Very few 13.3-inch Ultrabooks are armed with both an Intel Haswell processor and a discrete NVIDIA GPU - in fact, there's only two: Acer's Aspire S3 (2013) and the notebook we'll be reviewing today, ASUS' Zenbook UX302. The UX302 builds on 2012's UX32 with a fourth generation Intel Haswell fourth-generation Core i5-4200U or Core i7-4500U processor and, an admittedly entry-level, but nevertheless discrete NVIDIA GT 730M GPU. Both Core i5 and i7 models also boast fairly good connectivity with a Mini DisplayPort port, an HDMI port, three USB 3.0 ports, and an SD card reader.
Storage is provided in the form of a 750GB HDD + 16GB SSD cache, which won't be as speedy as a full SSD, but does offer more storage space in return.
The one area where its specs don't quite match up to other premium Ultrabooks is memory, where ASUS has bizarrely skimped out, with just a measly 2GB RAM installed on the Core i5 model and 4GB on the Core i7 model - unusual since RAM is quite affordable right now, and 8GB seems to be the standard these days. It's not even possible to upgrade the RAM, as 2GB is soldered onto the motherboard and, while the other module can be replaced, replacing it with mismatched RAM can cause performance issues, and as such, is generally not recommended.
For this review, we'll be evaluating the Core i7-4500U model which is fortunately equipped with 4GB of RAM - the bare minimum required these days.
Before we start, let's take a closer look at the UX302's full specs:
The Zenbook UX302, as well as ASUS' other 2013 Zenbook, the UX301 (which is almost identical but boasts a more powerful processor, higher resolution display and is also more expensive) shares much of the design philosophy of previous Zenbooks, with a tapered, full aluminum chassis and ASUS' distinctive swirl pattern lid. However, instead of the usual silver or grey, this time, ASUS has opted for a classy dark metallic blue color for the UX302's lid, which definitely looks unique and helps it stand out from the crowd. The lid is also protected by a sheet of Corning Gorilla Glass 3, so there's no need to worry about any unsightly scratches. Having said that, thanks to the dark finish, it's an absolute fingerprint and smudge magnet.
The UX302 isn't as slim or light as the UX301 - due mostly to its HDD and discrete GPU - which make it one of the heavier 13.3-inch Ultrabooks out there, tipping the scales at 1.47kg. It's also not the slimmest model out there, measuring 17.2mm at its thickest point.
As expected from ASUS, build quality is high, and the finishing is top notch, although, we did notice that, even with its Gorilla Glass protection, the thin lid does tend to flex fairly easily, which can be a bit alarming. We don't think it's likely to crack or shatter, but do be careful.
Opening up the notebook, the entire lid is just a tad longer than the body, making it easy to put your finger under and lift up - the lid is also very light, and the hinges are smooth, making one-handed opening very easy.
On the inside, the entire interior is machined from a single piece of brushed, dark grey aluminum. Like other Zenbooks, it's a very clean aesthetic, with no extra buttons, and just a single LED indicator for hard drive activity found in the top right corner.
Display & Audio
The UX302 is armed with a Full HD 1920 x 1080 IPS touchscreen display. The screen is reasonably bright at 300 nits, but it does suffer from a bit of backlight bleed around the edges. Contrast is also fairly good at 664:1, although it could certainly be better. Overall clarity and color reproduction is excellent, and the display doesn't exhibit any of the overly saturated colors often seen on other displays.
One issue we did encounter with the UX302's display is its adaptive brightness setting, which is enabled on all modes by default. It functions in a similar fashion to many smartphone displays by using an ambient light sensor to adjust the backlight based on how bright the room is. It's designed to save battery life, and also to reduce glare in a dark room. Unfortunately, the adaptive brightness on the UX302 is a bit too aggressive in its desire to cut power consumption, and almost always sets the backlight too low, even in well lit rooms.
For the most part we found it better to just disable it entirely and manually adjust screen brightness when required:
Touchscreen control was good, and the screen feels smoother than most, without the finger burn friction often encountered on glossy glass displays. Poking the screen does cause it to wobble, but the hinges are solid enough that the display won't actually change position unless you poke extra hard. Unlike some Ultrabooks, you can't tilt the screen completely flat, but it does recline quite far.
