Asus Zenbook UX330UA preview – premium 13-incher for the average consumer

Summary: The Zenbook UX330 checks most of the right boxes and like most Asus laptops, is not very expensive. It gets the look, the craftsmanship, the keyboard, the performance and the battery life expected from such a computer, but certain aspects like the screen, trackpad and cooling fan could use more tweaking. Overall though, this is a solid pick if looking for a compact notebook with a matte screen and premium aspirations.
Rating: 4 / 5
Price range: $900 – $1000

THE GOOD

looks great and it’s well built, great keyboard, fast hardware and solid performance, runs cool, long battery life, capable speakers, good price

THE BAD

screen lacks contrast and only leans back to about 110 degrees, trackpad could use some tweaking, the fan a bit too aggressive

The Asus Zenbooks released in the last year and a half aimed mostly at the average consumer and had the excellent features to price ratio as their top selling point, so it’s been a while since we’ve actually seen a compact Zenbook that could tackle competitors in the premium niches of ultraportables.

That’s going to change in the second half of 2016, with devices like the Zenbook 3 UX390 or the Zenbook UX330 series, both top-tier traditional ultrabooks with non-touch 13-inch screens, initially scheduled for release with Skylake hardware and later on with an Intel Kabylake platform.

I’ve spent two weeks with a pre-release version of the Zenbook UX330UA model and in this posts I’m going to share with you all my impressions gathered during this time and how I feel the laptop compares to other premium thin-and-lights (like the Dell XPS 13 or the Razer Blade Stealth) or the more affordable Zenbooks (like the UX310 and the UX306 lines).

Keep in mind that despite being a pre-production sample, this review unit is identical to the ones you’ll find in stores. Also, if you’re reading the article later into 2016 or 2017, you’ll still find it useful, as the newer Kabylake models are similar to the one tested here on most ends, except for the internals.

Specs as reviewed

Asus Zenbook UX330UA
Screen 13.3 inch, 3200 x 1080 px, IPS, matte, non-touch
Processor Intel Skylake Core i7-6500U CPU
Video Intel HD 520
Memory 8 GB LPDDR3 (soldered)
Storage 512 M.2 SATA SSD (80 mm)
Connectivity Wireless AC (Intel AC 7265), Bluetooth 4.0, Fast Ethernet with adapter
Ports 2x USB 3.0, 1x USB 3.1 gen 1, micro-HDMI, mic/headphone, SD card reader
Baterry 57 Wh
Operating system Windows 10
Size 323 mm or 12.71” (w) x 222 mm or 8.74” (d) x 13.65 mm or 0.53” (h)
Weight 2.65 lbs (1.2 kg)
Extras backlit keyboard, HD camera, light sensor

Design and first look

I have the Zenbook UX330 right next to my XPS 13 right now and if I were to ignore the fact that the XPS 13 is more compact, I couldn’t tell which one I like best, as both these laptops have a nice metallic body and feel sturdy and reliable in hand.

Aesthetically, the UX330 looks like most other Zenbooks, with a fully metallic case, slim profile, simple interior, black keyboard and the radial finishing spurring from the chromed Asus logo on the lid. It doesn’t feel like most other Zenbooks though in daily use, and that’s actually a good thing.

The Zenbook UX330 is one Asus's premium 13-inch ultraportables available for the second half of 2016

The Zenbook UX330 is one Asus’s premium 13-inch ultraportables available for the second half of 2016

The Zenbook UX330 feels stronger built and more ergonomic than other Zenbooks. There’s still a tiny bit of flex in the hood and the keyboard area, but barely noticeable. If you’re going to read some of my articles about the XPS 13, you’ll see that I always appreciated how solid it feels. If the XPS 13 would get a 95/100 when it comes to build quality, the Zenbook UX330 would definitely score above 90 as well, while mid-level Zenbooks like the UX305s would score in the 85s in my book. The UX330 still doesn’t get an unibody construction, as it’s built on a plastic inner chassis with metal sheets on top, but the metal used feels thicker and stronger than on other recent Zenbooks.

