Ultrabooks hit the shelves: Acer Aspire S3 vs. Asus Zenbook UX31

They're thin, lightweight and elegant -- but how well do they work? We test two of the first ultrabooks to find out.

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Asus Zenbook UX31

Beauty may be only skin deep, but Asus's Zenbook UX31 is gorgeous inside and out. It not only has a design that fuses form and function, but it is powerful and brings a feeling of elegance to mobile computing.

The shiny brushed aluminum case has a swirling pattern on the screen lid that is almost hypnotic to look at. Like the Aspire S3, there's no lid latch, but the Zenbook can be awkward to open because its hinge puts up too much resistance.

Asus UX31
Asus UX31

While its 0.6-in. thickness at the front is slightly thinner than the Aspire S3's, its 12.7 x 8.8 in. footprint is slightly wider and longer. Still, the Zenbook easily fits on an airline tray table with room to spare. The system comes with a cloth slipcase.

Although Asus specs the Zenbook at 2.9 lb., mine weighed 3.1 lb., a couple of ounces heavier than the MacBook Air and the Aspire S3. The system comes with a lightweight two-prong AC adapter that brings its travel weight to 3.5 lb., which is 2 oz. lighter than the Aspire S3's.

(Asus also has a UX21 line of Zenbooks with 11.6-in. screens. These weigh about half a pound less than the UX31, and sell for between $999 and $1,199.)

The Zenbook is built around a slightly faster Intel Core i5-2557M processor, which normally runs at 1.7GHz, and can speed up to 2.7GHz when the computing gets intense. The system comes with a non-upgradable 4GB of RAM.

A speedy SSD

The review Zenbook came with a 128GB SSD drive rather than the larger and more innovative hybrid storage system on the S3 (you can also buy the Zenbook with a larger 256GB SSD). The system is certainly speedy -- it woke up from sleep mode in 2.7 seconds, slightly faster than the Aspire S3's 3.3 seconds, but the difference will be hard to notice.

While the Zenbook uses the same Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor as the Aspire S3, its 13.3-in. display offers 1600 x 900 resolution. It comes with 64MB of dedicated video memory -- half the video memory of the Aspire S3 -- but can use its RAM to bring the total up to 1.7GB.

It has a webcam above the display, but the camera is only capable of VGA resolution, roughly one-quarter the resolution of the Aspire S3's webcam. Not surprisingly, images it produced had jagged edges.

The Zenbook UX31 has a wider variety of ports than the Aspire S3, including not only an SD/MMC flash card reader, but micro-HDMI, audio, USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports. It also comes with Ethernet and VGA adapters.

The Zenbook's speakers are located between the bottom of the screen and the top of the keyboard. Based on Bang & Olufsen's ICEpower audio, they sound much better than the Aspire S3's speakers, providing rich mid-tones.

The Zenbook has another ace up its sleeve: its Power4Gear Hybrid software lets you tune the system's performance and battery life to suit what you need it to do. There are four settings, including High Performance, Entertainment, Quiet Office and Battery Saving, but you can tweak them further by changing individual settings.

Performance testing

I tested the Zenbook using two of its four modes: High Performance and Battery Saving.

In High Performance mode, the Zenbook flew past the competition with a 1,280.1 score on the PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark -- roughly 30% higher than the Aspire S3's results. Its CineBench 11.5 results of 1.22 and 5.51 for processor and graphics tests were, on the other hand, a little behind those of the S3. Meanwhile, the system's 5,985 mAh battery ran for 2 hours and 59 minutes, 15 minutes short of the Aspire S3's battery life.

By contrast, in Battery Saving mode, battery life increased to 3 hours and 57 minutes. However, it took a considerable toll on performance; its PerformanceTest 7.0 score fell to 550.6, less than half its previous score, and the CineBench 11.5 results dove to 0.95 and 3.76.

As is the case with the Aspire S3, longer battery life would be a welcome addition. But, at least with the Zenbook, you can choose whether peak performance or battery life is more important to you.

During testing, the system played online HD videos and media-heavy PowerPoint shows, and completed 72 hours of BurnIn without an error.

The Zenbook includes Windows 7 Home Premium, can use Intel's Anti-Theft and Identity Protection technology and comes with Trend Micro's Titanium Internet Security software (with a month of virus updates). A big bonus is the Zenbook's warranty, which couples two years of coverage with a year of accident protection.

Bottom line

Using the Zenbook won't make you more Zen-like or serene. But it is beautifully designed and provides the ability to decide when you want the system to run at full power or to idle along. In other words, it puts you in control of computing.


I liked the Aspire S3's simplicity and enviable price tag, but its battery just didn't last long enough and its assortment of ports didn't measure up to the Zenbook's.

The Zenbook's battery life was better, but ultimately still a disappointment. Its adjustable performance somewhat makes up for this, and the system does everything else right, from its USB 3.0 port to its solid state storage. Add in the two-year warranty and a year of accident coverage and you have a system built for the long run.

For those and other reasons, the Asus Zenbook is my choice between the two. That said, I expect this genre to evolve quickly as more models come out.

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