It might look like a MacBook Air from a distance, but the ASUS ZENBOOK UX32VD is a 13-inch Ultrabook running Windows 7 and packed with NVIDIA graphics for some surprising power.
In much the same way that ASUS was the first company to release a netbook -- the original Eee PC -- this Taiwanese-based PC giant was one of the first laptop manufacturers to announce a premium Ultrabook in the form of the ASUS ZENBOOK series last year. While the original ZENBOOK UX21 and UX31 were loaded with 11-inch and 13-inch screens respectively, both were criticized for not offering enough in the way of premium performance or features other than the thin-and-light metal construction.
ASUS promises to exceed expectations with the ZENBOOK UX32VD; a more powerful Ultrabook with a 13-inch display featuring a 1080p resolution and powered by both an Intel Core i7-3517U dual-core processor and NVIDIA GeForce GT 620M discrete graphics.
Build and Design
The ZENBOOK series of Ultrabooks places an emphasis on premium design and aesthetics and it shows. Constructed almost entirely of aluminum, the UX32 is solid and durable without being too heavy. You can't get the chassis to flex no matter how hard you try to twist it and the lid is almost as strong. While we're on the subject of the lid, the spiral etched design is surprisingly cool. It made our editors think of the ripples in a pond or the grooves on a vinyl record.
The edges of the notebook are tapered to give the impression the notebook is even thinner than it actually is. All corners and edges of the notebook are smoothed and rounded ... very much like the MacBook Air.
While some Ultrabooks are thin without being particularly attractive, ASUS has figured out how to combine the better elements of a thin-and-light design with premium materials and finish.
We won't spend forever and a day discussing the lack of accessibility on the bottom of the UX32. The unfortunate fact of life with most Ultrabooks is that there are no easy-access panels for upgrading the RAM, hard drive or servicing the Wi-Fi card. The reason for that is most manufacturers have to use non-standard connectors on the motherboard (or even solder the RAM into place) in order to make components fit inside the razor-thin chassis. Just understand that you aren't expected to upgrade this PC.
Ports and Features
Another casualty of being so thin is a lack of ports; all of the side ports reside near the back of the UX32 because the chassis is too thin at the front to support even a SD card slot. The old UX31 lacked a standard HDMI port, but ASUS was smart enough to include one on the new UX32. All picture descriptions are left to right.
Left: USB 3.0 and media card reader
Right: Headset jack, mini-VGA, HDMI, two USB 3.0 ports and AC power
ASUS includes two port adapters to offset the lack of ports on the sides of the UX32: a USB-to-Ethernet and mini-VGA-to-VGA adapter. Both of these adapter "dongles" are relatively small and won't take up much space in a briefcase or school backpack. ASUS is even kind enough to include a small carrying case for the adapters. That being said, these dongles are probably the first thing you're going to lose. While I would only cry about the loss of VGA if I needed to connect to an old projector, my productivity on the road would be seriously impacted if my laptop didn't have Ethernet; not every hotel has reliable Wi-Fi.
Screen and Speakers
The new 13.3-inch ASUS ZENBOOK UX32VD features the best screen option of any ZENBOOK to date; an IPS display with 1920 x 1080 resolution and a glossy screen surface. Although the screen is a "glossy" screen it lacks the terrible second glossy layer that many notebooks have over the screen itself. That second glossy layer always adds reflections and glare under bright lights ... so we're very happy that the glossy screen isn't "too glossy" on the UX32VD.
However, be aware that the lower-priced ZENBOOK UX32A features a 13.3-inch display with a mediocre 1366 x 768 resolution. The 1080p screen on the UX32VD means less scrolling is necessary on web pages and documents since more content is viewable on the screen at one time. A high resolution is a must for maximum productivity.
Viewing angles on the display are excellent thanks to the fact that this is an IPS-type panel; colors won't distort if you tilt the screen forward or back slightly. If you haven't already figured it out, this is a phenominal display. Since the screen is just 13.3 inches in size the 1080p resolution means the pixel density is very good. Granted, it isn't quite as impressive as the Retina Display on the newest Apple MacBook Pro ... but it isn't that far behind.
When it comes to audio, ASUS once again partnered with well-known audio company Bang & Olufsen to engineer a sound system that makes the most of the limited space inside this Ultrabook. The speakers are actually located on the left and right sides of the chassis right underneath the palm rest area.
The sound is therefor pushed down rather up toward the user. This is fine if you're working on a desk because the audio quite literally "bounces" off the desk and creates an almost surround sound effect. Unfortunately, if you're using the UX32V as a "laptop" then the sound is largely muffled by your lap.
As long as you're working on a hard surface the design works well and the speakers don't suffer from the "tinniness" that is characteristic of small notebook speakers. There is a hint of bass and the speakers get loud without too much distortion. In short, the built-in speakers are fine for listening to music or streaming video in a quiet room. Any similarly sized Ultrabook would have a hard time delivering better audio from speakers this small.
Keyboard and Touchpad
As with the previous UX31, the keyboard on the UX32 makes a noble effort to deliver a premium keyboard experience but it falls a bit short ... quite literally. While this Chiclet-style keyboard has full-sized keys with a wonderfully smooth yet grippy surface, the bad new is the keys themselves lack tactile feedback (the difference you feel between a pressed versus an unpressed key). Of course, the shallow depth of each key press is the result of the UX32 being so thin. On the brighter side, the thin chassis also helps keep the keyboard surface firm so the UX32 doesn't suffer from keyboard flex under heavy typing pressure.
Additonally, the UX32 features LED backlighting behind the keyboard to help you see what you're typing in a dark room or on a dimmly lit flight. The keyborad backlight is indeed a nice feature, but we would have been even happier if there was one brighter setting than the current maximum brightness.
The oversized touchpad has a smooth surface. This is a multitouch clickpad; press down anywhere to produce a click. As with many ASUS-branded notebooks we've reviewed, the touchpad on the UX32 was pretty bad out of the box. Sensitivity was lacking, some of the multitouch gestures wouldn't work and sometimes even the left and right mouse clicks didn't register. Thankfully, all of these problems were corrected soon after we received our review unit thanks to a touchpad driver update that was sent via the preinstalled ASUS Live Update software.
Speaking of which, the Live Update software is setup to automatically download and install updates as soon as the notebook is connected to a network. Unfortunately, most of these updates require multiple restarts and you cannot stop the update once the process begins. If you want more control over the updates then you'll need to open the Live Update control panel and turn off the automatic updates. Just be aware that the touchpad driver is one update you REALLY want to install.
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