Ultrabook Makers Not Learning Lessons of the MacBook Air

Ever since Intel announced its Ultrabooks initiative last spring, I’ve been lusting after this new line of super-slim, fast-resuming, and long-lasting laptops. Now that the first Ultrabooks are finally shipping, though, the bloom is off the rose. These svelte systems were supposed to be the PC equivalents the MacBook Air; sex appeal with a Start menu. But like Lady Gaga trying to channel Marilyn Monroe, Ultrabook makers get the look mostly right but so many little things wrong.

ASUS claims you’ll fall in love with its Zenbook UX31 at first sight. And we did, thanks to the brushed metal chassis and very svelte dimensions. But that infatuation will come to an end as soon as you get it home, pop open the lid, and start fondling the terrible touchpad. Just one touch on that that slick surface will send your pointer jumping to the other side of the screen or getting stuck mid-glide. Caressing the creaky keyboard yields no pleasure at all, as you have to pound these keys with plenty of force just to register each stroke. 

An ASUS rep told us the company is working on a driver update that will improve the Zenbook’s touchpad, but it rolled to market with a navigation experience that would never make it out of Apple’s test lab. Did anyone at ASUS even try the touchpad before shipping this product?

Acer’s Air impersonation is the worst, a Lindsay Lohan interpretation of Marilyn. With its short battery life, cheap plastic chassis, and slow hard drive, the only thing the Aspire S3 aspires to be is the next Woot daily special.

Sure, the 13.3-inch S3 is $100 less than the entry-level 11-inch MacBook Air and $400 less than the 13-inch version, but at $899, it’s not a budget notebook by any stretch of the imagination. Bargain hunters would be better off buying a less-expensive ultraportable such as the HP Pavilion dm3t, while users who want superior performance and build quality should pony up a little more money for the MacBook Air or high-priced PC competitors that aren’t called Ultrabooks, such as the Samsung Series 9 and the ThinkPad X1

When we spoke with him at the Zenbook launch event in New York, ASUS CEO Jonney Shih emphasized his company’s commitment to design and building an incredible experience. ”We still believe the technology is important, but how do we really utilize the technology and then try to drive the best user experience?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s the right way to think about innovation.”

While ASUS thought a lot about looks, sound, display, and even high-speed storage, it ignored the feel of its user input devices. Acer didn’t even give its Ultrabook the college try, achieving a body that is rail-thin but made of cheap plastic.

Both companies failed to learn Apple’s most important lesson: Focus on the ways humans interact with the product first. Users touch a notebook’s keyboard and touchpad all day long. They stare at its screen and listen to its speakers. They place it on their laps. 

At LAPTOP, we have a mailbox (helpme@laptopmag.com) dedicated to answering user questions. We get queries all the time from people asking us which notebook to buy. Usually these e-mails contain a line like this one: “I’m thinking of buying this Acer laptop, but how is the keyboard?” or “I’m between this HP and that Dell. Which has the better touchpad?” Nobody ever asks, “Is the Core i5 on this notebook that much better than the Core i7 on the other one?” Usability is the priority.

If PC vendors want to build notebooks that truly outclass the Air, they need to focus on usability over raw sex appeal and even performance. Hopefully, Lenovo, Toshiba and the other vendors that plan to introduce Ultrabooks in the coming weeks and months will keep that in mind.

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and content of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every week or follow Avram on twitter.


AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. JustАnotherDayTrader Says:

    You should be more precise. The Acer S3 is actually 400$ cheaper, not 100$, than the 13.3 MBA. It is not correct to use the 11 MBA in comparison. Battery life time on the 13.3 MBA according to your own review is 6:25 so it is not 2 and a half hours more than the Zenbook as you’ve stated (5:58), but only 0:27. Your link for 13.3 MBA at the bottom of the article links to 13 MBpro, which is annoying, as the same mistake one can find in many places on your site. Fix it.

