ASUS made a grand entrance into the Ultrabook race with the Zenbook Prime UX31E, which brought a sleek design and lovely, high-res screen. That machine was one of our favorites in what was still a budding category, though we took issue with the shallow keyboard and uncomfortable touchpad. The company recently started shipping its new Zenbook Prime series, including the 11-inch UX21A we checked out a few months ago. But there’s also a follow-up to the 13-inch UX31E on the market: the ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A. This laptop offers a retooled keyboard, Ivy Bridge chips and a 1,920 x 1,080 IPS display, starting at $1,069.
At 2.9 pounds and 0.3 inches thick, the UX31A is super light and quite manageable for jaunts on the road. Those vital stats compare favorably to other 13-inch Ultrabooks: even lightweights like the Acer Aspire S3 (three pounds, 0.5 inches) and the MacBook Air (2.96 pounds, 0.11 to 0.68 inches) are slightly heftier. Of course, the 13-inch Samsung Series 9 is always there to make perfectly thin systems feel chubby; at 2.55 pounds and 0.5 inches thick, it’s still the gold standard in svelteness.
Unlike the 11-inch UX21A, the UX31A has room for an SD card reader, which sits on the left edge of the machine along with a USB 3.0 port and the combo audio jack. The right side of the system is home to another USB 3.0 connection, plus a mini-VGA port and a micro-HDMI port.
Keyboard and touchpad
As we mentioned, ASUS gave the UX31′s keyboard a complete overhaul, swapping the flat metal keys for a slightly rounded layout.We typed much of this review on the laptop, with the keys only rarely failing to register a press. ASUS also added backlighting, which is a welcome change. You can toggle the lighting on and off by pressing F3 and F4.Spoiler alert: the trackpad is one of the main things holding us back from giving the UX31A a resounding two thumbs up. We were unimpressed by the one on the UX31E, and though ASUS made some tweaks with the UX31A, it’s still not great. When you click on a tab or an icon, for example, the trackpad will often open the adjacent item or simply not register the click at all. Scrolling isn’t a problem, though other gestures like pinch-to-zoom stutter too much. ASUS seems to be aware of these issues, and has already released several updates to remedy them, but even with the latest drivers installed we still found the trackpad pretty unreliable.
Display and sound
The UX31A boasts a 1,920 x 1,080 IPS display, and it’s truly one of the best panels we’ve seen on an Ultrabook. Viewing angles are wide, with images only washing out when you tip the screen ridiculously far forward or back. The matte finish is partly to thank for that, and it means glare isn’t a huge issue. Colors look crisp and vivid, which makes watching movies and paging through websites a treat. That said, you may feel the need to zoom in on web pages and text-heavy documents, as the high pixel count makes everything appear smaller than usual. The UX31A is also available with a 1,600 x 900 screen, though we strongly recommend going for the higher-res option.
Software and warranty
This machine has its fair share of bloatware, including a trial of McAfee Internet Security (you’ll want to disable the pop-ups) and a suite of ASUS-branded applications such as Vibe Fun Center for finding music, games, apps and books. The laptop also includes the standard Windows utilities, including Media Center, DVD Maker and XPS Viewer, while Internet Explorer comes with a heap of distracting toolbars. We enjoyed using the UX31A a lot more once we pruned away these unnecessary programs. ASUS offers a one-year warranty with the UX31A, and that includes 24-hour phone support and accidental damage coverage.
When ASUS first released the UX31E last fall, we found plenty to like in its striking design, high-quality display and brisk performance. The addition of backlighting and a more comfortable keyboard — not to mention the step up to Ivy Bridge and Intel HD Graphics 4000 — makes the whole package considerably better.
But that doesn’t mean the Zenbook Prime UX31A is now the best. To claim that title, it needs a more usable trackpad, above all else. We still think the MacBook Air is a better all-around ultraportable, as it offers a more comfortable touchpad and keyboard in a similarly attractive package, though we we wish it packed an IPS, 1080p display like the one on the UX31A. And though it’s considerably more expensive, you might also be happier with the Samsung Series 9, which lasts longer on a charge, rocks an impressive display of its own and sports a more reliable trackpad. Still, given all the UX31A has to offer, chances are you’ll be pleased with your purchase. Just evaluate your patience for temperamental touchpads before you pull the trigger.