ASUS UX31A: Meet Today’s Best Ultrabook

After having reviewed and handled nearly a dozen Ultrabooks during the past year, the flaws with the platform have become glaringly obvious. The requirements for Ultrabooks are that they need to be very thin, they need to use an Intel ULV CPU, they must deliver decent battery life (5+ hours, though the load isn’t specified), and they have to use some form of solid state storage. There are some other elements of Ultrabooks as well, but Intel doesn’t seem to enforce those all that much—pricing details for example are nebulous; at one point they were supposed to start at under $1000, but now it looks like that means each manufacturer only needs one model that starts somewhere under $1000. For the intended market (on-the-go users), most of the requirements look fine, but the solid state requirement needs a bit more elaboration.

If you’ve had the chance to use a modern laptop with an SSD as the primary storage, you know how much of a difference it can make. Boot times are faster, but more importantly all of the post-boot utility and application initialization that can really get in the way of using a laptop. Long-term the differences become even more noticeable, as hard drive performance can become severely degraded with fragmentation; with a good SSD fragmentation shouldn’t be a problem. Throw in an active anti-virus scanner along with other software and utilities and it becomes very painful to go back to conventional storage. All of that is what makes an SSD great for storage, but there’s a problem with Ultrabooks: SSDs aren’t strictly required.

What Ultrabooks are required to have is some form of solid state storage, but that ranges from a dedicated SSD to smaller caching SSDs to laptops that only appear to use the SSD for the hibernation file. SSD caching certainly helps performance, but the problem is that with a default Windows 7 installation sucking up roughly 30GB of space, toss in a few common applications like Office and your web browser and you can easily exhaust the size of the SSD cache. These days, there’s not even really that much of an advantage in terms of pricing if you go with a 32GB SSD cache—hard drive prices are still quite high after the Thailand flooding, so the cost of a typical 500GB HDD with 32GB mSATA SSD is going to be pretty comparable to that of a 128GB dedicated SSD. Sure you get a lot more storage with a hard drive, but for Ultrabooks I have a difficult time believing most users are going to need a ton of storage, and I’d happily give up raw capacity for the overall responsiveness of an SSD.

With that sidebar out of the way, ASUS delivers the UX31A in a variety of configurations. If you’re trying to save a buck and get under that mystical $1000 barrier, it’s difficult to include a 1080p IPS display with an i7 CPU, a dedicated SSD, and plenty of RAM; not surprisingly it’s precisely those areas where ASUS makes some compromises. The least expensive UX31A models come with a 1600x900 TN panel (likely the same panel that ASUS used in the previous generation UX31E), an i5-3517U CPU, and a 128GB SSD; thankfully, ASUS doesn’t ditch dedicated SSDs on the lower cost models, but they do standardize on 4GB DDR3-1600 for all UX31A models and that might be too little for some people. Right now you can find the base model UX31A-R5102H going for $950 online with the 1600x900 TN panel. For our review unit, ASUS shipped us their highest-spec UX31A-DB71, which has all the currently available upgrades.

ASUS UX31A-DB71 Specifications
Processor Intel i7-3517U
(Dual-core 1.90-3.00GHz, 4MB L3, 22nm, 17W)
Chipset HM76
Memory 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600 Elpida
Note: RAM is soldered onto motherboard
Graphics Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1150MHz)
Display 13.3" WLED Matte 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(Chi Mei Innolux N133HSE-EA1)
Storage 256GB ADATA XM11 SSD
Note: Proprietary ASUS connector
Optical Drive N/A
Networking 802.11n WiFi (Intel Advanced-N 6235)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel)
Audio Realtek ALC269
Stereo Speakers
Headphone jack
Battery/Power 6-cell, 7.4V, ~6840mAh, ~50Wh
45W Max AC Adapter
Front Side N/A
Left Side Memory Card Reader
Headphone jack
1 x USB 3.0
Right Side Mini-HDMI
1 x USB 3.0 (with Charging)
AC Power Connection
Back Side Exhaust vent (under hinge)
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 12.8" x 8.78" x 0.11-0.71" (WxDxH)
(325mm x 223mm x 3-18mm)
Weight 2.86 lbs (1.3kg)
Extras HD Webcam
82-Key Backlit Keyboard
Flash reader (MMC /SD)
USB 2.0 Fast Ethernet adapter
Mini-VGA to VGA adapter
Warranty 2-year limited international warranty (varies by country)
Price Starting at $1434 online (8/27/2012)

