Laptops

Zenbook teardown: Blatant copy of MacBook Air

The Zenbook is a solid, Windows alternative to the MacBook Air. But, it's also a near mirror image of Apple's ultra-thin laptop, both inside and out.

In late 2011, Asus launched their Zenbook series of Ultrabooks. These super-thin machines, offer more processing power than netbooks, but weigh less than traditional laptops. They are designed to be a Windows alternative to Apple's MacBook Air.

And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Asus must love the Air. In many ways, the Zenbook is nearly identical to Apple's ultra-thin MacBook. Both machines use an aluminum unibody design. Their exterior dimensions, weight, and wedge-shaped cases are strikingly similar. But it's the machines' interior hardware layouts that are most interesting. As I outline in the Analysis section below and in the video, the layouts are mirror images of each other.

MacBook Air clone?

Clones aren't a new concept in the computer market, and there are only so many ways to arrange hardware inside a case. If the Zenbook merely looked like the Air on the outside, I wouldn't label it a blatant copy. But the internal designs are so much alike, I can't think of a more appropriate description. Apple may feel the same way.

Earlier this week, the Chinese-language Commercial Times (Google Translate) ran a story that Apple pressured Pegatron, which builds the Zenbook for Asus, to stop producing the laptop. According to the story, Pegatron wants to maintain a good working relationship with Apple as the company is working with them to assemble the iPhone and iPad 3. Pegatron will stop producing the Zenbook in March, the report said.

Several tech media outlets picked up the story on Tuesday. CNET's Brooke Crothers wondered if Apple was "becoming uneasy about the crush of Windows ultrabooks hitting the market?" But, ZDNet's Adrian Kingsley-Hughes isn't sure the story rings true. To date, Apple, Asus, and Pegatron have all been silent on the matter.

Even if there's no truth to the Commercial Times story, I can understand why Apple might be a little disturbed by the Zenbook's design--both inside and out.

Full teardown gallery: Cracking Open the Asus Zenbook UX21 ultrabook

The Zenbook is available in 11-inch (UX21) and 13-inch (UX31) models and a variety of hardware configurations. Our Asus Zenbook UX21E-DH71 cost $1,149.99 (excluding tax and shipping). It has a 1.80GHz Intel Core i7-2677M processor, 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM, 128GB solid state drive, 11.6" HD LED LCD (1366 x 768), 802.11 b/g/n WLAN and BT support, and 0.3MP HD webcam. The 11-inch Zenbook measures 7.7" (H) x 11.7" (W) x 0.7" (D) and weighs 2.4 pounds.

Cracking Open Analysis

  • Good build quality: I criticized Asus for internal design and assembly problems with a Transformer Prime tablet I tested. I saw none of the same issues on our Zenbook. Overall,
  • Relatively easy to service: The case doesn't require any special tools to open, just a Torx T5 screwdriver. Once you're inside, you can remove most components with a Phillips #0 screwdriver. Those who are comfortable working on computers should have no trouble with the Zenbook.
  • No membrane beneath the keyboard: Acer did the same thing on their Aspire S3 ultrabook, but Apple did include one on the Air.
  • Nearly identical to the MacBook Air: The Zenbook's internal design is nearly identical to the MacBook Air's hardware layout. There's a large battery in the front, with speakers on either side. The motherboard and a smaller IO board run along the back edge and are separated by the cooling fan. And, the SSD is mounted to the motherboard just below the CPU and Platform Controller Hub.

