When it comes to 13-inch notebooks, Indian consumers have become used to finding ones that are either overpriced or underpowered. That’s the limitation posed by the smaller form factor. Thankfully, with quad-core Ultrabook CPUs becoming a thing this year, we are seeing a change in the performance of 13-inch ultraportables, and Asus is hoping that it can also deliver value with the ZenBook 13.
The new Asus laptop goes up against the likes of Dell Inspiron 13 5000 series, HP’s Envy 13-inch notebook (see our review), as well fellow Taiwanese company Acer’s Swift 3 ultrabook. Based on our time testing and using the Zenbook 13, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it the 13-inch laptop to beat, thanks to a starting price of Rs 66,990, and an excellent overall experience. But first, we look at the specs.
Specifications of the Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UAL:
The Zenbook 13 is available in rose gold or pink and in dark blue. The higher-end model is only available in blue.
|Processor||Up to Intel Core i7-8550U|
|Memory||8GB DDR3 @2133MHz|
|Storage||Up to 512GB PCIe SSD|
|Display||13.3-inch FHD LED|
|Graphics||Intel UHD Graphics 620|
|I/O||1x Type-C USB 3.0, 2x Type-A USB 3.0, 1x HDMI, 1x Combo audio jack, 1x MicroSD card reader|
|Battery||50Wh 3-cell LiPo|
On paper, the Zenbook 13 is on par with most 13-inch Ultrabooks out there, but how does that translate in real life performance and usability?
Design and Build Quality
While some Asus ZenBooks in the past (and even now) go for a shiny exterior, the ZenBook 13 has a matte finish that looks amazing up close. This is what all laptops should look like – it’s classy, understated and does not scream out loud in any manner. That doesn’t however mean it won’t turn heads, because it certainly manages to catch the eye.
The only blemish in this matte finish job is that the lid tends to catch scuff marks or dark smudges fairly easily. This can be easily rectified by keeping a microfiber cloth handy, which Asus has thoughtfully provided in the box. Also included in the box is an extra cable tie for the power brick, as well as a USB Type-A to Ethernet jack, which has an LED indicator.
It feels ridiculously light and it kinda is at just 985g
The ZenBook 13 is built from magnesium-aluminum alloy, which looks and feels like plastic, but is quite durable and doesn’t add weight to the body. Asus says its 33% lighter than competing laptops with standard aluminum alloy. This also means there are differences in handling. Holding the laptop feels great because the exterior doesn’t get cold when left in an AC room, like some aluminum laptops tend to do. The soft rounded corners and the lip on the front makes using it a pleasure.
When you hold it in hand, it feels ridiculously light and it kinda is at 985g. That light weight and the thin body might give you pause, but they shouldn’t; the ZenBook 13 feels solid in the hand when closed and you can carry it around open with just two fingers without feeling like it might split into two. You never get the feeling that the laptop is fragile or weak in any manner.
And if that in-hand experience is not enough, Asus promises MIL-STD 810G protection for military-grade durability. We obviously could not batter this review unit, but we have witnessed Asus executives mishandle it in person – including throwing it on the floor from a height.
One area where the ZenBook UX331 does not feel sturdy is the hinge. We realize that some amount of wobble makes the laptop feel less rigid in use, and also helps absorb vertical shocks. So we won’t really call this a flaw. In everyday usability, you are unlikely to keep tapping the lid to reproduce this wobble, but a very strong fan or wind in your vicinity could quickly annoy you.
I/O and Connectivity
Moving on to layout of the ports, the ZenBook UX331 is a bit spartan in terms of I/O connections. You get a full-sized USB Type-A (USB 3.1 Gen 1) port on either side, a USB Type-C port (USB 3.1 Gen 1; not Thunderbolt 3) on the left, along with a full-sized HDMI and the barrel plug input for power. On the right side are the 3.5 mm jack and a microSD card reader. That’s about it for ports, though you do get a USB Type-A to Ethernet dongle in the box.
On the face of it, this sounds great, but when you realize that the Type-C port does not support power delivery or display output, let alone eGPU connections, you realize you are left with just one display port in the HDMI. The microSD card slot is another let down; considering that the quad-core i7 chip can help in some basic photo editing on the go. A full-sized SD Card slot would have been a better option, though with microSDs being more ubiquitous, most users will not have an issue with this.
