ZenBook Prime flunks blogging torture test, gets replaced by a MacBook Air

ZenBook Prime flunks blogging torture test, gets replaced by a MacBook Air

Summary: The Asus had sexy specs and good reviews, but when push came to shove a temperamental trackpad led to its downfall.

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I bought a brand new Asus Zenbook Prime UX31 to take to the Google I/O 2012 conference, and after two days decided to scrap it in favor of a MacBook Air. Here's why.

On paper, the specs are nearly identical: both have a 7 hour battery, Dual Core Intel i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD. Both weigh 2.9 pounds. Both have a backlit keyboard, and cost around $1100. The ZenBook is practically a clone of the MacBook Air's iconic design. Take a look at them side by side at the Apple store:

Click for a larger image

I bought the ZenBook because I normally use Windows and because the ZenBook has a much better display (1920x1080 IPS). It turns out this was both a blessing and a curse.

My first hint of trouble was when I was first setting up the Asus and it turned itself off for no reason. That only happened once so I chalked it up as a fluke. Then YouTube videos showed only garbage in the Chrome browser. Turning off hardware acceleration worked around that. I spent several hours applying dozens and dozens of Windows Update patches. That was kind of annoying but it's just a one time thing. I don't understand why a brand new machine that only went on sale at Amazon this month didn't have those already applied, but no big deal.

Another bad sign was the wrist pain I experienced when using the unit for the first half hour. The computer is so thin and the metal edges so sharp that it was actually painful to rest my arms on it. I trained myself not to do that and continued.

The Asus lasted for my entire plane trip from North Carolina to California, including a delay on the tarmac as technicians tried to decide whether or not a dent in the engine was too big for flight or not. That was over 7 hours in battery saving mode, blogging via the in-flight WiFi. Battery-wise, I continue to be impressed.

The real test came on Wednesday, the first day of the conference. I would be sitting in a straight-back chair for hours, typing furiously while trying to watch the presentations and take pictures at the same time. This is where the Asus totally let me down.

I'm a pretty fast touch typist, but I absolutely rely on the computer behaving in a certain way as I type. In particular, I can't have the cursor jumping randomly around the screen, causing text to be inserted in the wrong place. I especially can't have text being selected willy-nilly so that the next key I hit will erase it. Both of these things happened with disturbing frequency on the ZenBook Prime. The culprit was the trackpad.

Last year's ZenBook (non-Prime) got poor reviews because of its lousy trackpad. The Prime was supposed to be much better, according to several online reviews. Well, if this is better, I really feel sorry for the poor souls using last year's model.

As I typed, despite my best efforts the bottom of the my hand would lightly touch the trackpad every so often. That was enough to send the cursor scurrying across the screen, sometimes with text selected, and always with unfortunate results. By the end of the day I had to keep checking the screen to see if I was typing in the wrong place. I can't count the number of times I had to press Ctrl+Z to undo, or retype text that was lost.

Before you conclude that I just got a bum unit, consider that I found another ZenBook user at the conference who was having the exact same problem. Neither of us could find a setting that would make the situation any better. Both of us were extremely frustrated. Last I saw, he was still pecking out his articles on the ZenBook. I didn't have the same amount of patience.

So, as soon as the sessions were over for the day I walked over to the Apple store determined to purchase a MacBook Air.

Click for a larger image

I already ruled out a MacBook Pro Retina version because of the expense. Regular MacBook Pros were out because I wanted a solid state drive. That left the 13- and 11-inch models to choose from. You can see the 11-inch one in the picture above.

The 11-inch model was very tempting because this is not my primary machine and the smaller screen would be just dandy for writing. However, three factors discouraged me from getting one:

First, the battery life on the smaller Air is rated at 5 hours instead of 7 hours for its larger sibling. 7 hours is just barely enough for my uses, but 5 would fall short without a mid-day charge. Plus there's the problem all laptops have where the battery life gets shorter over the life of the device. Neither MacBooks nor ZenBooks have replaceable batteries.

Second, the 11-incher does not have a built-in SD port. My Nkon Coolpix S8100 uses an SD card, and it is convenient to pop it out of the camera and into the computer in order to import pictures. I could have gone with a cheap SD reader or plugged in a cable to the camera, but that's another piece to lose.

Finally, the top and bottom rows of keys are shorter on the 11-inch Air than on the 13-inch. I tried each a few times (one of the benefits of having a real store) and decided I could definitely feel the difference, especially on the arrow keys which I use often.

So, I'm now a proud MacBook Air owner. As I typed this article, I didn't experience a single glitch or cursor malfunction. The trackpad is incredibly nice on the Air, light years ahead of what the ZenBook has to offer. The keyboard feels rock solid as I bang out these words.

I hope Amazon will give me a refund on the Asus, because this MacBook is here to stay.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility

Ed Burnette

About Ed Burnette

Ed Burnette is a software industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience as a programmer, author, and speaker. He has written numerous technical articles and books, most recently "Hello, Android: Introducing Google's Mobile Development Platform" from the Pragmatic Programmers.

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49 comments
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  • wow

    i never saw a person to change their computer because of a trackpad. wow! I wouldn't want to get your coffee wrong, you might slap me!

    Don't get me wrong, i know it may be frustrating, but to change your computer because of the trackpad without knowing that you can return you old-new pc, seems a bit(a lot) wasteful.
    badescuga
    • Not just the computer either...

      He is probably also switching OS's so that's the entire investment in Windows software down the drain too. Unless he is going to run Windows on the Mac - in which case that's a full retail copy of Windows to buy. So either way, you would really, really, really have to love that track pad.

      Despite the computers being about the same price, the total price including software is going to be a lot different. Either re-buy the applications to get Mac versions or else buy a retail copy of Windows to run the Windows applications you already have. So saying the price is the same is a bit disingenuous since it doesn't account for the total cost of the switch.
      cornpie
      • No...

