Software and User Experience
The default Windows 7 install is remarkably clean, though a few blemishes mar an otherwise pleasant experience. The included McAfee antivirus suite was annoyingly noisy, bothering me with all manner of useless popups whenever I inserted a USB flash drive or SD card—even after I told it not to prompt me about them. Removing it in favor of MS Security Essentials made for a far more pleasant experience. The included version of Adobe Reader was dangerously out-of-date, considering how often it is used as an attack vector for malware of all kinds. Thankfully, updating it is a fairly swift task, or you can remove it entirely in favor of an alternative PDF reader (SumatraPDF is my personal favorite). Aside from that, there wasn’t much installed aside from a Office 2010 starter edition install that can be unlocked with a licence key and Windows Live Essentials.
Most of Asus’s own software is surprisingly pleasant and low key. The majority of it is background stuff that handles tasks like hotkeys, power management, trackpad gestures, and network negotiation. The hotkey handling is especially slick; little pop ups appear to let you know what you just changed, and disappear before they get annoying. Of the programs that have the most visibility, FaceLogon was the only one that bothered me. It’s meant to automatically log you in by recognizing your face from the webcam, but in practice its operation was spotty. It wasn’t fooled by pictures of me held in front of the camera, but half the time it failed to recognize the actual me in indoor lighting. Splendid lets you try out different color presets for the display, but the default is good enough that I never felt the need. LifeFrame is a lackluster video application that lets you take still images and low-resolution videos, it’s better off ignored. The AI Backup utility is Asus’s alternative to providing a windows restore disk; it will generate ISO files that you can burn to disc and use to restore the system to its default state from an external DVD or BD drive.
The trackpad deserves some mention here; the software provided by ASUS supports several of the multi-touch gestures we’ve become used to on smartphones, including two-finger scrolling, pinch-to-zoom, and three-finger swipes for browser back/forward. Tap-to-click is enabled here, and a two-finger tap will right-click anywhere on the pad. There’s no way of configuring or disabling these gestures, so if you dislike them, you’ll need to bring along an external mouse of some kind.
The keyboard is the chiclet style we’ve all become accustomed to in a post Macbook world. The keys are properly spaced, and pleasantly tactile without being stiff. The adjustable backlight is a nice touch; allowing you to find the key you need in a pitch black room. The lack of dedicated keys for home/end/pgup/pgdn took some getting used to, but this sort of tradeoff is unavoidable on a machine of this size, and their placement as alternates on the arrow key cluster makes sense.
The speakers are tinny, as you’d expect, though vocal quality is good for speakers of this size. Volume is acceptable, but not overpowering; you’ll want to use headphones in noisy environments. The microphone had no trouble picking up my voice clearly over Skype, and did a decent job of filtering out the tap-tap-tap of keyboard keys as I talked.
While we are not a big fan of Windows 8, the UX31A presents an ideal mobile environment for the use of this new OS. First the UX31A has a lot of display real estate at 1920 x 1080 which lends itself well to the new “Metro” layout of Windows 8. Small display’s and resolutions would make the experience feel cramped and not intuitive. The display also have the secondary benefit of being an IPS vibrant display. Media looks wonderful on the UX31A which is of course the intended purpose of Windows 8.
Second, the i7 and SSD lends itself well to Windows 8 claim of much reduced, near instant on boot times. The UX31A makes short work of delivering on this promise with amazingly fast boot and near instant on resume times. Add this to the speedy U100 Sandisk SSD included and you have blazing delivery of video, audio, or any media.
Lastly the included webcam is 720P HD quality which lends itself to conferencing and two way Skype calls. This is excellent as a primary point of contention that many media and mobile users face is the overwhelming lack of quality of the included webcam on many laptops.
Overall the UX31A presents a great platform for Windows 8 to shine in. The only thing missing would be a touch interface for the display. This addition of course would add significantly to the cost of the unit and is not really necessary for mobile users.
I was unable to get inside the unit, due to not having a Torx wrench as small as was required on hand, but according to this teardown report, the SSD is similar in form-factor to the one used in the Macbook Air, though not cross-compatible. The RAM is soldered onto the mainboard, with no upgrade slots. Given that this unit comes with only 4GB of RAM, that might be problematic for long-term viability. Most consumers do not keep a laptop long enough to outlive the usefulness of the hardware. Given the rate at which revolutions in technology occur and the associated cost of portable computing its probable that consumers will purchase a new laptop long before the UX31A would become outdated. The UX31A we tested here is an i7 powered model with a more than sufficient 256GB SSD, unless the hardware requirements of “Windows 9″ should well exceed those of Windows 8 using the laptop long term should only present a problem to the most extreme of power users. in Which case such a user is probably not buying an Ultrabook to begin with. The wireless combo card, which provides 802.11N and BlueTooth 4.0, is a standard mini-PCIe affair, with antenna and ground attachment points within easy reach. The battery is held down with only a few Phillips head screws, and looks to be fairly easy to replace if you can source a spare.