ASUS UX21 – A Few (Critical) Mistakes from Great

It was all looking so good. The feel of cold, smooth, brushed aluminum. The solidity of a thin form factor. Beautifully sleek design. Keys painted to match the brushed aluminum chassis. A large clickable trackpad. Good build tolerances all around. Sub-2.5lb weight.

And then I turned the thing on, and everything went downhill.

I’m writing about the ASUS UX21. I really wanted to like this fantastic looking “Ultrabook”, and it’s a really convincing rendition of a Windows-based MacBook Air-compete. However, a few critical components crippled the user experience of this unit in particular. Here are the specs of the version I picked up at the Microsoft Store.

  • ASUS Zenbook UX21E-DH52
  • Intel Core i5-2467m, dual core HyperThreading (1.6GHz – Turbo 2.3GHz)
  • 4GB DDR3
  • 128GB ADATA XM11 SSD
  • 11.6″ 1366×768 (TN)
  • Intel HD 3000 integrated video
  • Atheros AR9485 802.11b/g/n
  • 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, mini-VGA, micro-HDMI, 3.5mm headset
  • Trackpad – Sentilic
  • 35WHr battery

As I alluded to at the beginning of the post, the design of the UX21 is gorgeous. Although the dimensions and components used in this machine are almost exact replicas of the 11.6″ MacBook Air, the build quality is as good, if not better, and the execution of the design makes this a striking laptop. The radiating circular brush design on the lid works well, and even the two tones of aluminium for the lid and chassis complement each other, very well. The keyboard deck is firm, is nicely coloured to match the rest of the visual style, and even the display bezel seems to be aluminum. Closing the laptop produces a confident “thunk”. Once closed, the entire laptop feels like a solid chunk of metal, with little-to-no flex anywhere. Overall, the PC is stunning to look at and hold.

The first hints of trouble are seen when setting the machine up, for the first time. The trackpad isn’t sensitive all the way to the bottom edge – I think this is so you can rest your thumb/other finger on the “click-area”, without impacting cursor movement. But that’s a lazy way of getting around the real issue; other than in a MacBook, we still haven’t seen a good driver implementation of a clickpad, which can parse the difference between contact for moving the cursor and contact intended for clicking. While the trackpad looks awfully large and feels like one contiguous surface, you can’t tell at what point the trackpad will no longer be sensitive to your finger, as you move around. In that sense, ASUS would have been better off with separate buttons. ASUS says an updated trackpad driver should solve most issues, but I have the latest version they recommend (9.1.7.7), and there are still problems.

Fortunately, performance, even with a low-voltage Core i5 is very snappy, and the solid state drive (which uses an SF-2281 controller) is extremely quick. Boot up times are astronomically low. From a cold boot, the Windows 7 start up orbs don’t even have time to group together before we’re off to the Windows desktop. Resume from sleep is essentially instantaneous. It’s a superb experience. Given ASUS’ claim that this will last 1 week+ on standby, we’re getting pretty close to consumer-electronics experience.

After setting up Windows in the first boot, I connected to my home wireless network and opened up Internet Explorer and waited for the homepage to load. And waited. And waited.

Sure, MSN is not exactly the lightest-weight page in the world, but on a 20mbps downlink internet connection, it really shouldn’t take upwards of 20 seconds. I flipped over to Engadget, only to find that it loaded just as slowly. I thought it might be a temporary slowdown in my internet connection, but everything was still very speedy on my desktop. Speedtest.net showed I had download speeds below 2mbps. Fortunately, with a USB wireless N adapter lying around, I had an easy way to isolate the issue. I plugged that in and tried browsing again. Everything was near instantaneous and Speedtest.net showed ~16mbps down.

I searched the web for issues with Wifi on the Zenbooks and quickly found numerous users having the same problem with the built-in Atheros solution. For some, installing an older version of the Wifi driver helped. For me, it didn’t. Transferring files from my Windows Home Server became absurdly slow, to the point of unusable. This is a deal-breaker.

And the rest is mostly history. The laptop is, for the most part, pretty quiet. The fan rarely spins up (although my UX21 came with the 206 BIOS – some folks have said the update to 207 runs the fan more often: bad). The display is mediocre, but gets the job done; viewing angles aren’t great, but neither is the likelihood that I’ll be sharing an 11.6″ display with several other people or needing to fit it in some crazy angle on an economy seat tray table. Battery life is right around ASUS’ advertised mark. I get in the range of 4-5 hours of browsing, before the computer wants to hibernate.

The keyboard, which some have complained about, is okay – it’s a bit stiffer and has shallower travel than most keyboards, but you quickly get used to that. The keys seem smaller than a full-size though, particularly in the length dimension, so sometimes I overshoot. I’m typing this review on the UX21, and I’m already pretty used to the layout and firmness.

This laptop is going back, and with the combination of wifi (deal-breaker), touchpad (nearly deal-breaker) and a number of smaller issues, it’s not something I’ll try another unit of. The external design and construction of the UX series is phenomenal. Now they just need to choose the right key components for a good user-experience. The UX21 is a almost a great PC, but a few mistakes were made on critical components, which completely undermined the potential of the system.

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