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Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UAL review: Hands-on

‘Tis the season for new ultralight laptops, as seemingly every computer manufacturer under the sun used CES 2018 as an excuse to unveil a new ultrabook. Dell revamped the XPS 13, Acer slimmed down the Swift 7 even more, and now Asus has revealed the new ZenBook 13.

Where the Zenbook hopes to stand out against the competition is with an ultrabook that’s ultralight without being ultrathin – which may sound like a bad thing, until you remember that means massively improved connectivity, including USB-A ports.

So has Asus managed to offer portability without compromise, or has the ZenBook 13 lost its focus? We went hands-on to find out.

Price and availability

It’s CES, which means no manufacturer would dare reveal anything so gauche as a price or release date – so basically, we don’t know when you’ll be able to get your hands on the new ZenBook 13, or how much it will cost.

Expect it to cost north of £1,000/$1,000 though – prices starting from £1,200/$1,200 are probably a fairly safe bet, with a release some time in the first half of 2018 – hopefully around March/April.

Design and build

The design of the Zenbook 13 is where Asus has arguably made its most interesting choice. The company is making a big fuss about it being ultralight – at just 985g, it weighs a little more than the MacBook or Asus’s own ZenBook 3, but only just, and that’s despite boasting a full 13.3in screen, larger than either of those models.

To put the weight of this laptop in full perspective, the company has shaved a massive 130g off the weight of last year’s ZenBook 13 (which never saw a UK release), and this is more than 200g lighter than Dell’s new XPS 13, despite similar specs.

That’s despite the fact that at 13.9mm this is actually thicker than Dell’s new, which boasts a strikingly slim design that’s just 11.6mm thick. The ZenBook 13 is still an impressively thin laptop by any measure, but it’s hardly leading the ultrathin pack.

Those extra few millimetres are put to good use though. Compared to the competition, this is packed with ports: two USB-A 3.1 slots, one USB-C 3.1, HDMI, a microSD slot, a headphone jack, and a separate charger port. There’s also a webcam at the top of the screen.

The ports will be a boon to anyone who wants an ultralight laptop without the need to carry round a separate USB-C dock to make up for missing ports – thus negating most of the benefits of the ultralight design.

Beyond the dimensions and ports, the ZenBook 13 boasts a metal chassis, a backlit keyboard, and a choice between matte black or pale pink finishes – though we’ve only seen the black in person.

Between the plain finish and the bezelled screen the ZenBook 13 isn’t quite as slick looking as the XPS 13 or Acer’s Swift 7, but we can imagine plenty of users are willing to sacrifice slightly on form for the benefit of this ultralight, port-packed build.

Specs and features

Despite the lightweight design, this is a laptop with some serious heft. It comes with an 8th-gen Intel Core processor, with a choice between an i58250U or an i7 8550U. You then get either 8GB or 16GB RAM and 128GB/256GB/512GB/1TB of SSD storage. Graphics are integrated to the CPU, with no option for a discrete card.

The 13.3in display was crisp and bright, though it’s only HD (1920×1080), with no apparent plans to offer an optional upgrade to 4K. That will probably be fine for most, but is definitely lagging behind some of the competition, and is the one area where you can see a real compromise in quality on the laptop, presumably to help it hit that sub-1kg weight. As you’d expect in 2018 though, it’s also a touchscreen at least.

You also get a fingerprint scanner and built-in Harman Kardon audio. We couldn’t put either through their paces on the show floor, sadly, but will test both thoroughly in our full review.

Battery life is also impressive – Asus claims it should offer up to 15 hours of usage, which is very respectable for an ultrabook, though not quite top of the class when compared to Dell’s boast of 19 hours for the XPS 13, or the new range of Windows devices on Snapdragon chips, which offer 20+  hours. Naturally we’ll test that out fully when we have the device in for a full review.

As you’d expect, it comes with Windows 10 pre-installed, so boasts features like facial recognition login through Windows Hello and Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant. Windows 10 Pro will also be an option.

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