ASUS Zenbook UX301 vs Dell XPS 13 (2013 model)

The battle of the high-end Ultrabooks has a clear winner, but requires plenty of cash

The ASUS Zenbook UX301 and the Dell XPS 13 are two of the most popular Ultrabooks on the market. Both are slim and lightweight 13.3in premium models, and both feature interesting designs and strong build quality. On the inside things are equally similar, with both models featuring fourth generation Intel Core processing, and fast solid state drives. But there are a few differences you need to be aware of if you’re trying to decide between these two top models, in addition to the gap between their price tags.

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The screen

The screen is the major difference between the two models. While the Dell XPS 13 has a Full HD screen, the ASUS Zenbook UX301 is available with a screen that pushes even more pixels. Indeed, ASUS has included a screen that has a native resolution of 2560x1440, which means there is a whole lot more screen real estate to work with when you want to multitask or edit photos. It can come in handy if you want to run high-end photo editing and design applications on your Ultrabook.

However, the higher resolution can be a strain on the eyes while trying to read text. For this reason, you might have to play around with the display settings in Windows 8 to make text and icons look bigger. We went a step further and used the Zenbook with a 1920x1080 resolution some of time, which means we wasted a lot of the capability of the screen merely so our eyes would feel more comfortable viewing the Desktop. (A Full HD version of the Zenbook UX301 is available, too).

Both screens are glossy and protected by Gorilla Glass. The high-end Zenbook has a 1440p screen, while the high-end XPS 13 has a 1080p screen.
Both screens are glossy and protected by Gorilla Glass. The high-end Zenbook has a 1440p screen, while the high-end XPS 13 has a 1080p screen.

Both screens look vibrant and they are easily viewable from the sides. Both are also very reflective due to the scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass they have on the front.

If you know that you will make good use of the extra resolution that the Zenbook UX301 can provide, then go for it. Otherwise, think of just getting the Full HD model.

Common screen features to both models:

Touchscreen = Yes
Gorilla Glass = Yes
Reflective = Yes
Tilts to flat = No
IPS = Yes

Winner: ASUS Zenbook UX301

Battery life

The other major difference between the two models is battery life. The ASUS automatically has a disadvantage here because it has to use so much more power to drive the higher resolution monitor, and this was shown in our rundown tests (you can’t just lower the resolution to get more out of the battery). In these tests, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness, and loop a video, the Zenbook lasted only 3hr 24min. The Dell XPS 13 lasted 7hr 15min.

Both of our test models featured a similar configuration, but the Zenbook had a more power-hungry CPU compared to the XPS: an Intel Core i7-4558U compared to an Intel Core i7-4500U. Both came with 8GB of RAM, and both supplied fast solid state drives with a total capacity of 256GB.

However, the ASUS model that we tested came with a RAID 0 array comprised of two 128GB solid state drives (up to two 256GB drives are an option), rather than a single 256GB drive that was in the Dell. This, along with the more powerful CPU, would also have chewed up a little more battery life than usual.

It’s a major point of differentiation between the two top-of-the-range units, with the Zenbook almost becoming relegated to home and office use, and the XPS shining as an on-the-road model. In fact, if using your Ultrabook for long periods of time while on the road is a more valuable feature for you than faster overall performance, then the XPS 13 is the one to go for.

Dell battery rating: 55 Watt-hour; 6 cells
ASUS battery rating: 50.6 Watt-hour, 6 cells

Winner: Dell XPS 13

Storage

As mentioned, both units have a capacity of 256GB, and it’s solid state storage. The ASUS has a distinct advantage, though, in that it has two 128GB drives working together in a RAID 0 array. This makes the Zenbook’s storage a lot faster than the XPS 13’s, and this was shown clearly in the CrystalDiskMark benchmark.

In that benchmark, the Zenbook UX301 recorded a read rate of 899 megabytes per second (MBps) and a write rate of 544MBps. In comparison, the XPS 13 recorded a read rate of 518.8MBps, and a write rate of 335.6MBps.

The Dell’s numbers are impressive, but the Zenbook’s numbers are so much better it wins this round hands down.

Winner: Zenbook UX301

Overall performance

Both models feature an ultra-low voltage version of Intel’s fourth generation Core i7 CPU, with the Zenbook running a Core i7-4558U version, and the XPS 13 running a Core i7-4500U. While the Zenbook’s CPU has a 2.8GHz frequency compared to the XPS 13’s frequency of 1.8GHz, the other major difference between the CPUs is that the Zenbook’s i7-4558U features Intel’s Iris 5100 graphics. The Dell’s Core i7-4500U features the more common Intel HD 4400 graphics.

We’ve already ascertained that the CPU is one of the reasons that the battery life of the Zenbook isn’t good (the Zenbook’s CPU has a maximum power draw of 28W while the XPS 13’s has 18W), but the Zenbook is, understandably, the faster machine. This was shown in our tests, in which the Zenbook recorded a time of only 36sec in Blender 3D, and 18min in Handbrake. The Dell recorded 44sec and 20min 44sec in the same tests.

But it was in the graphics department where the Zenbook really shone. Its Iris graphics supplied results of 51819 in the 3DMark Ice Storm test, 5774 in the Cloud Gate test, and 879 in the Fire Strike teat. In comparison, the Dell’s Intel HD 4400 graphics supplied 34034 in Ice Storm, 4401 in Cloud Gate, and 615 in Fire Strike.

