I’ve had my ASUS Zenbook UX32V for almost three years now and, if I’m quite honest, the fact that it’s managed to last this long has surprised me. Notsomuch from a “it’s still working” perspective, more that it still seems just as capable today as it did back then. Still it has begun to show its age in some regards, like the small 28GB SSD (which for some reason doesn’t show up as a unified device) being unable to do any in-place upgrades due to the limited space. Plus I figured this far down the line there was bound to be something better, sleeker and, possibly, far cheaper and so I began the search for my ultrabooks replacement. The resulting search has shown that, whilst there’s dozens of options available, compromise on one or more aspects is the name of the game.
Essentially what I was looking for was a modern replacement of the UX32V which, in my mind had the following features: small, light, discrete graphics and a moderately powerful CPU. Of course I’d be looking to improve on most other aspects as much as I could such as a better screen, longer battery life (it’ll get at most a couple hours when gaming now) and a large SSD so I don’t run into the same issues that I have been. In general terms pretty much every ultrabook out there ticks most of those boxes however once I start adding in certain must-have features things start to get a little sticky.
For starters a discrete graphics card isn’t exactly standard affair for an ultrabook, even though I figured since they crammed in a pretty powerful unit into the UX32V that they’d likely be everywhere the next time I went to look. No for most ultrabooks, which seem to be defined as slim and light laptops now, the graphics card of choice is the integrated Intel chipset, one that isn’t particularly stellar for anything that’s graphically intensive. Larger ultrabooks, especially those with very high res screens, tend to come with a lower end discrete card in them but, unfortunately, they also bring with them the added bulk of their size.
Indeed it seems anything that brings with it a modicum of power, whether it be from the discrete graphics chip or say a beefier processor, also comes with an additional increase in heft. After poking around for a while I found out that many of the smaller models came with a dual core chip, something which can mean it will be CPU bound for tasks. However adding in a quad core chip usually means the laptop swells in thickness in order to accommodate the additional heat output of the larger chip, usually pushing it out of ultrabook territory.
In the end the conclusion I’ve come to is that a sacrifice needs to be made so that I can get the majority of my requirements met. Out of all the ultrabooks I looked at the Alienware 13 (full disclosure: I work for Dell, their parent company) meets most of the specifications whilst unfortunately falling short on the CPU side and also being noticeably thicker than my current Zenbook is. However those are two tradeoffs I’m more than willing to make given the fact it meets everything other requirement I have and the reviews of it seem to be good. I haven’t taken the plunge yet, I’m still wondering if there’s another option out there that I haven’t seen yet, but I’m quickly finding out that having all the choice in the world may mean you really have no choice at all.
My stance on Cloud Gaming is well known and honestly barring some major breakthrough in several technological areas (graphics cards, available bandwidth, etc.) I can’t see it changing any time soon. The idea of local streaming however is something I’m on board with as there have already been numerous proven examples where it can work, a couple of which I’ve actually used myself. So when I heard that Valve was going to enable In Home Streaming as a feature of Steam I was pretty excited as there have been a couple times where I’ve found myself wanting to use games installed on my main PC on other computers in the house. Valve widen the beta last week to include a lot more people and I was lucky enough to snag an invite so I gave In Home Streaming a look over during the Australia Day long weekend.
The setup couldn’t be more simple. At this stage you have to opt into the Steam client beta, requiring you to redownload the client (around 80 MB at the time of writing) and sign into both machines using the same account. Now last time I remember trying to do that I got told I was already logged in somewhere else and thus couldn’t log in but it seems this client version has no such limitations. Once you’re logged into both machines you should be greeted with a list of games available to play that matches your main machine perfectly and, when you go to play them, you’ll have the option to either install it locally or stream it from the other machine.
Clicking on stream will start the game on the other machine its installed on and, should everything go according to plan, it will then appear in another window on the machine you’re streaming to. The first thing you’ll notice though is that the game fully runs on the other machine, including display the graphics and playing sound. This can be somewhat undesirable and whilst it’s easily remedied it shows you what kind of streaming is actually occurring (I.E. DirectX mirroring). Using such technology also places some limitations on what can and cant’ be streamed by simply clicking on the stream button but there are ways around it.
