The big test … Inter Core Power (Part 2) - Asus Zenbook UX31E & Dell XPS 14z

4/26/2012 11:26:04 AM

Asus Zenbook UX31E

Price: $1,500

Ratings: 5 stars


Description: Asus Zenbook UX31E  - one of the first ultrabooks that has the MacBook Air firmly in its sights

Asus Zenbook UX31E  - one of the first ultrabooks that has the MacBook Air firmly in its sights

The Asus Zenbook UX31E ‘Ultrabook’ is one of the most positive, ground breaking portables we’ve seen for years. Ultrabook is the new wave of laptop: incredibly light, thin and promising almost instant boot times at affordable prices. It sounds like Apple’s MacBook Air has a new rival…

Intel believes that by the end of 2012 four out of 10 new laptops will be Ultrabooks. And if the Zenbook UX31E is the shape of things to come, the future is indeed bright.

The similarities between the Zenbook and Apple;s MacBook Air are obvious. Both come with solid aluminium chassis and impressive build quality; both are curved underneath to give the impression of being even thinner than they are – no mean feat – and both could fit inside a manilla envelope it you wish. Most importantly, thanks to the Core i7 CPU, both are fully capable of acting as your main day-to-day desktop, even for heavy users.

For a laptop, the Zenbook is genuinely beautiful and a pleasure to use. Its huge metal wrist rest and giant glass mouse pad are cold to the touch, and the brushed aluminium base adds a touch of industrial elegance. Below the surface, beryllium heatpipes use the metal chassis as a giant temperature sink, which means the fan can be kept to inaudible levels most of the time.

Unless you’re running a particularly demanding application, the Zenbook is silent too, earning its tranquillity inspired name.

But the key difference – apart from the OS – between this and the MacBook Air is the price. You can get an Air for less than $1,500, but to spec it out with the same processor in the Zenbook is a dual-core chip – rather than the quad-core one in the Acer 8951G – but it’s still highly responsive for desktop work and even a bit of light video encoding.

Asus enlisted Bang & Olufsen’s audio experts for the speakers, which makes it sound better than your average laptop, but if you’re looking for the perfect media machine this isn’t quite it.

Disappointing display

The thing which lets the Zenbook down is, sadly, the thing you’ll use the most. The screen is pale, washed out and disappointingly low quality, even if it is high-resolution, so you can fit a lot more open windows side by side than in similarly sized rivals.

Also, the battery life is disappointing. It’s easy to extend that to over five hours by engaging more power saving options, but we’d hoped to be able to get a full day’s use out of the Zenbook. There is something to offset these flaws, though: near instant start up times. Close the lid and the Zenbook goes into a standby mode, extending battery life to 10 days. Open the lid back up and you’re into a usable desktop within two seconds. This ability makes the Zenbook supremely convenient to just pop open and use. But perhaps the most important thing about the Zenbook is the price. Even with the slightly dodgy screen, it’s a joy of a machine to own and one which is fully recommended.

Dell XPS 14z

Price: $1,275

Ratings: 4 stars

Description: Dell XPS 14z - Squat, solid and a good all-rounder with extra graphics power for games

Dell XPS 14z - Squat, solid and a good all-rounder with extra graphics power for games

Dell has been making notebooks of all sizes for a considerable amount of time and should know by now what it is that people want. And if the latest in its flagship line – the XPS 14z – is anything to go by, people are prepared to carry round a little more bulk for a considerable amount of extra power.

The XPS 14z has – on paper at least – something which will please everyone. For the design-conscious, it’s an all-metal build with subdued aluminium lid and magnesium allow base that offers both handsome looks and scratch-resistant longevity. Its 14-inch screen ensures there’s enough room to make it a comfortable workhorse as well as tip the scales on just the right side of 2kg for lugging around.

And, for the thrill seekers among you, the Core i5 processor is coupled with 6GB of RAM and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT520M graphics card, which kicks in for 3D power when gaming or editing HD videos. At $1,275, the XPS 14z isn’t outrageously priced either, and it’s even got a passable set of speakers mounted into the side – so why is it that the XPS 14z feels like slightly less than the sum of its parts? For starters, there’s that screen. At 1,366 x 768 pixel resolution, it’s not quite sharp enough to carry off the 14-inch diagonal with aplomb. It does have a high contrast filter over the top, though, which means colours are richer than nearly all of the other laptops on test here (bar the Aspire Ethos 8951G.

There’s an inevitable downside in that it’s got a reflective surface, but if we could take this screen and put it on the Asus Zenbook UX31 – but keeping that machine’s denser pixel count – we’d have an obvious group test winner.

But the XPS 14z has other things to worry about. All the ports are round the back of the screen, for example – admittedly great for keeping power cords out of the way, but less so for quickly plugging in the thumb drive. The keyboard is also oddly designed, with awkward, plastic keys that have a soft action, making high speed typing something of a chore.

Then there’s the battery life. We tested the Dell XPS 14z at just over three hours – far below our expectations of a top-end Sandy Bridge notebook. Alarmingly, this figure drops to around and hour if the Optimus Nvidia graphics kick in.

Gaming prowess

Coincidentally, Asus does an 11-inch version of its Zenbook for exactly the same price as Dell’s XPS 14z – and there’s almost no reason to buy this over that. There is one reason why the XPS 14z might still appeal, though: its discrete Nvidia graphics chip. You won’t be playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in high-definition, but at least you’ll be able to play it, which isn’t necessarily the case for laptops which rely solely on Sandy Bridge graphics.

If you want a complete all-rounder in a portable package, the XPS 14z may be the laptop for you, but worries about battery life in particular mean it falls far from our full recommendation.

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