Internal hardware

Our Asus Zenbook UX21E-DH71 test machine has the following hardware:

  • 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-2677M processor (E89391 01 IC2 / V137A416 / 2V130164A1260 SR0D2)
  • Intel BD82UM67 Platform Controller Hub (E78296 01PP15 / E135B084 SLJ4K)
  • 4GB Elpida 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM (J4216BASE-DJ-F x 8)
  • AzureWave AW-NB086 WLAN/BT card
  • 128GB ADATA XM11 SSD
  • 0.3 MP webcam
  • ELAN touchpad controller (33200V-3600 1139 BW118V1)
  • 11.6" ()
  • 7.4V 4,800mAh, 35Wh Li-Polymer Battery Pack (C23-UX21)
  • Realtek ALC269 High Definition Audio Codec with Embedded Class D Speaker Amplifier
  • Texas Instruments BQ24740 Multi-Cell Synchronous Switch-mode Battery Charger (BQ 24740 TI 171 A3NR G4)
  • Fresco Logic FL1000 single port PCI Express to USB 3.0 host controller chip (FL1009-2Q0 KYTG9-000 1122B15A)
  • ITE Tech IT8572G 1137-AXS DCEKSB (likely and embedded controller)
  • Fairchild FDMC7696 30V N-Channel PowerTrench MOSFET (FBKFJ FDMC 7696)
  • Fairchild FDMC0310AS (PBKAF FDMC 0310AS)
  • Macronix MX25L3206E 32M-BIT CMOS serial flash (MXIC IC MX25L3206E M2I-12G 7A470000 L113498)
  • Richtek RT8166B (RT8166B ZQW DGJ10)
  • Richtek RT8206A High-Efficiency, Main Power Supply Controller for Notebook Computers (RT8206A GQW DHV08)

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

42 comments
SHCA
SHCA

There may be other reasons for the similarity: 1. ASUS makes most of the motherboards in the world. Maybe the made the MacBook Air board. 2. The component arrangement may have been done by the subccontract manufacurer. If they were already making MacBook Air, it would be natural to follow a succesful pattern.

Gisabun
Gisabun

Apple is getting nervous. Too many competitors eating up their revenue. Seriously, how many ways can you put the placement of a CPU, SSD, memory and other components in a thin case? Of course what does the McBook Air cost versus the Zenbook if they have the same primary hardware inside. I'm guessing the Zenbook will be cheaper.

cquirke
cquirke

Some Apple thin notebooks "feature" RAM soldered into the motherboard - which is a double bust, when that's a "special" brand-and-model-specific board that will have "go away or buy a new computer from us" pricing. Consider the implications of this (I'm typing blind here, thanks to CNet's dumb-a$$ pop-up advert junk) (...ah that's better) if you have bad RAM (I'll leave it as an exercise who you'd test that, with no bootable optical drive). Especially if the SSD has a "special" connection so it can't be dropped into a standard PC for data recovery. You can't replace the RAM. You can't connect the hard drive to anything else. You daren't boot or run ths system (off any OS) because the RAM is bad. How do you safely get your data off?

LaFong
LaFong

> Apple was overpriced then, and it is still overpricing its hardware. You do pay more, though not by all that much. You evidently have decided it's not worth it. Kudos. >My daughter has a MacBook air, I took it apart to get to the CD drive. MacBook Air...with a CD drive? You didn't have to take it apart. You just needed duct tape. >This thing was an over priced, poorly designed POS... Opinions vary. In your case, it varies from the vast majority of actual users and reviewers.

ben
ben

As a writer you should know the difference between a "clone" and a "mirror image". The layout looks the same, not reversed. As a tech editor I would have thought accurate and correct use of language is important ;0). As a user and potential consumer, I love the physical properties of the Macbook air, but I can not do my job with a Mac, so I love the idea of a Windows PC that has the weight and battery life of the Air. I suspect a lot of users feel the same, as while the Macbooks have made great inroads the PC is still the majority of the market. On the "what can apple do" question, this raises some good questions that anyone with a US based company comtemplating off-shore manufacturing needs to think about. US (or EU) IPR law doesn't extend to China. I have seen deals where the factory you contract with will build the exact same board/box/device to others. It is a reality. The only effective influence is volume, if you have an alternative manufacturer. Apple may have that clout, but not because of macbook sales volume, so it could turn the other way round - if Apple does something that causes a blip in iPad/iPhone manufacturing it would hurt Apple a lot. Interesting things to think about if you are comtemplating doing manufacturing off shore.

