Tuesday

Asus Zenbook UX32VD review


The 13-inch Asus Zenbook UX32VD comes alluringly close to being an ultrabook without compromises. For $1,299 it includes an Intel Core i7 CPU, a full HD 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution display, and a discrete Nvida 620M GPU. Most laptops of a similar size, including Apple's genre-leading MacBook Air, lack all three of those features (although a Core i7 option is available on the Air for $1,599).
That makes this the closest hybrid of a 13-inch ultrabook and a full-power mainstream laptop to date, and might be the answer to occasional reader questions I get about superthin laptops with GPUs and high-res screens. Acer also has a few larger ultrabooks with GPUs, but they have other issues, including low screen resolutions.

Design

You didn't expect ASUS to cram discrete graphics into the same super-slim chassis, did you? The good news is that the UX32VD isn't much thicker or heavier than the UX31A. The newer Ultrabook has a 0.21 to 0.72-inch profile and weighs 3.2 pounds, compared with 0.44 to 0.66 inches and 3 pounds for the UX31A. That's still plenty portable.
The UX32VD features the same sleek spun-metal lid found on previous Zenbooks. The deck and bottom are also aluminum, but the internal frame structure is a plastic aluminum composite instead of the aluminum unibody design on the UX31A and MacBook Air. While that's a bit of a letdown, the design still felt sturdy in our hands. Plus, the UX32VD has flatter edges than its cousin, making it more comfortable to hold and carry.

Display

It's just glorious. The 1080p IPS display on the ASUS UX32VD is the best you'll find on any 13-inch laptop, with ultra-wide viewing angles and superb contrast. Not only is this panel sharper than the MacBook Air's (1980 x 1080 versus 1400 x 900 pixels), it delivered deeper, richer colors when we viewed the "Ice Age 4" trailer on YouTube on both machines.
This matte display also does games like "Batman: Arkham City" justice. We could easily make out individual whiskers on Hugo Strange's scraggly beard.
As for brightness, the UX32VD registered an average of 368 lux using our light meter. That's not quite as bright as the UX31A (423 lux) but it beats the MacBook Air (268 lux for the 2012 model).
Our only complaint is that the full HD resolution can result in very small text on screen when surfing the Web and using other apps. You'll have to zoom in.

Software

We're not a fan of the pop-ups that the Zenbook Prime hits you with out of the box. McAfee Internet Security was particularly annoying, so you'll want to either activate it right away or uninstall it. The UX32VD also kept reminding us to register our system. Just do it and get it over with.
Pre-installed utilities include ASUS WebStorage (which gives you 2GB of cloud storage but only for one year) and the more valuable Vibe Fun Center for accessing Music, Games and Books. You'll also find FaceLogon for logging in via facial recognition, ASUS Secure Delete for shredding files and Power4Gear Hybrid for toggling power profiles

Keyboard and Touchpad

The revamped black keyboard on the UX31A shows up here as well, complete with 12 percent better travel. That doesn't sound like a lot, but to us it's the difference between a comfortable typing experience and a mushy one. The UX32VD's layout is plenty spacious and provided snappy tactile feedback.
We just wish ASUS would stop with the function key combos and just let users adjust the screen brightness and other settings with a single press. The keyboard backlight proved plenty bright while trying to bang out an email in the Lincoln Tunnel.
We can tell that ASUS is taking touchpad performance seriously because it includes a dedicated Smart Gesture suite that lets you toggle all sorts of settings, from tap to select and pinch-to-zoom to show desktop (three fingers down). More important, the clickpad on the UX32VD performed fairly well in our testing, thanks to a recent driver update.
The large 4.1 x 2.75-inch surface provided smooth and accurate navigation, and it did a nice job of palm rejection while we typed. Pinch-to-zoom gestures were smooth, but two-finger scrolling stuttered at times. Flicking through photos with a three-finger swipe and rotating with two worked perfectly. You can also show the desktop with a three-finger flick down and reveal all open apps with a three-finger swipe up.

Audio

ASUS leverages Bang & Olufsen's IcePower technology to power the bottom-mounted speakers. The MacBook Air produced louder sound when we streamed Coldplay's "Paradise" from Google Play, but the UX32VD had a warmer, more robust sound. The Air sounded harsher and tinnier at full volume, while the ASUS did a better job balancing Chris Martin's vocals with the strings and keyboard.

