Review: Asus ZenBook Pro UX501

Review: Asus ZenBook Pro UX501

Introduction and design

Like most other premium Ultrabooks, the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 aims to impress. From both its core specs and sleek visuals, this Asus flagship cuts a striking figure. The laptop is a follow-up to last year’s ZenBook NX500, and it features a similar aluminum chassis, speedy SSD storage, and a 4K display – all at an attractive starting price of $1,499 (about £967, AU$1,894).

On the surface, it would seem that Asus continues to offer the ZenBook Pro UX501 as the PC-lover’s alternative to the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro. That would be in keeping with the NX500’s positioning last year, and stays in line with Asus’s tendency to offer a value proposition over the competition.

Asus has certainly achieved that by packing the UX501 with an Intel Core i7 processor, a 4K touchscreen display and a 512GB SSD. It’s a better-equipped triple play package than a comparably sized Apple laptop.

Where the UX501 falters is in its performance. While its benchmarks as a whole outpace Ultrabook class models, at 5 pounds, the UX501 is as much intended for your desk as it is your carrybag. Oddly enough, that’s a good thing, considering this model stumbled when it came to battery life, falling short of its stated 6 hour estimated battery life.

Asus ZenBook UX501 review

Design

From the outside, the ZenBook Pro UX501 could easily be mistaken for a MacBook: Its brushed aluminum design aesthetic bears more than a passing resemblance. Its made of brushed aluminum, with subtle, concentric circles on the cover (in keeping with other Asus designs). Overall, the build quality feels solid, though I never tested the theory by dropping the laptop.

While it’s clearly a rectangular slab, the UX501 has a stylish look. The edges are gently rounded, for example, and the inside surface sports chamfered edges that shine in contrast to the matte finish of the keyboard and palmrest. I’d worry about easily scratching these edges, (though I have yet to do so), but they add an elegant touch. While, the palm rest is large and comfortable, I wish that Asus shaved a little off the sides and depth of the laptop to reduce its footprint and weight.

The keyboard deck is adorned with a dotted patterning surrounded by silver painted plastic keys. The patterns look attractive, even if their purpose is purely for aesthetics.

Asus ZenBook UX501 review

I dig the keyboard’s white backlight illumination, which I can control the brightness via the function keys.The light bleed beneath the keys is minimal, thanks to the design of the UX501’s keyboard making it all the less distracting – a frequent complaint I’ve had with early generation MacBooks. Also, the backlit keyboard will fade away when you’re not using the keys. Even without the illumination, the keys are clearly visible with black lettering.

The UX501 packs in the usual complement of ports, with three USB 3.0 ports, mini-DisplayPort and HDMI. It lacks an ethernet port, but Asus kindly bundles a USB ethernet adapter.

Asus ZenBook UX501 review

Things to gripe about

A generously sized touchpad sits centered to the width of the laptop, as opposed to beneath the keyboard’s space bar. While this positioning is ideal, since the keyboard does include a full numeric pad, it requires some getting used to. I find the touchpad a tad stiff and not as smooth as on other laptops I’ve tried. The stiffness is not so much so as to be a deal breaker, but enough that it’s noticeable.

More challenging is the keyboard itself. My small hands took a while to adjust to the smaller spacing between the keys, resulting in unexpected typos.

Annoyingly, the fans kick in when I’m installing apps and downloading content on the laptop. I also find the audio a bit tinny. The audio is softer than expected, too. I need to pump up the volume for a satisfactory listening experience even in a small, closed-off room. Typically, I have the audio at least 75%, and often on some tracks I felt like I had to push it all the way.

The loudness of the speakers is directly affected by the surface you use the laptop on. When I was testing the UX501 on a hard surface where the downward firing speakers could reflect sound, it helped make the audio more satisfactory. Placing the laptop on a softer surface (such as a bed, or leaning it on my legs while on the couch), meanwhile, muffles the speakers and hampers the audio quality.

Specifications and performance

At 15.08 x 10.04 x 0.84 inches or 383 x 255 x 21 mm (W x D x H), the 15.6-inch UX501’s footprint is typical for its size class. The 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a little smaller, at 14.13 x 9.73 x 0.71 inches (358 x 247 x 18 mm), while the 15.5-inch Lenovo W550S measures 15 x 10.2 x 0.92 inches (381 x 259 x 23mm).

