In Pictures: MacBook Air killer from ASUS

ZenBook UX305 is a Windows Ultrabook that copies the MacBook Air’s look, but not its price.

  • Zenbook At first glance, you might mistake the ASUS ZenBook UX305 as a dark-gray edition of the 13-inch MacBook Air. It shares nearly the same design cues and size, but is thinner than the Apple notebook is at its thickest point, and weighs less. It also beats many of the current 13-inch MacBook Air’s hardware specs. And it costs less -- a whole lot less – at $699, compared to $999 for the MacBook Air.

  • Form factor: Kudos and coolness Because its innards are sealed in an all-aluminum chassis, the UX305 feels persistently cool to the touch. The bezel, bottom and keyboard panel have the same matted surface, and won’t become easily marred with fingerprints; the lid is smooth with a circular polish that is more prone, though, to picking up smudges. The lid closes with a secure tightness making the notebook feel like a single milled object -- a slightly wedged slab.

  • Keyboard and touchpad: Touches all the bases The keys have generous spacing among, but the keyboard doesn’t have back-lighting, which the MacBook Air has. The top of the keys are level with the surrounding paneling; when pressed, they don’t feel mushy, and pop back up without looseness. The palm-rest areas are more than large enough for most hand sizes. Because the touchpad is so large (about 4.75 inches) and close to the spacebar, you’d be best to keep your fingers and palms raised in proper ergonomic fashion as you type. The touchpad moves the pointer at an increasingly accelerating rate over the wide expanse of the high-resolution display, with only a short swipe by your finger that feels about right -- neither too slow nor too fast.

  • Screen: Looking sharp The surface of the 13.3-inch display is matted. It’s so effective that I didn’t experience glare whether I used the ZenBook indoors or outside in sunlight. The backlight looks even throughout the display -- it remains consistent when viewed from extreme horizontal or vertical angles. The colors appear discernible without any particular one popping out distractingly or bleeding over to another. Text shown on the UX305’s 1920-by-1080-pixel screen, at the default font size settings of Windows 8.1, look sharp. Even the tiny wording of Tiles on the Start Screen are legible if your eyesight is healthy.

  • Speakers: Sounding weak Two speakers are set at the bottom of the notebook’s chassis: one each near the edge of the width sides. Because they feature audio technology from Bang & Olufsen, you might expect them to belt out full, warm sound. But, in actuality, the various genres of music I played on the UX305 tended to come off thin in the low end with weak bass. These speakers didn’t necessarily sound bad; they were not unlistenable. They just lacked a powerful audio presence.

  • Performance: Powerful, quiet Since this notebook has a resolution that matches high-definition video, I played through a gamut of 1080p videos. With a fast Internet connection, the videos played without lag or stutter. The bottom of the notebook’s aluminum casing barely began to feel warm, as I played videos for over an hour. The Intel Core M-5Y10 processor managed to stay cool, and, because it’s fanless, this notebook doesn’t make any extraneous noise. Even when multitasking, streaming music and video playback hardly faltered, and I purposely kept five other programs open, to try to grind down the processor.

  • Webcam and mic: In focus Using the Windows 8.1 Camera app, I found the front-facing camera excellent at focusing on objects held up-close, even within a few inches, and it did so instantly. Taken under typical indoor lighting during the daytime, images and video had a noticeable graininess and leaned a little toward a yellow tint, but they were clear and in focus. Testing the mic, I recorded a few audio clips of my voice, using the Windows 8.1 Sound Recorder app, as I sat a few feet in front of the notebook. The clip of me speaking sounded clear and crisp with no buzzing or other distortion.

  • Software: Limited third-party apps The Windows 8.1, 64-bit installation on the UX305 includes a medley of ASUS brand tools. The only third-party apps are Foxit PhantomPDF and McAfee LiveSafe. Over on the Windows Store app side, though, several nonessential ones neither by ASUS nor Microsoft are pre-installed (e.g. iHeartRadio, Netflix, Twitter).

  • Battery Life: Definitely an issue The display’s native resolution of 1920-by-1080 pixels eats more power than the 13-inch MacBook Air’s 1440-by-900. ASUS says the UX305 can run up to 10 hours on a fully charged battery. With this notebook on its default settings, I got only around 6 hours and 30 minutes. Charging the battery took about 2 hours and 40 minutes. I then installed all the Windows 8.1 updates, minimized playing streaming media, turned on “power saver,” turned off all the Live Tiles on the Start Screen, turned on auto-dimming, and uninstalled McAfee security. These actions resulted in an additional 30 or so minutes. That’s not terrible, but nor is it as good as one might expect from a notebook like this.

  • Conclusion: Premium notebook, low price Although battery life probably had to be sacrificed, the ZenBook UX305 still has a lot going for it: 256GB SSD, beautiful display, good keyboard and touchpad, speedy performance (assisted by 8GB RAM), and a light and thin form that, to be frank, is a knock-off (and a good one at that) of the 13-inch MacBook Air’s. These all add up to a premium notebook that you can buy without paying a premium price.

  • The specs: OS: Windows 8.1, 64-bit Processor: Intel Core M-5Y10, 2 GHz RAM: 8GB Onboard storage: 256GB SSD Display: 13.3”, 1920 x 1080 pixels Audio: microphone, speakers (two) Camera: 720p, front Networking: Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi (802.11n) Ports: headphone/microphone combo jack, Micro HDMI, SD/SDXC, USB 3.0 (three) Battery: Up to 10 hours (listed); 6 to about 7 hours (as tested) Dimensions (width, depth, height): 12.8” x 8.9” x 0.5” Weight: 2.6 lbs. Price: $699

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