Powerful performance, up-to-date hardware, sharp screen
Reflective screen construction, mediocre battery life, impressive speakers, high-pitch CPU fan
First things first: forget the “Pro” bit. The Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 isn’t some stuffy laptop meant to display dreary Excel spreadsheets in glass-walled meeting rooms for people in suits.
The name undersells how fun this laptop can be. As well as looking great it squeezes-in an Nvidia GeForce GTX960M graphics card, letting you play any current game without paring the graphics down to 16 colours and a fistful of polygons. And Asus has just updated the range to feature the latest IntelSkylake CPUs too.
Its only big problem is that the Dell XPS 15 is out, and that has a more dynamic design and pretty much the same specs. Is Asus still in with a shout?
The ZenBook series has charms of its own, though. Few companies manage to show off the metal in their laptops as clearly as Asus without seeming brazen about it.
You get a spun metal finish on the lid of the UX501, which is basically brushed aluminium but where the brushed effect winds around in a circle. And the circle theme returns inside, with little dots arranged in a circle around each end of the top part of the keyboard.
These little flourishes are kind of important, because they help the AsusZenBook Pro UX501 avoid seeming like too much of a MacBook clone. Sayinglaptop X looks like MacBook is a quasi-insult way past its sell-by-date, but the UX501 looks a lot more like one than a Dell XPS 15, doesn’t it? It’s all-aluminium aside from the screen and keyboard keys, and proud of it too.
The UX501 looks and feels expensive. However, it slips into a “semi-portable” class given the weight. If you want something to lug around with you every day, its 2.2kg mass and shoulder bag-bogarting frame aren’t ideal.
A 13-14-inch laptop might be a better option. And if you must have a full-size 15.6-inch model, the Dell XPS 15 really moves things forwards with a screen surround narrower than your pinkie’s fingernail, making the whole frame smaller. It’s only 10 per cent lighter than this Asus, but feels more manageable overall.
The UX501’s connections are still those of a portable notebooks though. You get three USB 3.0 slots, a full-size HDMI, and an SD card slot. The one brand new bit is the Thunderbolt USB-C, set to become increasingly important as mobile devices start ditching microUSB for it.
So although the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 doesn’t have a totally cutting-edge design, it does have the necessary 2016 extras, and certainly feels worth its price tag.
You also get a touchscreen. It can feel like manufacturers are floundering on this point – not quite sure whether people want them or not, particularly with larger laptops.
On the positive side, hey, you get a touchscreen, and thanks to Windows 10 that doesn’t feel like a universally superfluous thing. If nothing else, it can be the quickest way to pass through the login screen, or tap a link in an article you’re reading. A touch-led display design also means the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 has a totally flat display surface that extends to the surround.
However, the touchscreen also has a hand in proving there’s more than one way to spoil a screen’s contrast. When people talk about contrast in LCD TVs, it’s normally to do with how low the backlight can appear. A screen with “raised” blacks is going to make dark scenes in movies and games look grey and awful.
The Asus ZenBook Pro UX501’s contrast is limited by something else: it’s to do with the architecture of the screen. Whereas recent tablets use lamination techniques to weld layers of the display (and touchscreen) together with no air gaps, in this Asus the screen construction seems much less advanced. The actual display layer is recessed, and in an environment with any significant level of ambient light, the screen takes on a grey-ish tone.
This is because those little gaps in-between the front glass, the touchscreen, and the display all reflect a bit of light. It’s disappointing in a laptop as expensive as this. There’s no great anti-reflective coating either, so it’s not great for use outdoors as a result.
Aside from a kind of poorly-implemented touch layer, the UX501 does has a very nice screen, though, making us wish we could dig in and just rip out the touch part. It’s a very sharp 3840 x 2160 IPS LCD screen that’s well-calibrated, good when it comes to viewing angles and also good, if not mind-blowing, when it comes to maximum brightness.
It’s one of those displays that can look great in some rooms, but loses some of its pop if you put it near a bright window.
Keyboard & touchpad
Let’s leave that slight disappointment to the side for now, and move onto thekeyboard and touchpad. Both are very solid, and it’s here we see why the AsusZenBook Pro UX501 earns its Pro name.
How often do you see an ultra-fancy 15-inch metal laptop pack-in a full numerical pad? Spoiler: the answer is not very often. Laptops that use keypads can often feel less comfortable, because they sort of shunt your typing position to the left so that you don’t actually work from the centre of the laptop. Cunningly Asus has trimmed down the width of the keypad’s keys, so you just don’t notice this effect.
Whether many people actually need a keypad is another matter though. Either way, the keys feel good, in the usual crisp-and-shallow Ultrabook mould. They’re fairly MacBook Pro-like, but with a softer click feedback.
