Brian and Vivek talked about their CES equipment, and I thought I’d chime in as well—except I don’t really have anything worth discussing other than my laptop. My Nikon D3100 DSLR with a kit lens and a dumbphone (with a slider keypad) aren’t even worth this sentence, so we’ll just move on. No, the only really exciting piece of kit that I have for Las Vegas this year is ASUS’ new UX51V “not-an-Ultrabook”, which is basically an Ultrabook but with a standard voltage quad-core processor. Take last year’s Ivy Bridge N56VM prototype, upgrade the dGPU to a GT 650M, switch to the 35W quad-core i7-3612QM, and then make it all thinner and give it an aluminum chassis and you’ve got the UX51V.
The UX51VZ is sleek looking, offers plenty of performance potential, and it might just be the best laptop I’ve been able to test during the past year. If it were just looks, we wouldn’t have much to discuss, but ASUS pairs the nice looks and attractive components (in most areas) with some great elements like a 1080p matte IPS display. Hallelujah! (It’s an LG Display LP156WF4-S if you’re wondering.) Maybe we’re finally at the point where high-end laptops can ditch the TN panels we’ve been using for over a decade? The keyboard layout is also good (it’s still missing the full-size Zero key for the 10-key, but that’s my only real complaint) and the keyboard is backlit. The UX51VZ showed up on my doorstep unannounced right around Christmas (in the middle of a move), so I didn’t get a chance to really put it to the test yet, and CES 2013 served as the proving grounds.
There are a few oddities with the UX51V, however. First, ASUS goes the dual-SSD in RAID 0 route (with SanDisk drives—the model number is SD5SE2128G1002E, and it appears to be based on the newer SanDisk drives with the Marvell SS889175 controller), so all the usual caveats apply: potentially less reliable and no faster for random accesses. Given this is a high-end Windows 8 laptop, it’s also at least a bit surprising that the LCD isn’t a touchscreen; I’m not really feeling the loss—in fact, I’m ecstatic we’re looking at a matte IPS panel!—but undoubtedly some people will be disappointed. The touchpad on the other hand is a sore spot for me, as I’m getting periodic activation of the touchpad while typing this up and it’s just not as responsive as I’d like. ASUS uses Elan hardware with their own customized drivers, and for all the complaining we’ve done over the past year they still don’t seem to have the drivers nailed down (though I have to note that I haven’t looked for updated drivers yet).
Before we get to this mini-review quick look, I want to note that I still haven’t had a chance to benchmark the laptop and see how it holds up under a sustained load. I have concerns as you’ll note that the hardware is basically the same as what I tested in Dell’s XPS 15 last summer. The XPS 15 simply couldn’t handle any sustained load, going so far as to heavily throttle both the CPU and GPU even when just playing games—never mind actual stress testing where both the CPU and GPU are at 100% loads simultaneously. Hopefully, the UX51VZ holds up well, because it really has some great qualities going for it.
The look and feel is certainly one of the main points of attraction for the UX51VZ. ASUS takes the Xenbook aesthetic and simply inflates it to the 15.6” form factor, and the result works quite well. The larger area also makes room for a full 10-key, and in fact there’s about an inch or so to spare on the sides that ASUS could have used to fix the one complaint: the smallish  on the number keypad. Of all the 15.6” laptops I’ve looked at so far, the best of the breed in terms of keyboard and layout is the Samsung Series 7 Chronos, where both the 17.3” and 15.6” models have nearly perfect keyboard layouts. After that, the ASUS is at least close, with a generally good feel and no layout quirks. But enough about the look and feel of the laptop—though arguably those are some of the most important elements—how did the UX51VZ fare at CES?
Obviously, pulling out a laptop to do some writing isn’t exactly something you do without thought. Most people are running around with smartphones or at most a tablet to use for checking appointments and such. A full-size laptop is cumbersome, and even at a bit under five pounds the UX51VZ is certainly not “light”. It does come out of sleep quickly enough (under two seconds), and I appreciate having full access to all my Windows applications, but a tablet or smartphone is far more handy on the show floor. Connectivity is merely “okay” as well; ASUS includes a dual-band 802.11n WiFi adapter, the Intel Advanced-N 6235 (with Bluetooth support), but the wireless stack just isn’t as well optimized as on certain other laptops (MacBooks, basically—if you ever get a chance, do a comparison of connection speeds and send/receive rates in a crowded area with a PC vs. a MacBook and you’ll see what I’m talking about).
Battery life was a bit odd. ASUS is using a 72Wh battery, which is quite large for something this thin but very much appreciated. Typical runtime using the Power4Gear Battery Saving setting should be much higher, but I estimate my light use (mostly typing with some WiFi and Internet) at CES still only managed around five hours. With meetings and other things going on where the laptop wasn’t in use, that should have been sufficient, but on Thursday I actually used up the battery after just eight hours, during most of which the laptop was asleep in my backpack. Either the somewhat frequent suspect/resume used up power, the standby mode used more power than expected, or something else funky was going on. I would have estimated light battery use to get closer to seven hours, and with my Thursday schedule I probably only had the laptop out and active for three hours. I’ll have to look into this more, but it’s possible either connected standby was sucking up a fair amount of power or else the laptop actually wasn’t fully entering sleep mode. For the remaining three days of CES time, I never had a problem and today I’m still at 50% battery life with an estimated 2.5 hours remaining after a couple hours of use throughout the day.
Outside of the running out of power on Thursday, however, I have few complaints. The UX51VZ performed well and it was light enough to carry around while still offering an excellent display and a good user experience. This is the sort of laptop we’d really like to see more companies making—not necessarily 15.6”, but all the other aspects: great screen, good build quality, a good keyboard, and in general no areas where we have to really hold up a red flag and point out flaws. Several of the other AnandTech editors were quite impressed with the overall look and feel of the UX51VZ and expressed an interest in buying one. And unfortunately, that’s one thing the UX51VZ doesn’t have going for it: the price. Similar to the Acer Aspire S7, for all the great qualities on tap, the price may simply be too much for most potential customers. The MSRP of our review unit is $ 1999 I believe—it appears to sell online for around $ 1910. We can do the math, and as we noted in the Acer S7 review, it’s simply too much for something that doesn’t have the following of an Apple product.
I’d put the BoM (Bill of Materials) at close to $ 850, and some of the other editors think even that’s too high; asking over twice the BoM is just not something you can do in the Windows laptop space unless you’re selling enterprise laptops/mobile workstations. The price should probably be closer to $ 1500, and then we’d have a serious contender on hand. If ASUS wanted to be daring, try selling direct to customers at those prices and cut out the third party middlemen, and they’d not only grab some awards but they’d also make a lot more money per unit. At the current price, we have a great laptop that we can recommend in most areas, but most people will balk at the bottom line and likely go elsewhere. Still, I can’t say enough how pleased I am that ASUS is putting 1080p IPS displays in their higher end laptops; it’s almost enough to make me look past the pricing…almost.