I first tried this on my media PC which is a HP MicroServer that has a Radeon HD6450 1GB installed in it. Now this machine can handle pretty much any kind of content you can throw at it although I have had it struggle with some high bitrate 1080p files. This was somewhat improved by using newer drivers and later builds of VLC so I was pretty confident it could handle a similar stream over the network. Whilst it worked the frame rates were pretty dismal, even in games which weren’t as graphically intense. Considering the primary use case of this would be for underpowered machines to take advantage of the grunt other PCs in the house can provide this was a little disappointing but I decided I’d give it a go on my Zenbook before I passed judgement.
The much better hardware of the Zenbook improved the experience greatly with all the games I tested on it running nigh on perfectly. There were a couple issues to report, namely when the stream broke there didn’t seem to be a way to restart it so I was just left with a black screen and audio playing. The differing resolutions meant that I was playing with a boxed perspective which was a tad annoying and, unfortunately, it appears you’re limited to the resolutions of the box you’re streaming from (I couldn’t run DOTA 2 at 1080p as my monitors are 1680 x 1050). Still the performance was good enough that I could play FPS games on it, although I wasn’t game enough to try an online match.
Overall I’m very impressed with what Valve has delivered with In Home Streaming as it’s pretty much what I expected, bar it being so damn easy to set up and use. Whilst I’m sure they’ll improve the performance over time it does speak volumes to the fact that the end point does matter and that you will have a worse experience on low powered hardware. Still, even then it was usable for my use case (watching in game DOTA 2 replays) and I’m sure that it would be good enough in its current form for a lot of people.
Do you know anyone who actually uses a laptop on their lap? The name would imply that the intended use case for a laptop is for something that could ostensibly be used anywhere that you could find yourself a seat although the primary use for most laptops seems to be as a desktop replacement rather than a dedicated mobile computing experience. I know that was the case for me with many of the work issued laptops that I was given (they were primarily only used at work) and their form factors usually didn’t lend themselves to being used well as their namesake implies. After reviewing the ASUS Zenbook UX32V this week I remembered how similar my experiences sounded to those who’d bought a tablet and that got me wondering about the larger portable computing market.
You see whilst I was pretty sour on the tablet idea for a long time I have to admit there were situations where I’d find myself thinking that it’d be great to have one in order to do something. Granted these situations were pretty niche for me, usually when I was lounging in front of the TV and wanted to look something up (with my PC being not 3 meters from me) but never the less it kept me looking into them. Then after getting the Zenbook I found myself doing those exact, presumably tablet optimized tasks, on said device. It was a bit of a strange thing to happen to me as it’s not like I didn’t have a laptop lying around the house before but there was something about the form factor and extremely fast boot time of the Zenbook that transformed it from just being another laptop to a truly portable device I could use anywhere.
In fact thinking back I can remember many of my friends who purchased a MacBook Air said very similar things and their reaction to the iPad was one of questioning the value they’d get out of it. Taking this idea further it would seem that whilst there’s a case to be made for having a laptop and some kind of tablet around should you get the right kind of laptop, namely an ultrabook, you’ll end up usurping all the uses cases you’d have for a tablet. Granted there are still some situations where a tablet might be better (I can think of 1 and only 1 for myself, previewing photographs before I finish shooting) but for people like me it’s hard to warrant a purchase based around that. For many other people however, those who were craving a good portable computing experience, the tablet filled the niche long before the ultrabook ever had a chance to make its case.
Keen observers will note that whilst I might be making my argument around the ultrabook designation there was actually a market sector that was dedicated to the small, highly portable market long before the ultrabooks became viable: the netbooks. Indeed this is correct and whilst many will say that the iPad is what killed the netbook sector (I strongly disagree on that) it was fare more likely that after the initial hype cycle companies started focusing on higher margin products, like the ultrabooks, and thus the market shifted towards them. Indeed when the computing power in a tablet can match or exceed that of a netbook most people will probably go with the former, especially if the user experience is better.
My point among all this is that for me, and I believe many others, the use case for a tablet are more than aptly covered off by an ultrabook. Sure it’s hard to compare them as the form factors, operating systems and available applications are worlds apart from each other but I really have found myself wondering why I’d need a tablet now that I can use my Zenbook in practically every other situation. It could very well be that I’m too in love with physical keyboards and the possibility of playing my PC games anywhere to realise the extra value that I might derive from a tablet but apart from being a digital photograph portfolio I can’t see much use for one any more.
