Low-cost laptops are usually not very good, and good laptops are usually very expensive. In fact, the budget market is overrun with large, bulky laptops that have weak specifications and no modern conveniences, and the situation has actually become worse over the past few years. As the Indian rupee has fallen in value, the quality of laptops at all price levels have declined. Useful things such as large SSDs, backlit keyboards and USB Type-C ports shouldn’t be luxury features, but it’s hard to find a good deal on a laptop for under Rs. 60,000 these days.

Moreoever, as people who commute with laptops every day and often travel with very heavy backpacks full of equipment, we’ve really come to appreciate low weight. With rare exceptions (such as the uncharacteristically low MacBook Air prices we’ve seen during recent festive season sales), no laptop that’s both powerful and affordable weighs less than 1.5kg.

Asus gave us nearly all the features we were looking for in 2015 with its 1.2kg ZenBook UX305 priced at just under Rs. 50,000. Following that, though, the company went high-end with its ZenBook lineup. It’s only now that we have a true successor in the form of the ZenBook 13 (UX331). It’s unfortunately a little more expensive, but it bridges the budget and premium categories with great specifications, useful features, and a weight of just 0.98kg. It all sounds too good to be true, so we had to call this model in for a review. Here’s what we think after spending some quality time with it.

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Asus ZenBook 13 (UX331) design

For a laptop with a 13.3-inch screen, the ZenBook 13 (UX331) is surprisingly small and light. It’s one thing to know from reading Asus’s official description that this laptop weighs 0.98kg, but you need to actually pick it up to understand how light that actually is for a laptop. For the sake of comparison, the MacBook Air (2010-2017), which is most people’s idea of an ultraportable, weighs 1.35kg and is also about 1cm wider and deeper. Most other laptop models that come anywhere close to this kind of weight, such as the Apple MacBook, use weaker hardware and are much more expensive. In fact, the ZenBook 13 (UX331) is in roughly the same weight class as the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro or Microsoft Surface Pro tablets with their respective keyboard cases.

You’d literally feel a huge weight off your shoulders if you’re used to carrying a laptop every day. This is something that should immediately appeal to people who travel or commute a lot. However, if you’re thinking that there must be a tradeoff, you’d be correct. The ZenBook 13 (UX331) does not feel anywhere near as sturdy as the other devices we’ve just compared it to. Despite having a metal body, this laptop bends and flexes to a disconcerting degree. It isn’t flimsy, but we wouldn’t be comfortable putting any weight on it or tossing it in a bag without a lot of padding. The hinge isn’t very stiff and the lid doesn’t feel like it could withstand much rough treatment.

After spending time with this laptop, we have to say that it’s a little less appealing in real life than the description made it out to be. Thankfully, you get a protective sleeve in the retail box.

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The sides of the ZenBook 13 (UX331) look as though they’re tapered, but that’s just clever moulding. Asus hasn’t tried to go razor-thin. The body is almost uniformly 139mm thick, and that leaves a lot of space for full-sized ports. You get a USB 3.0 Type-A port on either side, one USB 3.1 (Gen 1, 5Gbps) Type-C port, an HDMI video output, a 3.5mm audio socket, and a power inlet. There’s also a microSD card slot — an SD slot would have been preferable, but considering that other ultraportables have ditched this feature, we’ll take what we can get. Asus also kindly includes a USB Ethernet dongle, which is great to see.

Asus sells this laptop in two colour options in India — Rose Gold and Deep Dive Blue. The latter is more neutral and will have wider appeal, but we didn’t find our Rose Gold review unit too garish either. The trademark brushed metal pattern of concentric circles that we’ve seen on other ZenBook models is missing here, and there are no bevelled edges or accent colours anywhere. It’s an understated and less premium look than what we’ve come to expect from the ZenBook line.

The body colour extends to the insides of the laptop, except for the black plastic frame surrounding the screen and the keyboard keys. The screen is not glossy, which means that it is not annoyingly reflective under indoor lights. This is great for productivity, but colours don’t pop very much. The keyboard has a standard layout, with nothing out of place. Keyboard backlighting is always appreciated, but there are only two brightness levels to choose from. The arrow keys are all squashed into one row but are wider than usual, which somewhat makes up for that. The power button has been integrated into the top-right corner, and as with other ZenBooks, it’s a bit stiffer than the other keys, to minimse the chance of accidental presses. One nice touch is the fingerprint sensor just below the arrow keys.

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Asus ZenBook 13 (UX331) specifications and software

Laptops this small and light usually use Intel’s sub-5W Y-series CPUs, which don’t need fans and aren’t as powerful as their mainstream counterparts. The ZenBook 13 (UX331) however somehow manages to fit in a 15W U-series processor designed for more typical thin-and-light laptops, as well as the cooling apparatus required for it. The only other laptop that manages this is the 0.97kg Acer Swift 5, which is a hair lighter, but quite a bit more expensive.

You have a choice between the Core i5-8250U and the Core i7-8550U. We’re reviewing the entry-level configuration of this laptop, so we have the former, which has a base speed of 1.6GHz and a maximum turbo speed of 3.4GHz in short bursts. Both CPU options are based on the Kaby Lake Refresh platform and both have four cores with Hyper-Threading. Both also have the same Intel UHD Graphics 620 integrated GPU.

