Take your MacBook and Shove It: How the Asus Zenbook Prime Saved My Life

See what I did there?  For a moment I pretended I worked for a bastion of technology news reporting and made up a completely ridiculous title just to attract page views.  Of course, I don’t advertise on this site at all, so I guess the joke is on me…

Anyway, I’m not a Mac guy.  In fact, I’m borderline anti-Mac since I get to see all of the extra work that my colleagues have to go through to do simple things like send and receive e-mail, or connect to a VPN or (gasp!) edit a Visio diagram.  I see entire internal Wikis at Cisco and EMC dedicated to “how to use your Mac at work” and I wonder: how good a use of time and resources is that?

microsoft apple logoIn any case, I tried.  When I started at VCE I was given the option of a MacBook Pro, or a Dell.  Since I already had an almost brand new Dell, I chose the MacBook, and gave it my best effort.  What I found was that I spent 80% of my day inside a Windows VM, either using an application that worked better on Windows (the entire Microsoft Office suite) or that worked only on Windows (Visio, LiveWriter, vSphere Client, Zune Client).  What was the point?  Sure, there were some nice things about OSX, and there were even some features, like multi-desktop switching, that were pretty impressive.  But I didn’t want a laptop to challenge my troubleshooting skills.  I surely didn’t want one because it was built on Linux and easy to hack on.  I wanted one that was easy to travel with, ran the apps I needed and helped me be my productive best.

After about a month, I gave up on Apple.  I native booted Windows 7 on it and never looked back.  Of course, this had it’s challenges as well…

First, the MacBook Pro isn’t exactly the smallest travel laptop, especially with the second hard drive I put in it.  It was too large for my standard travel messenger bags, and too heavy to carry around a show floor.  Second, trying to adapt a Mac keyboard to it’s Windows counterpart is a disaster.  Key mapping utilities work, but they make things so much more complicated than they need to be.  Sure, it had lots and lots of RAM and an i7 CPU, but I didn’t need all of that, I needed something more portable.  Of course when I mentioned this to my team, their immediate suggestion was to get a MacBook Air.  This solved the portability problem, of course, but it didn’t solve the others, and it put me back inside a Windows VM, exactly where I didn’t want to be.

As an aside, you’d be surprised at some of the visceral responses I got when Mac people saw that I was native-booting Windows.  Some of them were pretty upset about it.  Relax folks, it’s a laptop, not a religious text…

So I need something smaller, lighter and that (preferably) runs Windows.  Of course I come to find out that the MBA is the only ultrabook that VCE offers it’s employees.  Fantastic.  Looks like it’s time to start checking out Intel-based ultrabooks on my own dime…

Turns out, there are a lot of good options out with the newest of the Ivy Bridge processors.  Sony, Asus, Lenovo, HP and Dell (kinda) all have new offerings that were worth a look.  In the end, I figured the feature that was the most important was the one I look at all the time, and based my choice mostly on the quality of the screen.  Most 13” ultrabooks these days come with a decidedly “meh” 1366 x 768 screen.  Some like the Asus UX31E and the Samsung Series 9 come with a somewhat better 1600 x 900 screen.  If you look hard enough, however, you can find the jewels: the incredible 1920 x 1080 IPS HD displays.

defining-notebooks-asus-zenbook-ux31aToday, only two companies are shipping these stunners: Asus in it’s Zenbook Prime series, and Sony in the Vaio Z Series.  I chose the Zenbook Prime UX31A.

Going in, the choice of Asus had some worries.  The previous model of Zenbook had a horrible, horrible trackpad, one of the worst ever reviewed.  Asus changed their sourcing to a new company (Elan), and updated the software in use, but there was no guarantee that it would be better.  Also, ultrabooks are notorious for being difficult, if not impossible to upgrade, and coming from a dual-SSD, 16Gb RAM monster I was worried I’d need more resources than an ultrabook could give.

With those things in mind, I jumped in.  I bought the UX31A-DB72 model with the i7 processor and a 256GB SSD for $1299 online.  I’ve had it for a couple weeks, so how has it gone?

Overall, better than I could have hoped!  It took about 6 hours to get everything set up, and to clear off the most egregious of the bloat-ware.  I upgraded the version of Windows 7 that came with it to the Professional version so I could add it to my domain at the house, and that’s about it.  I’m getting 5+ hours of real world battery life out of it, which is a far cry better than the 2-ish I was getting from the MacBook.  It came with a DisplayPort-to-VGA connector as well as a USB3-to-Ethernet adapter.  I am going to have to buy an HDMI adapter, but that’s expected.  The keyboard is backlit nicely and has a pretty solid feel to it much like the MacBook.  Unlike the Mac, however, the front of the case where your wrists rest doesn’t cut into my arms.  It’s actually comfortable to type on, and the more familiar keyboard layout makes a huge difference to me.

ehh-300-happy-laptop-outside-yay-istockAnd the screen.  Oh, the screen.  There’s nothing I can say here that will do it justice.  Heck, even the pictures can’t make you see how awesome this LCD is.  Suffice it to say it’s easily the best ultraportable laptop screen I’ve ever seen.  I imagine this is how long time MacBook Pro owners felt when they got their new Retina displays.  It’s amazing how much real estate you have to work with.  Especially for apps that can use it (Outlook, TweetDeck, vSphere Client, etc.) it’s amazing.

The touchpad, which I was most worried about?  Well, it’s not perfect.  The actual pointing and clicking works fine, but there were some funky issues when using the two-finger scrolling gesture.  After fighting it for a few days, I checked the Asus support site for a driver update, and lo and behold there was a new Beta version available!  I’ve had the new version running for a few hours, and it looks like all of the scrolling issues are fixed!  I’ll keep using it this week and let you know if I find any other issues.

Overall, I’m much happier with a Windows machine.  Maybe I’m not smart enough, or cool enough to use a Mac.  Maybe it’s charms are lost on me.  The Zenbook is everything I need, nothing I don’t, didn’t break the bank and looks great to boot.  Maybe things will change after a few months of use, but right now I couldn’t be happier with my decision!