Asus should focus more on ergonomics than style

An Asus UX305CA laptop review by a Linux user

In a previous review I mentioned buying a new laptop for traveling. I've been now using that laptop, namely the Asus UX305CA, for half a year as my main computer - my desktop PC is actually still packed away for my trip to Asia.

My requirements for the laptop were:

  • must be very light for traveling
  • a matte IPS display: in retrospect, a glossy one might've also been fine
  • more than six hours battery life
  • powerful enough to be able to run virtual machines if necessary
  • no moving parts (quiet operation and probably better for use on lap)
  • display size of approximately 13 inches
  • no Apple products, please
  • must work with Linux

So, in December 2015 I ended up buying the Asus UX305CA with 8 GB of memory, a 256 GB SSD and a full-HD display. It cost 999 € in Finland.

How it delivers my requirements

The weight is a no-brainer for Asus: the laptop is indeed really light, weighing in about 1.2 kg. It has no moving parts and comes with an M2 SSD preinstalled. It's also of good size: the edges around the display aren't that wide, and same goes for the keyboard. It could be a bit more compact, though, or the display just a tad bigger. The computer is even unnecessarily thin: it has resulted in ugly connectors such as the micro-HDMI port, and there's no ethernet connector either.

Power-wise it's been pretty nice. I've been developing some websites on it, watching videos and doing this and that, and the battery keeps on going for at least six hours, even close to eight on lighter use.

From my requirements list, not counting the Linux compatibility (more on that later) that leaves only the display to review. It's a mixed bag. It is indeed a matte IPS display, but the matte layer makes the image quality actually somewhat bad at times. For comparison, I took a picture of both the display of the Asus and a picture of a Dell E7450 I use at work. The Dell also comes with a matte IPS display, but is at least twice as expensive as the Asus. In the picture, Asus is the one with the black mouse cursor. The image appears generally more fuzzy on the Asus. The effect is visible on some texts and generally when viewing any pictures on the computer. Therefore, I wouldn't recommend this laptop for any graphic-heavy work. For coding and general use it is adequate. I recommend using redshift (or something similar) to set the color temperature a bit warmer, though.

Things you don't find out by looking at the specs

Specifications only tell you so much: when you actually use the computer you face the ergonomics and how it works in real life. Unfortunately, this is where things go downhill for the Asus - it's not a steep hill, but a downhill nevertheless.

Good things first - the headphone output is pretty good. I am an audiophile, and while the output certainly isn't good enough to drive high-end headphones, it does sound pretty good with for example the Shure SE215 earplugs. It's certainly much better than my Dell E7450 at work. The speakers are pretty loud and clear when needed. The internal microphone seems to work fine with VoIP calls and little to no noise is transmitted.

The keyboard is not bad. It's not great, either - even after six months of use a keypress still fails to register from time to time, and I never liked the power button as one of the keys on the keyboard, but that's just a minor detail. What bothers me more is the page up/down buttons are mapped to the arrow keys and accessible only via the function key. I do like how they included both the Windows key and the menu key (right button click), which comes very handy when avoiding the touchpad.

The touchpad is bad. It is too big and gets on your way - a trend set by Apple, I guess. It's not the most accurate either, but I've seen worse. What kills it for me is clicking. Even with a traditional, smaller touchpad I hate tapping as it always feels uncertain and there's always the chance of it not working when it should, and accidentally tapping when doing other things. With the huge touchpad of Asus, accidental taps happen all the time. It's funny how when I bought the laptop, the touchpad wasn't supported in the Linux kernel, but when support eventually arrived, the first thing I did was to write a script to disable the touchpad. For mechanical tapping the touchpad is way too stiff and inaccurate. As the whole touchpad basically works as the mechanical button, right clicking is a struggle - you never know whether a left or a right click is going to occur. Separate mouse buttons would solve the problem, but I guess they look too ugly for designers nowadays. Also, the touchpad sometimes simply does not work at all after powering on. On Linux it functions again when you reload the kernel driver module, but I've had it happen on Windows also, so I believe it might be a rare hardware bug. A reboot usually solves the problem if it occurs.

Another bad thing about the Asus is the general ergonomics. As the laptop case is made of metal and cut in sharp angles, it does look beautiful, but it also hurts your wrists when typing should you rest your hands on it. This might seem like nit-picking, but I've had to adjust my working position with a couple of desks using the Asus, so it's worth noting.

Ergonomically the worst thing is the hinges of the display, however. There's exactly one angle the display rests in, and if that doesn't suit you, tough luck. Fortunately with the matte IPS display the angle itself isn't that much of a problem. What is a serious problem, however, is how the laptop is lifted a couple of millimeters in the air when you open the lid. What makes the thing even more stupid is how Asus advertizes it as an ergonomic feature. Ergonomic it is not, as the laptop is lifted in the wrong direction. A feature it is not, as it results in the rubber feet under the laptop being lifted in the air. See the picture for reference. Now, for a lightweight laptop, this makes using the laptop quite annoying at times, as there's simply nothing to hold it in place except your hands. You will sometimes have trouble using it even on a flat table as only one of the rubber feet might be touching the surface, but you will almost always have trouble using the laptop in a moving vehicle. On a long distance bus one has to hold the laptop in the hands, it simply won't stay put on a tray table. On a train, almost the same thing. On an airplane, the edge of the lid usually goes over the small tray table, therefore it is actually usable, but only by chance.