Heat

The addition of a discrete GPU makes the UX32VD a notebook that runs hotter than the UX31A. After streaming a Hulu video for 15 minutes, the touchpad measured a relatively cool 84 degrees Fahrenheit, but between the G & H keys the temperature reached 99 degrees and the underside registered 97 degrees. We consider anything above 95 to be uncomfortable.
As you might expect, gaming resulted in higher temps. After playing "Batman: Arkham City" for 15 minutes, the UX32VD reached 102 degrees between the G & H keys and 100 on the bottom. The lower right corner on the bottom got as high as 105 degrees. While gaming, the fan did become loud, but not enough to distract us from fighting evil.

Ports and Webcam

There is a benefit to the UX32VD's beefier profile other than its graphics prowess: a better port spread. A full-size HDMI port (no adapter needed), a mini DisplayPort and two more USB 3.0 ports line the right side. The UX31A had only two USB ports and a mini VGA port. The left side of the machine houses a USB 3.0 port and SD Card slot.
The 2-MP webcam on this notebook offers decent performance, but the included LifeFrame software is confusing. For instance, you press the play button to start recording 1280 x 720-pixel footage. The filters and frames are more frivolous than fun. Our face and our surroundings looked a bit fuzzy, but the blue color of our shirt was accurate.

Performance

The $1,299 Zenbook Prime UX32VD ships with a 1.9-GHz Core i7-3517U processor, the same chip that powered the higher-end $1,499 UX31A we reviewed. (The UX31 starts with a 1.7-GHz Core i5 CPU for $1,099.) You also get 4GB of memory, which is a little skimpy for this price. However, this model doesn't use all flash memory like the UX31A. Instead, ASUS pairs a 7,200-rpm 500GB hard drive with 24GB SSD to speed up boots and application load times. This gives gamers more space for storing the latest titles, but it impacts overall performance.
On PCMark 07, which measures overall performance, the UX32VD scored 2,277. That showing is well below the UX31A (4,989) and 13-inch Air (4,380), owing mostly to this Zenbook's lack of a full-fledged solid state drive.
The UX32VD was also slower to boot Windows than its UX31 cousin (44 seconds versus 23 seconds), but its time is on a par with the ultraportable average. Most Ultrabooks with full SSDs take less than 30 seconds. Fortunately, this machine woke from sleep in just 1 to 2 seconds upon opening the lid.
As expected, this Zenbook's file transfer rate also trailed competing Ultrabooks. It took the laptop 3 minutes and 44 seconds to duplicate a 4.97GB folder of multimedia files, which translates to 23 MBps. That's well below the 58 MBps ultraportable average, which mostly includes full-SSD models.
This Zenbook Prime took 5 minutes and 26 seconds to complete the LAPTOP Spreadsheet Macro Test, which uses OpenOffice Calc to match 20,000 names with their addresses. This showing soundly beat the Ultraportable category average (8:22) and 13-inch Air (6:47) and didn't trail the UX31A by too much (4:59).
The UX32VD can also transcode video in a hurry. It took the notebook only 17 seconds to convert a 5-minute 1080p video to an iPhone-friendly format using Cyberlink MediaEspresso. That's faster than the UX31A (30 seconds) and Dell XPS 13 (29 seconds).
Specs
Price as reviewed$1,299
Processor1.7GHz Core i7-3517U
Memory4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive500GB 5,400rpm, 24GB SSD
ChipsetIntel HM77
GraphicsNvidia GeForce GT 620M / Intel HD4000
Operating systemWindows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD)12.8x8.8 inches
Height0.2 - 0.7 inch
Screen size (diagonal)13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter3.3 pounds / 3.8 pounds
Category13-inch

Battery Life

One of the other corners ASUS cut in order to cram a discrete GPU into this Ultrabook is endurance. The UX32VD features a 48 watt-hour battery, compared with the larger 50 watt-hour battery inside the UX31A. As a result, this notebook lasted 5 hours and 16 seconds on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi at 40 percent brightness.) The UX31A lasted more than an hour longer (6:28), and the average ultraportable lasts 6:44.

Wrap-Up

The $1,299 ASUS Zenbook Prime UX32VD is sort of a niche Ultrabook for those not satisfied with Intel's graphics performance, and on that basis it succeeds. You get the same sweet 1080p IPS screen and rich Bang & Olufsen speakers as the UX31A, and Nvidia's GeForce GT 620M GPU provides enough muscle to play some of the most demanding games (albeit at lower resolutions). There's a reason why the UX32VD was out of stock at multiple online retailers as we wrote this.
However, this Zenbook Prime's graphics upgrade comes at the expense of battery life, additional heat and a thicker and heavier design. We would be more willing to live with these trade-offs if ASUS equipped this version of its Ultrabook with a full SSD instead of just an SSD cache. And we suspect that a lot of people would be willing to pay extra for it. For now, though, the UX32VD will surely satisfy as long as you know what you're giving up.