When Asus initially announced the ZenBook 3 at Computex 2016, I remember seeing the genuinely excited faces of the media at the event. After all, it is as thin and portable as the 12-inch MacBook, and to top it all off, it’s packed with Intel’s latest seventh generation Core i7 processor. We’re not talking about the new Y series processors here, which are really Kaby Lake-based Core m chips: the ZenBook 3 is powered by a full-fledged U series mobile processor.
The ZenBook 3 is stunning with its design and power in such a portable chassis, but how was it like to use it as a daily driver? Unfortunately, not quite as pleasant as I would’ve hoped.
It’s not hard to see what inspired the design of the ZenBook 3. In fact, it would almost be accurate to call it a “12-inch MacBook that runs on Windows 10,” except that’s not truly the case. Sure, it also has only one USB Type C port (plus an audio jack), but there are key hardware differences – and user experience – that differentiate it from the MacBook.
For one, it is much more powerful than the 12-inch MacBook, which is equipped with a more modest Core m processor. Other than that, the ZenBook 3’s keyboard isn’t quite as shallow either, although it still doesn’t “feel” like a conventional laptop keyboard. On top of that, the ZenBook 3 also has a fingerprint reader – great for Windows Hello.
However, it’s worth noting that the ZenBook 3 has a 1920 x 1080 IPS display; the MacBook, in comparison, has a sharper 2304 x 1440 IPS panel. The MacBook’s display also has a 16:10 aspect ratio, meaning it has slightly more vertical space over the 1080p panel of the ZenBook 3, which is a godsend for a display this compact.
Aside from the display, the all-metal construction of the ZenBook 3 is definitely very premium to hold. Although I don’t quite like how much flex the top and bottom lids have, I especially like the blue shade of this premium ultraportable; the gold trim around the top lid is also a very nice touch.
Did I also mention that the ZenBook 3’s lid can be opened with only one finger? The MacBooks have this trait that Windows laptops struggle to emulate, but here’s one that finally lets you do that.
All in all, the ZenBook 3 definitely scores high marks in the design department: it looks really, really good, and it’s packed with a powerful Core i7 processor. However, the user experience of the ZenBook 3…isn’t quite as impressive.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: the shallow keyboard of the ZenBook 3. Now, Asus made it a point to mention that the ZenBook 3’s keyboard has more travel than the 12-inch MacBook’s, which I wholeheartedly agree. However, anyone who has grown accustomed to a conventional laptop keyboard will almost definitely find the ZenBook 3’s keyboard…awkward to use.
Although the ZenBook 3’s keyboard definitely has more travel than the 12-inch MacBook’s, that’s not much of a comparison – the keys still feel very shallow. While I like the fact that the keys are wider than a standard laptop keyboard, it takes some time getting used to: the layout just feels…odd. The fact that the power button is positioned right on top of the backspace key – where the delete key is usually located – makes it easy to accidentally put the laptop to sleep.
The trackpad of the ZenBook 3, on the other hand, is pretty decent. While it is not as responsive or intuitive as a MacBook’s trackpad, it’s definitely one of the best Windows trackpads around. Although the fingerprint reader – which is pretty quick – is placed at the top right corner of the trackpad, the trackpad is spacious enough to not feel cramped.
Then we have the 12.5-inch 1080p display of the ZenBook 3. While it’s not the sharpest laptop displays around, it’s a fairly decent one nonetheless. It can get bright enough for outdoor usage, and the colours are vibrant and punchy; the white balance is great as well. Honestly, a higher resolution display would only mean worse battery life. That being said, I do wish the ZenBook 3 had a touch display; I actually tapped on the laptop’s screen several times just to be reminded that it’s not actually a touch display – embarrassing, I know.
Throughout my time with the ZenBook 3, I paid particularly close attention to two things: the system’s noise level and heat management. After all, it’s a slim, slim laptop with a powerful Core i7-7500U processor; surely the laptop’s cooling system will be challenged.
When I first started using the ZenBook 3, I was quite surprised by how often the fan made itself heard even when I was only doing some light internet browsing; even heat management was pretty bad – the right side of the palm rest gets particularly warm. Thankfully, after installing several Windows updates, the system noise and heat management improved by quite a margin. Using the ZenBook 3 for web browsing, writing articles, and watching videos rarely kick up the fan, and it doesn’t heat up as quickly anymore.
Audio quality, on the other hand, is satisfactory as well. The ZenBook 3 has a total of four speakers, and considering how slim this laptop is, the audio is…more than acceptable. However, if i crank up the volume, I did notice some distortion and crackling, which is quite a letdown.
All in all, the ZenBook 3 is quite pleasant to use, but only if you can get over the keyboard’s shallow travel. Personally, I don’t mind the shallow keyboard at all, but I’m also a fan of the 12-inch MacBook’s even shallower keyboard, which is not to everyone’s taste.
On top of the shallow keyboard, you’ll also have to contend with the ZenBook 3’s singular USB Type-C port. Although Asus was gracious enough to include a USB-C hub – which has HDMI, USB-A and USB-C ports – it’s still a hassle to bring the hub wherever I go.
Packed with a fast Intel Core i7-7500U processor, the ZenBook 3 does not suffer in the performance department. This, complemented by the fast PCIe SSD of the laptop, make for a very zippy little machine.
