September 18, 2012, 1:12 PM — Are Windows-based Ultrabooks built to the same engineering and manufacturing standards as Apple's now-legendary MacBook Air? We removed the shells from both an ultrathin Asus Zenbook Ultrabook and an Air to find out.
What we discovered were two machines with very similar internal design themes. And the similarities don't end there. Since Intel launched its Ivy Bridge processor, a host of Ultrabooks based on the new CPU have shipped. Meanwhile, Apple updated its MacBook Air lineup of ultrathin laptops with the new CPU as well.
Inside the dissection lab
Both the PCWorld and Macworld labs run real-world benchmarks, test subjective performance scenarios, and run hardware through a battery of tests to understand just how well products really work. And for this particular project, our two labs took apart a pair of the hottest laptops around. The actual disassemblies were performed by different tech experts. Tony Leung, PCWorld's lab manager, took apart the Ultrabook, while Jim Galbraith, Macworld's senior lab manager, handled the chore of pulling apart Apple's ultrathin Air.
The Ultrabook we dissected is the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A, which certainly qualifies as ultrathin and ultralight. The MacBook Air we operated on was the 13-inch version, which compares well to the Zenbook, which has a 13.3-inch screen. The two systems are entry-level devices for their respective markets. The Zenbook ships with a Core i5 3317U CPU with a default clock frequency of 1.7GHz, while the Air uses a Core i5-3427u at 1.8GHz. Both have 4GB of system RAM and 128GB solid-state drives.
Both laptops required special tools to remove key screws. The Asus uses a Torx screwdriver, which is commonly available. However, Apple now secures its MacBook Air chassis with pentalobe screws, whose heads resemble Torx heads but are different enough that a Torx driver won't work.
Similarities and differences
Circuit board: The main circuit boards are roughly the same size. The MacBook Air's board layout is a little cleaner, but both are pretty clean by modern standards. The Zenbook seems to have more traces and connectors in its circuit board, though the differences are fairly minor. Oddly, we found bits of masking tape on the Asus board. The Air had no internal warnings, while the Asus PC had a sticker covering the SSD retainer screw that read "warranty void if removed."