The 13.3-inch screen has a resolution of 1920×1080. Windows 10 was set to scale to 150 percent by default, which we felt was a bit too wasteful, so we changed it to 100 percent and reclaimed a lot of usable desktop space. The panel is supposed to have 178-degree viewing angles, and that seemed about right in our experience. Asus claims that it can reproduce 72 percent of the NTSC colour gamut, which isn’t really saying a lot.

Our review unit had 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SATA SSD which we think is quite generous for the price. One step up gets you a 512GB PCIe SSD with the same CPU, and the top-end variant gives you the Core i7 CPU with the larger SSD. The RAM is soldered down but at least the SSD is upgradeable. You get dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.2. The battery capacity is 50WHr, and promised runtime for office productivity is an impressive 15 hours.

You get Windows 10 Home with demo versions of McAfee LiveSafe and Microsoft Office 365 and a whole bunch of Windows Store apps. Asus also throws in WPS Office, a product registration app, a battery health app, a fan speed control app, an e-manual, a service centre locator, and the Giftbox app store. This app is full of commonly available freeware but also gives Asus laptop buyers some potential useful discounts and offers such as 25GB of free Dropbox space for a year.

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Asus ZenBook 13 (UX331) performance

We used the ZenBook 13 (UX331) for about a week and it didn’t give us any trouble whatsoever. It was able to handle video streaming from popular services without any stuttering, and we could multitask between dozens of browser tabs and quite a few apps without a hitch. The Core i5 processor with its integrated GPU has more than enough grunt for everyday productivity. The keyboard keys were a bit stiff and the trackpad was just slightly too smooth for our liking, but we got used to both after an hour or two of use.

Benchmark performance was quite respectable. Cinebench R15’s single-core and multi-core scores were 140 and 510 respectively. POVRay’s ray tracing benchmark ran in 5 minutes, 59 seconds. PCMark 10’s standard and extended test scenarios gave us 2,853 and 2,076 points respectively. The SSD put up a decent show as well, with CrystalDiskMark reporting 560.5MBps sequential reads and 268.2MBps sequential writes. As for graphics tests, we got 941 points in the 3DMark Fire Strike test and 15.4fps in Unigine Valley at 1920×1080 using the Medium preset, which reflects the capabilities of integrated GPUs. You’ll be able to run older or less intense games at around 30fps, using 1280×720 as the resolution and low to medium quality settings.

The screen isn’t of the highest quality, in terms of colour vibrancy, gradients, and motion smoothness, and but it’s good enough for casual entertainment. 4K videos ran fine. Despite the Harman/Kardon co-branding, the speakers on the ZenBook 13 (UX331) were very disappointing. The sound is loud but harsh, and we could hear distortion even at the 50 percent volume level.

The left and middle of the keyboard got a bit warm when running long benchmarks. Heavy tasks such as our real-world video encoding and file compression tests caused the system fan spin up, producing a soft but persistently grating whine. That said, this was never a problem with ordinary day-to-day use. If you don’t do any heavy 3D rendering on this laptop — which would be the case for most people given its target audience — you might never hear the fan at all.

Battery life is very good. We easily made it through a full workday, most of which was spent online using browser-based apps and tools. We streamed an hour of video and saw that the battery level dipped by just about 10 percent. The heavy Battery Eater Pro test ran for 3 hours, 10 minutes, which is very good for such a portable laptop. The 45W charger is pretty compact and easy to carry around, but it does take a while to get this laptop up to 100 percent, and it didn’t charge through its Type-C port when we tried it.

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Verdict
We’ve been waiting years for Asus to launch a successor to the ZenBook UX305, and now, here it is. The new ZenBook 13 (UX331) is more expensive, but that’s in line with how international currency exchange values have changed since then. It’s also thinner, lighter, and more powerful, but hasn’t lost any connectivity or flexibility. It has pretty much everything you need for getting work done, and you can carry it anywhere without being weighed down. The only real downside is the lack of physical sturdiness, which means you have to handle this laptop with care.

If you’ve always wanted a Windows-based alternative to the MacBook Air, the entry-level ZenBook 13 (UX331) has a beefier processor, twice the storage space, and way more ports of various kinds. It’s significantly lighter, though undoubtedly much less premium in terms of overall feel. Most importantly, it costs just a little over half as much as the newly launched Retina MacBook Air. The Acer Swift 5 and Swift 7 are the only real Windows-based alternatives in terms of weight, but also cost more. If price isn’t a concern at all, you would be better off with the more expensive Dell XPS 13, Microsoft Surface Laptop, or Lenovo Yoga 730.

We hope other manufacturers take note and start developing this niche — we like thin and light laptops, but they don’t have to be super-expensive and they don’t have to go so far as to ditch tonnes of useful features.

Price (MRP): Rs. 66,990 (as reviewed)

Pros

  • Extraordinarily light
  • Good overall performance
  • Large SSD 
  • Lots of ports
  • Great value for money

Cons

  • Feels flimsy and delicate
  • Average display quality

Ratings (out of 5)

  • Design: 3.5
  • Display: 3.5
  • Performance: 4
  • Software: 4
  • Battery life: 4.5
  • Value for money: 4.5
  • Overall: 4



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