Hands-On: Asus Zenbook UX 21/31

Asus launched its take on the Ultrabook, dubbed the Zenbook in Sydney last night. What's Asus' thin and light laptop actually like?

There's only so much room to innovate within the Ultrabook specification, simply because once you've made an extremely thin laptop, there's very little room to move.

From the brief hands-on time I had with the 11.3 inch UX21 and 13.3 inch UX31 laptops, Asus has produced a solid looking and feeling model, with a few nice features along the way.

It'll handle USB charging of external devices via its USB 3.0 port, even when powered down. Asus' claim is that it's good for up to two weeks of standby time, which is impressive, but naturally enough I didn't have time to test that.

The keyboard response was fairly good in a brief test, and while the keyboard on both models isn't backlit, the bright display screen means that the silver keys are easy to pick out in a darkened room -- and the launch venue last night wasn't terribly well lit, which gave me plenty of opportunities to test out how bright the screen is.

Specs: UX31 32.5x22.3x0.30-1.8cm 1.1kg 13.3" LED HD+ (1600x900) 450nits ZBD Intel Core i5-2557M or Intel Core i7-2677M Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit 4GB RAM 128 or 256GB SATA III SSD WLAN 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth V4.0 Up to 7hrs battery life, 2 week standby 1x USB2.0, 1x USB3.0, 1x Headphone-out & Audio-in Combo Jack; 1x micro HDMI; 1x mini VGA, 1 x SD card reader $1499/$1999

There's an elephant in the room, and in this case it's an elephant with a turtleneck sweater on. There's a distinct similarity between the Zenbook and the Macbook Air, and that's no bad thing; competition in the affordable thin and light space is an excellent idea. Asus' presentation on the Zenbook even drew that exact comparison with a few slight pricing jabs, as they're bundling in a USB Ethernet Adaptor and VGA adaptor with the Zenbook, something you'd pay extra for with the Macbook Air.

I had a Macbook Air on me, so while the staff wasn't looking, I popped it out for some quick physical comparison. There's not that much between them, although I would note (and I wasn't the only one present to make this observation) that the Zenbook's edges are less rounded than those of the Macbook Air; this makes for a slightly sharper feel on the sides of the Zenbook, especially on the screen frame.

Pricing for the 11.6" UX21 Zenbook starts at $1399, while the 13.3" UX31 pricing starts at $1499.