Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 review

There’s a lot of talk about laptops diminishing entirely at the moment, but those hanging on to the spotlight right now are small and very portable. The Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 seems to think there’s still an appeal to an older style of laptop. It has plenty of power, enough to act as a desktop replacement PC for many, but has a fancy design and an hint of portability too. It’s a real all-rounder. However, not every aspect of it has been totally well-handled, lumbering it with a few issues that are not all that easy to accept at the price. See also: 20 of the best laptops you can buy right now

Also see: Best Black Friday Laptop Deals

Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 review: Price

As with many laptops, the UX501 isn't a single model: it's a range which starts at around £1000 and rises to around £1500 for the model we've tested here, the UX501VW-FJ098T, which costs £1519 from Scan.

You get the same chassis, keyboard and touchpad, but the screen, processor, RAM and storage change depending on the exact SKU.

Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 review: Design

As you so often get with laptops at an ultra-premium price, the UX501’s chassis is made almost entirely of aluminium. This is an expensive-looking computer, and it has the hard, cool metallic feel to match. The ‘Pro’ is much more a reference to something like the Apple MacBook Pro than the sorts of ‘professional’ Dell monsters you may have used as work PCs in the past. It’s a rather nice, if boxy, piece of hardware.

Asus Zenbook Pro UX501 review

Little design tweaks specific to Asus’ style include the circular brushed finish on the lid and the circular arrangement of dots on the UX501’s inside. Its flashy elements are subdued. This feels like a laptop that should be used 80 percent at home or at work, and 20 percent on the go. While it’s not a gigantic workstation, it does still have some weight to it, and is twice as heavy as the kind of laptops meant for real roving use. It weighs 2.27kg and is 21mm thick. The thickness isn’t an issue, but the weight might be, liable to become a bit of a shoulder-ache after a few hours unless you’re used to lugging around heavy stuff. Being a 15in laptop it’s also likely to fill a lot of shoulder bags.

This is where the rival Dell XPS 15 has a real advantage. It has a more dynamic design that really tries to shave down the footprint of the 15in laptop, whereas the UX501 is of a conventional shape. Its hinge doesn’t bend back far either.

Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 review: Connections

The design has a ‘premium’ sensibility, but isn’t that dynamic. It comes across as a mite stiff. However, it does make changes to the version of the UX501 we saw last year, by including a USB-C Thunderbolt socket. This is soon to be the staple connector of mobile devices, in effect replacing the microUSB sockets most of us have been using for years.

Asus hasn’t made any such bold moves here, thankfully. The UX501 has three USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot and an HDMI socket to let you hook up with a monitor or TV very easily. There’s no Ethernet port, which may put those of you with spotty home Wi?Fi off buying this as a full desktop-replacer.

Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 review: Keyboard and touchpad

The keyboard is up to the task, though. Not only does it use full-size keys for the main area, as you’d expect, it also has a full numerical pad. These keys are trimmed down a little, but this is an important part of making the UX501 ‘feel right’. A full-size numberpad can shift your position so that you’re no longer working at the centre of the laptop, but here the move is slight enough not to become an issue.

Asus Zenbook Pro UX501 review

Key action is typical of a slim laptop. It’s shallow, but well defined. Some of you may find it on the soft side, but it ultimately makes typing for long periods comfortable. It’s not as good as that of the Dell XPS 15 or MacBook Pro, though.

The UX501’s trackpad is a similar middle-weight example. It’s perfectly fine without setting any new standards. Its surface is textured glass for a smooth feel and it uses a very pronounced click. The buttons are integrated into the pad, and we have not had any major issues with making unintended right-clicks, a classic symptom of a dodgy trackpad design. The one problem with the pad is that the click is pretty loud. In quiet rooms, you may annoy friends, family and colleagues.

Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 review: Screen

One of the hardware elements that goes some way to excuse the high price of the UX501 is its screen resolution. This is a ‘4K’ laptop, with screen resolution of 3840x2160 pixels. Unless you’re a serial laptop upgrader it’s going to be a lot sharper than any laptop you’ve owned in the past. Like almost all laptops of this specification, it uses an IPS LCD panel, which guarantees you good viewing angles.

However, there’s something amiss with the screen, and it is down to how its touchscreen layer is implemented. While the touchscreen works just fine, even though it is at risk of seeming a bit superfluous to requirements in a 15in performance laptop, it leaves the display looking a little greyed out. This isn’t down to the backlight leaking through, but that the display is actually a little recessed. Other screen layers above it reflect a little bit of ambient light, greying out the surface slightly.

Higher-end tablets use full screen lamination to avoid this, which is where the touch- and display layers are fused. As a result, the UX501 looks good in dim rooms, but loses much of its impact in bright ones. And with a reflective surface to boot (which is clearly shown below), it’s not too good for outdoors use at all. This is not helped by the only just acceptable maximum brightness of 253cd/m2. The display is much less of winner in person than it sounds on paper.

Asus Zenbook Pro UX501 review

Using our colorimeter, which measures how accurate and deep a screen’s colours are, we found the UX501 capable of rendering 102 percent of the sRGB standard and 70.7 percent of the Adobe RGB one. That’s below Asus’s claims, but a good result.

Calibration is less accurate than most we’ve tested recently at this sort of price, with an average Delta E score of 0.93. However, in use its colours look good, only really being let down by the whole contrast-sapping style of display.

Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 review: Performance

While the screen disappoints a bit, the UX501’s performance does not. This laptop has a very powerful processor – an Intel Core i7?6700HQ – that outclasses the thinner, lighter crowd. The part to really note here is that it’s not a dual-core ‘U’ series CPU, but a quad?core one offering performance somewhat comparable with desktop-class systems. It has eight threads, 6MB cache, and a standard clock speed of 2.6GHz, which can be turbo boosted up to 3.5GHz. This is a Skylake generation CPU, ensuring you’re up to date for, at the very least, most of 2016.

Along with that you get 12GB RAM and a 512GB SSD. The SSD is intensely fast, able to write data at up to 1508MB/s thanks to its PCI-E x4 interface. The combination of powerful GPU, generous RAM and ultra-fast storage makes the UX501 a dream for any productivity tasks. And, of course, it runs like a dream day-to-day.

In Geekbench 3, it scored 12431 points, and 2645 in PC Mark 8 Home. This sort of performance is to be expected of a laptop with this specification and price, and should give a lot of you confidence.

It’s ready for some fun, too. While the UX501 isn’t a gaming laptop as such, it does have a dedicated GPU, the nVidia GeForce GTX 960M. This is the same GPU as found in the latest-generation Dell XPS 15.

This is a great GPU for those who like to game occasionally, but don’t want to trade away looks and an extra £300 or so for a laptop with the top-end GTX 980M.

A lot of recent games will run very well at 1080p at mid-high settings with this card. Only undemanding games will run at the UX501’s native resolution, but we’re yet to meet a mobile GPU that can really belt out top titles at 4K. Playing Thief, for example, it manages a playable 27fps at 1080p with maxed-out visuals. You’ll probably just want to chip a few elements down to nudge the average comfortably over 30fps. Alien Isolation is very playable maxed-out at 1080p, with an average of 51fps.

Oddly enough, while its 1080p gaming performance matches the similarly-specified Dell XPS 15, reducing the resolution to 720p saw its FPS figures drop below the Dell’s. Could it be some strange software scaling optimisation sapping performance? Who knows, but as the nVidia GTX960M is strong enough to keep the resolution at 1080p for most titles, it’s not a deal-breaker.

When gaming, the UX501 doesn’t get too noisy. However, the CPU fan used whenever the system is in use does have a strangely distracting tone. It almost doesn’t sound like a fan, but the whirring of the platters of a particularly loud hard drive, something the laptop doesn’t have. While very quiet, some of you may find it distracting when working in quiet rooms. We did, and would prefer the sound of a lightly noisier, but more conventional fan. It’s the inconsistency of the noise that gets on your nerves.

Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 review: Battery life

Whatever the tone, an always-on fan is something you have to learn to live with if you want a quad-core Intel Core-series laptop right now. Normally, so is mediocre battery life. However, the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501’s stamina is good for a system of this class.

It has a large 96Wh lithium ion battery, which lasts for seven hours 20 minutes when playing back a 720p video file. This is with the brightness set to 120cd/m2, which is bright enough to watch comfortably indoors, although less than half of what the screen is actually capable of putting out. This is better than Asus’s own claims of six hours of video playback and a good result for a machine with a quad-core Intel CPU and a 4K-resolution screen.

Much like the design, it gets you enough flexibility to be used as an occasional roving laptop without getting you the full-day use required of a true portable-driven machine.

Asus ZenBook Pro UX501: Specs

  • 15.6-inch (3840 x 2160) 282dpi IPS glossy touchscreen 1.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ (up to 3.5GHz) 4 cores, 4 threads Nvidia GeForce GTX960M 12GB DDR4 RAM 512GB SSD 802.11b/g/n/ac dual-band 2x2 MIMO Bluetooth 4.0 3x USB 3.0 1x USB-C HDMI 1.4 Kensington Security Slot SDXC card slot stereo speakers HD webcam single mic 3.5mm headset jack UK tiled keyboard with numberpad two-button trackpad, 110 x 46mm 96Wh lithium-ion battery, removable 383 x 255 x 21mm 2200g
  • 15.6-inch (3840 x 2160) 282dpi IPS glossy touchscreen 1.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ (up to 3.5GHz) 4 cores, 4 threads Nvidia GeForce GTX960M 12GB DDR4 RAM 512GB SSD 802.11b/g/n/ac dual-band 2x2 MIMO Bluetooth 4.0 3x USB 3.0 1x USB-C HDMI 1.4 Kensington Security Slot SDXC card slot stereo speakers HD webcam single mic 3.5mm headset jack UK tiled keyboard with numberpad two-button trackpad, 110 x 46mm 96Wh lithium-ion battery, removable 383 x 255 x 21mm 2200g

OUR VERDICT

The Asu ZenBook Pro UX501 is a laptop that looks great on paper, if you’re not turned off by its price. It has plenty of power, high-quality build and an ultra-high resolution screen matched with a touchscreen. And it can even play games. It’s everything many people want in a laptop. However, a few little niggles stop it from being the MacBook Pro 15 and Dell XPS 15 killer you might be hoping for. First, the screen’s dated architecture limits the impact of the high resolution in most environments. It’s incredibly reflective on two different levels. That the CPU fan is a little irritating and the touchpad very loud are very minor points, but combined with the screen issue make for a laptop not quite up there with the very best. You can afford to be picky when you have this much money to spend.