The first round of Ultrabooks were mostly underwhelming. It shouldn't be a surprise, but many of the efforts were just half hearted at best. Of the companies who shipped the first Ultrabooks however, it was ASUS who came the closest to perfection with the Zenbook.

ASUS' Zenbook embodied the form factor, portability and overall concept of an Ultrabook. Where it failed to deliver was with its keyboard, display and, at least initially, with its trackpad. The first Zenbook was an amazing effort given the short period of time that it was conceived and developed in, but it was too rough around the edges.

Despite only being introduced 7 months ago, the Zenbook is old news. This is the Zenbook Prime:

The Zenbook Prime is ASUS' second generation Ultrabook, built around Ivy Bridge silicon. Unlike most silicon updates to notebooks however, the Zenbook Prime takes an almost Apple-like approach to renovating the tangibles rather than just relying on a faster chip to do the heavy lifting.

I don't know that I've ever seen a faster turn around on implementing reviewer and user feedback into a product. The Zenbook Prime fixes nearly every issue I had with the original Zenbook. From keyboard to display, it's all significantly better with the Zenbook Prime.

The circumstances around today's launch are a bit peculiar. Intel has an embargo in place on the as of yet unreleased Ivy Bridge CPUs, this applies to both notebooks and desktops. One such line of CPUs, the dual-core ultra-low-voltage Ivy Bridge parts that will find their way into many Ultrabooks, is covered by the aforementioned embargo. That embargo lifts at some point in the not too distant future, but ASUS wanted to have its review-ready hardware out the door and getting coverage before then. Why the urgency? It could have something to do with Apple's expected launch of updated MacBook Air and MacBook Pro systems. Rather than for Apple to get all the glory for being first, ASUS set some guidelines: we're allowed to talk about everything to do with the new Zenbook Primes, we just can't get into specifics on the CPU just yet. That's right, you won't read any model numbers, clock speeds or cache sizes here. Given what's already public about the ULV Ivy Bridge lineup I suspect this information isn't too hard to figure out if you're really motivated.


Zenbook Prime (left) vs. Zenbook (right)

The rest of the Zenbook Prime has nothing to do with Ivy Bridge. The form factor of the Zenbook Prime remains unchanged from its predecessor. Just like before we'll see two distinct models, an 11-inch (UX21) and 13-inch (UX31) in for review. With the lid closed, these two look identical to their Prime-less (composite numbered?) counterparts. ASUS sent the 11-inch Zenbook Prime in for review:

ASUS Zenbook Prime Specs
  UX21A-DB5x UX21A-DB7x UX31A-DB51 UX31A-DB52 UX31A-DB71 UX31A-DB72
CPU ULV IVB ULV IVB ULV IVB ULV IVB ULV IVB ULV IVB
GPU HD 4000
Display 11.6-inch 1920 x 1080 IPS 13.3-inch 1920 x 1080 IPS
Memory 4GB DDR3-1600 (on-board)
Storage 128GB U100 SSD 128/256GB U100 SSD 128GB U100 SSD 256GB U100 SSD
Wireless Connectivity Intel Centrino N 6205, 802.11b/g/n 2.4/5GHz 2x2:2, Bluetooth 4.0
Battery 35Wh 50Wh
Camera 720p front facing
Audio Bang and Olufsen ICEpower
I/O 2 x USB 3, 1x audio/mic, 1x microHDMI, 1x miniVGA 2 x USB 3, 1 x audio/mic, 1 x microHDMI, 1 x miniVGA, 1 x SD Card reader
Dimensions 299mm x 168.5mm x 3-9mm 325mm x 223mm x 3-9mm
Weight 1.1kg 1.3kg
Price USD TBD TBD $1099 $1199 $1499 $1599

Pricing is still in the air as the Zenbook Prime won't be shipping until early June. I suspect much of how aggressive ASUS is on this front will depend on what Apple does in the coming weeks.

Introducing the UX32, Starting at $799

There's also a new member of the Zenbook Prime lineup, the 13-inch UX32. Featuring a thicker chassis, the UX32 will be offered as low as $799 with a 1366 x 768 TN panel, hard drive + SSD cache and as high as $1299 with a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 620M GPU:

ASUS Zenbook Prime UX32 Specs
  UX32A-DB31 UX32A-DB51 UX32VD-DB71
CPU ULV IVB ULV IVB ULV IVB
GPU HD 4000 NVIDIA 620M + HD 4000
Display 13.3-inch 1366 x 768 TN 13.3-inch 1920 x 1080 IPS
Memory 2GB DDR3-1600 (on-board) + 2GB or 4GB SO-DIMM
Storage 7mm 320GB HDD + 24GB SSD (cache) 7mm 500GB HDD + 24GB SSD (cache) 7mm 500GB HDD + 24GB SSD (cache)
Wireless Connectivity Intel Centrino N 6205, 802.11b/g/n 2.4/5GHz 2x2:2, Bluetooth 4.0
Battery 48Wh
Camera 720p front facing
Audio Bang and Olufsen ICEpower
I/O 3 x USB 3, 1 x audio/mic, 1 x HDMI, 1 x miniVGA, 1 x SD card reader
Dimensions 325mm x 223mm x 5.5 - ~9mm
Weight 1.44kg
Price USD $799 $999 $1299

Depending on how well the SSD cache works, and how good the 1366 x 768 panel is, the $799 UX32A could be a very compelling system.

