Admittedly, many people these days use laptop computers primarily to watch movies, listen to music or otherwise fiddle around. There are quite few of us, however, who use them to write and edit stuff -- you know, "content," as it's called in Geekdom.
For those who write professionally -- whether composing a novel or editing a report on the ecological consequences of the declining buzzard population in midtown Manhattan -- there is an expectation, or at least a hope, that our efforts are readable and free of annoying typos and other glitches.
Before computers became toys, manufacturers understood this and made at least some effort to build a machine that did what it was intended to do. IBM was famous for the crisp precision of its keyboards, which were modeled on its Selectric line of electric typewriters. (Children, a "typewriter" is sort of a computer without a monitor or hard drive).
Now that computers have become just another electronic gadget used to keep the populace mesmerized and out of the streets, manufacturers no longer seem to care whether they can actually be used for the intended purpose.
Case in point: the Asus Zenbook Ux31, one of the laptops that uses Intel's ultrabook chipset to produce a laptop that is not only slim but downright elegant. All the usual suspects -- Dell, Acer, Lenovo, et al -- are building ultrathin latops and, yes, they are similar in terms of size and general appearance to the MacBook Air line, which also uses the ultrabook chipset. And, no, Apple fans, Apple did not "invent" the ultrabook, Intel did.
These machines aren't cheap. You can buy a plain old bulked-up laptop for $500 or so, whereas an ultrathin will cost you over $1,000. So why would anybody buy such a thing?
Well, see above. There are millions of people who eke out a meager living by writing and editing. Working, in other words. And thanks to the always-on 24/7 culture of the modern world, these content slaves must work pretty much all the time, even when traveling and generally lounging about.
Given the expanding size of your average consumer and the shrinking space available on today's aircraft, trains and buses, using a traditional laptop while en route is difficult -- with the lid open, there's no room left for your arms. Also, your average laptop has a pathetically short battery life, few exceeding two hours.
The ultrathin answers these and other dilemmas. And so it came to pass that a week or two ago, I ordered an Asus Ux31, ignoring published reviews that complained mildly of keyboard eccentricities. After all, like most people who do this for a living, I am fairly obsessive about keyboards (and mice) and really don't expect to like any of them very much.
A thing of beauty but ...
The Asus Zenbook, however, takes keyboard design incompetence to new heights. Yes, it's a thing of beauty -- an all-metal case with a stunning display and little chiclet-style light-colored metal-looking keys.
The difficulty is that the keys simply do not work in any predictable manner. Hit them hard and they may or may not work. Strike them lightly and they may or may not work. Or they may repeat. Or not.
The entire process is so chaotic and unpredictable that it makes it difficult to concentrate on what one is trying to say -- which is what writing is all about, right, trying to say something?
Everything else about the machine is great. The solid-state drive boots up in no time, the machine runs so cool it doesn't melt your trousers and the 1600 x 900-pixel display is absolutely first-rate. Battery life is excellent, exceeding five hours in my tests.
Too bad you can't do anything with it.
Just the maniacal mutterings of an obviously unbalanced scribe, you say? Not really. For proof, just type "Asus Zenbook keyboard problems" and you will find blogs and comments galore about they keyboard and Asus' lack of interest in doing anything about it.
We found this video review which helps explain the origin of the problem, though not offering any effective solution:
Interestingly, as with most other things, the media get quite a bit of the blame for the Zenbook's shortcomings, as angry consumers accuse professional reviewers of being on the take from the companies they write about. This, of course, is not true and as we learn in Libel Avoidance 101, one should not publish such assertions without having evidence to back them up.
Nevertheless, there is an issue here: professional reviewers, those retained by established magazines and websites, have possession of the reviewed item for a short time -- often just a few days, so they are not likely to unearth the problems that come to light with extended usage.
Also, many reviewers are of a technical bent. They will run all manner of bench tests about processor speed and so forth but not all of them put the device to any realistic real-world test -- like, say, trying to type something on it.
This is why it's always a good idea to read peer reviews -- the actual experiences of real-world users who put consumer products through their paces each and every day. We humbly submit that ConsumerAffairs, Yelp and other such sites should be required reading before any purchase.
All it takes, really, is a simple Google query: "[name of product] problems" will usually get you information professional reviewers never discover.
As for the Zenbook, unless you have truly Zen-like patience, we would give it a wide berth.