ASUS Zenbook UX303UB with NVIDIA GTX940M Graphics Review

Positives
  • Good performance
  • Accurate display
  • Discrete graphics in 13.3 inches
  • Runs silent and cool
  • Upgradable after purchase
Negatives
  • Bouncy keyboard
  • Discrete graphics affects battery life

ASUS has a lot of Zenbooks, which can be a little confusing, but if you’re looking for something with extra performance the Zenbook UX303UB comes with an NVIDIA GeForce 940M which will give you lots of extra performance.

Design

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It’s a great-looking system that’s up there with the market’s sleekest ultraportable notebooks, but it doesn’t have the high price you’d expect. Like many Ultrabooks, Asus has built this machine’s exterior from slick metal. Like most of its rivals, it’s also a slim device that tapers to a thin front edge – in this case, it narrows down to an impressive 3mm. The UX303LA’s 18mm body extends to 20mm with its rubber feet, which is thicker than every competitor. The wrist-rest depressed slightly when we pushed the expanses of metal on either side of the track-pad, and there was a little movement in the base. The screen is stronger, with no distortion on the panel itself. My only complaint is the gap below the display, they left it open and exposed to the metal backing, it’s not bad looking, it just feels like it should be filled in with the same rubber that rims the entire display.  The metal rim in that section is also very sharp to the touch making it feel a little unfinished. It’s a very small detail, and one most people would likely miss.

ASUS has not varied from it in a few generations, they just keep refining it, giving the hinge a little more resolve in this generation as last generations was often called ‘floppy’.  It’s a classic timeless design that will still look good in a few year, my roommate is still using a 3 year old Zenbook and still gets complimented or asked about it. It’s a good looking machine, no question about it.

Hardware

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The refreshing thing here is that you get a top end 3.2 lb. machine with specs that beat much of the competition for $1,299. Under the hood you get a 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7-6500U CPU, dedicated NVIDIA 940M 2GB DDR3 graphics switchable via NVIDIA Optimus with Intel HD 520 graphics. A very bright and colorful 1920 x 1080 non touch matte display. QHD and touch models are available with discrete graphics, we just don’t think we need QHD and like the matte display for on the road visibility.  A backlit keyboard, 512 gig SSD and dual band WiFi 802.11ac with Bluetooth round out the ample feature set. This is a traditional laptop, not a convertible with a 360 degree hinge or active digitizer with pen.

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Asus Zenbook UX303UB-R4100T
Processor: Intel Core i7-6500U 2.5 GHz (Intel Core i7)
Graphics card: NVIDIA GeForce 940M – 2048 MB, Core: 1072-1176 MHz, Memory: 900 MHz, DDR3, 64-bit interface
Memory: 8192 MB DDR3, dual-channel, one memory slot (occupied but upgradable), 4 GB soldered
Display – 13.3 inch 16:9, 1920×1080 pixel, IPS, (Non touch edition)
Glossy: no
Storage – Micron M600 MTFDDAK512MBF, 512 GB (Upgradable)

The Zenbook UX303UB has a Core i7-6500U (Skylake) dual-core processor which is a ULV model that uses less power and has a TDP of 15 watts. The clock is 2.5 GHz but can be climb up to 3 GHz (two cores) and 3.1 GHz (one core) via Turbo Boost. However, the CPU can only utilize its Turbo potential in single thread applications, while multi-thread applications are executed with 2.5-2.6 GHz. The processor can therefore not utilize its full potential in multi-thread situations like running several programs at once. This behavior is similar on mains as well as battery power.

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Port selection is hearty for a slim and light 13.3″ Ultrabook: 3 USB 3.0 ports, full size HDMI (no more micro HDMI on the ZenBook top model), mini DisplayPort, 3.5mm combo audio and an SD card slot. Unlike some ZenBooks of old, there was no USB to Ethernet or HDMI to VGA adapter in the box. Sorry, there’s no USB-C 3.1 port here.

