Review: Asus Zenbook 3 is an ultra-portable mini powerhouse
This stylish, ultra-portable laptop is thinner, lighter and more powerful than the Apple MacBook it's clearly built to compete with. A pleasure to carry around (and to be seen with), it's a performance beast too – but one that comes with some clear drawbacks.
The Asus Zenbook 3 is the closest thing we've seen to a Windows-powered MacBook, taking Apple's lead in terms of thin, light, classy design and pushing them to new levels, while packing a much beefier processor and twice the RAM of the top-spec Macbook.
This is a stylish beast. It arrives in a box you could've shipped jewellery in 10 years ago, with a sweet, brushed-finish protective satchel in the box and a compact charger.
The laptop itself – in our case, a Royal Blue one – uses a spun aluminum finish with gold logos and edging. The screen bezel is pretty thin, particularly on the sides. It's a classy piece of gear, and one that people certainly noticed. Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that people covet your laptop when you take it to a coffee shop, that's another question.
It's marginally thinner and lighter than the MacBook, which itself is shockingly tiny. At 0.95 kg (2.09 lbs), you absolutely don't notice it in a backpack. Packing a Core i7 Intel processor, 512 GB of flash storage, 40 watt-hours of battery and 16 GB of RAM into such a miniscule form factor is an impressive achievement and something I've appreciated and enjoyed every time I've opened it.
Of course, one of the biggest challenges with any super-compact, powerful piece of electronics is keeping the thing cool – and the Zenbook 3 does run very warm on your lap. The liquid crystal polymer impeller fan that cools the thing is just 0.3 millimetres thick, and it spends a lot of time working hard, particularly when you're charging or doing anything graphics-intensive.
And you'll spend a lot of time charging. It's advertised as having an "all day" battery lasting up to 9 hours. I'm not sure how that works, because even with no applications open, it'll tell you you've got a little over 4 hours 20 minutes remaining from a full battery on 75 percent screen brightness. Not to mention, it seems to manage to drain battery when it's asleep, going from 100 to 75 percent over a weekend even when it's sitting there closed. And it takes a curiously long time to charge – around 2 hours from zero to 100 percent.
In our standard battery life test – streaming an hour of video at 75 percent screen brightness – the Zenbook dropped 17 percent on its battery meter. For comparison, the MacBook used only 6 percent. That's nearly three times better, if you trust the number on the screen; that i7 processor provides performance at a price.
That means you'll spend a lot of time with the Zenbook's single USB-C port occupied with a charger. There's a dongle included that splits that single USB-C port into a USB-C, an HDMI out and an old-school USB3 port, but I'm not going to pretend I'm thrilled about carrying that thing about. Other dongles are available that split that one port even more ways, but honestly, if you want to use this laptop as your primary PC, you'll need fast wireless storage on your network.
The edge-to-edge keyboard with its 0.8 mm key travel worked fine for me. The trackpad is OK, but I made more mistakes than I do on a MacBook. It's hard to tell what's hardware and what's operating system to blame, though. Likewise, I can't tell you if the fingerprint sensor works as well as the ones on latest generation smartphones, because Windows Hello refused to let me use it to wake the computer up.
One area the MacBook takes a clear step ahead of the Zenbook is the display. Where the Zenbook rocks a 12.5-inch, 1920 x 1080 non-touch screen, the Macbook offers a 12-inch, 2304 x 1440 Retina display that looks brighter and clearer. Not that text looks particularly blocky on the Zenbook, but you'll notice the difference outdoors in bright light, or when you're editing photos.
Another potential problem area – and this does come down to personal preference – is in the operating system. Where Apple's OSX is clean, tidy and quick, making effective use of lesser hardware, Windows 10 feels clunkier – especially as you're getting started. Tabs in the Edge browser sometimes take several seconds to render, simple procedures like signing in to a Microsoft account seem unnecessarily unintuitive, and despite the Zenbook's hardware edge, the overall experience often feels less tight and responsive. Obviously nothing you can fault Asus on there, but if you're used to OSX it does feel like a step backwards.
Sound, on the other hand, is impressive for such a small, thin device. The quad-speaker Harman Kardon audio system makes for crisp, clear sound. It won't stand up to the bigger drivers on an integrated desktop machine for low-end, but it's a noticeably nicer sounding laptop than the Apple gear.
This is a premium tiny laptop, at a premium price. And the main thing you're paying for is the snappy performance offered by that Core i7, 2.7 GHz processor and 16 GB of RAM. In this area, I've got no complaints whatsoever. The toughest work I've asked of it has been Photoshop batch processing of a bunch of large image files, and the Zenbook ate that job for breakfast. With such a limited screen size and a single USB-C port, I don't think a lot of people are buying this thing to edit video. When it comes to pure grunt, the Macbook's puny Core m5 1.2 GHz processor with a maximum 8 GB RAM is no match for this thing.
So there you have it. The Asus Zenbook 3 is a super classy, stylish laptop offering superior grunt and memory, snappy performance and terrific sound. Those features, plus a phenomenally small and lightweight form factor, give it an edge over Apple's current Macbook, but the Macbook beats it handily on battery life, screen resolution and (in my opinion) a nicer operating system experience.
The Zenbook 3 retails for AU$2,699 – or US$1,599 in the US – which is bang on the same price as the m5 MacBook. Both are premium priced, and both offer advantages depending on what you need from a laptop.
Product page: Asus Zenbook 3