With the Zenbook UX21, Asus showed the laptop world what you should expect from an ultrabook. With a bigger screen and searingly powerful components, the Zenbook is back again to tackle all but the most extreme of tasks.
As a Windows 8 laptop with no touchscreen though, is the U500 a little behind the times?
My review model came with an Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics card. It's available now from PC World for £1,500.
Should I buy the Asus Zenbook U500?
With no touchscreen, the U500 doesn't offer the best and most intuitive way of navigating around the big tiles of Windows 8. Instead, you'll be using the trackpad as you did on any Windows 7 machine. As you won't be able to take advantage of the touch-optimised elements of the software, such as swipes and other handy gestures -- not to mention touch-based apps and games -- it isn't always the easiest of machines to use.
If you want to fully take advantage of all that Windows 8 brings, then you'd be better off looking at one of the convertible devices like the Dell XPS 12.
Software aside, the U500 is an excellent machine, matching good looks and high build quality with impressive performance, which all go a long way to justifying the relatively steep price tag. The lack of a touchscreen is annoying -- especially at the price -- but if you want a super-charged laptop for demanding work on the go, the U500 is still a good choice.
Design and build quality
The U500 is immediately recognisable as being part of the Zenbook line. Like the stunning UX21 before it, it has an all-metal chassis that's been given an unusual, but undeniably attractive spun finish. With its two-tone design, the UX21 managed to be among the most sleek-looking laptops of last year and the U500 succeeds in maintaining those good looks.
To house the 15.6-inch screen, the chassis is more bulky and considerably less portable than the previous models. It's 380mm wide and 254mm deep, which will push the limits on all but the most capacious of backpacks. It's 18mm thick at its thickest point, meaning it's still pretty skinny, but at 2.2kg you probably won't want to carry it too far.
The all-metal shell makes the U500 an extremely hardy machine. There's no flex when you press down on the lid, wrist rest or keyboard tray, and no discernible bending from the hinges when you open the screen. I found the UX21 coped easily with the all the rough and tumble of being carted around airports in carry-on luggage, and I have no doubt that the U500 is similarly durable.
Around the edges you'll find a generous three USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, mini VGA out, HDMI out, a 3.5mm headphone jack and an Ethernet port. Storage is taken care of by a 256GB solid state drive.
The U500 also comes with a small external sub-woofer, designed to plug in and provide extra bass when needed. I found it added a good deal of warmth to music and video soundtracks, which was far above what you'd expect from a normal laptop. It won't replace a dedicated sound system or good set of headphones though.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard on the UX21 wasn't spectacular, as its shallow, wide keys made typing somewhat hit and miss. Thankfully, the U500 sports an overhauled keyboard. It's much more comfortable to type on for longer periods and I found I made considerably less errors than I used to on previous models. There's a numeric keypad too for all the number fun you could want.
The trackpad is large and responsive. It's clickable so it doesn't have separate buttons, although the click isn't the nicest -- the right button sometimes failing to register unless you hit it firmly in the centre. It's not terrible, but if you need to do some speedy Web browsing then you'd be better off using an external USB mouse.
The 15.6-inch display packs in a tasty 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution -- that's Full HD to the likes of you and I. Of course, on a display this size and with the high price tag attached, I'd have expected nothing less. It makes small text perfectly sharp, so you can comfortably read web pages and documents for long periods without feeling strained.
The matte coating on the display also eases eye strain, as it cuts out almost all reflections. It means the U500 is very well suited to being used for work purposes. As well being Full HD, the screen is also bright and very bold, making it ideal for enjoying TV shows and movies.
Sadly though, the screen isn't touch enabled. For a Windows 7 machine that wouldn't be a problem but with the touch-optimised Windows 8 software on board, it becomes a bigger issue. With its big tiles on the homescreen and plethora of navigational gestures, Windows 8 is designed with touch-interaction at its heart.
Tasks that are delightfully simple on a touchscreen are made immediately more difficult using a trackpad. Swiping in from the left on a touchscreen brings up a list of currently open apps, which allows you to quickly switch between them. Performing the same task on the U500 requires you to hover the cursor in the top left until a thumbnail appears, then move it down to access the list of icons.
Fruit Ninja -- downloadable from the Windows 8 app store -- is great fun for your fingers on a tablet. On the U500, however, you have to click and then drag the cursor in order to slice through the fruit. Not only is it much less entertaining, you're never going to beat your high score.
You can still work on it as you always have done with Windows 7 but with the handy touch gestures unavailable to you, it's more fiddly and certainly less fun.
Inside the slim metal chassis is an Intel Core i7 processor clocked at 1.9GHz, along with a hearty 8GB of RAM. To help deliver some graphics grunt, Asus has chucked in an Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics card.
It returned a very impressive score of 12,345 on the Geekbench benchmark test, putting it leaps and bounds ahead of the 7,547 achieved by the Zenbook UX31. Unsurprisingly, general use was extremely swift with no irritating lag or delay found when moving around Windows 8 or switching between open apps.
It was also able to fly through editing high-resolution photos in Adobe Photoshop CS6. If you want to tackle more demanding tasks on the move than just office work, then the U500 is up to the task.
The dedicated graphics card brings some excellent performance for gaming too. XCOM: Enemy Unknown played extremely smoothly at full resolution with settings on high. It didn't cope quite as well with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD -- which uses the same Unreal graphics engine as XCOM -- which ran at around 15 frames per second at full resolution. With the resolution knocked down, it achieved around 22fps, which was much more playable.
Skyrim and Dirt 3 were tackled with ease though, with frame rates of around 45fps achieved on both at full resolution. It might not be able to fly through the latest triple-A titles on max settings, but it will put up a good fight if you're prepared to drop things down a notch or two.
Asus reckons the U500 can achieve up to 6 hours of use from a single charge. In my own use, I found this figure to be about right -- if you're careful.
If you're challenging the processor by editing photos or playing games then expect to only get around 2 hours of life. If you keep things simple and turn off wireless networking then you'll be able to squeeze out a much better performance.
It's not a brilliant battery generally, which is a shame given the size of the thing. You'll be able to make it through a working day if you're extremely careful, but I'd always recommend having the charger to hand if you're doing anything important.
If you're looking for a high-performance, sturdy laptop to tackle both work and play on the move then the Asus U500 is an excellent choice. Its metal chassis, great high-definition screen and superbly powerful components go some way to justifying the relatively high price tag.
If you're looking for a laptop which will allow you to experience the best Windows 8 has to offer, then it isn't the machine for you. With no touchscreen, you won't be able to take advantage of the touch-based interface nor any of the apps and games designed for a touchscreen.