        He can still run Windows on the MacBook Air if he likes.
        ShockMe
      • Full Retail Copy of Windows? Why?

        Not everyone would have to purchase a separate copy of Windows to continue using the software. I can think of several options off the top of my head.

        1. Re-use software from previous systems and dual boot Windows/Mac: I have several versions of Windows in my possession from PC's I've built over the years. The most recent being Windows 7 I purchased for a desktop I built but transitioned to Linux. Many people have old copies of software lying around that could easily be used on another system.

        2. Use an emulator like Parallels Desktop, VMware's Fusion (relatively cheap) or for a free options like Q or VirtualBox. Of course, with these you'll still need Windows. But you can pick up a retail copy of Windows 7 for under $70 or as I mentioned above, re-use older version if you have them. Not bad for a computer that runs OS X/Windows/+ multiple flavors of Linux if you get Q/VirtualBox for free.

        3. Ditch Windows all together and use CodeWeavers CrossOverXI which runs a decent list of windows apps without requiring the operating system at all. Sure not everything runs but the list of supported apps keeps growing.

        Hell, maybe I should get one again.
        genesishep
        • Parallels will import an existing Windows system, no new Win license needed

          Parallels has a feature where you connect your Mac and PC on the same network using their migration software, and the migration from real to virtual occurs automatically.

          You don't have to pay for another windows license, you can use the one from your old PC.

          Probably shouldn't keep using the PC if you do this, in the spirit of the license, and some Windows licenses don't allow OEM versions to be transferred to another machine, but technically it works almost perfectly...
          vaporland
      • He's a Writer

        A $20 copy of Pages or a free copy of OpenOffice may be all he needs.
        KPOM1
    • Maybe you missed the part where

      where he makes his living writing quickly under deadline. What for you is annoying, is, for him, job critical.
      baggins_z
      • Maybe you missed the part where...

        He is dumping an entire platform and ecosystem because of one particular component on one particular computer. There are many other options that would not involve repurchasing all of his software.
        cornpie
      • The guy writes for a living.

        What software, precisely, does he have to replace?
        baggins_z
    • SOunded like a frustrating experience ...

      not to mention, totally unproductive. To keep that piece of un-QA'd, useless Zen trash would seem wasteful.

      A commenter below says this problem can be fixed with latest drivers. Too bad they didn't get it right before selling it.
      harvey_rabbit
    • A trackpad is pretty important

      Someone who travels a lot and works on planes probably doesn't want to deal with the hassle of a mouse or external trackpad. I'd certainly replace a notebook on account of a lousy trackpad. I just don't get why it is so hard for many Windows OEMs to figure that out.
      KPOM1
    • Understandable...and not

      I can understand his frustration. My 13" MBP Bootcamped into Windows 7 was maddeningly useless due to the same problem - I never knew where the cursor would be. When booted into Snow Leopard, the trackpad isn't an issue. No amount of tweaking the settings within Windows 7 takes care of the issue.

      Unlike Ed, however, I simply Googled for a utility to take care of it.

      Mouse Speed Switcher allows setting the tracking speed for up to 10 devices, so I cranked down the settings on the Trackpad and the problem was gone, while still tracking as fast as the M705 I normally use (set at faster tracking speeds that end up equalizing the tracking of the Trackpad and mouse). I currently only have settings for 3 devices, but that's because I don't use the others often enough to set them up in MSS.

      I don't use much shareware, but MSS is one of the few. I bought it within a week of trying it out, it's essential for Windows 7 Bootcamped in a Mac.

      FAR cheaper than replacing the laptop.
      Tom Stangl
  • Damn right!

    Woah - so you're saying instead of temporarily disabling the trackpad (F9) I should get a refund and buy a Mac. Doh!
    KiwiCoder
    • Looks like...

      ...most of his problems were driver related (GPU acceleration, trackpad sensitivity). Now - it can be very frustrating, but has very little (well - nothing really) to do with hardware.
      Sharp edge hurting the wrist though - that's a no-no. But you can blame Macbook Air chassis style for it and Asus trying to copy it without using common sense.
      vgrig
      • Apple has nothing

        To do with Asus' stupid design.
        baggins_z
      • Are you really serious?

        Apple designs a cool and incredibly awesome design, so THEY are to blame when Asus copies it poorly? I've certainly heard a lot of complaints from PC-centric commentators about Apple fan boys, but your comment is nothing less than bizarre.
        davidlfoster
    • Right. Because

      constantly hitting the f9 to toggle your trackpad is conducive to quick writing and would never interrupt your thought process or workflow. Why are you so offended that the Zen was a piece of junk and the MacBook Air wasn't?
      baggins_z
      • Let me guess...

        ...Apple fan, right?
        You know how i can tell? You're not getting the point, that's how - posters are not bashing Mac (well, most posters) - they question blogger's reasons, decision making as well as lack of technical skills he, as a tech blogger, should have (e.g. drivers update).
        If you really want to defend you're beloved fruity company - go find a post about Samsung Tab export ban - a lot more apple smashing in those comments.
        vgrig
      • @vgrig, The guy wants a device that meets his

        Needs WITHOUT all the crap you say it's his moral responsibility to do. I doubt you would be pitching this much of a fit if he turned in his Asus for a Lenovo.
        baggins_z
      • Not so Ultrabook...

        Typical Wintel Windrek. No wonder why Wintel PC sales are plummeting and Microsoft is getting desperate and may start building other devices as well alongside their precious ZunePad. Microsoft is starting to blame its partners for the crappy hardware causing mediocre Windows 7 sales. Oh, well, that's the way the Windblows. I'm sure this article made quite a few Windows' fanbois cry.
        ConstableOdo