Naturally, I tried to do some gaming on the ZenBook 3, and it ran Dota 2 pretty well. Of course, I cannot max out the graphics settings, but the game is certainly very playable. The Intel HD Graphics 620 is definitely a capable integrated graphics solution.
However, it’s worth noting that it can get quite unpleasant to game on the ZenBook 3 for long periods of time. In a typical match of Dota 2, the laptop gets louder as the game progresses, and the right side of the palm rest area gets much warmer as well. While it didn’t exactly get warm enough to be hot to the touch, it’s definitely unpleasant.
But these are expected of a slim and compact ultraportable like the ZenBook 3: the fact that it can even run Dota 2 without much hiccup is an impressive feat in itself. All in all, you won’t be disappointed with the performance of the ZenBook 3, but don’t expect to do serious gaming or video editing on this machine without running into issues like thermal throttling.
In this regard, the ZenBook 3 is a bit of a mixed bag. When I initially started using the laptop, I only managed to get about two hours and 30 minutes worth of battery life out of it. That’s horrible, considering the ZenBook 3 was set to Balanced power plan with Battery Saver activated; the display brightness was also turned down to a comfortable level.
Oddly enough, after updating the ZenBook 3 with the latest Windows updates, things change dramatically. On High Performance power plan with the display’s brightness set to 100%, the ZenBook 3 managed to last about three hours and 40 minutes; Battery Saver wasn’t even activated like the previous test. I imagine the battery life would be much better with the display brightness turned down and activating Battery Saver mode.
I won’t go as far to say that you can safely navigate a workday without having to charge the device, but you should be able to go pretty close.
Retailing at a hefty RM7,999, the ZenBook 3 has plenty of competition from the many ultraportables in the market – most of which are much more affordable than it. One of the most noteworthy competitors to the ZenBook 3 is definitely the HP Spectre 13, which is even thinner and more affordable.
Retailing from RM5,999, the Spectre 13 costs RM2,000 less than the ZenBook 3. On top of that, it also offers three USB Type-C ports – instead of only one on the ZenBook 3 – an even slimmer chassis (10.4mm vs. 11.9mm), and a bigger 13.3-inch display. While the ZenBook 3 goes all out to look like the 12-inch MacBook, the Spectre 13 easily stands out from either machines with its unique and innovative design.
However, the ZenBook 3 is the better machine of the two in terms of hardware. The ZenBook 3 is more compact than the Spectre, it has more RAM at 16GB, a much, much bigger 1TB PCIe SSD (the Spectre has a 256GB PCIe NVMe SSD instead), as well as a newer Kaby Lake Core i7 processor. However, the Spectre 13’s keyboard is definitely better than the ZenBook 3’s shallow keys.
If we’re talking about a worthy competitor to the ZenBook 3, we cannot ignore one of the best ultraportables in the market now: the Dell XPS 13. The RM7,399 variant of the XPS 13 – which is RM600 less than the ZenBook 3 – features a Core i7-7500U processor paired with 16GB of RAM, much like Asus’ offering. However, the ZenBook 3 has a much bigger 1TB PCIe SSD – the XPS 13 only has a 512GB PCIe SSD – not to mention a more compact form factor.
Much of the additional heft goes to the much sharper, touch-enabled 13.3-inch 3200 x 1800 display, which thanks to the sexy InfinityEdge display with very minimal bezels, means the XPS 13 has the footprint of an 11-inch laptop. The XPS 13 also has a much more generous selection of ports, including two USB-A 3.0 ports, a USB-C port (with Thunderbolt 3 support), as well as an SD card reader.
And then there’s the new 12-inch MacBook, which – to put mildly – the ZenBook 3 has a lot of common with. In terms of pricing, the highest-end MacBook goes for only RM6,699, and it has a 512GB PCIe SSD, a sharper 12-inch 2304 x 1440 16:10 display, as well as similar dimensions to the ZenBook 3.
That being said, the 12-inch MacBook has disadvantages in various aspects. These include a slower Core m5 processor – which pales in comparison to the ZenBook 3’s much faster Core i7-7500U chip – as well as half the storage and RAM of the ZenBook 3. On top of that, macOS has a few limitations in comparison to Windows, although consumers in general have their own preferences.
The Asus ZenBook 3 is an impressive ultraportable, but Asus took things a little too far with it. There’s no doubt that the Taiwanese company drew inspiration from the 12-inch MacBook with the ZenBook 3, and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the company copied the MacBook right down to its flaws as well.
One of the main weaknesses of the 12-inch MacBook is its limited connectivity options, something that the ZenBook 3 suffers from as well. The single USB Type-C port is a hassle to deal with, and its shallow keyboard – again, the same weakness the MacBook has – will not be to everyone’s liking.
That is not to say the ZenBook 3 is a bad product. It’s sleek, portable, and most of all, quite an engineering marvel in terms of product design. But for its high asking price of RM7,999, I imagine not many will be willing to invest that kind of money for the ZenBook 3, although it does come with a huge – and fast – 1TB PCIe SSD, which is probably what drove up its price tag.
If you can live with the single USB Type-C port and shallow keyboard of the ZenBook 3, it’s worth a consideration or two; it’s also one of the most portable 12-inch Windows laptop in the market now. That being said, you’ll also have to pay a premium for the ZenBook 3, which is probably the toughest pill to swallow.