If you’re searching for a well designed 13-inch ultraportable laptop with a relatively powerful discrete graphics card that’s easy to carry with you, you might be wringing your hands at the lack of options. In fact, some of the most popular ultraportables, including the Dell XPS 13 and the Apple MacBook Air, can’t be ordered with a discrete GPU. That’s where the Asus ZenBook UX331UN ($999) comes in. It’s among the thinnest and lightest ultraportables we’ve reviewed recently, but it’s still quite affordable, and its Nvidia GeForce MX150 offers twice the graphics performance you’d expect from an integrated GPU. There are a few minor compromises, including a flimsy keyboard, but overall the ZenBook is an excellent option if you need better-than-average graphics performance in a petite package.
Looks Great, if You Have Clean Fingers
As if its graphics performance and value weren’t good enough, the ZenBook UX331UN also offers a head-turning design. Unlike the discrete GPU and the price, however, the shiny Royal Blue exterior of our review unit doesn’t have universal appeal. For one thing, the display lid’s glossy coating attracts fingerprints like crazy. It’s also an avant-garde color choice for a laptop that is certainly thin and light but otherwise unremarkable. You won’t find ultra-thin bezels, carbon fiber, or metallic accents on this machine like you will on the HP Spectre 13. On the contrary, it’s quite conventional looking, so if I were buying it for myself I’d opt for the more conventional Slate Gray color.
The ZenBook’s star attraction, other than the GeForce MX150 inside, is its lack of weight. At 2.5 pounds, it is eminently portable. It’s even lighter than the XPS 13 (9370), which tips the scales at 2.68 pounds, the MacBook Air (2.96 pounds), and the Razer Blade Stealth (2.98 pounds), though it’s a few ounces heavier than the Spectre 13 (2.45 pounds) and the featherlike LG Gram 13 (2.01 pounds).
The weight savings primarily comes from the lighter materials Asus uses, since the physical size of the ZenBook—0.5 by 12.2 by 8.5 inches (HWD)—isn’t that remarkable. There are plenty of 13-inch laptops that are 0.5 inches thin or even thinner, including many of the competitors mentioned above. The ZenBook is also wider and longer than the XPS 13, which has vanishingly thin borders around the screen, giving it a sleek, modern look. The bezels on the ZenBook aren’t necessarily stodgy, but they are noticeable. On the plus side, they afford room for a traditionally placed webcam above the display. With a VGA resolution and no security cover or IR sensors, the camera is nothing to Skype home about, but at least it has an unobstructed view of your face, unlike the knuckle-cam at the bottom of the XPS 13’s screen.
The ZenBook sports a full HD (1,920-by-1,080) touch screen, which is standard for its price range. There’s in-plane switching (IPS) technology to increase viewing angles, but during my testing there was also tons of glare from fluorescent office lights that made watching videos or playing games (otherwise one of the ZenBook’s key strengths) somewhat distracting.
In the US, the only configuration of this ZenBook you can buy includes 8GB of memory and a 256GB SSD. That amount of storage is adequate for everyday productivity, but you’ll need to store your large photo and video collections elsewhere.
Plenty of Ports
Port selection is about what would be expected for such a thin machine, and I especially appreciate the inclusion of a full-size HDMI port in case you’d like to take advantage of the ZenBook’s GPU on a bigger display without buying an adapter. There are two USB 3.1 Type A ports and one USB 3.1 Type C port, which unfortunately does not support Thunderbolt, though I don’t expect it to at this price. Finally, you’ll find an audio jack, a power connector, and a microSD card slot. Wireless connectivity includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2.
The only downright disappointing physical attributes of the ZenBook are its flimsy keyboard and touchpad. More specifically, the deck that supports them is flimsy, which means there is significant flex when you click the touchpad or strike the keys with a modicum of purpose. While it’s disappointing, the flex is not entirely unexpected. A rock-solid keyboard deck on a $1,000 laptop that is this light would probably have to violate either some physics laws or some economic laws.
