Do you believe in love at first sight? That’s the question Asus poses in its marketing for the Zenbook, an ultraportable very much in the mold that Intel promotes as ultrabook.

Which in turn means this is a Windows clone of the Apple MacBook Air. We’re starting to see plenty of these tributes now, yet the Asus Zenbook is simply the best so far.

That’s not because of any innovation here, mind. The similarity to the award-winning 11in MacBook Air is uncanny, from the all-metal high-grade clamshell construction, to the essentially identical dimensions in each direction, to the same battery capacity, same processor and same screen sizes and resolution. 

The Asus Zenbook is available in two sizes, with a 11.6in or 13.3in display – although Asus' version of the latter is smaller than Apple's 13in, as it uses a narrower 16:9 aspect ratio display in place of the Air's 16:10 ratio.

Even the trackpad, an area where most Windows laptop-makers cut some serious corners, is a healthy size at 104 x 63mm. And precision isn’t bad either, with enough multi-touch recognition to enable two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom gestures.

Asus has even added a three-finger up gesture that elicits not OS X’s Mission Control, but Windows’ Aero Peek.

It may have exceedingly short-travel flat keys, but the keyboard is eminently usable. It’s been simplified to follow the Macintosh style, removing some key clutter, and has for example the same shortcuts for Page Down and Page Up, and Home and End – namely, by using the cursor keys with the Fn button.

Fitted and finished

As you scrutinise the chassis, you find superb levels of fit-and-finish, the deeply brushed aluminium fitting together like few other notebook computers. A deep bronzey tint lends an almost old-fashioned quaint charm to this example of computing modernity.

Performance is unsurprisingly at the same level as the 11in Air, scoring 116 points in WorldBench and lasting just short of six hours in MobileMark (347 mins).

Gameplay is just possible at lower detail: we measured 17fps in Max-detail FEAR.

Asus has skimped on the screen a little. The resolution is well-judged at 1366 x 768, a wise compromise between definition and readability for an 11in widescreen; but the high-gloss panel lacks the anti-reflective coating that makes Apple’s ultraportable tolerable to view under common lighting conditions.

Integration with the installed Windows 7 OS is good, standby working well so that the laptop could be reliably slept by closing and opening the lid.

We also tried Ubuntu 11.10 on the Asus UX21E Zenbook, and performance really took off in the Linux environment with its Unity interface. All components worked out of the box here, although some terminal tweaks are required to optimise power saving, standby modes and trackpad.

At a price of £850 with this specification, the Asus UX21E Zenbook offers plenty of memory and storage; to get the same RAM and SSD quota costs £999 on Apple’s original.

The Apple MacBook Air is still the better system overall thanks to the more powerful OS and its integration, but Asus has closed the gap like no other Microsoft OEM to date.

Asus UX21E Zenbook: Specs

  • 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M
  • 11.6in (1366 x 768) 16:9 glossy LCD
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • 128GB SATA 6Gbps SSD
  • Intel HD Graphics 2000
  • Mini DisplayPort, micro-HDMI
  • 1 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0
  • USB to ethernet adaptor
  • HDMI to VGA adaptor
  • 3.5mm headset jack
  • webcam, mic
  • 104 x 63mm buttonless trackpad
  • 35Wh lithium non-removable battery
  • 299 x 197 x 3.5-17mm
  • 1155g
  • 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M
  • 11.6in (1366 x 768) 16:9 glossy LCD
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • 128GB SATA 6Gbps SSD
  • Intel HD Graphics 2000
  • Mini DisplayPort, micro-HDMI
  • 1 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0
  • USB to ethernet adaptor
  • HDMI to VGA adaptor
  • 3.5mm headset jack
  • webcam, mic
  • 104 x 63mm buttonless trackpad
  • 35Wh lithium non-removable battery
  • 299 x 197 x 3.5-17mm
  • 1155g

OUR VERDICT

We’re inclined to affirm that we do believe in love at first sight. But since that initial look was of the laptop that launched this copy, our heart does stay with the MacBook Air. Make no mistake though, the Asus UX21E Zenbook is the best copy of any Apple portable we’ve seen to date, with fantastic all-metal build and signs of the kind of attention to detail that’s rarely seen outside the Mac maker’s design labs.

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