Lid open

For comparison, my old laptop is an Acer 1810T with an SSD. It also runs silently in low power situations, isn't heavy, and had a good battery life when new. It does have a terrible display, though, and of course it doesn't have power to even run Facebook smoothly nowadays. But what it does have is ergonomics: the hinges on the display are great, the display can be adjusted to any angle. The laptop also stays put wherever you lay it down. The touchpad is the best I've used: it's small enough not to be on the way, and the buttons are easily clickable - there also is a separate right button. Also, as the case has rounded edges, it's not hurting your wrists no matter how you hold your hands.

One more thing about the Asus. The SSD broke down suddenly after only five months of use. The laptop made some ticking noise and wouldn't recognize the SSD anymore. After a few tries, luckily the SSD was temporarily detected and I was able to boot from a USB stick and backup the data. I sent the laptop for a warranty repair, and it came back with not only the SSD changed, but also the motherboard.

Linux compatibility

I used the laptop with Xubuntu 15.10 for five months, and now it's been running Xubuntu 16.04 for a month or so.

Starting from kernel 4.4 (with which Ubuntu 16.04 comes), Linux has support for the touchpad. Before that, you had to patch and compile your own kernel or find a precompiled unofficial one to get the touchpad working. All the other main things worked pretty much out of the box at least with 4.2 kernels also.

Some of the hotkeys still don't work, for example the toggle radios and set screen brightness keys. It doesn't matter, though, you can always remap the functionality to some other keys. Audio hotkeys have always worked.

The Wi-Fi interface is sometimes a bit sketchy. On a Ubuntu system, half the times the Wi-Fi is not recognized at all by NetworkManager. Killing and restarting NetworkManager solves the problem, though. Same goes for the bluetooth module: sometimes it just doesn't work. The display drivers and/or X are sometimes a bit unstable, too. Using the micro-HDMI connector might leave you with a black screen on both displays when connected. For some reason an RDP connection using the full screen width of 1920 pixels results in serious stutter, but a width of 1919 pixels works normally. There also was a problem with Chromium and fullscreen video playback (X crashed), but it's fixed in newer Chromium versions.

All in all, at least with Xubuntu 16.04 using the 4.4.0-24-generic kernel, the user experience is far from perfect, but isn't that bad, either. If the list of problems above sounds like a long one, it's really not - I've had at least some problems with every computer I've had regardless of operating system. Most common are random hardware bugs or incompatibilities, so if everything works flawlessly, I consider it an exception. And after all, the whole laptop broke down once already.

Summary

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Silent operation
  • Long battery life
  • Good audio
  • Keyboard
  • Has an SD card reader

Cons:

  • General ergonomics
  • Touchpad
  • Connectivity options (micro-HDMI, no ethernet)
  • Lot of unrealiable things, feels unpolished in practice
  • Broke down once already after five months of use

If you need a lightweight laptop with serious battery life and enough power for some work, the Asus UX305CA might be just for you. Just don't pay too much for it, do note the very many negative small things about it, and always keep backups.

2017-05-18 update

The more I travel, the more I appreciate the size and thinness of the Asus. It's especially handy in an airplane where you can fit the laptop into the pocket behind the seat in front of you.

The thinness doesn't come without drawbacks, though. The edges of the keys of the keyboard have pretty much imprinted themselves on the surface of the display with tiny scratches. It doesn't matter in practice, but if you want to keep the display looking like new, use a piece of cloth to protect the display when the lid is closed.

2018-09-08 update

This is something I've seen way too often in dmesg output during the past year or so:

[    4.944537] iwlwifi 0000:01:00.0: loaded firmware version 29.1044073957.0 op_mode iwlmvm
[    5.000707] iwlwifi 0000:01:00.0: Detected Intel(R) Dual Band Wireless AC 7265, REV=0x210
...
[  116.746491] iwlwifi 0000:01:00.0: Microcode SW error detected.  Restarting 0x2000000.

According to kernel.org wiki the revision number 0x210 is for the revision D device, or 7265D, for which newer firmware is released. Too bad the microcode has been extremely buggy for a year or two. The Wi-Fi just stops working and has to be cut off power for it to reset - if you for example boot to Windows after the microcode crashes, the Wi-Fi won't work even in Windows until you've shut down.

Usually the solution is to try out older firmware versions until the problem disappears. Unfortunately, an old enough firmware version also requires an older kernel to work. Therefore you'd be stuck with a year or two old kernel to have a working, reliable Wi-Fi. It's also not a question of will it crash, but when will it crash. It happens all the time. I finally ended up ordering a Wi-Fi USB dongle to solve the problem, although I won't have 5 GHz Wi-Fi anymore. Because of this, I do not recommend any iwlwifi device with Linux, at least not the 7265 series. It might be that everything works fine with another model, but if it doesn't... well, imagine your laptop without Wi-Fi. How inconvenient would it be? I'll tell ya: pretty darn.

2019-07-29 update

After updating to Xubuntu 19.04 using kernel 5.0.0, the Wi-Fi works again.

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Creative Commons License This article by Olli Helin is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License