2018-12-03

Second Laptop: ASUS ZenBook UX331UN

I was hoping that a post from when I got my first laptop, an ASUS U30JC, would provide a template for how to review my new, second laptop. Sadly, that post was from over 8 years ago, when this blog was just a year old, I had not yet started college, and my writing was much worse. With that in mind, I now provide a review of my new laptop; this review will be by no means a thorough review of hardware, but will be more of a summary of my experiences installing Linux on it and using it for around a month.

A few months ago, I noticed that part of the plastic frame around the screen of my old laptop, along with the hinge below it, had partially detached. A little over a month ago, that detachment had become much more noticeable, to the point of becoming a liability for me: the laptop would no longer close properly (without me risking breaking it altogether), so I would not be able to take it anywhere outside. Up until that point, I had experienced no major hardware issues with that laptop, and only minor issues such as the optical drive occasionally being unresponsive; I could tell that it was struggling a little more with newer software, but on the whole, it was performing quite well, so while I had from time to time over the last couple of years been looking casually into replacing it, this sudden development forced the issue. Given my disability, I wanted something a bit more lightweight, because my old laptop was 4.5 pounds, which was a bit heavy for me; that said, I still wanted something that would offer a reasonable amount of computational power, and while I didn't anticipate requiring a high-performance graphics card for gaming as I am not a serious gamer, I figured there may be some casual games as well as the possibility of getting into GPU programming for my work for which I may want a reasonable dedicated graphics card. Luckily, I found the ASUS ZenBook UX331UN, which seemed on paper to fit the bill on all counts, and I found only a few left in stock online for a reasonable price (just over $1000), so I went ahead and bought one. Follow the jump to read more.

The lead-up to installation was a bit more involved than I anticipated. For one, I had to disable the BIOS/UEFI security keys (done through this method by Shishir at TechNorms, though it's unclear how necessary this actually was), and also decrypt the Microsoft Windows partition in order to ensure that I could make a successful dual-boot installation. After that, I booted a live USB of Linux Mint 19 "Tara" MATE made with the Linux Mint USB Image Writer; for some strange reason, the live USB would only recognize any wifi networks the first time I booted the live USB, and never on subsequent boots. Thankfully, the installation itself was quick & painless with no issues to speak of, and the installed system had no issues connecting to the wifi.

This laptop has a solid-state drive, which requires a little care to ensure that installing and using Linux doesn't needlessly shorten its lifespan. To that end, I followed these instructions (whose homepage is called Easy Linux tips project), which seem to be reasonable guidelines of ways to optimize solid-state drives for use in Linux. I also wondered if I should do anything with respect to the nVidia graphics card, but thankfully, Linux Mint already uses the open-source Nouveau driver out-of-the-box, with no further configuration required (and it works well enough that I see no need to use the proprietary driver).

This laptop has a HiDPI screen, and unfortunately support for it in Linux Mint (and I suspect in other Linux distributions) is somewhat questionable: I could either use the full screen resolution and deal with toolbars and fonts that are much too small, or I could use a lower resolution that doesn't take advantage of the available hardware capabilities. I split the difference by using the full resolution but changing the desktop settings to use bigger fonts, thicker toolbars, et cetera; it isn't perfect, as some applications like LibreOffice still use too small icons & toolbars, but it works well enough for most applications I use on a daily basis.

There were no issues installing the programs I wanted, like Skype, Inkscape, LaTeX, Mupen64Plus, and others. The final step was to copy my files over from my external hard drive to the internal drive. I initially plugged the external hard drive to a USB port on the left-hand side of the laptop (as my external mouse was plugged into the right-hand side USB port), but it seems that port isn't compatible with older USB devices; I don't think I made a mistake when plugging it in, as newer devices worked fine, while that external drive repeatedly wouldn't work when plugging and unplugging it from that particular port (and that made me concerned about spinning the drive up and down repeatedly through hard connections & disconnections without the ability to properly mount or unmount the drive via software). At some point, I finally realized that I should try the port on the right-hand side of the laptop, which indeed worked without further issues; that said, I'm still concerned with how the laptop behaved before.

I conclude with a few thoughts about using this laptop on a daily basis. It is quite fast and responsive: it takes less than 2 seconds to go from turning it on to the boot menu, less than 10 more seconds to go from there to the Linux Mint login screen, and less than 5 more seconds for the desktop and other applications like Mozilla Firefox to load. The touchpad works great, with a smooth matte finish; it is so good that I wouldn't mind too much if I couldn't use a mouse anymore, which was certainly not the case for my previous laptop. The keyboard generally works fine, but I still sometimes press the wrong arrow key because the arrow keys are thin instead of being full-size as they were on my previous laptop; additionally, it is nice that there is a backlight for the keyboard, but in the interest of saving power, I turn it out right after logging in, and I unfortunately haven't found a longer-term reversible fix. The presence of only 2 USB ports is a bit annoying, as I can't connect multiple peripherals simultaneously: my mouse and external webcam already take up the available ports, and I need my external webcam because unfortunately, this laptop's built-in webcam is no better than that of my old laptop from over 8 years ago. The placement of the headphone jack on the right-hand side of the laptop is quite annoying, as my headphones have the cable coming out of the left earphone, so the wires have to cross over my body and the laptop body to get between the headphones and the jack; my previous laptop didn't have this problem. Finally, in addition to being powerful, it is lightweight, as evidenced by the fact that I had much less trouble taking it with me when traveling for Thanksgiving this past weekend. Overall, despite some minor issues and complaints with respect to installation and usage, I'm quite happy with this laptop, and believe that it fits the needs that I identified.

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