For wireless connectivity, the laptop comes with Intel’s integrated WLAN solution that offers 2×2 802.11 b/g/n/ac. Along with that it features Bluetooth 4.2 for connectivity with BLE devices, as well as regular Bluetooth devices.
The 13.3-inch full HD LED backlit panel easily passes the eye test. When you first fire up this laptop, the colours will look fantastic. In most scenarios, the display is bright and vibrant, and it makes a great impression when you are showing something on the PC to others.
Text and images in the Windows UI look crisp; Netflix content looks amazing with very good clarity and uniform brightness, and it doesn’t suffer from banding, as some displays tend to do, which can make dark scenes look meh. It also does justice to the bright, neon colors of Asphalt 9 Legends or of the nebula wallpapers that I am quick to set on new PCs.
Asus calls it an Anti-Glare Panel but that might be a stretch. It’s not a highly glossy panel, but it still reflects light back more than a matte panel would. If you work with very bright lights behind you or over your head, that might be an issue.
The company advertises 72% coverage for the NTSC color space, and specifically mentions great viewing angles, which is more or less true. There is some color shift when you look at the display at certain off-angles i.e not directly.
The harmon/kardon-tuned speakers on the ZenBook UX331 are on the underside – one on each side towards the front. Since the underside of the laptop curves upwards. Asus might have hoped that this allows the speakers to stay unmuffled, but unless the laptop is on a hard surface, it’s really easy for the sound to get blocked. If you are using the laptop in bed or on your lap, the speakers sound weak and don’t get loud enough for that Netflix session.
On a table in quieter rooms, you can hear the potential of these speakers. Even so, you really should carry a pair of earphones for watching videos. The 3.5mm port works well and there’s no static or buzzing when you plug in headphones or earphones.
I wrote this review entirely on the Asus ZenBook 13. The keyboard is just wonderful to use and there’s very little to get used to in terms of key layout. Everything seems to be where it should be. For once, you can actually use the function keys without hitting the ‘fn’ key, which bucks perhaps the most annoying Windows laptop trend in recent times. So the layout is easy to get used to, and the actual typing experience is pretty good too.
The keys don’t have very deep travel, but that’s to be expected considering how thin the laptop is. In fact, Asus has cleverly designed the keyboard deck as a bow, which curves very gently upwards as it meets the sides. This means the keyboard deck has just a few more mm of room for the keys to travel.
Speaking of the deck, there’s just a little bit of flex on the top deck here, which actually isn’t that bad. This means the keys don’t send ripples of shock up your fingers, which can sometimes happen with a very rigid top deck. There’s just enough bounce here to make typing more pleasant, without giving you that mushy feeling. There’s also enough spacing between the chiclet keys, that you won’t be smashing the wrong key anytime soon.
Another awesome feature is the three-step white backlighting for the keys. The light is powerful enough even at the lowest setting to be usable in a dark room, but you have the option to crank it up two more levels, if you want. Really wish more manufacturers added multi-step backlighting, which is an oft-neglected feature.
The end result is a very, very good typing experience. I have no complaints about this keyboard; it’s not something I expected when I opened up the laptop, so it’s a pleasant surprise.
Coming to the laptop’s biggest flaw, in our opinion. The trackpad is large and occupies a sizeable portion of the top deck. It’s a good size in comparison to most other 13-inch Ultrabooks, but we suspect the 13-inch HP Spectre x360 has a larger trackpad overall. The gestures for Windows 10 work just fine on this trackpad, which also accepts taps as clicks.
The surface is smooth and does not have any weird texture on it, but that also means any grime or sweat residue on your fingers might make using the trackpad a janky experience. It’s just how moisture interacts with the material used for the trackpad, and may not actually affect all users.
The clicky large trackpad is very good when you first start using it, but after a few days of usage, it became buggier. The whole trackpad acts as a giant left-click button, and it was prone to getting stuck in the click position after a couple of days of use. In 9-10 hours of usage, the trackpad would get stuck in the left-click mode three to four times. It’s not a whole lot, but enough that it remains in the back of your mind.
We are not focussing on benchmark numbers here, since that is irrelevant given the casual user audience and the fact that this is not a workstation or gaming machine by any stretch of the imagination. It’s no slouch though.
