There are times when you just need a bit of extra grunt from your laptop, whether it's for a bit of workday number-crunching or a spot of after-work gaming on the sly. Asus's ZenBook UX303LN is a thin and light Ultrabook, but has more than its fair share of extra graphical and computing power.
What Is It?
- Processor: Intel Core i3-4030U up to Core i7-4510U
- RAM: 4GB 1600MHz DDR3L up to 8GB
- Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GT 840M
- Storage: 128GB SSD up to 256GB
- Display: 13.3-inch, 1920x1080 pixel, IPS
- Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, stereo analog audio, SD card, 3x USB 3.0, HDMI, miniDisplayPort
The $1699-plus Asus ZenBook UX303LN, and its slightly lesser $899-plus UX303LA sibling, is a 13.3-inch Ultrabook with a Full HD 1080p touchscreen display and a thin and light design -- it's basically a MacBook Air running Windows 8.1 (or Pro). At 323x223x19.2mm and 1.45kg, it is thin, and it tapers to a much thinner point, and it is quite light although quite not as sleek as the LG UltraPC.
Run your eyes around the new ZenBook's edges and you'll notice that it has more ports than usual for an Ultrabook. Around from its right to left, you'll see power, miniDisplayport, the first of three USB 3.0 ports, a full-size HDMI connector, and a headset-capable headphone jack on the right. The left has two more USB 3.0 ports and the full-size SD card reader.
Stare the ZenBook UX303LN down and you'll quickly realise you can't see any perforations for speakers; its integrated Bang & Olufsen speakers are hidden away inside the hinge. Similarly, the power button is disguised as one key on the board, next to Delete -- this is a very clean and minimalist design that Asus has refined over a long period of time with the ZenBook lineup.
The finish of the ZenBook's interior is an MacBook Air-esque anodised aluminium, although the trackpad is slick and glossy, with flat squared-off chiclet keys. There's a small lip around the large trackpad that physically reminds you where its edges are, and another around the edge of the keyboard tray. Apart from that, there's not much else to mention about the ZenBook's design -- the concentric circles of the champagne lid are a nice touch, as is the one sheet of glass used for the bezel-less display.
What's It Good At?
The design of the UX303LN just hits the right marks for me. It's acceptably thin, reasonably light, has a sturdy metal chassis, a keyboard that has good travel and good tactile response, and has more than enough power under its hood. There's just not that much that you can focus on to complain about it.
Asus offers the ZenBook UX303LN and its UX303LA integrated graphics variant in a huge range of options -- you can spec it up with a Core i3, i5 or i7 low-power CPU, 4 or 8GB of RAM, and a variety of 500GB to 1TB spinning-disk drives and either 128GB or 256GB solid-state drives. Obviously choosing the gutsier ZenBooks drives the price up commensurately, but it's great to have the option to use a powerful Core i7 in your thin and light laptop.
Having a dedicated graphics chipset in the Nvidia GeForce GT 840M, even though it's not a brand new 900-series chip, means the Asus ZenBook UX303LN can handle mid-range gaming. Most last-year titles play acceptably around medium graphics levels at the UX303LN's 1080p native resolution, although anything newer will handle better at a reduced res. It's not a hugely powerful GPU either, but it's the difference between actually having one and using integrated Intel graphics that sets this ZenBook apart from its competition.
Despite only being a slim 3-cell battery inside the UX303 series, battery life is pretty good; I clocked around six hours of full-time regular workday use which is not bad considering it's an Ultrabook with high-powered graphics. You can run even longer on reduced brightness or using Asus' low-power economy mode, but in our standardised Gizmodo torture test I clocked 5hr and 43min of 720p movie playback at half screen brightness.
What's It Not Good At?
This laptop gets warm during use. Quite warm. Especially at the back of the laptop, near where the screen meets the rest of the chassis, there's a fan vent that ejects hot air. During everyday Windows browsing it doesn't get overly hot, but load up a 1080p YouTube video or a modern PC game and you probably won't be able to use it on your lap for more than a couple of minutes.
The glossy trackpad that Asus has used on the UX303LN is not particularly nice under the finger, unfortunately. It's one of Asus' versatile and multitouch-happy Elan units and is more than large enough to discount needing a mouse for regular day-to-day use, but it's hard to tell when you're moving the cursor with such a slick surface to swipe against. If it was the same material as the body interior of the laptop, it'd feel much nicer.
The ZenBook UX303LN's Full HD screen is nice and bright at full power, and 1080p means there's more than enough pixels being pushed at the 13.3-inch screen size. But it has quite a yellow colour cast, especially compared to the very slightly cool white balance that most laptop displays ship with. It's not a huge concern, and it's actually better for your eyes during night-time use, but it takes some getting used to.
Should You Buy It?
If you can accommodate the $1699 ZenBook UX303LN's warm chassis and the heat it outputs especially during prolonged periods of intense usage, you'll have yourself a versatile and powerful and genuinely useful portable laptop. It has the right mix of ports and specs to make it a one-stop shop even if you're importing photos regularly or using external peripherals, too.
That same laptop is one with a design that's simultaneously refined, sturdy, attractive and understated, as long as you don't mind a bit of champagne gold on your ZenBook. The bundled carry case is nice, too, as is the travel-sized hockey puck charger. It's also great to see a small battery that offers a decent run-time.
The Asus ZenBook UX303LN has more than enough power for its station, whether it's for the needs of a uni student or for a home business operator. Its price tag is slightly premium because of that versatility, especially if you buy a high-end version, but I couldn't find very many faults at all during my time with it.