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)


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...

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