Conversely, the trackpad click is very pronounced, but is not so stiff it feels like you’re giving your finger a workout just by pressing the thing. The surface is a lovely textured glass and the well-spaced buttons don’t cause a headache even though they’re integrated into the pad, which does cause problems in someWindows machines.
It’s a pity the pad’s click is so bloody loud, though. Use the pad in the lounge while someone nearby is watching a moody film and they won’t thank you – they’ll get moodier than the film itself. At least that gives you one reason to use the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501’s touchscreen, eh?
A decent keyboard and trackpad are important parts of making the UX501 a viable all-day, every-day computer. And so is the hardware.
The review ZenBook we’re looking at has an Intel i7-6700HQ CPU and 12GBRAM. This is about as powerful a CPU as you’ll find in a stylish laptop like this right now. First, it’s of the latest Skylake generation, and it’s a quad-core processor rather than the dual-core kind you’ll find on just about all of the most powerful slim and light laptops.
If you need your laptop to be able to handle things like video editing, seriousPhotoshop action or maybe the music sequencing GarageBand can only dream of, this isn’t a bad workstation for the job.
The Pro UX501 also has the component you need for ultra-snappy everyday performance: an SSD. The version we’re testing has a 512GB SSD split into two partitions, one for the OS and another 286GB one for you to load your stuff onto. It’s a super-fast drive, capable of reading data at 2200MB/s and writing at 1564MB/s. That’s 10x faster than a normal hard drive.
Of course, you don’t get the massive storage of a laptop with an SSD-plus-HDD combo, so bear in mind you may need to invest in an external hard drive too. There’s no way to jam an extra drive inside this case. Leaving a 128GB SD cardin the side may suffice, though.
The part of the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 that may have really caught your eye is the GeForce GTX960M, though. This is about as powerful a mobile graphics card you can get in a system of this class.
While not a patch on the GTX980M you’ll find in a 4kg gaming behemoth, it can still play pretty much anything you like. We tried out The Witcher 3, as it’s one of the most demanding games around, and it worked a treat.
Don’t get any ideas about playing at the native 4K resolution though (it runs like a dog even at low settings in that instance), or with Ultra settings engaged, but you can get it to about the level of visual fidelity the PS4 manages and it’ll run just fine. So it’s a great gaming laptop for dabblers, if not the hardcore crowd. They can do much better at this price.
Like any system with this sort of hardware, the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 uses fans. But they’re kind of odd. Where other systems using a quad-core Intel i7 will generally use a low-rpm fan running all the time that sounds like, well just what it is, the UX501’s general-use sound is a bit weird and high-pitched.
It almost sounds as though the UX501 emits a hard drive-spinning noise in use, which is likely a dinky little CPU fan whirring around. The aim is to keep the decibel count low, but it’s actually more distracting than a more conventional, slightly louder fan. This is a personal preference thing, of course: if you notice the ticking sound of a clock, do you find it annoying?
The other system fan that kicks in when the GPU is put under strain must have a far larger diameter, because it makes a much more ordinary fan noise. And is actually pretty quiet under strain.
The more predictable side-effect of using a powerful CPU is that the AsusZenBook Pro UX501’s battery life isn’t exactly great. Even when just playing a video on loop, it only lasts four hours 20 minutes. You’ll get a similar stamina when just using the UX501 for basic things like writing docs, checking email and so on. And for challenging gaming you might get 80 minutes before the battery conks out.
Need all-day stamina? Run away screaming. However, the UX501 isn’t really intended as an ultra-portable. If that’s all you’re after, be sure to check out theAsus ZenBook UX305. It’s far less powerful, but fantastic as a machine to take with your anywhere and everywhere. The UX501 is also bettered by the DellXPS 15 and MacBook Pro 15, though.
Without meaning to end on a downer, the speakers aren’t very good either, especially considering the UX501 wears a Bang & Olufsen logo font and centre, and that the laptop isn’t exactly tiddly. The tone is fine enough, with a focus on clarity and detail rather than bass, but maximum volume is pretty poor. They come across as a bit weak.
Asus has updated the ZenBook UX501 for 2016 with a USB-C port and Intel’s Skylake CPUs, getting you as up-to-date as you could hope while keeping the fancy aluminium construction of last year’s original version.
The issues surround the bits that haven’t really been updated much, really. The way the touchscreen has been applied really deduces display contrast in well-lit rooms and the speakers are quite weedy for a decent-size laptop.
There are holes to poke, particularly in light of the competition such as this year’s Dell XPS 15, but otherwise this Asus is a great laptop for those who don’t care to much about portable use but do care about looking good.