The Asus Zenbook Prime UX32A was one of our favourite Ultrabooks of 2012, and certainly took the thin and light fight back to Apple with its sleek form and brushed-metal good looks. Move forward 18 months and we have a new range of Zenbooks, now based around Intel's latest Haswell processor generation. The UX302L we have here is the lesser of two options, although it’s still a potent proposition.
The overall design is almost identical to the Prime UX32A, with just a few extra millimetres here and there plus a few grams added to the weight. The lid has also acquired a shinier blue appearance, courtesy of a Gorilla Glass coating, but the general brushed metal stylishness remains. Attention may have moved on from Ultrabooks to hybrid notebook-tablet devices over the last few months, but this is still a good-looking and desirable piece of kit. The lid does attract fingerprints easily, but they polish off quickly with the supplied cloth.
As mentioned, the central specification is based around an Intel Haswell processor. The Core i7-4500U supplied with our sample is nominally a 15W processor running at 1.8GHz, but it also has an 11.5W mode that runs at 800MHz and a 25W mode that runs at 2.4GHz, whilst a single core can rise to 3GHz when required, all thanks to Intel Turbo Boost. Asus has partnered this processor with what is now the bare minimum 4GB DDR3 SDRAM memory, although it is possible to specify 8GB, which you will need to do at the time of purchase because the RAM is not user-upgradeable.
The CPU also supplies the graphics, which has been upgraded yet again for this Intel processor range. There is a UX301 version of this notebook that sports the Core i7-4558U with the potent Iris 5100 integrated graphics, and a version of the UX302L called the UX302LG with Nvidia discrete graphics on board. But our sample's CPU came with HD 4400 instead, which is only a mild improvement over the HD 4000 in Ivy Bridge processors. It sports 20 cores rather than 16, running at 1,100MHz rather than the top 1,350MHz of HD 4000 – but it should still provide faster 3D acceleration.
The UX302L's storage is almost identical to the UX32A we tested in 2012. To provide the best balance of capacity and price, Asus has adopted a hybrid approach, supplying a 500GB Hitachi Travelstar Z5K500 conventional 5,400rpm hard disk as the main drive, but with a 16GB SanDisk U110 solid state disk as a cache. This means boot up, revival from hibernation, and loading frequently-used apps will all be rapid, and the hard disk can spin down more often to conserve power. It's a sensible compromise, and a good alternative to the slightly miserly standard 128GB we usually find with SSD-based Ultrabooks, although it will have some implications for battery life.
Apart from the new Intel processor and refreshed design, the screen is the other major area of improvement over previous Zenbooks. The higher-end UX301 offers a 2,560 x 1,440 IGZO IPS panel option, but this model makes do with a mere 1,920 x 1,080 IPS panel. Both are 13.3in touchscreens, which is always handy with Windows 8's finger-focused approach. The UX302L's screen has good viewing angles, and only a small amount of backlight bleed around the edges. The glossy surface does mar visibility with reflections in some conditions, but overall this is a premium screen compared to most Ultrabooks.
The backlit Chiclet-style keyboard is virtually identical to the UX32A's. It's comfortable to use, with an action that inhabits a happy middle ground between response and feedback, although we would have preferred a slightly lighter feel. The trackpad is still in the aesthetically determined centre of the wrist rest, rather than directly beneath the spacebar. However, the algorithm preventing accidental brushing appears to have been improved, because we didn't have the issues we experienced with the UX32A. In this case, the heel of the right hand doesn't cause the mouse pointer to jump around, as it did with the UX32A and a number of other notebooks where the trackpad isn't directly beneath the spacebar.
Despite being an Ultrabook, the UX302L is particularly well endowed with connectivity. There are no less than three USB 3.0 ports, with two on the left and one on the right. Also on the left is the SD card slot, whilst the right is home to a mini DisplayPort, a full-sized HDMI connection, and a combo microphone and headphone minijack. Asus has also helpfully included a USB dongle for wired LAN and a DisplayPort adapter for VGA, with a little pouch to carry both in. So the UX302L can readily attach to a corporate network or legacy VGA-only projector.
Battery life is an improvement on the previous model, too. The UX302L lasted 156 minutes in our intensive rundown test, which stresses the processor and graphics at 100 per cent. This is about 20 per cent more than the earlier model, and implies that the UX302L should last more than five hours of everyday usage, which is adequate if not stunning. We would have preferred a couple more hours, but this will be enough for a lengthy journey or most of a working day.
With the Zenbook UX302L, Asus has taken an already impressive Ultrabook design and tweaked it in some very welcome areas. The look has been mildly refreshed, it's noticeably faster in 2D and 3D, battery life is better – albeit still not a strong point – and the trackpad issues of the earlier models have been solved. Although this model was not yet on sale in the UK at the time of writing, from the US price we estimate that it will weigh in at about £950, making it decent value for money, too.
Manufacturer and Model
Asus Zenbook UX302L
1.8GHz Intel Core i7-4500U
4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Intel HD 4400
500GB Hitachi Travelstar Z5K500 5,400rpm hard disk; 16GB SanDisk U110 solid state disk
13.3in IPS touchscreen with 1,920 x 1,080 pixels
802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
3 x USB 3.0, SD card reader, combo headphone / microphone minijack, mini DisplayPort, VGA via adapter, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet via USB adapter
Width x Depth x Height
325 x 226 x 17.2mm
2 years limited international