I was never a big fan of laptops. By their very nature they’re almost sealed systems with nearly all of their components being integrated meaning your upgrade options are usually quite limited. Back in the day when upgrades came on a regular 12 month cycle this essentially meant buying a whole new system, something which a then 4 part time job working student like me couldn’t really afford. However as I was required to do work abroad, usually for weeks at a time, a portable computer became something of a necessity and that culminated in me buying a MacBook Pro 2 years ago. I hadn’t replaced it yet since it was still managing to do everything I needed it to do but part of the perks of winning the LifeHacker competition was that I was given a shiny new ASUS Zenbook UX32V to cover TechEd and, of course, take home with me.
Now when I got the MacBook Pro it was among the slimmest and lightest 15″ laptops you could get. Whilst its a far cry from many of the laptops I’ve had to use in the past compared to the Zenbook it’s something of a tank being almost twice the thickness and weight. You can put a lot of this down to the MacBook Air inspired design aesthetic as well as the 2″ smaller screen but even with that taken into consideration its still quite striking just how small and light the Zenbook is. I can quite easily hold it in one hand and type on it with the other, something that I would most definitely not attempt with my MacBook Pro. When carrying it around for long periods of time this weight difference is an absolute godsend as I barely notice it over the regular weight of my shoulder bag.
It’s featherweight status comes from the extensive use of aluminium in the body and top part of the monitor rather than the reams of plastic that’s common in similar ultrabooks. This means it doesn’t feel like something you’ll break if you look at it the wrong way and although its really only been on one trip with me it’s endure enough abuse that I can safely say that it’s just as durable as my older, chunkier MacBook Pro. It’s also quite user servicable too with iFixIt giving it a 8 out of 10 rating much better than many comparable ultrabooks.
What really impressed me about the Zenbook however was the incredible hardware specs that ASUS managed to cram into this tiny form factor. Underneath all that aluminium is an Intel Core i5 processor capable of ramping itself up to 2.6GHz (stock speed is about 1.7GHz). It also comes with 4GB of RAM which would typically be shared with an integrated graphics processor however the Zenbook is the first ultrabook to come with a discrete graphics chip, the NVIDIA GeForce GT620M. The Zenbook also comes with a hybrid drive that has a 28GB SSD cache that backs 500GB of spinning rust which is just the icing on this little powerhouse cake.
Of course since this little beasty was shaping up to the replacement for my current laptop there was one thing it needed to be able to do: play games. I have to admit that I was sceptical at first because I’ve fiddled with a lot of other small laptops like this before and not one of them was able to play games properly, that only seemed to come with systems that would kindly be described as luggable desktops. The Zenbook however managed to run pretty much everything I threw at it without a worry with games like DOTA 2 being buttery smooth at max resolution with all the settings cranked up to high.
One of the minor features that I feel bears mentioning is the amount of connectivity available on them. Now the Zenbook isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of similar models in this regard but the simple addition of an extra USB port (giving a total of 3) is something that I feel has been sorely lacking with nearly every laptop I’ve had. Heck even the semi-modern one I’m typing this on at the moment still only sports 2 USB ports which means that should I want to use my 4G dongle, external mouse and charge my phone at the same time I’m faced with the unenviable position of having to not do one of those things. You might not find yourself in that situation very often but I sure have, especially when I was running around TechEd and using all my devices to their maximum potential.
There’s a minor quirk that I feel bears mentioning which was initially picked up by one of my fellow LifeHacker competition winners Terry Lynch. When you first start up the laptop with its pre-installed Windows 7 OS you’ll get 2 partitions at are of roughly equal size. However should you decide you want to upgrade to Windows 8 and remove all the partitions instead of being presented with 1 500GB volume to format (like you’d expect from these hybrid drives) you’ll instead get 1 28GB partition and another 500GB one. From our testing its clear that the 28GB partition is the SSD and the 500GB is the platter based storage. This is great for splitting off your OS onto the SSD section and leaving the rest for data but it does seem a bit odd since the marketing would lead you to believe it was a single hybrid drive. I’m not sure if this is the case with other hybrids however, so if you’ve had experience with one I’d like to hear what your experience was like.
The ASUS Zenbook UX32V is an amazing piece of hardware combining the best elements of its larger cousins with a form factor that is just sublime. After using it for a couple days I had no issues making it my main laptop and when combined with Windows 8 (something I’ll talk about in depth at a later date) it becomes an amazing little powerhouse that feels like it was designed with this operating system in mind. I had never really considered getting an ASUS branded laptop in the past but now I’m having trouble thinking about going for anything else as it really is that good. If you’re after a portable rig that can still do everything that a regular PC can do then you don’t have to look much further than the Zenbook.