- Comes with everything a premium laptop needs
- Fantastic 4K touchscreen for indoor use
- Excellent performance for the money
- Unimpressive touchpad
- Poor screen visibility outdoors
- Weak speakers with lackluster sound
If you’re in the market for a 15-inch premium Windows laptop that can go head-to-head with a 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro then you’ll be very interested in the ASUS ZenBook Pro UX501JW. This high-end aluminum-clad notebook is loaded with a 4K touchscreen IPS display, a quad-core Intel CPU, robust discrete graphics from Nvidia as well as the jaw-dropping speed that comes from a 512GB PCIe x4 SSD storage and Thunderbolt connectivity.
You get a fantastic touchscreen with better resolution than Apple’s Retina Display, a better processor, better graphics, and more storage all for much, much less than the price of the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. On paper and in person there is very little to complain about with the UX501JW. Let’s take a closer look to see if it’s everything premium laptop buyers want.
Our review of the ASUS ZenBook Pro UX501JW is the first part of a two-part review along with the similarly equipped ASUS G501JW gaming notebook.
Build and Design
We can’t really talk about the design of the ZenBook Pro without acknowledging that ASUS clearly built the UX501JW to go head-to-head with Apple’s MacBook Pro. From the ZenBook Pro’s smooth silver aluminum alloy chassis and rounded edges to the spun-metal screen lid and LED-backlit keyboard, this notebook looks and feels like a premium product. The only design area where the ZenBook Pro falls short of answering the gauntlet that Apple has thrown down is in the area of weight; the ZenBook Pro tips the scales at a little more than 5 lbs (2.27 kg) while the MacBook Pro weighs in at just 4.46 lbs. The UX501JW is nevertheless still light for a 15-inch aluminum-wrapped notebook with discrete graphics.
Build quality is similarly impressive; the aluminum alloy chassis is satisfyingly firm to the touch and doesn’t suffer from any flex or creaking when you press down on the palm rests or try to twist the notebook between your hands. The interior frame of the notebook is plastic but the outer chassis is aluminum alloy. The metal screen lid provides good protection for the 4K display; the lid flexes slightly in the center when heavy pressure is applied and distortions are visible on the LCD panel if you press hard enough. The hinges are likewise solid and hold the screen in place even when using the touchscreen but you will notice vibrations or “bounce” in the screen when using the notebook inside a moving airplane or a car.
When it comes to upgrades the team at ASUS have again clearly taken a page out of Apple’s playbook; DIY hardware upgrades are extremely difficult thanks to the lack of access panels and tight tolerances on the bottom chassis plate which is secured by 10 Torx screws as well as two Phillips screws hidden beneath two rubber feet (and double-sided tape) on the bottom of the notebook closest to the hinge. If you’re willing to go to all the trouble of taking apart the ZenBook Pro then you’ll at least be better off than MacBook Pro owners since ASUS was kind enough to use standard SO-DIMM RAM modules, a standard M.2 format SSD, a normal Intel WLAN module, and a user-replaceable battery.
Ports and Features
The ZenBook Pro UX501 delivers all the ports you expect from a 15-inch consumer laptop and more than the current MacBook Pro. That said, given the fact that this is a relatively large desktop replacement PC, we would have liked to see four USB ports rather than only the three USB ports included here. We are willing to forgive that minor omission because of the fact that the mini DisplayPort is also configured to function as a Thunderbolt port for high-speed data transfers.
There are no ports on the front or rear of the UX501, but the left side includes the AC power adapter jack, mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt port, HDMI, and a single USB 3.0 port with sleep-and-charge capability. The right side of the notebook is where you’ll find a 3.5mm headset jack (speaker/headphones and microphone), SD card reader, and two USB 3.0 ports.
The wireless connectivity is handled by Intel’s dual band Wireless-AC 7260 which is rated at a maximum Wi-Fi speed of 867 Mbps. This wireless card also includes Bluetooth 4.0 and Intel Wireless Display (WiDi) technology. If you need to use an Ethernet cable you’ll be pleased to know that ASUS includes USB adapters for both Ethernet and VGA rather than forcing you to purchase adapters separately.