andrew232006
andrew232006

Thin laptops is not a new concept and it certainly doesn't belong to Apple. Does Honda copy Ford every time they make a car with four wheels, a front mounted internal combustion engine, drivers seat on the left with over the shoulder seat belts, radio in the middle... What I do take offense to is apple blackmailing Pegatron in order to prevent competition from Asus.

borisk2000
borisk2000

I am not a fan of Apple Inc, but please give them a credit they pioneered a lot technological advances. As for the hardware guts of these machines, I fully agree with the previous comment about software designing the board layout and component placement. AS far as copying goes, by the same token all windows based machines are pretty much the same inside and out, and with few exceptions are cheaply made, while Apple always created beautiful designs and generally used a higher quality hardware then anybody else. and that coming from Electronic engineer who was involved in it for 30 years.

BillGates_z
BillGates_z

Maybe Apple should take a look at ASUS's cooling tech. My giant ASUS laptop is whisper quiet and cool running while my kid's Macbook fans sound like it's about to take off.

BillGates_z
BillGates_z

Asus makes some of the best laptops out there, but hey don't run the MAC OS so why should Apple care? Was the Air an intelligent layout from a manufacturing and/or servicing perspective? Is no other engineer able to come up with the same logical direction for component layout? And even if it was imitated, WTF, am I going to have to worry about someone patenting shirts on top, pants on the bottom?

Home Grown IT
Home Grown IT

Even with the basic pics you provided I can see the motherboard layout is different. Where the components sit is similar but not exactly the same. The fact is most laptops look nearly the same inside and I have had lots of them on the bench. The story is bogus and the conclusion is as well. Nice try, but really is that all you got? Apple would have sued them by now and THAT would be worthy of an article.

sarai1313
sarai1313

and what apple is not in court yet ?

rufwork
rufwork

As Gruber of Daring Fireball says of Samsung's Galaxy (?) and the design cues it shares with the iPhone: [i]So Jony Ive leads the design team at the two most-profitable phone makers. Impressive.[/i] I think we can extend that to ultrabooks now too.

jagans65
jagans65

Why should we care? I started with Apple back in 1986. Paid $1700.00 for a Mac Plus. Apple was overpriced then, and it is still overpricing its hardware. My daughter has a MacBook air, I took it apart to get to the CD drive. This thing was an over priced, poorly designed POS that I had to completely dissassemble to get to the malfunctioning drive.

bdmore
bdmore

Can I run IOS in the Zenbook? if not, is not a clone. All of us, (at least most of us) have our heart, stomachs, intestines, brains and the rest of the organs all similarly arranged (imagine the surprise of a surgeon to find someone's brain in the thorax). Do that means we are all clones of each other? nope.

FortunePC
FortunePC

From what I have seen here in India, Asus is a product I would be very scared to use thanks to its unrepairable breakdowns and generally poor support.

realvarezm
realvarezm

Ah the clone, long time no hear that word. Anyway there is nothing original anymore, unless Asus starts to build quantum laptops. At least is chaper than the macbook air.

jvucic
jvucic

Your comparison is completely invalid in the sense that you don't reinvent the wheel, or say that car manufacturers are stealing from one another by using round tires in their models. You're talking about a minimal amount of space to fit components, an ultra thin frame that requires a durable substance, and a product that far surpasses the functionality (on a PURELY benchmark basis, OS excluded from comparison) of the Macbook Air. They have ALSO solve Mac's heat dissipation issues by including a ventilation fan that moves more air and they have a better integrated sound system. If you REALLY wanted to complain, I'd redirect the content towards this notion... "Why is Asus better at making the Macbook Air than Apple?..."