Audio on the UX302 is supplied via a pair of Bang & Olufsen ICEpower speakers, which are neatly hidden on the on the lower left and right edges of the notebook.
Sound quality isn't too bad, but as is usually the case with Ultrabooks, it's a bit thin, and also completely lacking in bass. Volume is fairly loud, but there was also some slight but perceptible distortion at maximum volume. Perhaps bundling a good portable wireless speaker would be a nice option to have when purchasing Ultrabooks.
Keyboard & Trackpad
The UX302 has a chiclet-style keyboard with three levels of adjustable backlighting, which is controllable through the Function keys. The key action is firm and crisp, with enough travel to make typing comfortable. The backlight could probably be a bit brighter, and it can actually be hard to see at all under normal lighting conditions, but it does the job just fine in the dark.
Trackpads used to be the weak point on ASUS' Zenbooks, but all previous issues seem to have been fixed now. The UX302's trackpad is decently sized, and is very slightly recessed into the interior, providing a nice tactile separation from the wrist rest - which is fortunate, because the trackpad isn't backlit, so you'll need to feel around for it in the dark.
The trackpad has a smooth, glass-like finish to it, and like most Ultrabooks, is clickable, with a practical, if somewhat unattractive line, delineating the area between left and right click. The click is firm with a decent amount of travel, and both tracking and multi-touch gestures worked accurately.
Connectivity on the UX302 is quite good, with three USB 3.0 ports (one of which is supercharged to output up to two amps of charge - about the same as your average wall plug charger), an HDMI port, a Mini DisplayPort port, and an SD card reader - although we're not too happy about the card reader leaving more than half the card sticking out of the port. Conspicuously absent is an RJ-45 Ethernet port, which means you'll have to rely on wireless or an adapter for Internet connectivity.
Our review model UX302 is armed with a fourth-generation Haswell Intel Core i7-4500U (1.8GHz) processor, which is the standard for all new Core i7 Ultrabooks. Most Ultrabooks now come with full SSDs, but the UX302 is a value-oriented model that uses a hybrid HDD + SSD cache drive. On the plus side, you do get more storage than a full SSD, with the UX302 boasting 750GB of storage space.
For our benchmarks, we will be pitting the UX302 against ASUS' own Zenbook UX301, which is armed with a slightly faster i7-4558U processor and 8GB RAM. It also uses Intel's Iris 5100 GPU and has a higher resolution QHD display. We'll also be comparing Acer's Aspire S7 (2013), which has the same screen resolution and Core i7 processor, but has Intel's HD Graphic 4400 GPU and 8GB RAM. And finally, we'll also throw in Lenovo's Yoga 2 Pro, which has the same Core i7 processor, but with 8GB RAM, Intel's HD Graphic 4400 GPU and a higher resolution QHD+ display.
You might feel that most of our comparisons are pegging costlier premium models against the UX302, but take note that the Lenovo machine is priced almost similar to the ASUS review unit's configuration that we've evaluating today.
PCMark 8 is a synthetic benchmark that simulates everyday usage comprising of workloads testing web browsing, multimedia editing and document editing. The 'Home' benchmark has a general array of tasks, while the 'Creative' and 'Work' benchmarks are more specific, and test a system’s performance at specific workloads.
The UX302 performed reasonably well in most tasks, and didn't seem to be hampered by its lack of RAM. However, as expected, it fared quite poorly in the Storage benchmark, dropping far behind our full SSD model Ultrabooks.
3DMark 2013 is a synthetic benchmark designed to test a notebook's graphics and gaming capabilities. For a more in-depth understanding of 3DMark 2013, please refer to our article "3DMark (2013) - Notebook GPU Performance Review". We'll be running our notebooks through two benchmarks:
- Cloud Gate is designed for integrated GPUs and utilizes a DirectX 11 engine limited to Direct3D feature level 10 (equivalent to DirectX 10) with a heavy emphasis on geometry, heavy post processing, particle effects, and volumetric illumination.