Display and Touchscreen
As previously mentioned, the headline feature of the UX501JW is a 15.6-inch 4K display (3840 x 2160 resolution). This glossy IPS display panel delivers a pixel density of 282 PPI (compared to just 220 PPI on the 15.4-inch Retina Display in Apple’s MacBook Pro). The default color accuracy of the display in our review unit was a little off (the colors were too warm or slightly yellow) but the screen responded well to color calibration and produced rich colors that were accurate to our eyes. ASUS claims this screen has a 74% coverage of the Adobe RGB color space and even better coverage of the standard sRGB color range.
As with most IPS displays, the screen on the UX501JW features beautifully wide viewing angles with minimal color distortion as your viewing angle changes. Our only complaint is that the average screen brightness at the maximum brightness setting is only around 280 nits; combine that modest brightness with the glossy (and highly reflective) touchscreen surface and you’ve got a display that is hard to see outdoors under bright sunlight.
One of the major concerns with 4K and other UHD displays in notebooks is the significant battery drain that comes with supplying power to higher resolution panels. A quick check online shows that ASUS offer another configuration of the UX501 with a non-touch 1080p matte screen, but it was only available in some regions outside the United States at the time of this writing.
Our configuration of the UX501JW also features a touchscreen interface that can recognize up to 10 points of simultaneous input. The display hinges provide just enough resistance to stop the screen from wobbling back and forth as you touch the screen. Additionally, raising the preset DPI scaling setting in Windows 8.1 to 200% made it much easier to interact with on-screen objects. Installing the free update to Windows 10 had no noticeable impact on the touchscreen … although we found ourselves using the touchscreen more after upgrading to Windows 10.
One of the things that most people expect when purchasing a high-priced notebook is premium sound. Unfortunately, the built-in speakers in the UX501JW don’t live up to the marketing hype about audio technologies such as “SonicMaster Premium,” “ICEpower ICEsound software” and “Bang & Olufsen technology.” While the speakers (located on the bottom of the notebook beneath the left and right palm rests) deliver sound that is on par with or perhaps marginally better than the speakers in a budget laptop, the sound quality isn’t what we expect from a premium-priced PC. The maximum volume output is average at best, the range of frequencies from highs to low-end bass sounds flat, and messing with the audio settings using the included ASUS AudioWizard software didn’t improve the sound as much as Dolby Digital software does in other laptops such as those from Lenovo.
The next generation of ZenBook Pro needs to have better speaker hardware and better audio processing software if ASUS wants to deliver premium sound with a premium-priced notebook. Thankfully, the combo audio jack (headset/headphones/microphone) carries a clean signal to headphones or external speakers. If you’re an audiophile or someone editing the audio for a YouTube video then you’ll want to connect a good set of headphones or quality external speakers to the UX501.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Chiclet-style or island-style keyboard on the UX501 is well centered and comfortable to use. Each key provides 1.6 mm of travel when pressed and the spacing between keys was good enough for us to avoid unwanted typos or extra keystrokes. The dedicated number pad might be considered a standard feature on most 15-inch and larger notebooks, but it is a welcomed sight for people who regularly perform data entry.
The keyboard features LED backlighting with three brightness settings as well as an “off” setting that can be controlled with a function key combination. There is excellent contrast between the backlit lettering and the keys when the brightness is cranked up to the highest setting but the lettering is harder to make out with the LEDs on the lowest setting.
The touchpad on the UX501 is a “buttonless” clickpad running on Elan drivers. Cursor speed and precision was inferior to what we’ve experienced using clickpads from Synaptics but the touch surface itself feels good and promotes fluid movement of fingertips over the glass surface. As usual, the integrated mouse buttons get the job done but are less ideal than separate, dedicated left and right buttons. Since this is a 15-inch laptop there is more than enough room for dedicated touchpad buttons.