ASUS has finally launched the sexy Ultrabooks everyone's been waiting for - the ideal machines to kick start the Ultrabook campaign after Acer's first lukewarm efforts.
The UX31E and UX21E on the shag pile at the launch
When Intel's Ultrabook concept first surfaced, it wasn't long before ASUS showed off a prototype Ultrabook that stunned everyone with its machined aluminium looks and razor-thin slimness. But it was Acer that went to market in Australia first with the Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook. And once we got our hands on one it wasn't so much sexy as practical – thin, sure, but with a conservative design and built out of a magnesium alloy that managed to look and feel like plastic. Worse, the model we tested - with a 320GB mechanical drive - at times took longer to boot up applications than the low-power ultraportables it was meant to supersede. All this for a hefty $1,399 (for the version with the Intel Core i5 processor and 320Gb mechanical drive) .
It wasn't an amazing start for Ultrabooks, and it was soon followed by stories of Ultrabook makers cutting production numbers after initial sales were not meeting expectations. At the same time, we spotted a retailer already discounting the Aspire S3, just weeks after it hit the market.
Thankfully, the main act took the stage this week. ASUS launched the 11.6in UX21E and 13.3in UX31E Ultrabooks, finally giving consumers Ultrabooks they can get excited about, even if it calls them Zenbooks. The Ultrabook trademark and specifications were created by Intel to put sexy back into the laptop category after tablets (ie, the iPad) started eating into notebook sales. And there was also a stunningly successful example of the concept: Apple's MacBook Air, which has been selling in the millions in part thanks to not having any competition from Wintel machines.
The UX31E and UX21E are exactly what Intel ordered and the four models released yesterday (an Intel Core i5 and Core i7 version of each) can justifiably be considered direct competitors to the MacBook Air. Even if the pricing is still relatively high, it's easier to see these machines justifying it than the Aspire S3. When passed around to people at the launch, the ASUS Ultrabooks generated the same kind of "wow" response that the MacBook Airs used to get when they first arrived. They are unnervingly thin (both an insane 3mm at the front edge and around 17mm at the back) but surprisingly solid thanks to their machined aluminium unibody which is finished in striking concentric circles.
The whole point of Ultrabooks, however, is that they have to be more than just razor-thin supermodels. On this alone the Samsung Series 9 notebooks and some Sony Vaios would give them a run for their money. Ultrabooks have to meet a set of Intel specs that ensure they are superior to the ordinary notebooks that Intel wants to eventually see gone, in just about every aspect. The ASUS modes are a great example of the Intel Ultrabook requirements in action, which include:
Slim design - less than 21 mm thick
The UX31E - 3mm at the tip, 17mm at the back
UX21E - as above, but 16.76mm at the back
The ASUS UX31 is 17mm at its thickest and the UX21E is 16.76mm, so they come in well under. Their slimness is the very first thing you notice, prompting you to wonder how any components can fit inside, let alone powerful processors like Core i5s or Core i7s and drives of any kind. Most ordinary notebooks tend to be between 25mm to 35mm thick, a contrast that highlights how much easier it is to slip an Ultrabook into a case or bag of documents instead of having to carry it separately in its own computer bag. The big challenge when you're shoehorning a computer into a razor is not just making the components fit, but heat management as well. Here ASUS has designed custom cooling technology which apparently uses a V-shaped channel with a copper fin design for improved airflow and cooling. We say apparently because we couldn't peek inside one of their Ultrabooks yesterday.
Less than 1.4kgs in weight
The UX31E, head on
The UX31E is 1.3kgs, the UX21E 1.10kg. Like the slimness, weight is one of the triumphs of these machines. They weigh as much as netbooks (and double most tablets), but with the performance of real computers. This gives Intel the opportunity to promote one of the Ultrabooks' advantages over tablets – they let you do serious work, instead of just web surfing and lazy media consumption.
