Testing: Asus Zenbook UX305 Laptop

By Norman Chan

This is the kind of laptop that perfectly suits Intel's Core-M processor. It's not a direct competitor to Apple's new MacBook, but that's actually a good thing.

Intel's Core-M laptop processor has been getting a lot of attention of late, and not under the best light. Even though these ultra-low power CPUs were released late last year in a bunch of Windows notebooks, the platform got a ton of attention when Apple put it in the controversial new MacBook line. As we've found in our tests, Core-M effective made the MacBook Apple's slowest Mac device--mid-range performance at a high-end price. And on the PC side, our experience with Core-M hasn't been much better. Performance throttling of Core-M on the Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 made it a step backward for that series of laptops. Manufacturers clearly get the appeal of a fanless laptop design, but they're putting Intel's chip in premium systems that tax it too far.

It's not until the Asus Zenbook UX305 that I've finally found what looks like the most appropriate use of Core-M: a fantastic mid-range system that costs just $700. After using the UX305 for a few weeks, I'm convinced that this is the best laptop you can buy for the price.

In discussing my testing of the UX305, I have to acknowledge that it was research into the MacBook that lead me to this laptop. Many Windows users in tech forums pointed to it as a counterpoint to Apple's new laptop, citing its use of Core-M. But aside from that shared CPU architecture, these are actually very different systems, made for very different users. In fact, the more apt comparison would be with Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air.

Just look at the size and dimensions of the Zenbook. It's not a design that was whittled away to be as thin and light as possible--and that's totally OK. The generous bezel space around the screen and keyboard areas makes this more a traditionally designed ultrabook than a Dell XPS 13. And with its 13.3-inch screen, the Zenbook is still thinner and lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air at half an inch (12.5mm) thick and 2.64 pounds. I've never lived with a 13-inch MacBook Air long-term, but the UX305 is a very comfortable size for a daily carry or walking around with at the office.

Under the hood, the UX305 uses Intel's Core-M 5Y10 processor, which is actually clocked at .8GHz and turbo boosts to 2.0GHz when needed. The CPU is supported by the standard Intel HD5300 integrated graphics chip, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of SATA-based solid state storage. I'll talk about real-world performance in a bit, but want to note that the amount of stock SSD storage is exceptional for a laptop of this price. It's not a PCIe-based storage system, but that's totally fine for a laptop that's not meant for heavy photo or video work. Storage was also divided into two partitions, but it's easy to merge the two when first setting the Zenbook up.

On the sides of the laptop are three USB 3.0 ports (one that supports fast charging for smartphones), headphone jack, power port, micro-HDMI, and an SD card reader. The USB ports were as fast as any I've tested, but the SD card reader transferred files from my Sandisk Extreme Pro card at around 40MB/s, which is on the low side of built-in readers.

Keyboard and trackpads are things I worry about whenever testing a new Windows laptop. Manufacturers are sometimes too keen on trying out new keyboard designs to accommodate the thickness of a laptop--I'm still not comfortable with that new MacBook keyboard. The good news here is that I really like the chiclet-style keyboard on the UX305. Key travel is deep enough and the keys pop back quickly for fast typing. My complaints are minor: the arrow keys on the bottom right feel too small in comparison to the rest of the keyboard, and it would be nice if the keys were backlit. Otherwise, I dig it.

The trackpad is another story. While it's big enough, the cursor seems to lag ever so slightly in windows, and two-finger scrolling hitches in both Desktop and Start Screen apps. The left click in particular offers too much resistance and throw for my taste--it's a very touch click. This is laptop that I would want to use with an external mouse.

My troubles with the trackpad wouldn't be as annoying if the screen was touch-enabled. That's perhaps the biggest compromise Asus had to make with the UX305 at its entry-level price point. I'm so accustomed to using touchscreens on Windows laptops now that it took several days of tapping on the screen to train my brain to go back to the touchpad or mouse for web browsing. The 13.3-inch screen is also offbeat in that it's a matte display. Matte has its advantages in outdoor and daylit use, but it's not completely glare free. It's really a matter of preference, and I still prefer glossy over matte because it avoids some of the sub-pixel distortion that anti-glare coating can bring to a display.

Thankfully, the 1080p screen still looks pretty good, running at 100% scaling in Windows. It's bright enough for both indoor and outdoor reading, and the IPS panel has decent color reproduction that doesn't look saturated. According to users on some forums, recalibration of this screen can also make a big difference. Viewing angles are also plenty wide.

Despite not being a touchscreen, I'm very pleased to see Core-M and its integrated graphics running on a 1080p laptop. That's perhaps the biggest design difference between the UX305 and the $1000+ Core-M systems. The Intel HD5300 GPU isn't taxed to a point where you lose frames when web browsing or watching video--1080p is a sweet spot for this chip. And as for gaming, performance is familiar: good enough for a game like DOTA 2 with settings turned low, but not anything cutting edge.

But you and I know that this isn't a system made for gaming, nor is it a system designed for heavy photo and video editing. But it's fully capable as a machine for office and web work, including long sessions of web browsing and writing blog posts. In my time with UX305, I never had to close Chrome windows or tabs because of system slowdowns--the machine I'm on now has 20 open at once, and I can alt-tab through them without delay. Image editing with Photoshop was also smooth, with slowdowns only noticeable when I was running batch tweaks or loading up RAW photos. Think of this as a JPEG editing device, not a RAW photo processing machine. You can ingest and develop DNGs on the UX305; I just wouldn't recommending doing so in large batches.

I also didn't notice any significant performance throttling with this laptop, when plugged in to a wall outlet and running on battery. The fanless design means that the laptop shell acts as a heatsink, and temperature increases are localized to the bottom of the laptop (in the area above the keyboard). It never got too hot to use on my lap, and the hinge on the screen actually raises the top of the laptop off of any flat surface, presumably for passive cooling purposes. Use time with the 45Whr battery surpassed 9 hours with web browsing, and clocked in at under four with Photoshop scripts running on repeat. That's pretty good!

Despite the lack of a touchscreen and mediocre trackpad, I really like the Zenbook UX305. I'm able to do almost everything I need to on a daily basis with it, either as a travel computer or a workstation plugged into an external display and accessories. This is the kind of computer that Core-M was meant for: the ability to sustain moderate workloads over a long period of time, at a ridiculously good price tag. 1080p is an appropriate resolution for the hardware, so I'd even stay away from the $1000 model with a 3200x1800 resolution touchscreen. At $700, this is mid-range performance at an entry-level price--the easy step up from a Chromebook. If I was a student looking for a new laptop, I would get the Asus ZenBook UX305 over the 13-inch MacBook Air.