Asus's slim 'Zenbook' Ultrabook, a worthy MacBook Air rival

The mightiest Ultrabooks aren't due until next year, but netbook pioneer Asus is looking to get ahead of the pack after releasing more EeePCs than you'll ever care to remember. This time around, however, Asus isn't aiming to ship the cheapest computer. The company wants to bring some premium look to the drab PC world.

As Asus' Chairman Jonney Shih put it, the company is focusing on balance. Its 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch Zenbooks is a combination of beautiful design and speedy performance. Read on to find out if there really is any zen in Asus's Zenbooks.

Thin and Light, But Strong and Sturdy

Both the 11.6-inch UX21 and the 13.3-inch UX31 Zenbooks are cut from aluminum with a brushed metal design. The lid is designed with a "metallic spun finish" to dazzle — and it does. Closed up the UX21 tapers from 0.67 to 0.11 inches and weighs 2.43 pounds. The larger UX31 tapers from 0.71 to 0.11 inches. It's a marvel how Asus was able to make these Ultrabooks without making them feel flimsy, because they most certainly do not.

How strong does a Zenbook feel? We held it in one hand from one corner and there is no bend. There is no flex to the screen either. Call it ultra-hardened aluminum or whatever you want, the Zenbooks can probably survive a good roughing in a travel pack.

Bang and Olufsen Sound

Usually, notebooks in this class (13-inch and under) have poor audio. It's not because computer makers don't want to cram in lovely speakers, but simply because there isn't enough room. It's no surprise, then, that Asus proudly touts the Zenbook's inclusion of Bang and Olufsen ICEpower audio.

Our first impression is that the sound is definitely capable. It's loud and clear, even in a somewhat noisy room full of reporters. The sound might not seem impressive on the 13-inch Zenbook, but when you hear it from the tiny 11-inch, you'd think your ears are deceiving you. If you've an audio buff and crave better than average sound in your notebook, Asus has you covered here.

Speed and Power

Equipped with the latest second-gen Core i5 and Core i7 processors, the Zenbooks keep up with the times with 4GB of RAM, 128GB/256GB SATA III SSDs and ultra crisp displays (1366x768 for the 11.6-inch, 1600x900 for the 13.3-inch). Batteries are rated for five and seven hours, respectively, and seven to 10 days of standby. Coupled with Windows 7 Home 64-bit, and these notebooks should fly.

Another great feature about the Zenbooks is its two-second instant-on upon waking up from sleep. With speed like that, Asus says its Zenbooks should mimic the instantness of a smartphone. We're inclined to agree, as the Zenbooks were incredibly fast to wake up — sometimes in less than two seconds. The MacBook Air already brags about it instant-on, so why not Asus?

Breaking the Harmony

As great as Bang and Olufsen sound, powerful processors, sharp crispy screens and super instant-on are, the Zenbooks break the balance with a few issues. The chiclet keyboard lacks springiness, forcing you to press harder on the keys to register them, the glass trackpad is laggy (majorly slow — you can see the drag on the screen) and there's no back-lighting on the keys. In comparison, this year's MacBook Airs have back-lit keys, smooth trackpads and excellent keyboards.

By no means are the Zenbooks bad Ultrabooks or computers — they really are sleek products that ooze that premium feel Asus is looking to capture — but the aforementioned issues do compromise the experience, especially since typing and mousing are core to of using a computer.

Asus's 11.6-inch UX21 and UX31 are available starting today. Prices start at $999 for the UX21 and $1,099 for the UX31. Are the Zenbooks some of the sharpest MacBook Air competitors? Well, with only the 13.3-inch Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook available for $899, it ultimately comes down to whether the Zenbooks sleeker design is worth the extra cash.

Via Asus

All photos for DVICE by Raymond Wong.

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