Taking a cue from the slim and sleek Macbook Air, a new set of notebook computers are starting to appear on store shelves. Dubbed “ultrabooks,” this new generation of laptops aims to lure Windows users with thin and lightweight bodies, quick start-up times and a long battery life.
Asus (華碩) was among the first of several companies to unveil a line of ultrabooks this year. I’ve spent the past few weeks testing two new models, the UX21 and UX31 Zenbooks. Though they fall short when compared to the Macbook Air, these new laptops will probably fit the bill for loyal Windows users looking for a speedy computer in a stylish and portable package.
HARMONY IN DESIGN
Asus has not been shy in mimicking the Macbook Air. Its UX series of laptops, nicknamed the “Zenbook,” sport lightweight bodies that share a strong likeness to Apple’s coveted notebook, with all-metal exteriors, a razor-thin profile and tapered edges. And they are just as light as the Air: the 11-inch UX21 weighs 1.1kg, and the 13-inch UX31 weighs 1.31kg.
Though it’s hard not to think about Apple’s runaway hit when you look at them, the Zenbooks are beautiful in their own right.
The “Zen” in the design of these models can be found in the brushed metal lids (behind the screen), which are adorned with an intricate etching of concentric circles, much like the patterns commonly found in a Japanese rock garden. The silver metal chassis around the keyboard is etched with vertical lines that almost look like a wood grain pattern. The Zenbooks are certainly among the nicest-looking Windows laptops around, and they feel solid and well crafted.
Of course, looks only go so far, but Asus made a clear effort to achieve a harmony of form and function. The all-metal chiclet keyboard is smooth to the touch and comfortable for typing (I used the 13-inch UX31 to type most of this review); the LED screen (1366 by 768 pixels on the 11-inch model, 1,600 by 900 pixels on the 13-inch model) was bright and sharp, and fine for long periods of viewing.
Asus also took the “less is more” approach with the laptops’ hardware. The Zenbooks’ svelte shape is possible because there is no built-in DVD-ROM drive. Those who get the 11-inch model will have to do without an SD card slot (both models have several USB ports and a connection for an external monitor).
Asus loaned the Taipei Times its top-end models, both equipped with Intel’s Core i7 chip and 256 gigabyte solid-state hard drives. Performancewise, both Zenbook models are fast. There was barely any lag time when opening and closing programs, whether it was Windows Media Player, Windows Live Photo Gallery (photo editing software) or Internet Explorer.
Much of the Zenbooks’ speediness is due to the solid-state drives (or SSDs), another name for flash memory chips, which read and record data much faster than a mechanical hard drive.
Flash chips have no moving parts. Because of this, flash memory requires less power, which benefits battery life. With the 11-inch Zenbook, I managed around 4 hours and 40 minutes doing standard activities that included surfing the Internet, watching videos and using word processing software. With the 13-inch Zenbook, I clocked around 5 1/2 hours with “battery saving mode” (which is part of Asus’ included battery management software) turned on.
Both the 11-inch and 13-inch models turn on quickly and are ready to use right away, booting Windows 7 Home Premium in just over 20 seconds. But the laptop is designed so that you don’t have to shut it down every time you stop working. The Zenbooks automatically go into “sleep mode” when you close the lid, and turn on within seconds after you lift the lid.