Though the UX501 is portable, at 5.0 pounds (2.26 kg) you probably wouldn’t want to take this dense, heavy laptop while traveling and dashing through airports or everyday to the office.

By contrast, the Apple MacBook Pro weighs nearly half a pound less, at 4.46 pounds (2.02 kg) – although this option model lacks a touchscreen display. The aforementioned Lenovo, meanwhile, is heavier, at 5.46 pounds (2.47 kg).

If the weight alone isn’t a big enough deterrent against toting the UX501, its chunky power brick will be. On top of being heavy, the included power adapter lacks any additional conveniences, such as an extra USB charging port or two – something that would take a bit of the sting off having to carry such a large brick around.

Asus ZenBook UX501 review

Spec sheet

Here is the ZenBook Pro UX501 configuration sent to TechRadar for review:

  • CPU: 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-4720HQ (quad-core, 6MB cache, up to 3.6GHz with Turbo Boost)
  • Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M (2GB GDDR5 RAM), Intel HD Graphics 4600
  • RAM: 16GB DDR3L (1600MHz)
  • Screen: 15.6-inch, 3840 x 2160 IPS Display
  • Storage: 512GB PCIe x4 SSD
  • Ports: 3 x USB 3.0 ports, mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt 2.0, HDMI, Headphone and Microphone combo jack, included USB-to-Ethernet adapter
  • Connectivity: Intel PRO Wireless AC 7260 + BT Wireless LAN Combo
  • Camera: Built-in 720P Video Camera
  • Weight: 5.0 pounds
  • Size: 15.08 x 10.04 x 0.84 inches (W x D x H)

For the $1,499 (about £967, AU$1,894) price, Asus packs a sizable wallop with this UX501JW-DS71T configuration. As noted above, you’re getting a 4K touchscreen display – still uncommon on laptops today, let alone laptops under $2,000. Also of note is that spacious 512GB SSD, which uses latest storage interconnect, PCIe x4. I found the SSD super fast in day-to-day use; system startup and restart happened in a blink.

One of the big benefits of the UX501 is its big, bright display. The 4K, UHD display packs in 3,840 x 2,160 pixel resolution. That bests the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which features 2,880 x 1,800 pixels. The display is crisp and vibrant, with sharp text and detailed, colorful images. Applications ran smoothly, with no issues. And I found no lag in its touchscreen response. Sadly, the display appears to lack an oleophobic coating; very quickly, it became littered with my fingerprints.

Asus ZenBook UX501 review

Among its PC competition, the UX501 is all about value. At a reasonable price, this laptop delivers greater capacity and a higher-resolution display for less than the competition. With both a 4K display and Thunderbolt 2, this machine is ideal for multimedia content producers who need the daisy-chained, speedy storage that Thunderbolt 2.0 can deliver.

You’ll pay a significantly lower price for the UX501 than for a comparable, $2,499 (£1,999, AU$3,499) Apple MacBook Pro. Whether there’s value in getting a Mac over a Windows laptop will depend solely on your needs.

Another laptop that the ZenBook Pro UX501 compares well with is the Lenovo ThinkPad W550s. That model comes at a lower entry-level price of $1,236 or £1,229 (about AU$1,568). However, for a comparable configuration, the 3K screen, quadrupled memory and 512GB solid state drive bring up the final price of this workstation to $2,361 or £1,876 (about AU$2,995).

Asus ZenBook UX501 review

Performance

Everyday tasks were smooth on the UX501. The touchscreen was responsive, as was the SSD. The laptop made quick work of sorting thousands of 4K digital images, for example.

Benchmarks

Here’s how the ZenBook Pro UX501 performed in our suite of benchmark tests:

  • 3DMark: Cloud Gate: 11,497; Sky Diver: 9,945; Fire Strike: 3,669
  • Cinebench Graphics: 47 fps, CPU: 519 points
  • PCMark 8 (Home Test): 2,561 points
  • PCMark 8 Battery Life: 3 hours and 20 minutes

As compared with the Lenovo W550S, the UX501’s PCMark 8 Home score is noticeably better. The W550 scored just 2,182 points to the ZenBook Pro’s 2,561 points. While both models have a Core i7 inside, the W550s we tested uses a dual-core mobile Broadwell chip, whereas the UX501 is equipped with a quad-core CPU.

