The Asus ZenBook 14 is the newest iteration of an old laptop design philosophy: more screen, less size. It’s that ethos that built the entire ultraportable market, bringing us ever-thinner, ever-lighter big-display devices. Much like the Asus ZenBook S before it, the ZenBook 14 (starts at $ 999; $ 1,099 in the UX433FA-DH74 configuration tested here) deploys a litany of impressive design tricks to make it look even sleeker. The CPU choice packs a pretty powerful punch, as well, considering the thinness. As a device to court the on-the-move professional, the ZenBook 14 has lots of appeal; only a merely average screen keeps it from vying for Editors’ Choice honors and challenging top-shelf machines like the latest Dell XPS 13.
The Design: A New Superlative
Asus’ latest superlative, applied here? The world’s smallest 14-inch laptop. I couldn’t verify that machine by machine, but no doubt, this ZenBook shaves off almost every millimeter that seems plausible to trim.
Measuring 0.63 by 12.6 by 7.8 inches (HWD), the ZenBook 14 sits a little thinner, and a tad longer, than an A4 pad of paper. That makes it a little larger than the smaller-screen Dell XPS 13 (0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches), if a little heavier (3.5 pounds, versus Dell’s 2.9 pounds). These modestly different specs mean very little, however, as what matters is when you open up the laptop and meet the ZenBook 14’s wide, 1,920-by-1,080-pixel display.
I’ll get to the screen itself in a moment. The screen-to-body ratio is of most interest here; on the ZenBook 14, it is an impressive 92 percent, although that’s helped by one of the ZenBook line’s distinct design features, the so-called “ErgoLift Hinge.” Beyond hiding the bottom bezel, giving the ZenBook 14 a more efficient aesthetic, it raises the entire laptop by about 3 degrees to improve typing and, the company claims, allows for better cooling, thanks to the gap affording clear airflow underneath.
The audio quality is also a beneficiary, ostensibly delivering “clearer sound with improved bass response.” The latter part is certainly accurate; versus other like-size laptops PC Labs has tested, the ZenBook 14 has better texture and punch in its low frequencies. On the other hand, the midrange comes across too tinny for my liking. It’s unlikely I’ll be using this ultraportable without a good pair of headphones.
Regarding the display panel itself, that’s where Asus could do a bit better. The ZenBook 14 doesn’t quite reach the levels of brightness you would expect from a base-$ 999 ultralight machine, getting bested by similarly priced laptops. Watching a clip from Avengers: Infinity War, it’s clear that the whites don’t render as bright-and-bleachy as they should, and the ZenBook 14’s handling of contrast leaches a little life from rich explosions or the glow of the Infinity Gems. For most people, this might not be a dealbreaker, but for photo and video editors looking for a portable PC that can also run editing software, a model with more of a pro-content-creator panel would be in order.
Components and Connections
Speaking of muscle for running demanding software, the ZenBook 14 is commendably potent for its sliced-thinness. My UX433FA-DH74 test model has a Core i7-8565U processor, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB solid-state drive, Intel’s UHD Graphics 620 integrated silicon, and, of course, the Windows 10 Home operating system.
Windows 10 remains easy to use, but much like the other non-Microsoft devices, it comes with an array of Asus-branded software pre-installed, such as the Asus Giftbox (for deals on apps such as Dropbox and Polaris), as well as other third-party apps (example: ICEpower AudioWizard). They don’t get in the way, but operating system purists such as myself will want to spend time uninstalling some of them, to avoid them popping up in the grid mode when you hit the Windows button. (The audio software can stay; the trials you may want to purge.)
Setup is straightforward, and the addition of an IR camera for Windows Hello (Microsoft’s face-ID software) is a nice touch, even if it did struggle recognizing me when I was wearing glasses. There’s a good amount of power under the hood, too. Typing up articles, listening to music, running video all simultaneously didn’t prove particularly challenging to the ZenBook 14. Nor, happily, did more taxing programs such as Adobe Photoshop.
If you’re a spreadsheet fiend, you might also appreciate the touchpad/number-pad combination, which you can swap between by pressing a button on the top right corner of the pad. Hitting the button lights up a virtual numpad from below the surface of the touchpad…
This is a nifty space-saving solution. The only downsides are that it takes a bit of force when switching, and occasionally, the pad isn’t quite as responsive as it needs to be. On the whole, though, it’s a nice addition, and with computers making use of touch screens, touch bars, and other UI innovations, it’s good to see two traditional features get a dual-purpose redesign in one space.