One other aspect worth mentioning is the screen’s bezel. With most Zenbooks (and most laptops for that matter), pressing on the bezel pushes ripples into the panel and the craftsmanship usually translates in contact points between then display and the bezel, which cause light bleeding. With this one, the bezel is very well made, doesn’t bulge when pressed and doesn’t create any bleeding on the panel.

Aside from that, the UX330’s general lines are slightly redesigned. The edges are straighter and the laptop has a more rectangular profile, moving away from the feather-like shape of the older models. The profile is still slim though, as the laptop is actually thinner than previous premium Zenbooks were, with a height of around 14 mm, including the rubber feet. It’s also lighter, weighing 2.65 lbs (1.2 kilos).

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Another thing that I like is the fact that you can easily lift up the screen with a single hand, yet the hinge is capable of holding the screen in place well. On the other hand, the display only leans back to about 110 degrees, which I find unacceptable. It’s not going to bother you as long as you keep the laptop on a desk, but I found myself unable to watch the screen heads-on in many other situations, including when having it on my lap.

Now, I do hope Asus redesigned the hinge internally, as buyers complained about it breaking easily on past models, and on the UX330 I expect it to see plenty of stress when users would try to adjust the screen’s inclination and hit the dead-end faster than expected. This however is my only major nit with how this notebook feels and looks.

The interior is made from matte aluminum and should be quite scratch-proof, while the palm-rest is fairly generous. The edges around are still a little sharp, but thanks to the slim profile, my wrists didn’t come in contact with them in daily use, so I’m not complaining here. The underbelly is simple, with the speakers placed towards the front and four small and decently grippy rubber feet. The back feet are about a millimeter taller than the front ones, giving the device a slight forward inclination. There are no air-intake grills on the back, and we’ll talk about that further down when we’ll get to noise and heat emissions.

One particular aspect some of you might not like about this particular UX330 is its Rose Gold color. There’s a picture below comparing the crude-aluminum color of the XPS with the pinkish tint of the Zenbook. Asus will offer this Zenbook in a grey finishing as well, but I can’t tell how dark that’s going to be and whether it will show smudges easier. We’ll see.

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The IO is lined on the laterals, with no ports on the front or back lips. There’s a full-size USB slot on the left edge, the headphone jack and the SD card-reader, while on the right there’s the PSU, another full-size USB port, an USB 3.1 slot, the micro-HDMI connector for video output and two discrete status LEDs.

I’d say the connectivity is decent, although you will have to buy an adapter for the micro-HDMI slot and the USB 3.1 is not Thunderbolt 3 compatible, at least on the Skylake version. Kabylake laptops are supposed to offer native TB3 support, so I’ll update this section once those versions are launched in case there’s anything to add.

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Overall, the Zenbook UX330 is a nice traditional laptop. It looks good and it feels good in daily use, but the screen’s inclination angle make it awkward to use in many cases, which is a trade-of I find really hard to accept on an ultraportable.

Keyboard and trackpad

Based on looks and official specs, the keyboard on the Zenbook UX330 should be similar to the one of the Zenbook UX305, but it actually feels better in daily use, with a firmer feedback.

The layout is the same, with tiny arrow keys and the Power button integrated in the top-right corner. The drop is the same as well, at 1.5 mm, which is pretty good for a sleek ultraportable (the XPS 13 gets a 1.2 mm drop, for instance). The keys’ finishing is the same as well, matte and a grippy, but what I feel that has changed over other Zenbooks is their resistance to hits, which leads to a more precise click and overall more precise and reliable typing experience. Part of that is due to the somewhat stronger chassis, although there’s still some flex in the frame noticeable while typing, so I don’t think the single cause for the improvement.

I’ve had the UX330 next to the UX305 just to compare the keyboard, after writing the above paragraph, and I can confirm I was right: the keyboard on the the newer types better. Oh, and it’s backlit this time around, with 3 levels of intensity, and also fairly quiet.

The keyboard's layout is the same as on other Zenbooks, but the feedback is greatly improved on this unit

The keyboard’s layout is the same as on other Zenbooks, but the feedback is greatly improved on this unit

The conclusion is that the Zenbook UX330 types well, with a keyboard experience above average in this class, and it looks that’s the case for the Zenbook UX306 as well, based on the reviews available so far.