- Fire Strike serves as a showcase for DirectX 11 features, utilizing a grueling two-part test with extreme levels of tessellation and volumetric illumination, as well as complex smoke simulation using compute shaders and dynamic particle illumination.
Once again, a lack of RAM didn't seem to be an issue, with the UX302's NVIDIA GT730M discrete GPU proving far superior to Intel's HD Graphic 4400 GPU equipped on the Acer and Lenovo models, outscoring them by as much as 33%. However, the ASUS UX301's Intel Iris 5100 GPU actually performed slightly better, outscoring the UX302 at both Cloud Gate and Fire Strike.
Far Cry 2
In an actual gaming benchmark, the UX302 proved much better, outscoring all of our test machines, including the UX301's Intel Iris 5100 GPU. Having said that, we still wouldn't consider the UX302 gaming-capable, as it wasn't able to achieve 30FPS on Far Cry 2's Very High setting. Far Cry 2 is also a fairly old game, and not DX11-supported.
For an idea of how the UX302 fares on newer games, we also ran DX11 game Tomb Raider (2013) on 1920 x 1080. As expected, at medium settings it was only able to achieve 20.5 FPS, and that dropped to 11.4 FPS at High settings. If you're willing to sacrifice quality, and play at a lower resolution, it is possible to bump FPS over 30 (and even over 60 if you play at Low quality on a measly resolution of 1024 x 768) but it's definitely not an ideal solution. If you want to play games on a notebook, you're still going to need something more powerful than a compact Ultrabook.
The UX302 is armed with a 50WH, 4560mAh Lithium Ion battery, which is a bit smaller than average for a notebook of this size.
To test battery life, we use Powermark, a synthetic benchmark which tests a device's battery life with a number of productivity and everyday usage scenarios. The UX302 fared better than its brother, the UX301, but still only managed to last just under three hours, far less than both the Acer Aspire S7 and Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro. This was particularly disappointing, because the Yoga 2 Pro did better despite having an even smaller capacity 3700mAh battery and a much higher 3200 x 1800 pixel resolution display.
As you can see, power consumption on the UX302 was unusually high. While you might think it's the discrete graphics that's adding to the power requirements, that doesn't explain the UX301's power consumption where it has no discrete graphics. We normally use the balanced power profile to conduct these battery tests, but just to be doubly sure, we also tested the ASUS UX series notebooks on the power savings profile, but that hardly improved the battery life results.
Our Portability score factors in battery life, weight and volume to give you an idea of how easy it is to carry each device around. Due to its thicker profile, heavier weight, and lackluster battery life, the UX302 was outshined in this category.
The Ultrabook market is crowded and competitive, but ASUS has done a good job offering something unique with the UX302. We liked the gorgeous dark metallic blue lid with its Gorilla Glass 3 protection (even if it is a fingerprint magnet) and the discrete NVIDIA GT 730M GPU, which, while not powerful enough to make the UX302 a gaming machine, is certainly much better than the standard Intel HD Graphics 4400 integrated graphics found on most Haswell Ultrabooks.
A lack of RAM turned out to be a non-issue with our benchmark tests, but even so, considering how affordable RAM is right now, the standard 8GB should really be expected on a notebook of this price. As for the hybrid HDD, it does make the notebook slightly slower than a full SSD on certain tasks, but we suspect many users will find the extra storage a worthwhile trade-off.
Our biggest complaint with the UX302 is its under average battery life, caused by a combination of the UX302's high power consumption and under average capacity battery. It's particularly unfortunate because the short battery life also diminishes the usefulness of the UX302's NVIDIA GPU. Any applications that can make use of the GPU - like a video game - will also drain battery life even faster.
Price-wise, the UX302 is competitive, and is on the low-end of the premium Ultrabook price range. All things considered, if you're looking for a gorgeous and classy Ultrabook with above average graphics performance and lots of storage space, the UX302 is certainly a decent choice - just be prepared to hunt for a power outlet on a fairly regular basis (relatively speaking).