As a consolation prize, you get a fingerprint reader located below the directional keys on the keyboard, which makes logging in to Windows 10 easier. There are also a pair of single-watt stereo speakers that produce rich, full audio thanks in part to their Harman Kardon tuning, though the maximum volume leaves a lot to be desired.
Asus offers a standard one-year warranty.
Twice the Graphics Performance
So far, Asus has delivered features you’d expect from an ultraportable but nothing that’s particularly eyebrow-raising, unless you count the shiny blue color scheme. Things get much more interesting when it comes to the laptop’s performance on our graphics benchmark results, however. Most ultraportables with eighth-generation Intel processors we’ve tested include an Intel UHD 620 integrated GPU. Not so with the ZenBook’s Nvidia GeForce MX150, with comes with its own processor and 2GB of RAM.
That combination makes a huge difference. The ZenBook was able to render approximately 60 frames per second (fps) on our Valley gaming simulations at medium resolution and quality settings, and 45fps on the similar Heaven simulation. Those results are significant not only because they are roughly double what any of the ZenBook’s competitors offer, but also because 60fps is the sweet spot for enjoyable gameplay. Any higher and the GPU will be rendering more frames than the 60Hz screen can display. Significantly lower (below 30fps) means you’ll experience lag and tearing when you’re playing graphics-intensive titles like Call of Duty.
The ZenBook’s results are even more impressive on our 3DMark synthetic 3D gaming benchmarks, which spit out a proprietary score. A result of 1,267 on the grueling FireStrike Extreme test is roughly three times better than what the XPS 13, the ZenBook UX430UA, and the Lenovo IdeaPad 720s offer.
These results are equally promising if you intend to use the ZenBook for GPU-intensive tasks other than gaming, such as video encoding and photo editing. Of course, the MX150 is no substitute for a true gaming GPU such as a GTX 10-series model, which can record frame rates above 100fps even at ultra-quality settings. It is possible to fit a 10-series card into a thin and light laptop (check out the Microsoft Surface Pro for an example), but doing so would almost certainly raise the ZenBook’s price by hundreds of dollars.
As a general-purpose PC, the ZenBook’s performance is far more ordinary thanks to its capable but not exactly screaming Intel Core i5-8250U. Its score on the comprehensive PCMark 8 benchmark (3,346) signifies that lag-free video conferencing, web browsing, and other ordinary tasks are possible. So is effortless loading or switching apps, helped along by the 8GB of RAM.
On the other hand, the ZenBook finished in the middle of the pack on the our specialized multimedia tests like editing photos in Photoshop and converting an HD video file, which are more taxing for the CPU. With the exception of the MacBook Air, the competition is powered by Intel Core i7 CPUs, which means better performance nearly across the board. It’s possible that you could experience better results with Handbrake and Photoshop if you ensure that those apps are assigned to run with GPU acceleration. Unfortunately, Asus did not install the Nvidia control panel that lets you adjust this setting, and we always test PCs in their default configuration. If you want to ensure that the GPU is used for a specific app, you’ll have to download the control panel yourself.
When you’re not playing games, the ZenBook’s battery will last all day and more, as evidenced by its time of more than 12 hours on our battery-rundown test. Of its competitors listed in the chart, only the MacBook Air and the Ideapad 720s lasted longer, and the Dell XPS 13 lasted significantly shorter because of its power-hungry 4K display.
An Ideal Blend of Price and Performance
Although it suffers from a flimsy keyboard and touchpad, the Asus ZenBook UX331UN offers an ideal blend of performance and price if you need a step up from Intel’s integrated graphics solution but don’t want to lug around a larger gaming laptop or shell out more than $1,000. You can of course go thinner and lighter by selecting the LG Gram, or boost the graphics performance with the Microsoft Surface Pro 2, but both are going to empty your wallet a bit more. If you deem the discrete graphics and attractive price worthy tradeoffs for the keyboard flex, you won’t be disappointed with the ZenBook.