Ultrathin teardown! Asus ultrabook vs MacBook Air

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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 machines

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."

Cooling: Both computers use very shallow fans offset to one side, with heat pipes transferring the heat. Asus has heat dissipaters on both the CPU and the I/O controller hub chip, while Apple uses one on only the CPU.

Hard drive: Both machines use MSATA solid-state drives. These look a little like memory modules, but the connector is on the short edge. The Asus uses an ADATA drive that has a thermal shield on one side, while Apple keeps all the flash memory chips bare. In both systems, the memory is soldered to the reverse side of the circuit board.

Battery: The batteries were strikingly similar, too. Both were 50-watt-hour sheet batteries composed of multiple cell sandwiches. The Asus battery actually had masking tape strips reinforcing the connection from the battery to the system, though this may have just been a leftover from the build process.

There are only so many ways you can build laptops this thin

We found many similarities in the internal designs of the Zenbook and the Air. Even the solid-state drives in the two machines are aligned in similar directions. You might think that Apple would be concerned about the similarities, given its predilection for protecting intellectual property. Nonetheless, when it comes to hardware design, the laws of physics trump everything. Whether we're talking about PCs or Macs, the layout and design of printed circuit boards tends to follow a specific set of rules in order to minimize trace length to ensure accurate timings. Most boards are laid out using automated tools, rather than drawn by hand. So maybe it's no surprise that the main board designs look so similar to nonengineers.

The most important and visible differences for users emerge via the design and usability of physical user interface elements?the design of the keyboard, pointing devices, and LCD panel. Perhaps even more important is the design of the user environment offered by a computer's operating system?and, in this regard, the user environments of the Zenbook and the Air are very, very different.

As different as Macs and PCs.

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