With an Intel Core i7-8550, 8GB of LPDDR3 2133MHz SDRAM you won’t be lacking for power for most regular apps and software. In my regular workflow I have several browser windows and tabs (including pinned tabs) with live or updating content, Photoshop, and a few Windows apps running simultaneously, and the ZenBook 13 never really gave up on me.
The quad-core processor really helps keep things running smooth and despite the bloatware, the experience does not feel like a letdown. Given that the laptop is priced at upwards of Rs 80,000, this shouldn’t really surprise anyone, but it’s just great to see Windows respond almost immediately to shortcuts and custom hotkeys.
The Intel SSD Pro 6000p Series drive performs as advertised – falling just slightly short of the claimed transfer speeds. Nevertheless, copying files within the included 512 GB drive was breezy. Copying a 7.5 GB folder with large installation executables, zipped files and multimedia content from ‘Downloads’ to the C: drive took under 3 minutes. Other things such as booting up from off, or restarts were equally breezy. A cold boot took about 30 seconds on average, while a restart took between 22-25 seconds. Adobe Photoshop CC 2017 fired up in 25 seconds on average. You can see the CrystalDiskMark scores for the drive here:
Finally coming to performance of the fingerprint sensor, we only have good things to say. It works really well in conjunction with Windows Hello, and you can set up multiple fingers for unlocking the device. Setting up fingerprints is also a breeze with Windows Hello and you are alerted if you mistakenly use the wrong finger in the middle of the setup.
The sensor itself is squarish, and thankfully is not built into the trackpad, but gets its own spot under the direction keys. One of the best things of Windows Hello is letting users unlock straight from an off display, without having to first bring the display back on. It doesn’t, however, work with wet or damp fingers.
Windows and Asus Bloatware
To put it mildly, I did not enjoy the software experience out of the box. If you are unfamiliar with how to manage Windows bloatware, you might feel overwhelmed with the software experience at first. Besides the usual Candy Crush Saga, and a laundry list of games I wouldn’t touch with a stick, you also have proprietary Asus apps for device management, Asus apps for video and photo editing, MS Office (Trial version), WPS suite of productivity apps, and the usual Windows 10 apps which are usually never used. I uninstalled many of the apps – primarily the 5-6 games – but they would quickly be reinstalled.
Bloatware is a huge pain point in Android smartphones too these days. It’s not too much to ask for a clean Windows 10 experience, especially when you have paid for it. It’s not even free software like Android, but Windows takes things to a whole new level by reinstalling apps you remove.
It’s enough to send you into a rage. This anti-consumer policy should be familiar to most Windows 10 users by now. And since the ZenBook 13 ships with Windows 10 Home, it doesn’t have the Group Policy Editor. You can always install it separately – watch out for our article on how to do this – and own this device.
A Short Rant
Now, bear with my rant for a bit: It’s 2018, and manufacturers and Microsoft are forcing unwanted apps and childish, addictive games down your throat as if users haven’t paid enough for the OS already.
At what point is the device considered the user’s? Is it too much to expect apps to remain gone when you remove them?
While I was able to quickly get Group Policy Editor on this system, and banish the offending apps, the average user is unlikely to be familiar with the process, and is even more unlikely to try doing it. Software reinstalling itself after being removed is the kind of behavior you expect from a virus. If nothing else, Microsoft should fix this as it just adds to the notion that Windows is more insecure than macOS. Rant ends.
Coming back to hardware, let’s focus on the webcam. the ZenBook 13 has a VGA camera, which is really not what we expect at this price range. It’s passable and reproduces colors accurately, though that’s not really the main concern for a webcam. The quality though is really poor, with a lot of grain in the images, even in bright light. You would be better off using an external webcam, if Skype calls are important to you.
Heat and Noise
Among other proprietary software, the ZenBook 13 has a fan speed controlling software, which doesn’t really offer too many options to the user. You can either turn on the fan for extra cooling under heavy loads, or keep it off for slightly lower performance and longer battery life, which keeps things running cool anyway.
Ordinarily, you wouldn’t focus on fans in an Ultrabook, but you have to take note of the loud fans on the ZenBook 13, particularly when you put the CPU under load. You can easily hear the fans spinning and whirring into action – it can get annoying if you are trying not to get distracted and want to finish an urgent task.