  2. Mugsy pinckrton Says:

    This is spot on. I’ve owned a few ASUS U-series laptops. They both never had issues and one of the first series with great battery life and instant switchable graphics cards. But they always seem to be missing one or two things that matter. Understandable to keep costs down. Why ASUS has refused to put in any backlit keyboards on any of their laptops is mindboggling. Yes it saves battery life but it is nice to see what your typing at slide presentations and in dim lit classrooms, or backstage concerts etc. Plus the clacky keyboards. Single button touchpads or poor screen resolution choices. I would pony up extra for these to be improved or offered as options but they just don’t think they matter. Again to keep prices down. Now that the Air is priced at just over a grand dualboots, has thunderbolt, touchpad, backlit keyboard. Asus just can’t match it. USB 3.0 and better graphics are just convenience and Asus needs to rethink their market. Geeks and gamers or everyday consumers?

  3. Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director Says:

    @JustAnotherDayTrader, Thanks. You are correct and I have made the change regarding battery life numbers. Still, my point about the little things (touchpad, keyboard) is the main one.

  4. Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director Says:

    @Mugsy, I think the issue is that many vendors don’t focus much effort on keyboards and touchpads. Most are more concerned with how the keys or pad blend into the design aesthetic than how they feel in hand.

  5. Trey1 Says:

    From what I’ve read, Asus has already updated the drivers to fix the touchpad. I’d buy the Asus Zenbook just based on looks alone (hey, maybe I’m shallow). It makes the Air look kind of boring and frumpy.

  6. aptiva112 Says:

    I have the asus zen book ux31 and my only problem is wifi.

    I can touch type on the keyboard , trackpad could be better but not a big deal.

    Overall I think laptop mag is being harsh to this segment. The average person like myself won`t spend 1300 bucks on MBA

  7. Paul Says:

    Avram, what a great article, mirrored my thoughts of course lol. I want to thank you as your reviews are by far the most useful out there. As you suggested, most of us want to know how a laptop experience will help us in real life. Specifically, I hate the glossy screens and cheap keyboards and trackpads that line the local BB and look for reviews, such as the great ones in laptopmag.com to help me. Your very specific comments about each important user component is most appreciated. As an older user, and one who likes to “compute” on my patio, a review that tells me that a display is “mattte” and not “glossy” is a big help. I’d like to see you add “nits” or somet other measure that would help me decide if I can use it under bright office lights or even outside. Telling the reader that the battery will last a full day helps us as manufacturers seem to be less than transparent in the numbers they promote. For some of us, we would prefer better components at a reasonable price, not necessarily the cheapest. With reviews that are detailed, it really helps. Thanks again for your work.

  8. Quy Tran Says:

    so who will make a Windows 7 ultrabook with a backlit keyboard and better performing touchpad & screen?

  9. Ramon Says:

    “a navigation experience that would never make it out of Apple’s test lab.”

    What about the iPhone 4 connectivity experience? Remember? You could not hold a CALL on a PHONE ;) A problem I still have to this day, where is my driver for that?

  10. Peter Says:

    I just picked up the ASUS UX31 and this review is off. A colleague of mine has a 13.3 MBA and when I pulled out the UX31 he was speechless. The quality and design of the UX31 makes the Air look boring. As far as the trackpad, the first thing it did when I turned it on was tell me there was an update. The trackpad works just fine with multi touch (including 3 finger swipes) working rather flawlessly. Scrolling using IE is smoother than Firefox but that has nothing to do with the trackpad. The keyboard is quite good. Being a fan of Sony laptops (yes including the X505 which had chicklet keys well before Apple decided to claim it as theirs) I expect precision and comfort. The UX31 delivers on comfort. Accuracy is not perfect, but being used to typing on a Microsoft Arc keyboard has spoiled me. I would say that this ultrabook (UX31) is probably the best looking piece of hardware I have ever owned. Anyone want to buy my HP Envy 14?

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