The Zenbook Prime: What's New
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  • Jaybus - Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - link

    Well, there is one excuse (argument). Considering that HDMI 1.4a is implemented in the IVB's HD4000 controller, TB is considerably more expensive to implement, not to mention it would amount to about a half a Watt additional drain on the battery. Reply
  • Penti - Thursday, May 24, 2012 - link

    No displays support 3GHz HDMI 1.4a the 3GHz part is needed for the bandwidth used by a above 1920x1200 TMDS video signal. DisplayPort (and VGA through active 25 dollar certified adaptor) is already implemented in the IVB and Platform Controller Hub. As well as DVI/HDMI. It should actually be cheaper not needing to license HDMI directly, or require less testing. No additional hardware is needed accept one connector instead of two. Don't see how a DP driving a HDMI/DVI-display would draw more power. There is no conversion or ramdac needed there. Single link DVI and HDMI-adaptors can be passive so no concern for power. There is no adaptor to turn this 3GHz HDMI 1.4a port to run say a 27" Dell monitor at all. Opting out of a DP port (Dell XPS13 Ultrabook has one for example) means opting out the ability to drive those 27" and 30" screens at native res out there. Making these a no choice for the prosumers and professionals using large monitors. All others too using 27+ inch monitors and who wants light computing next to their gaming box or console. Reply
  • ka_ - Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - link

    I am rather not wanting any TB at this time due to the security risk of such a connector: "Since Thunderbolt extends the PCI Express bus, which is the main expansion bus in current systems, it allows very low-level access to the system. PCI devices need to have unlimited access to memory, and may thus compromise security." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thunderbolt_%28interf...

    TB will get interesting once this problem goes away though, but for now, I avoid it as I am looking for a system for business, not for play.

    The one thing I however would like to know is - does these zenbook's with Ivy chips support 2 external displays giving 1920x1080 x 3?
    Reply
  • joelypolly - Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - link

    Once someone has physical access to your machine all bets are off anyways. Reply
  • Penti - Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - link

    Same is true for Firewire (to a large extent) and Expresscard, and docking ports on business laptops. But who cares that much? It goes for any internal mini-pcie slots too. Any security feature is null and void and circumventable with physical access. Filevault, Bitlocker, truecrypt nothing is safe if you have physical access to a booted computer or one that is in sleep mode and thus access to memory where the keys are stored. There are always exploits and you can always force access when you have physical access. You can remove the sticks and read them in a separate computer (cold boot attack) if you can't run memory reconstruction software on the local computer or make the memory dump directly on the computer due to CMOS/NVRAM settings. People with access to forensics software can read your encrypted iPhone too. Your data is only safe from real idiots. The hardware is not secure. The software is vulnerable and flawed with holes in it that will be discovered at some point. Some will get fixed outer aspects won't. DMA exploits might be possible via eSATA-ports too. DMA-attacks or exploits is possible against USB-drivers/devices (by like a OTG device) as well as launching local rootkits and exploits. Don't plug in untrusted stuff. TB-stuff can only connect by a TB-cable. Reply
  • ka_ - Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - link

    So these Asus machines looks like good choices as they have none of the connectors that can be easily exploited:

    - no Firewire
    - no TB
    - no Expresscard
    - no docking ports

    An attacker would need to use extreme methods; likely requiring to take the machine out of the room to gain access, unlike machines that got one of the connectors mentioned above.
    Reply
  • Penti - Thursday, May 24, 2012 - link

    They got Mini PCI Express. Say I steal your computer without you knowing it, returns it after but first replaces the Wifi-card with a modified version and attacks your computer via DMA hacks after you have logged in into all your important stuff when you have done that I can steal all your important files and stuff, as well as sniff any password. Physical access is physical access, leaving your machine unintended for 15 minutes is all I need if I actually have stuff that exploits the PCIe bus. Or for that matter firewire, as I could easily build a Mini PCI Express to Firewire adaptor if that is the attack path. Have you left your computer on or in sleep I never have to do all that stuff though. I will be able to crack your bitlocker or filevault or truecrypt.

    They still have none of those connectors by adding DisplayPort! They still have PCIe buses to exploit it that is vulnerable for potential attacks there is a much higher chance of attack and a real treat through USB-sticks/drives/phones and infected software though. Those don't need physical access by the attacker either. But something that isn't physical safe isn't safe that is just how it is.
    Reply
  • vegemeister - Friday, June 08, 2012 - link

    >Say I steal your computer without you knowing it

    This is the advantage of a sub-12" computer: you can keep it on your person or otherwise physically secured nearly all the time. 15 minutes is unlikely, and if you have time to do something inside the case you could have installed a keylogger; DMA becomes irrelevant.

    DMA-capable ports on the outside of the case are a serious weakness for any comprehensive security scheme. Protecting against a knowledgeable adversary with physical access is very difficult, but the purpose of security is to make attacks expensive and evident, not impossible. Also, not every attacker is the NSA; you still lock your screen when you go to the bathroom, even though a sophisticated adversary could do all manner of unseemly things to your machine in that time.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - link

    As far as your question about running two external displays, the simple answer is: No, none of the IVB laptops I've currently seen support three simultaneous displays. In order to run three displays on IVB, two of them need to come via DisplayPort, and the third can be LVDS/VGA/HDMI. Since no one I know of has yet announced a laptop with two DP connections, there are no triple-head capable IVB laptops yet (unless they use a discrete GPU). Reply
  • ka_ - Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - link

    Too bad; I hoped it would run one screen on the mini-VGA and another on the micro-HDMI. The UX32VD-DB71 do have a discrete GPU, so maybe it should work on that one? Reply

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