The trackpad is alright. It’s large, recessed from the palm-rest and with a smooth texture, which means you’ll easily find your way around it even in the dark. It handles most tasks and gestures well, it doesn’t rattle when tapped and the click buttons and quiet and not very stiff.

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keyboard-stroke
trackpad
typing-test

 

However, because it is a Microsoft Precision trackpad, there are very few customization options available. And just like with many other Asus laptops, I struggled with this surface when it came to reaching a balance between everyday speed and accuracy in activities that require high precision, like ticking check boxes in a form, for instance. That’s a software issue and since our test unit is a pre-production sample, it could be addressed on the final retail versions, but based on my experience with other Asus Zenbooks, I wouldn’t hold my breath for it.

Screen

Asus will offer the Zenbook UX330 in stores with either 1920 x 1080 px or 3200 x 1800 px IPS panel with a matte finishing, both with 74% advertised NTSC color coverage, so normal-gamut screens.

Our version came with the high-resolution display and it’s a decent option for daily use, as you can see below.

  • Panel HardwareID: LG Philips LGD0545 (LP133QD1-SPB3);
  • Coverage: 98% sRGB, 72% NTSC, 76% AdobeRGB;
  • Measured gamma: 2.1;
  • Max brightness in the middle of the screen: 280 cd/m2 on power;
  • Contrast at max brightness: 380:1;
  • White point: 8000 K;
  • Black on max brightness: 0.73 cd/m2;
  • Average DeltaE: 3.33 uncalibrated, 1.77 calibrated.

brightness-distributionThe brightness is good-enough as long as you’ll keep the laptop indoors, but won’t suffice for outdoor or strong-light use, while the measured contrast is poor and the default White Point too cold. You can use our calibrated profile to make things look more natural, but that’s not going to do anything about the contrast or brightness. We’re using a Spyder4 Elite for our measurements, which is not the most accurate sensor, so take these results with a grain of salt, but the fact that blacks are not very deep on this panel is actually noticeable with the naked eye.

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One aspect to keep in mind is that our particular model came with an LG Philips panel, while previous Zenbooks with 13-inch QHD+ screens got a Samsung panel with superior brightness, contrast and color accuracy. For now, there’s no way to tell which panel the retail versions of the UX330 will get, so I’ll update this section once more details are available.

It’s worth adding that this laptop comes with a light sensor which automatically adjusts the screen’s brightness based on the ambient light. It works OK, but I prefer to control the brightness manually and usually switch this off from the settings. The sensor was of course inactive in our tests.

Hardware, performance and upgrade options

The tested Zenbook UX330UA came with a Core i7-6500U processor, Intel HD 520 graphics, 8 GB of DDR3 RAM and a 512 GB SATA M.2 SSD, which is pretty much the top configuration based on the Skylake platform.

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The RAM is soldered to the motherboard and and not-upgradeable. The storage however is. Asus only offers this notebook with SATA 3 80 mm M.2 SSDs, and based on the connector (B+M key), some PCIe SSDs might be compatible as well. If they’re not, then the storage is slow for the premium class, where many other notebooks offer NVMe compatible storage these days. You’re not really going to feel that in everyday use unless you’re going to spend a lot of time installing apps and copying/deleting content, but it’s something to consider.

You can access the internals on this Zenbook by removing the back panel. There’s a couple of Torx T5 screws on the sides and two more Philips screws hidden behind the rear-rubber feet, careful how you peel those of. On the inside you’ll notice the cooling system, the RAM, the SSD and Wi-Fi module, the latter two being the only upgradeable parts on this laptop.

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internals-general-view
internals-ssd-memory
internals-fan-wifi

 

Despite what we consider a “slow” SSD by today’s standards, the tested Zenbook UX330 laptop performed well in daily use, no matter what I threw at it. It’s an Asus though, so it comes with a lot of bloatware that you’ll have to take care of first, but that aside, the experience it provides is solid, with no drivers crashes or any other issues noticed during these two weeks I’ve been using it.

