Asus is probably best known for its bargin basement Eee PC line of netbooks. So what does a manufacturer of cheap and cheerful know about building a premium ultrabook? It knows how one should look, that's for certain.
If there's one thing that can be said with absolute certainty about the Zenbook it's that this thing is a looker. Styled in a circularly bushed all-metal case, the Zenbook is both thin and gleaming with gorgeousness. It's a tiny wedge that tapers to a fine edge at the front, which makes using the keyboard and trackpad on a desk painless. Speaking of the trackpad, it's pretty big considering the size of the machine. While the chiclet keyboard is well spaced with well sized keys as you would expect from a 13-incher.
The screen itself is decent too, with good horizontal viewing angles and crisp visuals thanks to a relatively high 1600x900 resolution, although the contrast ratio could be a little higher. Movie playback was pretty good too, although you'll have to kick it out of 'battery saving mode' to do it. Connectivity options are good considering the svelte frame with two USB ports -- one 3.0 -- as well as an SD card reader, miniVGA and microHDMI all on-board. The battery life also fares well for the size and should get you through 5 hours of work OK, while it'll 'instant-on' from standby in about 2 seconds.
The Zenbook is the first in a new wave of Intel-led 'ultrabooks' and as such is no gaming machine. But for everyday use, it has enough in processing department. It's packing one of Intel's latest dual-core Core i7 chips, the 2677M, which clips along at 1.8GHz and is backed up by an integrated Intel HD 3000 GPU. It's got flash-a-plenty too with 4GB of RAM as standard and a 128GB SSD, which helps the Zenbook feel relatively zippy when firing up Windows 7 and opening programs.
Unfortunately the Zenbook is not all gravy -- compromises were inevitable when you try to fit things into such a tiny frame. Although the keyboard is well spaced and the keys are large enough, they didn't have enough travel for my liking, and I found them hard and unforgiving to my dancing fingers.
I also found the trackpad design to really grate on me. The trackpad is large, but Asus has split a finger-width section of the bottom of the trackpad into two buttons -- left and right click. I often found myself right-clicking instead of left when hitting the centre of the trackpad, while the gestures were poorly integrated regardless of Asus' mouse properties add-in.
When I first opened up the machine and broke out the charger I almost ended up plugging it into the headphones jack. I commend Asus for miniaturising the power brick, but making the plug able to fit into the headphones port could lead to a nasty shock if you're not paying attention -- especially considering they look practically the same.
The Zenbook is a great looking machine and a decent first ultrabook effort. It's pretty, thin and has the chops to get through most of the workload you're likely to face. The problem is the price. It's £1,000. Does it feel like a £1,000 machine? No. It's close though, and at £700 it'd be a great buy -- but there are better, not quite so thin, options available around the £1,000 mark, least of all that elephant in the room, the MacBook Air.
Here's a video of the smaller brother to the UX31, the Zenbook UX21, which we also had flying across the Gizmodo test bench. As you can see from the gallery of the UX31, it looks pretty much the same, but measures just 11-inches, and will only set you back £849.