ASUS UX31A: Meet Today’s Best Ultrabook

After having reviewed and handled nearly a dozen Ultrabooks during the past year, the flaws with the platform have become glaringly obvious. The requirements for Ultrabooks are that they need to be very thin, they need to use an Intel ULV CPU, they must deliver decent battery life (5+ hours, though the load isn’t specified), and they have to use some form of solid state storage. There are some other elements of Ultrabooks as well, but Intel doesn’t seem to enforce those all that much—pricing details for example are nebulous; at one point they were supposed to start at under $1000, but now it looks like that means each manufacturer only needs one model that starts somewhere under $1000. For the intended market (on-the-go users), most of the requirements look fine, but the solid state requirement needs a bit more elaboration.

If you’ve had the chance to use a modern laptop with an SSD as the primary storage, you know how much of a difference it can make. Boot times are faster, but more importantly all of the post-boot utility and application initialization that can really get in the way of using a laptop. Long-term the differences become even more noticeable, as hard drive performance can become severely degraded with fragmentation; with a good SSD fragmentation shouldn’t be a problem. Throw in an active anti-virus scanner along with other software and utilities and it becomes very painful to go back to conventional storage. All of that is what makes an SSD great for storage, but there’s a problem with Ultrabooks: SSDs aren’t strictly required.

What Ultrabooks are required to have is some form of solid state storage, but that ranges from a dedicated SSD to smaller caching SSDs to laptops that only appear to use the SSD for the hibernation file. SSD caching certainly helps performance, but the problem is that with a default Windows 7 installation sucking up roughly 30GB of space, toss in a few common applications like Office and your web browser and you can easily exhaust the size of the SSD cache. These days, there’s not even really that much of an advantage in terms of pricing if you go with a 32GB SSD cache—hard drive prices are still quite high after the Thailand flooding, so the cost of a typical 500GB HDD with 32GB mSATA SSD is going to be pretty comparable to that of a 128GB dedicated SSD. Sure you get a lot more storage with a hard drive, but for Ultrabooks I have a difficult time believing most users are going to need a ton of storage, and I’d happily give up raw capacity for the overall responsiveness of an SSD.

With that sidebar out of the way, ASUS delivers the UX31A in a variety of configurations. If you’re trying to save a buck and get under that mystical $1000 barrier, it’s difficult to include a 1080p IPS display with an i7 CPU, a dedicated SSD, and plenty of RAM; not surprisingly it’s precisely those areas where ASUS makes some compromises. The least expensive UX31A models come with a 1600x900 TN panel (likely the same panel that ASUS used in the previous generation UX31E), an i5-3517U CPU, and a 128GB SSD; thankfully, ASUS doesn’t ditch dedicated SSDs on the lower cost models, but they do standardize on 4GB DDR3-1600 for all UX31A models and that might be too little for some people. Right now you can find the base model UX31A-R5102H going for $950 online with the 1600x900 TN panel. For our review unit, ASUS shipped us their highest-spec UX31A-DB71, which has all the currently available upgrades.

ASUS UX31A-DB71 Specifications
Processor Intel i7-3517U
(Dual-core 1.90-3.00GHz, 4MB L3, 22nm, 17W)
Chipset HM76
Memory 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600 Elpida
Note: RAM is soldered onto motherboard
Graphics Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1150MHz)
Display 13.3" WLED Matte 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(Chi Mei Innolux N133HSE-EA1)
Storage 256GB ADATA XM11 SSD
Note: Proprietary ASUS connector
Optical Drive N/A
Networking 802.11n WiFi (Intel Advanced-N 6235)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel)
Audio Realtek ALC269
Stereo Speakers
Headphone jack
Battery/Power 6-cell, 7.4V, ~6840mAh, ~50Wh
45W Max AC Adapter
Front Side N/A
Left Side Memory Card Reader
Headphone jack
1 x USB 3.0
Right Side Mini-HDMI
Mini-VGA
1 x USB 3.0 (with Charging)
AC Power Connection
Back Side Exhaust vent (under hinge)
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 12.8" x 8.78" x 0.11-0.71" (WxDxH)
(325mm x 223mm x 3-18mm)
Weight 2.86 lbs (1.3kg)
Extras HD Webcam
82-Key Backlit Keyboard
Flash reader (MMC /SD)
USB 2.0 Fast Ethernet adapter
Mini-VGA to VGA adapter
Warranty 2-year limited international warranty (varies by country)
Price Starting at $1434 online (8/27/2012)

The core design for the various UX31A models is identical, but the DB71 model comes with a 256GB SSD (an ADATA model with SF-2281 hardware), Core i7-3517U CPU, and a 1080p IPS display. There are a few other in-between models that offer some combination of the i7 CPU, the 256GB SSD, and the 1080p IPS display, but if you want all three you’ll end up paying quite a large premium. The MSRP for the DB71 appears to be $1499 and the cheapest we could find it at the time of writing is $1434, putting it squarely into the realm of high-end Ultrabooks. I’ve already stated that this is the best Ultrabook that I’ve laid hands on, and that’s a great starting point, but I have to be honest: even $1400 is more than I think most people are willing to pay, especially with only 4GB of non-upgradeable RAM. Unfortunately, the SSD is also basically non-upgradeable, as ASUS uses a proprietary form factor, so you’re pretty much stuck with what you order (or the possibility of upgrading to the 256GB SSD if you can find this one). That being the case, if you’re set on purchasing a current generation Ivy Bridge Ultrabook, ASUS’ UX31A-DB71 is the one I’d recommend.