The ZenBook Pro UX501 also outpaced the W550S on the graphics end within the 3DMark tests. With a graphics card better suited for gaming compared to the Lenovo’s Nvidia Quadro K2100M GPU, the results were nearly double, or more in some cases. The W550S scored 1,426 on Fire Strike, 5,246 on Cloud Gate and 4,830 on Sky Diver

Interestingly, the the W550s produced higher frame rates on the Cinebench GPU test than did the ZenBook with 59 and 47 frames per second, respectively. Lenovo’s mobile workstation, however, had a worse CPU index of 279 points, while the UX501 finished with 519 points.

Asus ZenBook UX501 review

Battery drain

The battery life was mediocre to decent with the UX501. PCMark 8 estimated 3 hours and 20 minutes at maximum brightness. Asus claims the laptop can last about 6 hours.

I eked out some more time by lowering the brightness some, and by keeping to light mixed use of Web surfing, YouTube viewing, and Google Docs work. But by around the 5 hour mark, I was reaching for the charger to keep it at the ready.

By comparison, the Lenovo W550S achieved 8 hours and 15 minutes, albeit it at the 50% brightness setting we used at that time of testing, and with a massive extended battery. And the older 15-inch MacBook Pro lasted for almost six hours, but this laptop runs with a lower-resolution display; the current model purports to last up to 8 hours.

Asus ZenBook UX501 review

Bundled software

In addition to various apps including Line, Twitter, iHeartRadio and Netflix that you didn’t ask for, Asus has pre-loaded a few of its own apps that might be useful:

  • Asus PowerDirector
  • Asus PhotoDirector
  • CyberLink video- and photo-editing software
  • Asus WebStorage

Verdict

The Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 looks terrific from the outside, and looks even better when you fire it up. This model stands up well to its competition by delivering a solid punch of features and performance for your dollar.

That said, battery life comes as a disappointment but it’s decent considering the high-res screen. But if portability and a 4K touch display are paramount priorities, and you want to keep costs down, the ZenBook Pro UX501 can suit your needs well. Just count on keeping the chunky power brick nearby, and not straying far from an outlet for long.

We liked

I can’t say enough good things about the display. The high-resolution 4K display makes all the difference, whether you’re watching videos, editing photos, or simply reading documents. The screen’s clarity makes everything a pleasure. Even better: I can tap away on it with my fingers, always a useful addition to the standard laptop configuration.

I also appreciated the gentle backlight of the keyboard. All too often, between the MacBook and other competitors, I’ve found the keyboard backlight’s leakage an annoying distraction. Not so here. And when off, the key clarity doesn’t suffer.

The fast, roomy 512GB SSD was a boon, too. I loved the idea of not having to constantly prune my on-board storage, as I currently do with a laptop that only packs a 128GB SSD. And its performance was instantly responsive – I barely lifted my finger off the power button and it was already ready to go.

We disliked

The weight on the UX501 is a disappointment. Granted, other laptops with 4K screens often weigh more. But the 15-inch MacBook Pro style that the UX501 aims to replicate is surface only, given that the MacBook weighs nearly half-a-pound less.

That makes a big difference for the frequent flyer, or anyone who wants to take this laptop on the go. It’s not something you’ll tote around campus, office complexes or conventions without feeling the strain as the hours pass.

I also disliked the design of the downward firing speakers. I found it too easy to accidentally block them whenever I placed the laptop on soft surfaces. Even on a hardwood desk, I found them unsatisfactorily tinny and insufficiently loud.

Final verdict

If physical aesthetics and a 4K screen are your primary goals, and you’re looking to keep costs down, the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 is an excellent bet. With a large SSD, this model can work well for content creators and consumers alike.

But, beware the battery life: It’s enough to get you through a few hours, but not enough for a laptop you’re taking out for a whole day – or relying on at a conference, where outlets may be few and far between. This model’s heavy weight is another detriment when it comes to portability.

This laptop is inexpensive compared to a 15-inch MacBook or Lenovo ThinkPad W550s. Regardless, the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 is a strong buy on its strengths alone – including good performance, 4K touchscreen, on-board storage.

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