Having said that, it does do a good job of keeping the laptop cool. You never really feel like the notebook is overheating in any scenario – even when there’s Photoshop, and multiple Chrome windows with multiple tabs.
Asus claims up to 15 hours of endurance with the 3-cell 50 Whr lithium polymer battery. In our everyday usage test, we found that the laptop lasted around 5-6 hours with the display at over 75% brightness, and with the power management profile set closer to better performance. You can easily stretch this to around 8-9 hours by tinkering with the power management profile, and at lower brightness.
In standard usage, I found that the 50% brightness mark gives you the best balance of battery life and display vibrancy. Even at that level, the display doesn’t look dim or washed out, which is a great way to make sure you get a few more hours of battery life. Overall, I cannot say that I have any complaints in this regard. I never found myself running for an outlet to keep the laptop alive; it’s got enough juice to take you through a full working day from 100% charge – not continuous usage, mind you.
You may need to carry the power brick with you on many days, but Asus has thoughtfully reduced its size and weight, and has included an extra cable management velcro tie, which really helps keeps things looking clean. The power brick is very easy to carry around, even if the barrel plug is oh so old school. We would have really appreciated charging over USB Type-C, which really feels like the modern thing to do.
Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UAL Pros and Cons
Here’s a summary of what’s good and bad about the 13-inch Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UAL:
- Bright and vivid display
- Narrow bezels
- Lightweight yet durable build
- Matte finish with magnesium-aluminum alloy build
- Great typing experience and useful shortcuts
- Fast quad-core performance
- Pretty good battery life
- Sticky and clicky trackpad
- Muffled speakers
- USB Type-C doesn’t support display out, power delivery or Thunderbolt 3
- Fans can get noisy
- Poor webcam quality
- Windows and Asus bloatware
Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UAL: Worth Buying?
While the ZenBook 13 UX331UAL series starts at Rs 66,990, the model we reviewed is the highest end model available in India, which has a max retail price of Rs 84,990 on Flipkart. Asus has not yet launched the SKUs with discrete graphics in India, which is a shame, because there are competing options in this 13-inch category with graphics.
It would be apt to compare it against the HP Envy 13, which retails for around Rs 87,000 on Amazon. The Envy 13 (seen below) has thinner bezels and also features a Thunderbolt 3 port, which is a definite advantage over the ZenBook 13.
Similarly, the Dell Inspiron 13 5000 Series, which offers 2-in-1 options as well as regular laptops, is also a direct competitor for the ZenBook 13. The Inspiron 13 5000 starts at around Rs 70,000 and the model which is closest to the ZenBook 13 we reviewed, retails for Rs 83,500 on Amazon India.
Acer’s Swift 3 is also a competitor with the Avenger’s Infinity War Iron Man edition, available for Rs 83,000 on Amazon. This one also includes a you would have to live with the red metal and glass chassis with a glowing Iron Man logo, which may not be for everyone. You do get a Nvidia MX150 graphics to make up for that.
And if the part about Windows bloatware has turned you off, there’s always macOS. The MacBook Air with the older 5th-gen Core i5 processor and 256GB SSD is currently retailing for Rs 75,990 on Flipkart.
In my opinion, the ZenBook 13 does what a laptop needs to do without too much fuss – even if you do miss the Thunderbolt 3. It’s not that a touch screen or a 360-degree form factor are not useful, but that Windows 10 is also really good for the traditional laptop user. With the combination of shortcuts and trackpad gestures, you can get a lot done easily without feeling like you are missing out.
We expect the performance on the lower-end Core i5 8250U to be similar to the i7 8550U if past benchmark results are any indication. In fact, the Core i5 model starts at Rs 66,990 (256GB SSD) on Flipkart and is a very good option if you have already made up your mind about this laptop. The Core i5 model with 512GB RAM is available for Rs 76,990.
The ZenBook 13 does a great job of being a traditional laptop with its amazing keyboard, and really good display. It also doesn’t ignore modern flourishes such as the thinner bezels and sleeker appearance or the computing power – thanks to the quad-core power-sipping processor.
There are a couple of flaws in the form of the trackpad and the bloatware, but at least the latter can be managed. I would recommend this laptop without hesitation simply based on its ultralight form factor, sturdy build, vibrant display and excellent keyboard and performance.