Most of the remaining elements are common among Ultrabooks—the Core i5 and i7 CPUs are the primary choices, with the latter offering slightly better performance for another healthy price premium. You get two USB 3.0 ports, and ASUS goes with the slightly cheaper HM76 chipset (rather than the more power efficient—in theory—UM77). Other than the general design and aesthetic, the standout item is the 1080p IPS display. I’ll let you know right now that it’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than any other Ultrabook display that it might as well be. 1080p in a 13.3” display is already incredibly difficult to find (Sony’s VAIO Z is about the only other 13” 1080p laptop that springs to mind), but to get IPS as well puts it in a category all on its own. The DPI is actually on the too-small side for Windows 7, so you pretty much have to use Windows’ DPI scaling (125% Medium is the default)—unless you happen to have eagle eyes I suppose.

A Closer Look at the ASUS UX31A
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  • roc1 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Thanks for the prompt response! Reply
  • ph2000 - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - link

    isn't the headphone jack is a combo for headphone and microphone
    it has 4 pins, same as phone headset
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - link

    All I know is I plugged in a microphone and while the Realtek control panel popped up a "device connected" message, it didn't allow me to configure the mic -- it set it up as headphones. Reply
  • ph2000 - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - link

    it because normal headphone and mic jack has the same pin arrangement
    use an adapter/splitter (TRRS to TRS) to use normal microphone
    TRRS = 4 pin
    TRS = 2 / 3 pin
    something like this
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Startech-com-3-5mm-Headset...
    Reply
  • repoman27 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Why on earth would ASUS include a mini-VGA port with a VGA adapter instead of a mini DisplayPort with a VGA adapter? I mean I understand an analog output can still be useful from a lowest common denominator standpoint, but if you need a dongle to use it anyway, why not just go mini-DP?

    I can only assume it has something to do with the Ivy Bridge FDI requiring at least two of the three display outputs to share a pixel clock. Still odd though.
    Reply
  • smartypnt4 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Will we see a mini-review discussing more in-depth differences between the UX31A and the UX32VD?

    The upgrade-ability of the UX32VD seems like it would be almost every bit as good as the UX31A in most respects. It addresses the lack of availability of an 8GB upgrade since it has one slot for RAM available for upgrades, and it has a standard SATA 2.5" HDD. It could be argued that throwing an SSD in the UX32VD makes it the best ultrabook money can buy. It's a bit more expensive than the UX31A if you do that, though. But still.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Anand has the UX32VD and is working on that review; I don't know when he'll be finished, though. My biggest issue with the UX32VD is that most of the models lose the 1080p display and the HDD + SSD hybrid solution basically stinks compared to pure SSD. (That latter bit isn't just an ASUS problem, of course.) Reply
  • ka_ - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    That is the laptop I am most interested in! The main reason I will select UX32VD with IPS over UX31 is bad experience "mini" ports - the UX32VD got full size HDMI port. Also the UX32VD have one 2GB ram chip that can be changed with an 8GB giving a total 10GB ram. About pure SSD vs hybrid, I must say I favor hybrid still, though I could just as well bring an external USB 3.0 disk when space is needed. I would have liked to see the UX32VD without a dedicated graphics card - I have an Asus UL30VT currently and I never use the extra dedicated graphics card anyway. It could be interesting to know if the dedicated graphics card can be removed from the unit to save more weight or maybe even replaced with another SSD disk? Reply
  • Conficio - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Exactly. I'm looking time and again at the UX32? and the options that are affordable and shed the unnecessary GPU, those have a crappy display.

    Soldered RAM and proprietary SSD are only things for people with too much money. to be honest at this day and age I don't want a built in SSD in the first place. I'd rather buy it after market to have choice over controller and warranty.

    I'd even prefer a 14" or 15" version with an mSATA for the SSD and a 2.5" drive bay for the HDD and a beefy battery to boot.
    Reply
  • smartypnt4 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Oh, no, I agree. I'm more referring to the versions with that excellent 1080p screen.

    And if I'm spending that much on a laptop, I don't think I'd have a problem finding a 128gb or 256gb SSD to put in it to replace that rather disappointing hybrid combo. That makes it a $1600-1700 laptop, though ($1500 for the laptop and $100-200 for the SSD).

    But still. Points for being able to upgrade an ultrabook that isn't too much bigger than the one you reviewed with standard parts.

    The only reason I push for a dedicated GPU is because when I find myself wanting it, it's REALLY nice to have. Most of the time, it's not needed. Those edge cases where I actually want one (playing an MMO on the go, etc.) make it worth it though, considering I upgrade laptops about once every 3-4 years at this point.

    Then again, this whole argument about a dedicated GPU could be moot with Haswell, which should be awesome from a GPU standpoint for no other reason than the eDRAM, much less the 40% more compute resouces (I think that's right anyway).
    Reply

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