Friday, 3 April 2015

Review: Updated: Asus Zenbook UX305

Review: Updated: Asus Zenbook UX305

Introduction and design

With the ever shrinking size of 13-inch laptops, the line that separates small laptops and Ultrabooks gets thinner every day. Laptop makers are pushing the envelope on compact systems: Dell unveiled a new XPS 13, which crams a 13-inch laptop into an 11-inch frame, while Lenovo's LaVie Z feels as light as an iPad.

Asus has answered this call for thinner and lighter machines with its own Intel Core M powered ZenBook UX305. Unlike the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, this Ultrabook is a truly fanless machine. The most stunning thing about the UX305 is it comes at a starting price of $699 (£649, around AU$902) with a full HD display and a 256GB SSD. This machine is also available in the UK for £649, though with only a 128GB SSD.

This makes the Asus ZenBook far more affordable than most premium Ultrabooks, like the glass surfaced Acer Aspire S7. And yet, this machine is just as carefully crafted as the all-metal Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus. Has Asus struck the perfect balance of affordability and luxury with its latest offering?

Asus ZenBook UX305 Review

Design

You could easily mistake the Asus ZenBook UX305 for a sketchbook when holding it. It's stunningly thin, measuring just 0.5-inches thick and weighing 2.6 pounds (1.17 kg). This makes the Zenbook a tiny bit lighter than the equally-thin Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro. The 13-inch MacBook Air is by no means fat at 0.68-inches thick, but newer devices are easily overthrowing its place on the throne as the thinnest and lightest laptop you can buy.

Although the device is nice and compact, it does not feel flimsy at all. The machine is entirely made of aluminum. The interior deck is one solid piece of metal that features an anodized and slightly gritty finish. which is by no means abrasive and instead adds an extra bit of texture for your wrists to sit on. The laptop's underside also sports an anodized sheen, but it's a separate piece. So, this is not a completely seamless design like the MacBook Air.

Asus ZenBook UX305 Review

For a bit more style on the UX305's screen lid, Asus went with a brushed aluminum finish. However, instead of going with the traditional straight lines, the UX305 has been given a radial pattern that's both attractive and conveniently draws your attention to the Asus logo in the center.

Despite the small size of this Ultrabook, the trackpad is extremely roomy and extends over a third of the laptop's depth. Not only is it big, the trackpad is nigh frictionless. Better yet, clicks are tactile and audible whether you're pressing on the dedicated left and right buttons or pressing anywhere on the surface.

Asus ZenBook UX305 Review

Similarly the keyboard does not feel cramped at all. It follows the standard keyboard format with a full length backspace and enter key. The keys are springy as well to round out this great typing experience.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

There's no denying the Asus ZenBook UX305 looks exactly like a MacBook Air. From the hinge, the bezel around the screen, the position of the trackpad to the recessed keyboard, you can easily see the similarities to the MacBook Air. The hinge even helps to prop up the entire book at a tiny angle just like Apple's ultra light notebook.

Asus ZenBook UX305 Review

One of the few original touches Asus has added to the design are its chamfered edges as opposed to the MacBook Air's razor sharp sides. Otherwise, the UX305 looks like the MacBook Air after it's gotten a nip-tuck job to make it marginally slimmer and lighter.

While the new ZenBook seems extremely derivative, this all isn't necessarily a bad thing. If the MacBook Air helped set the benchmark for Ultrabooks, the UX305 has surpassed and improved on the design.

Specifications

The Asus ZenBook is an impeccably thin machine measuring just 0.5-inches (12.7 mm) thick with a 12.8 x 8.9-inch (355 x 226 mm) footprint. Though the 13 x 9-inch (33 x 228 mm) Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro is just as thin, the UX305 is just tenths of an inch smaller on almost all sides. Similarly, the Asus Ultrabook weighs 2.6 pounds, a fraction less than the 2.63-pound (1.19 kg) Lenovo 2-in-1.

Comparatively, the 13-inch MacBook Air is the largest machine out of this trio with 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.68-inch (325 x 227 x 172 mm) dimensions. It's also the heaviest, weighing in at 2.96 pounds (1.34 kg).

In fact the ZenBook UX305 even beats out the new MacBook in terms of thinness without sacrificing ports. Whereas Apple's latest notebook measures 13.1 mm (0.51 inches) and gets rid of all its ports for a single USB-C, the Asus's Ultrabook is even thinner at 12.7 mm complete with two full-size USB 3.0 ports and HDMI.