I’m not going to post any benchmark results, because this is a pre-production unit and the retail versions will get updated drivers and will perform better. I will tell you that this Zenbook performs just as you’d expect from a Skylake Core U machine, and you can find some details about the hardware’s speeds and temperatures in various daily activities in the pictures below.

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perf-temps-lightbrowsing

 

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Everything looks solid, and despite the fact that HWInfo signals throttling when running benchmarks, the CPU’s frequency doesn’t drop below its nominal speed. The only odd part is the fact that the CPU runs slow in games, but again, this is a pre-production unit and considering how the other Skylake Zenbooks perform, I don’t expect the retail versions of the Zenbook UX330 to ran into any trouble.

Noise, Heat, Connectivity, speakers and others

I’ve complained about the unnecessarily aggressive fan in my review of the Zenbook UX305UA and the cooling system is pretty aggressive on the Zenbook UX330 as well, with the fan being active most of the time, even in daily use, but spinning slowly and barely audible in a normal room. Still, while the noise is not very annoying on this laptop, I expect a premium option to remain passively cooled while dealing with basic chores, as the XPS 13 does. It will probably help to get a Core i5 configuration for that.

Both the inner and outer temperatures remain low with daily use, that’s why I consider there’s room for tweaking the fan’s activity on the final products. The case doesn’t get very hot under load either, and the fan doesn’t get very loud, but you’ll still not be able to keep this notebook on your lap while playing games, at least not in a hot climate (like summer is here). Also, keep in mind that load-temperatures might be higher on the final retail versions, since the CPU did not run at its full abilities in games on this test unit.

temperatures-dailyuse temperatures-load*Daily Use – 1080p Youtube clip in EDGE for 30 minutes
*Load – playing Need for Speed Most Wanted for 30 minutes

Compared to older Zenbooks, there are no air-intake grills on the belly, with all the cooling happening through the grills hidden under the hinge, but this solution seems to work just fine.

Connectivity wise, there’s Wi-Fi AC and Bluetooth on this laptop, and I also expect to find an USB to Fast Ethernet adapter in the pack, like on most other Zenbooks. Asus went with an Intel AC 7265 wireless module and it performed well in my tests, with no drops and disconnects. I’ve only used it on a 2.4 GHz connection though, and haven’t tested the Bluetooth connection. Wireless and Bluetooth performance have been reported issues on previous Zenbooks, but not for me, as both the UX305UA tested a while ago and this UX330UA performed well.

The Zenbook UX330 gets new speakers, with larger chambers and placed on the underbelly but towards the front, not on the sides as in the past. The sound coming out of these speakers is pretty good on the Music setting from the included Audio Wizard app and decently punchy, at a maximum of 90 dB at head level in out tests. I haven’t noticed any distortions or vibrations in the frame, not even at high volumes. However, due to their positioning, the speakers can be obstructed by certain surfaces. For instance, when having the laptop placed on the bed or on a pillow, the audio volume and quality will drop noticeably.

Last in this list is the webcam and microphones, both placed on top of the screen, where there’s also a luminosity sensor. The camera is rather poor, as it catches washed out images with little detail, but the microphones do a good job in calls.

Battery life

This laptop gets a 57 Wh battery and that’s enough for 5-10 hours of daily use. You’ll find more details below, and I’ve set the screen’s brightness at 40% (around 120 nits) for these tests.

  • 8.1 W (~7 h of use) – very light browsing and text editing in Google Drive, Balanced Mode, screen at 40%, Wi-Fi ON;
  • 7 W (~8 h of use) – 1080p fullscreen video on Youtube in Internet Explorer, Balanced Mode, screen at 40%, Wi-Fi ON;
  • 5.6 W (~10 h of use) – 1080p fullscreen .mkv video in the Movie app, Balanced Mode, screen at 40%, Wi-Fi ON;
  • 6 W (~9 h 30 min of use) – 4K fullscreen .mkv video in the Movie app, Balanced Mode, screen at 40%, Wi-Fi ON;
  • 13.2 W (~4 h 15 min of use) – heavy browsing in Edge, Balanced Mode, screen at 40%, Wi-Fi ON.