There is definitely more graphics grunt in the Zenbook, which is needed to power the extra pixels on the screen, and it can supply better performance when running games (though, as an Ultrabook, only games that aren’t taxing on the system will work best).

Winner: Zenbook UX301

Build quality and design

We’ll start off by saying that that Zenbook is a fingerprint magnet due to its glossiness, whereas the XPS 13 has a non-glossy finish that just looks more professional and less flashy. In fact, the XPS 13 doesn’t really stand out too much, but the Zenbook has the potential to be a head-turner — especially since its lid has an illuminated ASUS logo and a spiral pattern that’s noticeable depending on the way light hits the lid.

Both Ultrabooks are strongly built, with the Zenbook made out of aluminium, and the XPS 13 using aluminium for its lid, carbon fibre for its base and magnesium alloy for the palm rest. Both models have Gorilla Glass protecting their touchscreen.

The weight of each laptop is similar, with the Zenbook being slightly heavier at 1.42kg compared to the XPS 13’s 1.38kg. Both units feel well balanced to hold, and have a similar, sporty prolife where the front looks thinner than the back.

One point of difference is the way the screen is attached. On the Zenbook, the screen’s lid has little bumps on its end that make the base rise a little when you tilt it past the 90-degree mark. The XPS 13’s lid doesn’t do this. Also, the Dell’s lid has a rubber lining around it that forms a seal with the base when the notebook is closed.

As for heat, both Ultrabooks tend to get hot when they are under a heavy processing load. You will want to use them on a hard, flat surface so that their bottom vents don’t get clogged. On both models, fans push internal heat out of the spine and up through the front of the screen.

Winner: Draw. Both laptops are sufficiently strong in their build quality and how much heat they put out when under a heavy load. It will mostly come down to looks.

Connectivity

Both laptops have two USB 3.0 ports, dual-band Wi-Fi (Intel Wireless-AC 7620), Bluetooth 4.0, a headset port, and they feature video output. The Zenbook has a micro-HDMI port, and also a Mini DisplayPort (it comes with a VGA dongle that plugs into that port). The Dell has a Mini DisplayPort, but it lacks a micro-HDMI port.

Zenbook: the left side has power, USB 3.0, micro-HDMI, and headset port.
Zenbook: the left side has power, USB 3.0, micro-HDMI, and headset port.
Zenbook: the right side has a full-sized SD card slot, USB 3.0, and Mini DisplayPort.
Zenbook: the right side has a full-sized SD card slot, USB 3.0, and Mini DisplayPort.
XPS 13: the left side has power, USB 3.0, and the headset port.
XPS 13: the left side has power, USB 3.0, and the headset port.
XPS 13: the right side has Mini DisplayPort, USB 3.0, and a battery level indicator.
XPS 13: the right side has Mini DisplayPort, USB 3.0, and a battery level indicator.

Where the Zenbook wins out is in its memory card support. While the Dell has neither an SD card slot, nor a microSD card slot, the Zenbook comes with an SD card slot on its right side. Cards that are inserted into this slot stick halfway out, so it’s not a great slot, but the fact that it’s available is a convenience when it comes to tasks such as getting photos off a digital camera (which you can then display on the wonderfully high resolution screen).

Winner: Zenbook UX301

Keyboard and touchpad

This one is subjective, but we like the shape and feel of the keys on the Zenbook better than the ones on the Dell. Furthermore, the keys on the Dell felt a little too soft and ended with a somewhat harsh hit. We would have preferred a little more resistance on the downward stroke.

The Zenbook's keyboard layout.
The Zenbook's keyboard layout.
The XPS 13's keyboard layout.
The XPS 13's keyboard layout.

But it’s not all good news for the Zenbook: the location of the power button in the top-right corner threw us off many times when we wanted to press the Delete key. There was no delay on the power button (nor anywhere we could find in the settings to change this on our test unit), so we ended up putting the computer to sleep a few times while in the middle of a writing session.

Both keyboards are backlit.

Both touchpads are large, with ASUS claiming use of ceramic for its pad, and Dell claiming glass. The Zenbook’s touchpad felt smooth and was responsive, but the software driver that came with it was too limited. We couldn’t change scrolling characteristics or swipe-in zones. The Dell pad felt a little abrasive against our skin. Nevertheless, it was accurate.

We have to give this one to the Zenbook, simply because it just felt a little more comfortable to type on than the Dell, though we did have to get used to the location of the power button where the Delete key should have been.

Winner: Zenbook UX301

Overall thoughts

The Zenbook UX301 was hotly anticipated when it was first announced, mainly due to its better-than-Full-HD screen, and how fast it could go thanks to its killer specs (for an Ultrabook, that is). It lived up to the hype in that sense, and it even has options for faster graphics to be installed, so it’s a good model for anyone after a very fast, yet also very thin Ultrabook.

The downside is that its battery life isn’t great due to the high-resolution screen and powerful specs. If you’re after battery life, then the Dell XPS 13 is the clear winner.

Indeed, it’s always horses for courses when it comes to laptops, but in a direct shootout of the top models available in the Zenbook UX301 and XPS 13 line ups, we have to give the advantage to the Zenbook, purely for its high-resolution screen, faster performance, RAID 0 array, and slightly better overall user comfort level.

It’s definitely an Ultrabook for the performance seeker. That said, the 1440p screen and RAID array do put the price closer to $3000 than $2000, at which point the XPS 13 becomes a much more viable option.

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Elias Plastiras

Elias Plastiras

PC World

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