Asus ZenBook UX305 Review

Here is the Asus ZenBook UX305 configuration given to TechRadar for this review:

Spec Sheet

  • CPU: 800MHz Intel Core M 5Y10 (dual-core, 4MB cache, 2GHz with Turbo Boost)
  • Graphics: HD Graphics 5300
  • RAM: 8GB DDR3
  • Screen: 13.3-inch FHD 1,920 x 1,080 (matte)
  • Storage: 256GB SSD
  • Ports: 3 x USB 3.0, micro HDMI, SD card slot, headphone/microphone combo jack
  • Connectivity: 802.11n + Bluetooth 4.0
  • Camera: 1.2MP HD webcam
  • Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Size: 12.8 x 8.9 x 0.5 inches (W x D x H)

The ZenBook UX305 comes well equipped with the configuration listed above calling for $699 (about AU$902). Everything comes stock, including the laptops 1,920 x 1,080 resolution screen, generous 256GB SSD and 8GB of memory. Unfortunately, UK users will feel a bit jipped, as the UX305 is available with only 128GB of SSD storage for £649.

Asus also plans to ship a $999 (about £648, AU$1286) version of the UX305, with a 3,200 x 1,800 resolution display starting this April. On paper, this upcoming WHD+ version of the UX305 will surpass the resolution of the 2,560 x 1,600-pixel display on the Samsung Ativ Book 9 (2015), as well as the Lenovo LaVie Z and its 2,560 x 1,440 WQHD panel.

Asus ZenBook UX305 Review

The Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro comes at a heftier starting price of $1,299 (£999.99, $2,099). While this hybrid laptop comes at a higher premium, it's also equipped with a slightly faster clocked 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y70 (or a 1.2GHz M5Y71 for UK and Australian models) processor, AC Wi-Fi and a 3,200 x 1,800 QHD+ display by default. Otherwise, the Asus and Lenovo machines are very similar in that they both come standard with a 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM.

Compared to the 13-inch MacBook Air, the Asus UX305 still wins out as the most affordable Ultrabook. The base configuration of the 13-inch Air starts at $999 (£849, AU$1,199) and the price nets them a more capable 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 CPU - but that's the only bonus. Otherwise, the MacBook Air is stuck in last year's spec war with a low resolution 1440 x 900 screen, plus just 4GB of RAM and only 128GB in SSD storage.

Performance

With an 800MHz processor on tap, you might expect some sluggish performance, but the UX305 managed to run Lightroom even more smoothly than my 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. Thanks to the ZenBook's processors' ability to clock up to 2GHz, I never ran into any snags while playing 1080p video or swapping between web pages with 20 open browser tabs.

Save for a few instances when the video driver crashed during a Google Hangout video call (which I hope Intel can rectify with a future update), I had no problems doing anything with the UX305.

Here's how the Asus ZenBook UX305 fared in our benchmark tests:

Benchmarks

  • 3DMark: Cloud Gate: 4,210; Sky Diver: 2,190; Fire Strike: 594
  • Cinebench CPU: 202 points; Graphics: 21.28 fps,
  • PCMark 8 (Home Test): 2,107 points
  • PCMark 8 Battery Life: 5 hours and 21 minutes

The ZenBook UX305 proved to be a solid performer, and its benchmark scores make it look even better. It outpaced the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro in just about every test. Despite running with a slower processor, the Asus Ultrabook scored 2,107 points in the PCMark 8 home test, whereas the Lenovo completed the same benchmark with 1,147 points.

Asus ZenBook UX305 Review

In terms of graphics horsepower, the UX305 and Yoga 3 Pro share the same Intel HD Graphics. Somehow, the Asus Ultrabook took a commanding lead once again, with a Fire Strike score of 594 points over the 329 points the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro achieved in the same test. Even with this impressive score, do not expect to game much on the Asus UX305, as its 4,210-point performance in 3DMark Cloud Gate makes it a poor candidate for playing titles even with the lowest graphics settings.

We weren't able to compare the performance of the UX305 directly against the 13-inch MacBook Air, but the thin and light Apple laptop has been proven itself to be a capable little machine. In our review, we were even able to get in some light gaming with the MacBook Air, which is a weak point of all the Intel Core M chips we have tested thus far.

Asus ZenBook UX305 Review

Powering down

I was consistently pleased with the ZenBook UX305's solid performance until I reached the last 10% of the laptop's battery life. During the final stretch of my 5 hour and 26 minute battery test, the UX305 began tripping over itself whether I was playing a 1080p YouTube video, opening a webpage or just editing a document in Microsoft Word.

These were all tasks I had no problem with throughout my anecdotal battery life test, so the system likely locks down the processor to its minimum clock speed when it dips below the critical battery life threshold.

That said, the battery life is spectacular at over 5 hours, and during that time I was editing images in Lightroom for an hour and half while unplugged. The PCMark 8 test also yielded a similar 5 hour and 21 minute battery life duration. I expect users running less resource intensive applications - such as simple web browsing and local video playback - will be able to squeeze out another, at most, two hours of juice.

The Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro's battery life topped out at 4 hours and 30 minutes, though, this convertible also has the extra power drain of a 3,200 x 1,800 resolution display. Sticking with a lower resolution 1,400 x 900 allows the MacBook Air to last a much longer 12 hours, but I have no doubt the ZenBook would also last just as long with a less pixel-rich screen.

Asus ZenBook UX305 Review

Media ready

A 1080p screen on a 13.3-inch device is a treat, and the display that the UX305 ships with is a gem. The colors pop off the screen without being overly saturated, and you can easily distinguish grays from blacks thanks to the display's excellent contrast levels. Asus has also treated the panel with a matte coating that virtually removes any sign of glare even under bright room lights or direct sunlight. Out of all the laptops I've tested, the UX305 is the only one with a perfect screen.

While the screen is nearly perfect in every way, the Zenbook's speakers leave a little more to be desired. The two drivers are located on the bottom of the laptop, marked with two speaker grills on the left and right edges of the notebook. Turning the volume up to 20 brings in some significant distortion, and the sound is noticeably tinny no matter what you're listening to. So, be sure to pack a pair of headphones for a decent audio experience when you use this laptop.

Asus ZenBook UX305 Review

Bundled software

Unfortunately, the Asus ZenBook UX305 also comes with large sampling of bloatware. A few of the apps you'll want to uninstall from the get-go include TripAdvisor, Line and Music Maker Jam, as these apps will just ask you to pay money to do anything at all. Here's the short list of applications you'll actually want to keep on your machine.

  • Asus Giftbox - A quick collection of recommended applications.
  • Asus Webstorage - Asus's in-house cloud storage solution.
  • iHeartRadio - A desktop streaming music app will be mainly pertinent to existing iHeartRadio users.
  • Freshpaint - A gussied-up variation of Microsoft Paint, though, users may want to plug in a Wacom tablet as the app seems to be optimized for such a peripheral or a touchscreen interface.

Verdict

While the Asus UX305 does not necessarily break any new ground in the Ultrabook scene, it's an excellent machine in almost every regard. It's as thin as the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro while being more capable to boot. It's also significantly more affordable than a 13-inch MacBook Air or just about any other competing Ultrabook. It's a nearly flawless device, for an extremely affordable price and that in itself is worth high praise.

We liked

The ZenBook UX305 is a superbly-built machine that's thin, light and very attractive. The fully metal build and slightly off-violet color of the chassis makes it stand out from all the white Acer Aspire S7's and black Lenovo Ultrabooks of the world without being too flamboyant.

Our time with the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro soured us on the capabilities of Intel's Core M chipset, but the UX305 provided a much better experience. This lightweight system' performance was consistent whether I was browsing the web, watching video or editing images. What's more, you can get excellent battery life out of the machine considering its 1080p display.

Of course, the most striking thing about the UX305 is that it comes at a $699 or £649 (about AU$902) price. This is a great price for any mobile computing machine, but in this case you're getting a premium, full-metal Ultrabook with an excellent full HD display and a 256GB SSD to boot.

We disliked

The list of things I don't like about the ZenBook is fairly short.

While I had an excellent overall experience with the UX305, once the laptop digs into its reserve battery tank, the Intel Core M chip performance suddenly plummets. It's a problem you'll likely never run into until after 5 hours of usage, but was a huge annoyance when I struggled to even draft a single email as the laptop slowed to a crawl.

I also wished the laptop's speakers were a tiny bit better especially, considering they were engineered by Bang & Olufsen. The built-in tweeters are in no way close to the worst speakers I've ever heard, but it's nonetheless a weak point of this overall excellent machine.

Final verdict

The Asus ZenBook is the most affordable Ultrabook you can buy currently, though it's not exactly a shining symbol of innovation in this space of ultraportable notebooks. However, Asus has struck a great balance between components to price with an excellent build quality and perfect 1080p screen.

Unless you're in the need of a convertible 2-in-1 machine, I would pick the Asus ZenBook UX305 1,000 times over the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro in spite of the latter option's 3,200 x 1,800 resolution display. Additionally this Asus – and most recent Ultrabooks, for that matter – makes the 13-inch MacBook Air look awfully dated.

This year at CES 2015, every brand had updated their respective Ultrabook lines. The new Dell XPS 13 and Lenovo LaVie Z standout as two unique Ultrabooks that are already turning heads . Likewise, Samsung will soon release its sharpest Ultrabook yet, the Ativ Book 9 that will also utilize an Intel Core M CPU.

However, despite all these new models coming out soon, the Asus ZenBook UX305 will still be the most affordable Ultrabook, and it won't disappoint you.








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