hadlow
hadlow

The main criteria of whether it's a clone or not will be the tracks on the underside of the circuit board. While there are only so many ways to place the major parts, there is a slightly wider variety of alternative ways of wiring them up. If that too looks the same, then it's a clone.

guy
guy

Ok, so the larger components are in the same basic locations, but as you said there are only so many places to put anything. Apple must have spent a lot of time discovering where is the best place for the components to make the Air as thin as possible. Chances are pretty good that these are then the ONLY way they will all fit together for such a thin tablet. Looking in more detail at the mainboard, there are vast differences on a smaller scale. To call the Zen a "clone" of an Air would be like saying a Ford is a clone of a Toyota because the engine is in front and the wheels are at the corners.

fritzair
fritzair

The Air doesn't have a CD drive, that might be why she was having trouble inserting the disk! I am wondering if you ever got it in? OOO

realvarezm
realvarezm

I have seen many laptops run IOS, but the parts have to be similar to the ones of Apple macbook and plus you have the strip down versions, created by hackers (altough i wouldnt recommend) Some brand are more friendly to it. Dell, Asus and MSI are some that i've seen working as an alternate OS with dual boot.

egmccann
egmccann

have any actual choice in the design of your body? No. Then the "similarly arranged organs" is not a valid comparison. And as Mr. Detweiler has said, if there were just a few similarities, he wouldn't use the word. The extreme similarity of the layout - something human beings DO have a say in - is what brings about the clone comment. In other words, if I made a sports car with four wheels, two side by side seats, V8 in the front and a sleek body, I haven't cloned a Corvette. If I take copying the body, specific lighting, dimensions, interior layout, etc. to an extreme and call it a "Corvelle" then I've produced a clone. THAT'S what he's saying - there's more than a passing or coincidental resemblance.

Bill Detwiler
Bill Detwiler

I'm not suggesting that the Zenbook is a bad machine--quite the contrary. If you want an ultrathin laptop and need/want Windows, I would recommend the Zenbook. And if the Zenbook's similarities with the Air were limited to the overal design and wedge-shaped case, I wouldn't have called it a copy. But given the nearly identical motherboard, IO board, SSD placement, battery, speakers, cooling assembly, and aluminum unibody case, I believe the words "copy" and "clone" are appropriate.

rpollard
rpollard

How is it that it "far surpasses" when Apple has a system with the same exact specs? A bit biased are we... Asus has to sell it cheaper to be competitive but this my toy's better than your toy is really silly. He has a valid point. Apple did all the work of laying things out in the most efficient manner. They did it first. Then Asus comes along, cracks open the Air and says "Wow, this is the best way to lay the components out." Thus, you have a copy (clone).

hadlow
hadlow

I don't think Apple will have spent an awful lot of time on deciding on placement of major components.. It's easily done with a few bricks the size of the components and a tin tray ;-) Seriously, component placement is usually done with software these days, as is the harder part of getting them wired up and working together. Some companies use the same software to do this, which is why some of these gadgets often come out looking the same. But I can't say if Apple uses the same software as Asus. Probably bespoke in their cases.

Bill Detwiler
Bill Detwiler

If the Zenbook's similarities with the Air were limited to the overal design and wedge-shaped case, I wouldn't have called it a copy. But given the nearly identical motherboard, IO board, SSD placement, battery, speakers, cooling assembly, and aluminum unibody case, I believe the words "copy" and "clone" are appropriate. Now, I'm not suggesting Asus is doing anything illegal in mimicking the Air, nor am I saying the Zenbook is a bad machine--quite the contrary. If you want an ultrathin laptop and need/want Windows, I would recommend the Zenbook. But, let's be honest. The Zenbook is a clone, just like the PC clones of the 80s and 90s.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I guess Asus *is* losing it then... If you go to the trouble of cloning something, the least you can do is to not repeat the mistakes as well! On the other hand, looking at the pics, I wonder if using sockets would take up a lot more space?

