ASUS, more formally known as ASUSTeK Computer Inc., may bring to mind a box of motherboards, but the Taiwanese company has been building some interesting notebooks, Chromebooks, and more for several years. The one in our hands now, the ASUS ZenBook UX303UA-XS54, is a mobile PC filling in all the Ultrabook checkboxes: lightweight at 3.2 pounds, 13.3-inch screen, less than 1-inch thick, a 256GB SSD, and so nice looking your friends might confuse it with a Mac wearing some bronzer (officially the color is smoky brown). It even has an Intel i5-6200U 2.3 GHz, again like a Mac. And Windows 7 fans will find their favorite OS installed along with 8GB of RAM, so they can upgrade to Windows 10 on their own schedule.
High-end retail packaging gave way to a slim metal Ultrabook with a nice bronze/copperish color and a faint circle pattern around the ASUS logo on the top. The unit looks more expensive than it is, which is a nice touch for customers. Other color options for the all-aluminum ZenBook are icicle gold and rose gold.
As an Ultrabook design, this ZenBook is light enough to be easily portable. Yet it's also heavy enough so the bottom stays put when you open the top with one hand. The screen, with a resolution of 1920 x 1080, is sharp and clear, has good contrast and dark blacks, and is easy to read.
The on-off button lives at the top right of the keyboard above the backspace key. It’s an odd placement, and we worried we’d hit the button and slam shut the OS, resulting in all the horrors of lost work. But if we did hit it, nothing bad ever happened. And when we pressed it briefly to check, again nothing happened. You have to hold it down deliberately to engage the switch. Soon we were typing without concern.
The chiclet-style keyboard on the ASUS ZenBook performs well despite the limitations faced by the designers. There's little key travel so the typing feels suspect. But to get good key travel, you need a thicker, meaning heavier, laptop. Take your choice: long key travel or travel with an anchor hanging from your shoulder. The keyboard is plenty wide enough to type comfortably. Both the escape and function keys are half-height to give the rest of the keys a little more room, and it all works well. Those who like to type in dim light will appreciate the adjustable intensity of the keyboard backlighting.
Trackpads don't go deep but they can go wide, and this one does, providing plenty of room to scoot around. There aren't separate buttons, but the bottom left and right parts of the trackpad feel like high-quality tactile buttons and work great. Put two fingers on the pad and you can pretend to be a scroll wheel and slide your webpages up and down.
The System Overall
When we turned the system on, Windows 7 greeted us. Many users still beg for Win 7, and ASUS told us the company decided to just let their customers choose. You might think that’s a cop-out, but update disks for both Win 7 and Windows 10 were in the box, so this user-choice option cost ASUS at least a little money for the extra DVDs. Following Ultrabook guidelines, there's no optical drive.
Bloatware? Nope. There's an icon labeled “ASUS Install” on the desktop, but when we clicked it we discovered the small ASUS utilities were already installed. All seemed to be small helper utilities like Live Update and ICE Sound (intelligent audio enhancement), not trial versions of unwanted applications.
ASUS says its IPS screens use the company’s exclusive ASUS Splendid video enhancement technology. No matter the marketing name, the screen is bright and easy to view from the side. HDMI and a mini display port let you add a second screen easily. There's even a dongle to support VGA monitors.
Speaking of dongles, there's another one to connect a wired LAN cable to a USB port. But since that runs at 100Mbps and the Wi-Fi runs at 866.7Mbps, being tied down isn't as fun as it used to be. But you do have the option to be tied down if you prefer.
ASUS wins the comparison with Apple laptops that make your port-dependent devices obsolete. Three USB 3.0 ports, a combo audio jack (in and out), plus the aforementioned HDMI and mini display port jack mean you can connect a bagful of devices to this box. And for good measure ASUS throws in a 2-in-1 card reader (SD/SDHC).
We downloaded LibreOffice 5.2 and typed and spreadsheeted and so on quite successfully. We added Epson scanning and printing drivers for an Epson WorkForce Pro WF5694 and could scan, print, and fax easily. Typing for a long time wasn’t troublesome, and the light and cool notebook functioned well in our lap or on a desk. In fact, it feels solid and rugged, not flimsy. Thin doesn't mean weak.
Videos play smoothly with no distracting artifacts. The sound, ASUS SonicMaster technology, is about as good as you can get from an Ultrabook, and was developed with Bang & Olufsen, a prestige audio company. But with little room in the case for speakers or resonance, sound is always somewhat compromised in Ultrabooks. Headphones sound great. If you need storage space, ASUS provides 16GB of WebStorage free for the first year.
You can pick your ZenBook configuration of choice. The family offers different models with i3, i5, or i7 processors, memory from 4 to 12GB, two display resolutions (1920 x 1080 and 3200 x 1800), and 128GB to 1TB SSDs, including a 500GB HDD with an 8GB SSD option.
Thin, strong, classy, and bright: It’s an excellent list of attributes for any mobile PC. The Ultrabook-based ASUS ZenBook UX303UA is all that and more. You or your customers will create some PC envy when you pull out this notebook at the next meeting. Put it on the table with pride.