In addition, if there is one thing Asus has done well with the ZenBook 14, it’s the mix of ports. You get a USB Type-C port, two USB Type-A ports (one of them USB 3.1 Gen 2), a HDMI output, a combined headphone/mic jack, and a microSD card reader…
The only omissions I’d ideally like to have solved are a full-size SD card reader and perhaps Ethernet, but the edges of this machine are already fully occupied. When so many tech companies are palming off external connections in favor of peripherals such as USB Type-C hubs or docks, it’s nice to know that this is a machine that, for the most part, you can tote without worry of leaving behind that essential dongle in a hotel room somewhere.
The Performance Breakout
I compared the ZenBook 14 to a host of competing machines whose core components are outlined below. All of them are similarly priced conventional ultraportable laptops, with the exception of the LG Gram 14 2-in-1, which can transform into a tablet thanks to its 360-degree hinge. (With all but the LG Gram, the screen sizes range a bit above and below this ZenBook’s, with the outrageously light Acer Swift 5 toting an exceptionally big 15.6-inch panel for its 2.2-pound weight.)
While I observed some slight variations on our media creation benchmarks, the similar specs in each of the laptops ensure that the ZenBook 14 places admirably for a general-purpose laptop, though not head-and-shoulders above its competitors. The only significant variations were in the graphics tests, which are secondary in this kind of laptop; even the discrete GPU in the Huawei MateBook 13 doesn’t have enough muscle to play graphics-intensive games well. This is a common situation among ultraportables.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 (Productivity Test) and PCMark 8 (Storage Test)
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet work, web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the laptop’s storage subsystem. This score is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
A score above 4,000 in PCMark 10’s productivity suite is generally brilliant, and the ZenBook 14 clears that—just. That’s not to be sniffed at, though; it puts it ahead of every other laptop in this lot, if by small margins.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Here, the duel is between the ZenBook 14 and the MateBook 13, and the result is essentially a tie. Even if it doesn’t lead the race, the ZenBook 14 shows solid relative performance that suggests decent thermal management for sustained CPU-heavy work.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. Lower times are better here. The Photoshop test stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
Matching the MateBook 13 punch for punch, the ZenBook 14 finishes the test in an impressive 148 seconds. Acer’s Swift 5 and the Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 lag nontrivially behind, in this instance.
3DMark Sky Diver and Fire Strike
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
No surprises here from the Intel-graphics-based models. Getting smooth gaming performance from the ZenBook 14 will be a challenge involving dialed-down graphics and lowered resolution settings. (More on that in a moment.) That’s no more troubling than most other laptops of its kind, though, save in this case the marginally better MateBook 13, which includes a more powerful, but still basic, discrete Nvidia GeForce GPU.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s rendered in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess. We present two Superposition results, run at the 720p Low and 1080p High presets.
Once again, the same relative results: The ZenBook 14 performs on par for Intel UHD Graphics 620, but no better than any in this lot other apart from the Huawei, which will be sleeping easy tonight.
I also ran some anecdotal gaming trials. Although you shouldn’t expect this computer to be a high-powered gaming machine, you’ll get a good 60 frames per second (fps) on less-taxing games such as Rocket League should you need a break from the grindstone. Anything nearer a AAA classification should be left behind, though; booting up Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare slowed the ZenBook 14 to a sluggish pace and while it was technically playable at the native resolution, it wasn’t enjoyable.
Video Playback Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop in Airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation’s open-source flick Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
While you won’t find a beast of a battery in this device, the ZenBook 14 does well to stay in the middle of the pack, considering how little space it has for a battery at all. But it’s a tough competition all around, and as such sway up or down in battery life of an hour or so shouldn’t be something that makes or breaks a purchasing decision. A four-hour lead, however, like the Surface Laptop 2 rang up, is another story.
A Sterling Slice in a Tough Market
The ZenBook 14 comes up a few shades short of being a perfect little power companion for professionals. It has (almost) every port you could hope for in a machine this trim, shows speedy handling of up-market software, and flaunts a compact design and creature comforts.
If not for a lackluster screen, a bit of bloatware, and some minor quibbles around the touchpad, it would be setting a standard among the ultralight crowd. But if you find it at the right price, or the supertrim profile catches your fancy, don’t let that hold you back. It’s still a solid little machine for the screen size and price.