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The all metal ZenBooks have often been a bit toasty on the bottom. Not the UX303UB, it rarely goes beyond warm on the bottom, the metal behind the display is even cooler, actually we might call it cold. Even when rendering you can hardly hear the fan come on and when it’s on it’s not audible. When benchmarking and playing 3D games, the fan was audible but not loud. Perhaps ASUS has applied some of the Republic of Gamers cooling design prowess to their Ultrabook line. It makes sense there aren’t many 13.3 inch notebooks sporting a discrete graphics card, the Microsoft Surface book would be the main contender and it’s significantly more expensive (a stunning piece of hardware) but with poor OS integration, it’s just too glitchy to be reliable, so the Zenbook pulls ahead in my books.

The aluminum-clad ZenBook has no rough or sharp edges, and the bottom panel, held in place with Torx T5 and 2 Phillips head screws under the rear feet. If need be you’ll be able to upgrade the RAM and HDD which will extend the life of your system when you crave something a little faster, or if you don’t want to fork out huge amount on upgrades.

One of the few components that we found ASUS cut corners on to bring the price down is using the last generation Intel 7265 AC WiFi card with Bluetooth 4.0 rather than the current generation 8260 AC card. This late Haswell/Broadwell generation card was a bit unreliable in the first generation, however it seems to be working fine over the past week. Conference WiFi is notoriously unreliable and competitive to get on, we had no issues at all. Reception range does fall a little short of several other laptops, but not by a huge margin. We chalk that up to the all-metal casing rather than the wireless card. Should you wish to upgrade the card in the future, it’s a socketed M.2 NGFF card (3 “legs”) and it’s not a hard job if you’re comfortable working on laptops.

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It’s a fairly tried and true design for Asus that they’ve been using for years. Thus it’s not expensive to make and it doesn’t feature cutting edge tech like PCIe SSDs in an M.2 slot or USB-C 3.1. Instead you get a practical machine with a RAM slot (very rare in a 13″ Ultrabook), a standard 2.5″ drive bay, a socketed M.2 wireless card and a battery that can be replaced if you remove the bottom cover. That cover is held in place with several Torx T5 screws and two Phillips head screws under the rear rubber feet.

 

The machine has 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM soldered onto the motherboard and a single RAM slot filled with one 8 gig DDR3 SODIMM RAM module in a dual channel configuration. That gives you a total of 12 gigs of RAM. If you sourced a 16 gig SODIMM, you could bring it up to 20 gigs, but those are rare. The SATA drive bay is fitted with a 512 gig SSD drive (Micron M600 on ours), and speeds are typical of SATA, which is to say good but not as blisteringly fast as a PCIe NVMe drive like those in the Dell XPS 13, some ThinkPads of the Skylake generation and the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. Honestly, unless many large file copies are a typical part of your day, you won’t notice the speed difference.

Display

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Brightness is excellent at 331 nits but black levels of 0.67 at max brightness reduce contrast to a passable but not stellar 550:1. Color gamut is very good at 95% of sRGB and 75% of Adobe RGB, matching the high end competition.
Display is matte with good viewing angles for outdoor viewing.

Keyboard & Trackpad

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ZenBook trackpads have been a sore point in many of my past devices, but the UX303UB has a very good trackpad that’s not quite as impressive as the Dell XPS 13 and Microsoft Surface Book’s trackpads, but it’s very usable, even when editing.

The keyboard has ample travel despite the slim design and excellent damping. That means the keys are quiet yet responsive and firm. My only issue is that after a week of use it started to feel bouncy, and then I noticed a visual wave where the seemed uneven.  Though the UX303UB is made of metal the material around the keyboard is not, it is made of plastic.  This technically does not affect how the keys type but it was the determining factor for why this would not make it as my personal machine. I’m much harder on my devices than the average user, being on the road and at conference with video equipment and a hectic schedule often leaves devices much worse for ware faster than the average user.  If the keyboard did not end up showing signs of significant ware after just 1 week it would have been a pretty much perfect device.  The keyboard is backlit in white and an abundance of white filters out around the key edges. You can go with auto-brightness or turn it on and off at will using the Fn and A keys.