The high-resolution display takes a toll on battery life, so expect the configurations with a FHD display to last longer. On the other hand, if you plan to use this laptop outdoors or in bright light, you’ll have to pump up the brightness and that’s going to have a significant impact on battery life.

Asus bundles the UX330 with a 65 Wh power-brick and a full charge takes over 2 hours.

Expect 5-10 hours of daily use on a single charge from this Zenbook, but keep in mind that you'll have to pump the screen's brightness up in strong light and that will have an impact on battery life

Expect 5-10 hours of daily use on a single charge from this Zenbook, but keep in mind that you’ll have to pump the screen’s brightness up in strong light and that will have an impact on battery life

Price and availability

You’ll find various configurations on the Zenbook UX330 in stores, starting from early Fall 2016, with Core i5-6200U or i7-6500U processors, 4-8 GB of RAM, 256 or 512 GB of SSD storage and FHD or QHD+ displays, with prices between 900 and 1100 EUR.

The best-buy configuration with the Core i5-6200U processor, 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB SSD and the FHD screen is going to sell for 900 to 950 EUR in Europe, so I’d say around $900 in the US. 1100 EUR ($1100-$1200 in the US) would get you a Core i7-6500U config with 512 GB of storage and the QHD+ display. These prices are subject to change and I’ll update this section once the product is officially available in stores.

Overall, the Zenbook UX330 is a little more expensive than the Zenbook UX305 (which starts at $750 these days) and the UX306 (starts at around $800) and you’re basically paying extra for the superior construction and better IO. It’s up to you if that’s worth it or not.

Compared to the Dell XPS 13 ($999 for Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD, FHD screen) or the Razer Blade Stealth ($949 for Core i7, 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD, QHD screen), the Zenbook UX330 is more affordable and the gap gets wider once you speck them up. So while the XPS 13 and the Blade Stealth are more compact, stronger built and offer extra features like NVMe storage and a Thunderbolt 3 port, the Zenbook UX330 has the price on its side.

The XPS 13 is more compact and a bit more robust, but also significantly more expensive than the UX330

The XPS 13 is more compact and a bit more robust, but also significantly more expensive than the UX330

Wrap up

Drawing the line on the Asus Zenbook UX330, we’ll conclude this is a solid option for those looking for a well-priced compact laptop with a traditional form-factor and a matte screen. It swims in crowded waters though, with premium competitors like those mentioned before and more affordable alternatives like the Acer Aspire S13, Lenovo ThinkPad 13 or the HP Envy 13. Each has its strong and weak points.

The Zenbook checks the right boxes when it comes to aesthetics and overall build quality, gets a good keyboard, performs well, runs mostly cool and lasts for a long while on a charge. On the other hand, its screen could be better, with only average contrast and brightness, the trackpad needs some software tweaking, the fan inside could be less aggressive and the screen’s lean-back angle is one of the most limiting I’ve encountered on a modern laptop.

The Zenbook UX330 is a good overall laptop, but the fact that the screen only leans back this much makes it difficult to use in many situations

The Zenbook UX330 is a good overall laptop, but the fact that the screen only leans back this much makes it difficult to use in many situations

The average user like yourself might not notice all these nits mentioned above, especially if you’re coming from an older laptop. That’s why this Zenbook UX330 gets my overall recommendation and an overall 4 out of 5 mark in this test. Just keep in mind that if you want the absolute best features for the money, you’ll rather find it in devices like the Zenbook UX306, as the UX330 charges extra for exquisite looks and build quality.

With that in mind we’ll end this post here. Get in touch in the comments section below if you have any questions or anything to add, or check out our detailed list of recommended ultraportables in case you’re not satisfied with this Zenbook or the other mentioned alternatives and need more suggestions.

Andrei Girbea, aka Mike, Editor-in-Chief and a huge fan of mobile computers. Since 2007, I’ve only owned smaller than 12.5″ laptops and I’ve been testing tens, if not hundreds of mini laptops. You’ll find mostly reviews and guides written by me here on the site.

 

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