The core design for the various UX31A models is identical, but the DB71 model comes with a 256GB SSD (an ADATA model with SF-2281 hardware), Core i7-3517U CPU, and a 1080p IPS display. There are a few other in-between models that offer some combination of the i7 CPU, the 256GB SSD, and the 1080p IPS display, but if you want all three you’ll end up paying quite a large premium. The MSRP for the DB71 appears to be $1499 and the cheapest we could find it at the time of writing is $1434, putting it squarely into the realm of high-end Ultrabooks. I’ve already stated that this is the best Ultrabook that I’ve laid hands on, and that’s a great starting point, but I have to be honest: even $1400 is more than I think most people are willing to pay, especially with only 4GB of non-upgradeable RAM. Unfortunately, the SSD is also basically non-upgradeable, as ASUS uses a proprietary form factor, so you’re pretty much stuck with what you order (or the possibility of upgrading to the 256GB SSD if you can find this one). That being the case, if you’re set on purchasing a current generation Ivy Bridge Ultrabook, ASUS’ UX31A-DB71 is the one I’d recommend.

Most of the remaining elements are common among Ultrabooks—the Core i5 and i7 CPUs are the primary choices, with the latter offering slightly better performance for another healthy price premium. You get two USB 3.0 ports, and ASUS goes with the slightly cheaper HM76 chipset (rather than the more power efficient—in theory—UM77). Other than the general design and aesthetic, the standout item is the 1080p IPS display. I’ll let you know right now that it’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than any other Ultrabook display that it might as well be. 1080p in a 13.3” display is already incredibly difficult to find (Sony’s VAIO Z is about the only other 13” 1080p laptop that springs to mind), but to get IPS as well puts it in a category all on its own. The DPI is actually on the too-small side for Windows 7, so you pretty much have to use Windows’ DPI scaling (125% Medium is the default)—unless you happen to have eagle eyes I suppose.

A Closer Look at the ASUS UX31A
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  • peterfares - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    4GB RAM in a $1400 machine? PASS.
    Seriously, 16GB costs me $80 to buy from Amazon. It must cost ASUS less than that. I'll GLADLY pay the difference to have more RAM. Someone better make a transformer style windows 8 computer this fall with more than 4GB RAM. If they're all 4GB then I'm not buying.
  • drfish - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    ...but I am still SHOCKED at the battery life you are able to get out of the W110ER...
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    An interesting side note is that I had a second W110ER from AVADirect and couldn't get diddly for battery life. Vivek tested the Monster 1.0, but I don't know what Eurocom did differently on that model that the stock W110ER didn't have. I tried updating BIOS, changing drivers, etc. all to no avail. Makes me wonder what happened....
  • drfish - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - link

    I know there are a TON of people out there that would really appreciate an answer to this question. Its pretty popular for a niche product.
  • beginner99 - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - link

    ...most people I know find that under standard resolutions stuff is to small (eg 720p on a 15" screen). I'm more in the middle but on my X220 with 12.5" screen anything much higher than 720p would also for me be rather to small.

    Now what is the issue? The issue of course is windows. What I want is something like the mac book with retina display. High resolution without ultra small text and icons. Anyone using windows knows that adjusting DPI setting is basically a useless gimmick as a lot of applications will become less or unusable. Anyone knows if this is better in Win 8 in desktop?
  • Super56K - Friday, August 31, 2012 - link

    From what I remember reading: The ARM side of Windows 8 does, but not the x86 full desktop. I honestly hope I'm mistaken and someone corrects me on this.
  • jramskov - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - link

    Do I understand it correctly that there's no versions with more than 4GB memory?

    I'll personally not buy a laptop with less than 8GB memory today, especially when it can't be upgraded.
  • lemonadesoda - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - link

    Silly position for power button. Cursor keys... which we use as much as the return key, are too small, proprietary SSD connector, scratched aluminium case. Thinkpad X1 Carbon wins except for their silly nipple and having the thinkpad logo where you right hand sits. It is annoying and collects dirt over time. The logo on the outside is enough. The second logo adds no value and does not increase sales of the thinkpad.

    Less is more.
  • wedouglas - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - link

    I bought 4 and they all had a pos sandisk drive. I have yet to find a single adata drive from Amazon or various best buys. Its hard to find value in a premium ultrabook when most people are getting bottom of the barrel ssds.
  • zipz0p - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - link

    Sorry to nitpick, but this is a pet peeve of mine!

    On page two, you write "...they’re actual profits..." instead of "...their actual profits..."

    Otherwise, I appreciate the reviews of ultrabooks. I continue to hope to see superb trackpad implementation from companies other than Apple and continue to be disappointed. The screen sounds very nice on this though.

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