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It’s a great looking keyboard, like I admitted I’m harder on my devices than the average user or perhaps a perfectly average that assumes that you should be able to throw a laptop into a bag (or purse) with out a case and it will be just fine.

Sound

The bottom-firing stereo speakers are quite loud and passably full once you play with the Asus control panel’s EQ settings. The Music preset sounds tinny while the Movie preset is surprisingly louder and a little bit fuller, though I wouldn’t call these full bodied or bass rich speakers. They’re louder than average but not fuller than average.

Software

ASUS is a huge fan of bloatware, so if you want to get the most out of your Zenbook I would strongly suggest running PC Decrapifier when you first boot up your system.  The Zenbook line has gone too far with bloatware there are links to shops that load in circles and doubling up on types of pre installs like dropbox and ASUS Webstorage. I would highly recommend that you don’t uninstall their update center since it does keep a lot of system specific drivers upto date. Splendid is a great display calibration tool especially when you’re looking to have your display color accurate. Audio Wizard is totally worth playing around with if you’re looking for your optimal sound setup.

The highlight software feature which ASUS has allowed up to access where as most Windows 10 notebooks require you to hack the OS in order to use, is ‘High Performance’ mode.  This mode was removed in Windows 8.1 Microsoft opting for Balanced Mode claiming that your notebook will rise to the occasion, but it remains on the more conservative side looking to keep some of your battery aside. However, High Performance mode doesn’t hold back, it will eat up your battery and give you slightly more performance. Is it worth the battery life for a slight performance gain, the fact is that I would like to decide.  I applaud ASUS for giving me the option, if I want to eat through my battery in 1 hour that is my decision. After all the notebook is meant to work for me, not conform my needs to it’s desired usage pattern.

Performance

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Running a Intel 6th generation dual core processor the 15 watt ULV CPU is a fast 2.6 GHz Core i7-6500U with an NVIDIA GeForce  and the laptop benchmarks similarly to other dual core i7 CPUs of this generation. The only machine we’ve seen benchmark noticeably above the pack is the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, which is closer to $2,000 when configured to match this ZenBook.
Benchmarks
PCMark 8: 2882
wPrime:  16.1 sec
Geekbench 3 (64 bit): 3113, multi-core 6724
3DMark 11: P2323 / X 741
3Dmark Cloud Gate: 6253
3DMark Fire Strike: 1340

Battery Life

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Our Asus ZenBook U303UB averaged 5.5 hours in a mix of productivity, social networking, web browsing and streaming full HD Video. To be fair, the Asus has dedicated graphics that automatically switch with Intel HD 520 integrated graphics depending on load, so it should shouldn’t the same battery life as a machine with just integrated graphics. The UX303UB has a 50 Whr, 3 cell battery that’s nominally sealed inside, removing the bottom cover grants access, this is good news if you need to replace it later in the devices life cycle.

You’ll make very few concessions: no forward looking USB-C or NVMe SSDs, and that last generation wireless card is an embarrassing detail Asus probably figured most users would never notice. But overall, the display is really lovely even if contrast doesn’t match the more expensive competition, performance is excellent, the keyboard is great and the machine is upgradable yet still thin and light. If you have money to spend but not enough to consider a similarly configured Dell or Lenovo ThinkPad model, the Asus ZenBook UX303UB is much too good to be considered simply a consolation prize.

Rating
Design / 8
Camera / 8
Sound / 8
Performance / 9
Battery Life / 7.5
Software / 7
Price / 9
Editor's Choice / 8.5
Hardware / 8
Display / 8.5
ASUS Zenbook UX303UB

The ASUS Zenbook UX303UB packs a mean punch with an NVIDIA GeForce 940M discrete graphics card in 13.3 inches. It has a lot of performance in a stylish refined case that runs quietly but it series is once again a thin and nice 13.3-inch notebook. It has a lot of performance that run quietly when exporting video or gaming but like any machine with discrete graphics it does run through battery life a bit quicker than usual. The only major issue on this otherwise perfect machine is that it has a bouncy keyboard.

8.2
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