When you consider the crazy slimness and ethereal weight of the things, the hardware ASUS has been able to fit within the dimensions is astonishing. The 13.3 display on the UX31E delivers a resolution of 1,600 x 900, which is superior to the MacBook Air's 1,440 x 900. The 11.6in gives you 1,366 x 768, which means it fits the same amount of pixels in its tiny screen as a big lumbering laptop on its 15.6in display.
Both have attractive, well-spaced chiclet style keyboards and a sound system that uses ASUS's SonicMaster and Bang Olufsen's ICEpower audio technologies. We weren't able to get a good read on the sound amid the noise of the launch, but ASUS assures us the Bang Olufsen connection optimises the entire system so it can produces above-average sound, using power management, amplification, acoustics and even optimised digital signal processing. Some reviewers who've had a good listen agree the sound is excellent, saying the quality is also helped by the rigidity of the US31E and UX21E's chassis.
Ports are usually the first things to be sacrificed when notebook makers attempt to create slim machines and were the first things to be left out when the iPad was designed. The UX31E has two USB ports (one with the USB 3.0 superfast standard), a mini-HDMI port, an SD card reader, a mini-VGA port and an audio/microphone jack. The UX21E loses the SD card reader. Both have a camera.
Ultra-fast start up
This UX21E resumed from sleep in less than 2 seconds and took 18 seconds to cold boot
One of the frequently quoted advantages that tablets have over notebooks is lightning-fast resume from sleep mode. Ultrabooks are expected to be nearly as fast, so Intel has mandated a technology called Intel Rapid Start for every Ultrabook. This is essentially a system that hibernates the machine to NAND, a type of volatile flash memory on the laptop motherboard that doesn't require power to retain data. Basically it means that even if the system is not drawing any power it will remember what was in memory when you resume. The result is an ultra-quick resume of around two seconds, which we've seen on both the ASUS and Acer Ultrabooks.
While Intel did not set a requirement for startup from a cold boot, the SSDs help here. They enable the Ultrabooks (or any other laptop with an SSD drive) to start more rapidly than machines with mechanical drives. For the UX21E, we counted a cold boot start of 18 seconds. That's massively faster than the minute or more that it takes a Windows PC to get going.
CULV (Consumer Ultra-Low-Voltage) processors
Intel's CULV processors are not the same kind of anaemic low-voltage processors that blighted previous ultraportables, on which opening a big PDF was a 5-minute struggle. Based on our testing of the Acer Aspire S3, the processors are, in fact, nearly as powerful and in some cases exceed the performance of first generation Intel Core full-power processors found in standard notebooks. While using the Acer Aspire S3 heavily for a week, we didn't notice any lethargy that could be attributed to its low voltage Core i5 CPU (which is the same as the Core i5 in the ASUS UX21E). The Core i5 and Core i7 processors available for the ASUS Ultrabooks will handle daily computing tasks and much more with ease. An 11.6in 1.1kg notebook with a Core i7 in it has a power-to-weight ratio that's unheard of at prices less than the Greek national debt. Incidentally, the UX21E also comes with a Core i3 option. The processors in the UX31E and UX21E are mated with 4GB of RAM. This CPU and RAM "engine room" is helped along by the solid state drives in both laptops. There are no nasty SSD/Mechanical drive combos here, just superfast SSDs.
Extended battery life
Intel demands at least 5 hours of battery life for the thinnest/smallest Ultrabooks and ideally 8 hours for the bigger ones. We weren't able to test the ASUS Ultrabooks at the launch but ASUS claims a battery life of around 5 hours for the UX21E and 7 hours for the UX31E. It strikes us as reasonable. With the Acer Aspire S3 we got about 4.5 hours (doing word processing and web surfing, and using an USB mobile broadband dongle), which was pretty good considering the S3 also housed a big 320GB mechanical drive. Compared to the 2-3 hour battery life of most laptops, the Ultrabooks are way ahead. ASUS also reckons an in-house technology it calls "Super Hybrid Engine II" helps it extract more battery life than its competitors and gives the UX31E and UX21E two weeks of stand-by time. Until we test an ASUS Ultrabook, we'll have to take their word for it.
