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“Beauty and strength creates harmony” is how Asus’ Chairman Jonney Shih described his company’s first Ultrabooks – officially christened “Zenbook.” The philosophy in crafting the 11.6-inch UX21 and 13-inch UX31 Zenbooks was to find balance between power and style. It’s without any doubt that Asus has its gun aimed at Apple’s 11 and 13-inch MacBook Air notebooks. The Ultrabook vs. MacBook Air war has begun.

The smaller of the two Ultrabooks in the Zenbook family, the UX21 is like a suped up netbook – only it’s not one. Like all Ultrabooks, it lacks an optical drive. It’s wafer thin and weighs only 2.43 pounds.

Specifications

UX21E-DH52: Intel Core i5-2467 processor
UX21E-DH71: Intel Core i7-2677 processor
11.6-inch 1366×768 resolution screen
4GB RAM
128GB SATA III SSD
0.3-megapixel webcam
Bang & and Olfusen ICEpower and ASUS SonicMaster Technology HD Audio
1x USB 2.0 / 1x USB 3.0
mini HDMI / mini VGA ports
35Whrs battery (5 hrs) and 7 day standby
Genuine Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit

Design

Thin. Light. Gorgeous. Strong. These are all words that are fit to use to describe the UX21. Like the MacBook Air, Asus’ Zenbooks are built out of aluminum. Unlike the MacBook Air, the Zenbooks have a “metallic spun finish” on its lid and its inside palm wrest surface has a nice feeling brushed metal look.

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"Metallic spun finish"

At its thickest point the UX21 is 0.67-inches thick and at its thinnest it’s 0.11-inches. Remember those ugly little fat netbooks from the last few years? Yeah, the Zenbooks are lightyears ahead of those. We’re tempted to even crown the Zenbooks the most beautiful PC notebooks we’ve ever seen.

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Super thin profile

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Port-wise, there’s a USB 2.0 and 3.0 port, mini HDMI, mini VGA and an audio jack. It’s disappointing that there’s no memory card reader. Shame, but then again, the 11.6-inch MacBook Air doesn’t have one either.

Performance

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A thin a light notebook is nothing more than a netbook if it can’t rumble with the best full-fledged notebook computers. Although our hands-on with the UX21 doesn’t compare to proper benchmark testings, the UX21 did feel very responsive. Asus is touting its Zenbooks on its “worry-free, always on” tactic – a combination of SATA III (capable of 6Gbps) USB 3.0 ports and second generation Core i7 processors.

Some numbers Asus talked up was its two second instant-on feature – a feature it claims is the fastest on any notebook ever. You’ll get two weeks of standby time. Shih called its instant on “true instant on” and not like any its competitors are claiming.

We tested the instant on ourselves and can say from lid open, it resumes in two seconds or even less. The caveat is that you have to manually toggle the “instant on” feature via a desktop widget. If not, you’ll put the UX21 into a “deep sleep” mode and then it won’t resume in two seconds. Kind of lame that you also have to wait for a light indicator on the right side to signal that the computer is in sleep mode, but we’ll take what we can get for this type of speed.

With speedy Core i5 and i7 processors, opening apps and browsing lots of tabs on Chrome didn’t feel like a problem. Every Asus Zenbook comes with 4GB of RAM – it helps. In terms of graphics, the Zenbooks are stuck with Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. Sorry gamers.

Display

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For an 11.6-inch, the UX21 has a whopping 1366×768 resolution screen. If you’ve ever seen this type of pixel density on an 11.6-inch MacBook Air, then you’ll know how happy your eyeballs will be. Text is sharp from a foot away and brightness is more than enough. The environment we handled the UX21 wasn’t ideal, so we’ll reserve long term judgment on the screen for later.

Keyboard & Trackpad

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Practically every notebook computer now comes with “chiclet-style” keyboards – you either love it or you hate it. While typing on the MacBook Air’s separated keys is a delight (for the most part), the same can’t be said for the UX21. The keys don’t have much travel depth, which ultimately leads to them feeling a little stiff or “mushy” as what some other reporters said.

Add the fact that the neither the UX21 and UX31 have a back-lit keyboard and it feels a little behind the curve. Touch typers won’t mind, but those of us who rely on it will probably a little annoyed.

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Glass trackpad is kind of iffy and laggy.

On to the trackpad. Where to begin. It’s a glass trackpad, but it’s actually kind of poor. There is very noticeable lag during mousing and while it’s likely tweaking the tracking speed can fix this issue, it’s telling that Asus didn’t even bother to tweak it on their demo machines, which leads us to believe it might not be fixable. Two finger scrolling on websites is however quite snappy.

Sound

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Bang & Olfusen sound

Thin and light notebooks usually compromise on sound. The original MacBook Air was notorious for its mono speaker. It wasn’t until last year’s redesign that Apple figured out how to squeeze in stereo speakers into the Air. Well, Asus did not skimp out on the sound department. The UX21 has Asus’ “Sonicmaster technology” powered by Bang & Olufsen’s ICEpower. The result is sound that is loud and clear. We’re sure the audiophile will always find a way to dig at the sound from a consumer notebook, but for most people, any reduction in “tinniness” is welcome.

We were treated to a sample of classical music and even piped through speakers the audio sounded rich and deep.

Conclusion

Asus is launching the UX21 on October 12. That’s tomorrow. Depending on configuration, it’ll start at $999 and run up to $1,199. Asus is claiming 5 hours of battery life per charge (in line with competitors) and it comes with a USB to LAN and mini VGA to VGA adapters and a sleeve. If you’re looking for a great alternative to the Air that runs Windows 7, the UX21 is the perfect little travel companion.

Filed in Breaking >Computers . Tags: Asus and ultrabooks.
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