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When it comes to laptops, the term "ultrabook" can conjure up all sorts of adjectives: light, slim, great battery life. All describe the typical ultraportable experience. It's rare for an ultrabook to call another description to mind: powerful. And yet, the Asus Zenbook UX301LA-DH71T (MSRP $1,999.99) is just such a laptop. It's Asus's flagship machine, and it looks great, with power, performance, and price to match its design.
Though the ultraportable category generally involves paying more money for better battery life and less weight, this is a true portable workstation. Asus loaded the UX301LA with an Intel i7-4558U dual-core processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of solid-state storage, and a super bright pixel-dense touchscreen—in a package that weighs just 3.15 pounds.
Of course, all this power comes at a hefty price: $1,999.99. But if you're in the market for an extremely light, top-of-the-line Windows 8 machine with the power for creative work, the battery life for long flights, and looks that rival Apple's Macbook Pro, this Asus is worthy every penny.
Upon opening the black-clad box that the UX301LA comes in, we were treated to the laptop's majestic navy blue cover, with its shimmering aluminum body and Gorilla Glass cover. It's a stunning first impression, with the blue version in particular standing out in a sea of monochrome Macbooks. The reflective covering also gives Asus's ultrabook an elegant look—as long as you don't touch it. As with other laptops featuring reflective surfaces, this will quickly attract smudges. If anything the amount of fingerprints we found on our review unit is a testament to how good it looks: People just couldn't keep their greasy mitts off of it.
While the cover's fatal attraction to finger prints is disappointing, the rest of this Zenbook's design is anything but. Once you open it up, you're treated to three incredible features: a top-notch keyboard, the best touchpad on the market, and a vibrant WQHD display. The display also doubles as a nice touchscreen, though for most people this is a neat extra you will quickly forget about.
More importantly, the keyboard on the UX301LA just gets everything right. It's spaced properly, with keys that have just the right amount of travel. Best of all: Asus' keyboard is solid as a rock. Too many times laptop keyboards cave in when you type on them, but this one doesn't. There's no hollow "clack" sound as you type. Everything just feels as it should, even though the laptop you're typing on is extremely light and portable.
Below the keyboard is the touchpad, and I'm not exaggerating when I say it's one of the best on the market. Most flagship ultrabooks come with a great touchpad—Dell, HP, Samsung, and Toshiba all have excellent pads, with Apple having one of the best. The UX301LA's touchpad eclipses the competition. Moving your finger around on this pad is buttery smooth, and tapping it works as well as pressing it. Even scrolling through a website with two fingers feels natural. If you've been laboring away on one of those $300 budget laptops with a touchpad that feels like a child's toy, then you're simply going to fall in love with how this operates.
And what's a laptop without a display? Asus crammed in 2560 x 1440 pixels into the UX301LA's 13.3-inch screen. The result is a crisp picture, made even better by the screen's inherent brightness. Even though Lenovo and Samsung make ultrabooks with higher resolution screens, the Zenbook stands out thanks to its excellent color accuracy and contrast. Though Asus made the display touch-friendly, but you may not end up using it. This feature definitely works well, but because of the fantastic keyboard and touchpad I barely used the touchscreen.
As far as portability goes, the Zenbook UX301LA is a pint-sized prizefighter. Weighing in at just 3.15 pounds and measuring slightly thicker than half an inch, this ultrabook is one of the easiest to carry around. It's right on par with the Macbook Air for portability, though it's the same thickness all the way through, lacking the Air's vanishing wedge design. Just be aware that you'll need a bag with a compartment wider than 13 inches for easy storage, as anything less than that is a tight fit.
For ports, your options are similar to other top ultrabooks. The left side includes a power input, one USB 3.0 port, a mini-HDMI input, and a headphone jack. The right side has a card reader, a second USB 3.0 jack, and a mini DisplayPort. It's not as fully loaded as it could've been, but it matches the Macbook Air's loadout and gives you enough options whether you're working on the road or plugging into peripherals at home.
In the realm of ultrabooks—which have a surprisingly strict definition, by the way—the Zenbook UX301LA-DH71T is the king of the castle. Compared to other top performers like the Dell XPS 13 and the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, Asus's machine is an all-around better machine. It has stunning looks, hardware ready for creative programs or light gaming, and still managed one of the best battery life scores we've seen this year.
The moment you flip the UX301LA on, you get an idea of what kind of performance we're dealing with here: Thanks to the solid-state storage drive, you're taken to the Windows start screen in just 7.5 seconds. That's the best time we've seen all year, besting the Dell XPS 13's start-up time of 8.3 seconds by a solid margin. You can push things even further if you opt for the top configuration, with dual 256GB SSDs that use a RAID 0 configuration for very quick read/write speeds in certain scenarios.
And things only get better once you get Windows up and running. Multi-tasking, intensive applications, and processor-intensive tasks like photo editing and video chatting are all a breeze. Though the solid-state drive also helps here, it's really down to its powerful processor: the Intel Core i7-4558U. It's an extremely rare chip to find in a laptop, and it provides far more horsepower than you see in most ultrabooks.
