the trackpad, such as swiping to scroll down in web pages.
Single light taps register as left clicks, as well as tapping with two fingers for a right click. Swiping at the edge of the trackpad brings up the Windows 8 Start Screen or charms bar, which is easy to do accidentally, so we disabled it.
There are two UX301LA models available, with either a Core i7 or Core i5 low-voltage processor. We received the more high-end version with a Core i7 4500U processor, which is dual-core 1.8 GHz chip, that has a TDP of just 15 watts. While Intel rates the maximum turbo frequency as 3 GHz, in use, the chip ran at 2.7 GHz under load, and idled at just 800 MHz.
There's 8GB of dual-channel 1600 MHz DDR 3 memory too, while the on-board graphics chip is an Intel HD Graphics 4400, also known as Iris GT2.
As expected, the UX301LA is outperformed by laptops with more powerful processors, but it fairs alright for an Ultrabook. The Cinebench 15 CPU score of 240 is roughly a third of what you might expect from a high-end quad-core mobile processor.
It struggled with high-resolution 3D games, managing just 9.9 FPS in Tomb Raider's built-in benchmark at 1080p. 3DMark results were slightly better, with 52285 points in the Ice Storm benchmark. It's possible that less demanding software and older games will work ok, perhaps at lower resolutions, and with the detail settings turned down, but Ultrabooks are not really intended for gaming.
?The main purpose for an Ultrabook is to be a light, portable machine that can be used for browsing, office work and media playback and the UX301LA ticks all these boxes. Basic software runs just fine, and HD movie playback works very well, although this is no longer a particularly demanding task for a modern computer.
We ran a looped video playback battery life test with a 1080p rip of Avatar in Windows Media Player, with the brightness set to 120 cd/m2. The UX301LA lasted for 6 hrs 43 minutes, a reasonable result which is largely thanks to the power-frugal Haswell CPU architecture.
Having a pair of SSDs in Raid 0 provides some good performance results. We measured some superb 981 MB/s burst read speeds and 586 MB/s burst write speeds. But that's not the full story, since its 4K QD32 write speed result of 233.7 MB/s points to just 60,000 IOPS, which is less than you get from a single SSD such as the Samsung Evo, and reduces overall storage performance.
The wireless card is an Intel 7260, supporting 802.11ac as well as older wireless standards. Its slightly restricted by its two antennae, which limits wireless speeds and precludes the UX301LA from the ultra-fast wireless speeds capable with triple-stream 802.11ac. However, the majority of other 802.11ac laptops ship with a dual-antenna configuration.
Its display is also fairly good. 96% SRGB coverage is a respectable result and its 75% AdobeRGB coverage isn't bad at all. There's a strong trend towards improved laptop displays and while these results don't match professional factory-calibrated monitors, it still stands up well.
After using the Asus UX301LA for a while, it leaves us with no major complaints, it works excellently as a portable computer and is unlikely to cause any problems.But it equally lacks a single wow-factor feature that make us love it. It gets the job done, but no more. Although Asus has clearly avoided plastic where it can, the UX301LA doesn't have the quality feel of a £1400 computer, which is more expensive than many other Ultrabooks. To justify its high price, ticking boxes isn't quite good enough.