Asus ZenBook 13 is a really compact and tiny laptop.
It achieves that design without any compromise on keyboard.
It does not deliver in software experience or the trackpad, which is a new feature.
At IFA 2018, held in late August last year, all the major laptop makers, except Apple, introduced new devices. While Lenovo, HP, Dell had big presence at the show, there was a booth that had three unique products, but set away from most of the prying eyes. Yes, I am talking about the new ZenBook series. From my experience walking through the huge IFA show floor, I can say that you will be forgiven if you missed the Asus laptops at first. I did, until someone pointed me towards the right place. The laptops were important because they display the progress made in developing notebooks with really thin bezels and extremely compact form factor. If you are buying a laptop in 2019 then you must ask for a 12-inch form factor that houses a 13-inch display or a 13-inch form factor with a 14-inch display. The second thing is to make sure that these laptops fit inside a purse and not just backpack and the third thing to know is that they should be light enough that your back does not ache after carrying them for few hours.
The last thing to know is that these laptops feature the newest mobile platforms from Intel. The ZenBook series ticks all of the above boxes. While these new laptops were first introduced at IFA, the company has launched them in India only this week. It is not clear why the Taiwanese company took four months to bring them here but it is offering the ZenBook 13, ZenBook 14 and ZenBook 15 via Flipkart. Ahead of their launch, Asus sent the ZenBook 13 to BGR India for review and I must say they are good at a lot of things and bad at few that could a deal breaker. Here is our review.
Design and Display
The ZenBook 13 is unlike anything that we have seen in the market so far. Yes, the Dell XPS 13 models are stunning piece of engineering but the new ZenBook goes a step further with the idea of trimming bezels. When you place the XPS 13 and ZenBook 13 side by side, it feels as if both the laptops are fighting an ego war as to who has the thinnest bezels. The ZenBook 13, of course, comes out on top with its NanoEdge display but both are on par when it comes to overall design. The ZenBook 13, like most other laptops these days, is built from a single block of aluminum and the edges of the notebook are polished in such a way that they look too thin from the sides.
Asus has achieved its slim and lightweight form factor with the help of an unique hinge design called the ErgoLift hinge. Every time when you open the lid of the notebook, the hinge not only opens the display but also lifts the keyboard. Think of it like the easy lift suspension found on vehicles like Jeep and Land Rover. The display itself measures 13.3-inches diagonally but has narrow 2.5mm bezels around it, which minimizes the overall chassis area. The hinge raises in such a way that it hides the bottom side of the display bezel, giving a really clean and bezel-free viewing experience. The design is so stealthy that Asus kept the webcam at the top and not at the bottom or on the side.
The ZenBook 13 features a 13.3-inch display with Full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The display is so tiny that it is smaller than that of an A4 size paper. The display is bright with vibrant colors and the viewing angles are so accurate that it is a delight to consume content on the screen. But, I must say the screen on the Surface Laptop seemed much sharper to my eyes and the same is true for devices like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Dell XPS 13, which have high resolution displays and are expensive. With the ZenBook 13, Asus claims to have the lightest 13-inch laptop in the market, which weighs just 1.09 Kg. Honestly, if you put this laptop in you a sling bag then you will probably not even feel it and in the backpack, it adds little weight. The ZenBook 13 also offers good choice of ports with one USB 3.1 Type-C port, one USB Type-A port, one USB 2.0 port, one HDMI port, one microSD card slot and an audio combo jack. Only complain for me is that it still uses a barrel-type charging cable when it could have switched to USB-C charging.
Performance, Battery Life and Software
Our review unit came with 8th generation Intel Core i7-8565U processor, 8GB of RAM, 512GB PCIe SSD storage and NVIDIA GeForce MX150 graphics processor with 2GB of GDDR5 memory. This is the top end configuration that Asus offers in the ZenBook 13 lineup and is priced at Rs 99,990. As one would expect, the laptop performs like a charm. You can throw at complex office files, multiple applications, Microsoft Office, web browsing and anything else that would need a lot of compute memory. During the week spent using the laptop, I did not see any kind of slowdown or snaggy performance whatsoever. Since there is GeForce MX150 onboard, you can even play games like PUBG and Fortnite at the native resolution. The only problem that I could discern is that the fan runs a bit too high and after a point, the sound starts to annoy you.
The laptop also offers the best in-class battery life. During the time, I spent testing the device, which was mostly in the work scenario, the laptop managed to get me through the entire work day. My work day looks like having two dozen open tabs on Google Chrome, Spotify app streaming podcast in the background and Slack sending out messages at regular interval. I have seen laptops that give up at around five or six hours but the ZenBook 13 with its 3-cell 50Wh lithium-polymer battery. Asus says it is rated to last up to 14 hours but the most conservative figure is 8 hours.
The ZenBook 13 runs Windows 10 Home with April 2018 Creators Update or version 1803. The update comes with timeline, which allows you to look at the history of your activity and even resume work started on a Windows computer on Android or iOS device using Edge browser. It also brings Fluent design, Focus Assist, Nearby Sharing, ability to choose your GPU, ability to mute tabs in Edge (which not many use) and Windows Diagnostic Data Viewer. The one big takeaway of Windows 1803 is that it is not as buggy as Windows 1809 or October 2018 Update but Asus has not refrained from adding bloatware like an antivirus package that just stalls the overall good experience. Asus should really start shipping a really clean installation of Windows 10 and then let its customers choose whether you want an antivirus tool or not.
Keyboard and Trackpad
This is the interesting part of the ZenBook 13 and one that makes this laptop the lightest and unique in this segment. The ZenBook 13 seems so small that one would assume it comes with a shallow keyboard offering very little key travel but it actually ships with a proper keyboard offering a travel of 1.4mm. Asus achieved that with the help of ErgoLift hinge which lifts the keyboard part a little higher but there are also risks of getting Carpal Tunnel Syndrome using such a mechanism. The keyboard is quite pleasant to type and Asus has done good job with the actuation point making it less noisy. The only real problem with this keyboard is the shift and function key which are really small and placed on either side of the upper arrow key. It is such a bad implementation that everytime you select something and wish to move the arrow, you end up moving the cursor.
The trackpad comes with an unique feature but it also suffers from issues that most Asus laptops are known for. The unique element is called NumberPad, which is essentially the trackpad augmenting numerals on top of it. It is a clever way to offer you numeric keypad without having to place it on the keyboard and it works really well but the problem is with the trackpad drivers, which tend to enable or disable it when you just don’t plan to try that action. The feature is activated by by pressing an icon on the trackpad for a second but the trackpad believes that you are doing just that even when you are actually just scrolling through a webpage. Asus is among those OEMs which use Windows precision drivers but the trackpad experience is nowhere is close to what Microsoft offers on its Surface Laptop or Dell and Lenovo offer on XPS 13 and ThinkPad X1 Carbon. Asus can really do better.
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I must say this is the best ZenBook that Asus has ever made and it shows the promise of a laptop with really thin bezel, compact factor and one that won’t break your back. It delivers on areas like performance in a way that would force you to question if it is even possible on a form factor like this. It is also not the most expensive laptop in this price segment but that nagging software experience and a trackpad that forces you to get rid of numberpad design altogether makes me question if this is the right notebook for all consumers. While the Surface Laptop 2, which starts at Rs 91,999, does not offer the same configuration, it offers superior software experience. The ZenBook 13 has put me in a conundrum where I want to recommend it but also deep down think it has some issues that needs to be ironed out for a normal consumer experience.