Most dual-core Intel i7 processors in ultrabooks are the exact same (the 4500U model). Though the Zenbook's chip is about 20% more powerful, and it has one key difference: Intel's new Iris 5100 integrated graphics processor. As a result, the Zenbook bested ultrabooks with the normal i7 processor in both normal usage and our benchmark testing. That means for applications like web browsers, the Microsoft Office suite, and Adobe Photoshop, the UX301LA-DH71T performs better than most of its competitors.
When it comes to gaming, though, don't expect anything special. I thought I would be able to play a graphically intensive game like Metro: 2033 on its lowest settings with Intel's Iris graphics, but that's not the case. For that we will have to wait for the Intel Iris Pro integrated GPUs to make their way into ultrabooks. The non-Pro version that's in this Zenbook showed better than average gaming performance in benchmarks, but the difference wasn't enough to make a game like Metro playable. Older games will be just fine, but brand-new games may be asking too much.
One positive thing to note about the UX301LA's gaming performance is how well it manages heat. After running a few tests with Metro:2033, this Asus stayed pretty cool—a notable feat considering how thin it is.
If gaming is what you want, you probably aren't interested in ultrabooks. Battery life, on the other hand, is an ultrabook's forte, and the UX301LA has some of the best we've seen all year. Using PCMark 8's battery life test—which includes web browsing, gaming, photo editing, and video calls—this Asus achieved slightly less than 5 hours of usage, which is very impressive. If you're strictly using a web browser, expect that number to be a few hours more.
Laptops usually come with plenty of bloatware (useless software) pre-installed, which isn't the worst fate a consumer can have—just delete what you don't want! The more you pay, though, the less bloatware a laptop seems to come with, which is the case with the Zenbook UX301LA-DH71T. No matter where you pick it up you'll likely find minimal junk on the Zenbook when you first power it up.
Asus typically bundles its ultrabook with Windows 8.1 and not much else. Dragon Assistant—think Siri for computers—is included, but not technically installed. Asus puts the installer for this program on the UX301LA, but you can choose whether or not to actually use it. So if you don't want it, the icon just sits there and doesn't slow down your machine. Classy move.
There's also Asus's Power4Gear Hybrid app, which is the company's power management app that appears on all of its laptops. It's barely more than a reskinned version of Windows' own power management tool. In other words, it's unnecessary, and you can feel comfortable uninstalling it and just using the stock version.
It's also worth noting that, like most laptops, there are quite a few configurations available on the UX301 and UX302 series. The UX301LA that we reviewed is the highest-specced version, with the Intel i7 4558U 2.8GHz processor. From Asus you can also pick up this same unit an Intel Core i7 4500U 1.8GHz or Intel Core i5 1.6GHz processors, which are less powerful but less expensive. You can also select either a 128GB, 256GB, or 5126GB solid-state drive.
If you only need a laptop for browsing and not gaming or photoshop you can also step down from the Intel Iris integrated graphics card to the Intel HD graphics 4400, which isn't very powerful. There's also the UX302 series, which has similar looks but is about 2mm thicker, has a lower resolution 1080p screen, comes with a standard laptop hard drive, an extra USB port, and is only available with the Intel HD 4400 and either the i7 4500U or i5 4200U processors. Of course, the UX302 also costs about half as much, though we've found that the UX302 with the i7 processor is very difficult to find online.
The Asus Zenbook UX301LA is a flagship machine in every sense of the word. As far as ultrabooks go it's one of the lightest, smallest, best-designed laptops we've seen yet. Its body may be a magnet for fingerprints, but it has a design to be admired, with one of the best touchpads we've ever used. It's also one of the most powerful ultrabooks we've seen yet, with a killer Intel Core i7 processor and Intel Iris graphics. It won't handle modern games on high settings, but it has more than enough horsepower to handle Photoshop and older games with ease. And despite being more powerful than the competition, this Zenbook still has better battery life according to our tests.
Of course, all of that quality comes at a price. Though there are lower-end configurations available, the top shelf version we've reviewed will set you back a cool $1,999.99 at retail. That's a flagship price for a flagship device. It also sets up some interesting comparisons with similarly priced models on the market.
If we're just looking at the ultraportable competition, the new Zenbook has a big leg up. It's light and small, sure, but it's also very powerful with an excellent Intel Core i7 processor and integrated Iris graphics. That puts it ahead of similar products like the Dell XPS 13, the Apple Macbook Air, the Toshiba KIRAbook, and the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus, all of which are cheaper but lack the latest integrated graphics. The Zenbook costs more, sure, but you also get better battery life and an excellent screen and touchpad.
And even if we open up our comparison to similarly priced laptops, the Zenbook holds its own. Compared to something like the $1,999.99 Apple Macbook Pro with Retina display, the UX301 is lighter, smaller, and also has a "Retina"-quality display. The Zenbook lacks Iris Pro graphics—which allow for serious gaming—but it also has almost double the battery life of the Macbook Pro as a result. The only ultrabook that's even close to the Zenbook is the Lenovo's X1 Carbon ThinkPad, which we haven't reviewed yet but costs about the same and lacks Intel Iris graphics.
All in all, this is an ultrabook that marries design and performance into one unforgettable experience. Sure, you won't be doing much—if any—gaming on a machine like this, but it is a super-portable work station with fantastic looks and better performance than other flagship ultrabooks on the market. Dropping $2,000 on an ultraportable laptop is quite the investment, but if you want the best ultraportable experience you can get, then the Asus Zenbook UX301LA-DH71T is the way to go.
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