dogknees
dogknees

While the mobo is in the same place, the layout of components is quite different, as is the cable attachments and routing. There are obviously only a few ways to tightly pack things like the mobo, battery, drives, etc. The fact that two people designing to a similar requirement come up with similar layouts is not surprising. It just means the designers have spent a similar amount of time and effort in their work. It's nothing like as similar as PC clones were to PCs in the old days. In that case, a lot of the chip locations and much of the circuitry were identical. That's clearly not the case in this design. Looking at the photos, there are very few components that are in the same location and the traces you can see are quite different. It's convergent design. The same requirements, the same space to work in often results in very similar, but not identical and not clones of each other.

sarai1313
sarai1313

like i said apple not in court so how can it be a clone.as if apple has not done the same thing in the past

ManoaHI
ManoaHI

Steve Jobs had always cared about how a computer looked on the inside even if the owner is not supposed to look inside. He did this with the original Mac and there was no user serviceable parts inside. He went a few rounds with the original Mac design with the engineers and demanded that the machine looked good on the inside. When Apple got some plants, Steve wanted the factory clean and painted in multiple colors. No one gets to see the plants except for the employees. When Apple got Jony Ive, he also cares how it looks on the inside as well as the outside. Apple also goes around and around, but the engineers and designers work in the same area and generally give feed back to each other when making mock ups for Steve to see. Tim Cook also has the same bias. While I agree, there is very limited "play" room to get everything to fit, but Asus is just too little to close to say it is not a copy. But so far, the price isn't the sub $1,000 that Intel wanted. Remember too, as far as I've seen a few, who bought a Mac, wipe it and install Windows that the Air is a great Windows machine. The price of Windows will raise the Air's price to around the Asus.

danbi
danbi

Of course, you can let software place your components. Have you ever this this? Typically produces extremely ugly design, that sometimes doesn't even work. Apple is known to have spent an awful lot of time designing the Air. I will not be surprised if these Asus 'ultra books' are produced used the same machines as the Apple's Airs which if true spells great trouble to the OEMs. In short: losing an order form Asus is tolerable, losing an order from Apple (probably forever and perhaps with huge penalties) is something those OEMs will not consider. Even Samsung does not dare try it. The most interesting observation by the way is that Intel has adopted the Google's tactics to stay behind the scenes. Another interesting observation is that all those copycats target Apple these days.

DJMullen
DJMullen

Bill, I agree with you that the Zenbook is a clone. However, it is a PC clone and NOT an Apple clone. The BIOS is the point of failure in your comment. I beleive it was Compaq that originally reverse engineered the IBM PC BIOS firmware. I was not aware that Apple contained a "BIOS." Arguably, every computer needs basic input output system firmware, but for the Zenbook to be considered an Apple Clone, the system firmware would have to be "nearly identical" as you say. The differences in the system firmware are what make the Zenbook an orange and an Apple an apple.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I can practically hear millions of litigators whispering "...yet!"

ManoaHI
ManoaHI

Apple is not in court with this, because as far as I can tell, there is no way to patent component placement.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Of course then firmware is different, that goes with the different firm. But if the spec for the Zenbook can be said to be "make it as similar to the Macbook Air as we can", then it is a clone. Of course there are degrees of cloning. If we clone a machine from last year, we don't go looking for last years parts; we look for the updated versions of those parts. So it's not going to be identical. On the purely hardware side of this, it's a clone. On the OS side it's obviously not a clone, because it's not trying to be a Mac.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

About the only Fiats that ever became remotely popular in the States were the X 1/9 and the Spider. Myself, I always preferred the Alpha Romeo Spider.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

where they would not encounter a fiat. :^0

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

Fiat licensed other auto companies and also sold the molds for some of their cars. In the 1970s I remember Seats in Spain that were basically a Fiat. And in the 80s we bought a Yugo that was basically a Fiat. Fiat sold the works to an old model of theirs to Yugoslavia.