On the machines meant for the Australian market, storage on the UX31E comes in 128GB and 256GB SSD options, while on the UX21E it's 128GB only. SSDs are one of the reasons the Ultrabooks deliver good performance, but SSDs are also less likely to fail than mechanical drives, can be made thinner and don't draw as much battery power. In fact, Ultrabooks would not be possible without SSD drives. Even the Acer S3 with the mechanical drive has a 20GB SSD onto which it loads programs to speed things up.
Intel HD 3000 onboard graphics
This is to prevent Ultrabook makers from adding third party discrete graphics cards that would be a massive drain on battery life and make cooling more difficult. Graphics cards are one of the big rorts in laptops, often included as a marketing ploy to reassure consumers that the notebooks will handle graphics well. In fact, the HD 3000 graphics embedded in all Intel second gen CPUs will meet the graphics requirements of 95% of all notebook users. You only really need a discrete card in a notebook if you have to play games at full details, which Intel's onboard graphics won't be able to do, generally managing between low and medium settings for most games. So at this stage, Ultrabooks are not ideal for playing intensive PC games at maximum resolution, but how many people want to do this anyway?
OPTIONAL: Anti-theft technology
This is an interesting one. Intel requires the Ultrabook makers to include anti-theft hardware in the Ultrabooks. Used in combination with anti-theft software provided by companies such as McAfee, this hardware communicates with an Intel security server and is able to shut down and remotely lock the notebook if this is stolen. The anti-theft system can take action if it suspects the notebook is stolen (too many password attempts) or if you report the machine as stolen. It then disables the Ultrabook and data access even if the Ultrabook's hard drive is removed, replaced or reformatted. But while anti-theft technology is part of the Ultrabook spec, it's a premium service that's purchased through the notebook retailer, not Intel or ASUS. Dick Smith is the first Australian retailer to offer the "Anti-theft" service for $49.95 for two year, if you buy a UX31E or UX21E from there. However, it will offer a complementary free subscription until the end of the year.
No optical drive
Why would you ruin these amazing aesthetics with a CD/DVD drive?
In this day and age of fast Wi-Fi and USB 3.0, optical drives are just nasty and Intel has mandated them out of the Ultrabook spec. They can prevent Ultrabooks from being made thin enough, will soak up battery charge if in use and the great Steve Jobs himself banned them from Apple's MacBook Airs and latest MacBook 13in notebooks.
Sub US$1,000 price
At current exchange rates, the Ultrabooks released in Australia don't meet this loose requirement. In fact, hardly any Ultrabooks do, with most coming in over the US$1,000 mark. Pricing is one thing Intel can't enforce and the vendors have taken advantage of it. The ASUS UX31E powered by the Core i5 and with 128GB hard drive costs AU$1,499 (exchange converted to US$1,550) and the UX21E AU$1,399 (US$1,450). In the US, however, these same Ultrabooks come closer to meeting the Intel pricing requirement. The comparable ASUS UX31E (with the core i5 and 128GB SSD) is $1,099 in the US and the UX21E (Core i5, 128GB SSD) actually sneaks in under US$999. In Australia the pricing seems directed more at getting close to the MacBook Air's price. For instance, the equivalent MacBook Air to the aforementioned UX21E (with the 11in screen and 128GB SSD) is $1,349. The 13in MacBook Air that matches the UX31E (Core i5, 128GB SSD) is $1,449.
We believe there is no question that Ultrabooks will succeed, with the rate of their take up determined mostly by pricing. In just about every aspect Ultrabooks are superior to standard notebooks. Who wouldn't want a stunning, razor-thin ultralight machine with long battery life and as much performance as that big clunker on their desk? But these early Ultrabooks are still charging a premium for their extreme portability, and while their bigger notebook opposition is heavier and uglier it can still give you machines with Core i7s, 8GBs of RAM and 1 terabyte hard drives for around $800. Once Ultrabooks start to fall below AU $1,000 then it's game over for ordinary notebooks.