(Pocket-lint) - Where Apple goes, others follow. The Asus ZenBook 3 is this effect in action, taking the much-loved ZenBook design, removing most of the ports and squashing down the keyboard.
Not all of the design changes work that well, but this little laptop is at least incredibly light. And not ridiculously expensive either, for something this striking. The Asus ZenBook 3 starts at £1,099 and jumps to £1,499 if you need 16GB RAM, a 512GB SSD and a Core i7 CPU.
Is the ZenBook worth it or is it a step behind its other Windows competitors?
Asus ZenBook 3 review: Design
- Aluminium shell, 12mm thick
- 910g weight (official)
- Single USB-C for connection and charging
The best way to understand what's special about the Asus ZenBook 3 is to pick it up. This laptop is very light – just 904g according to our scales.
Given it's large enough to work on all day without getting wrist cramp, that's a big win. The ZenBook 3 is also extremely thin, at just 12mm thick. Carrying this laptop around is such a breeze, it feels like it might float if you drop the thing. Pro tip: it won't.
The whole laptop shell is made of aluminium, and our review sample has a light golden finish. It's a looker, and also comes in a dark blue finish.
Like other ZenBooks, there's a texture of concentric circles brushed into the lid. Asus doesn't want this to look like "just another" Ultrabook, but the design is also less Marmite-like than the HP Spectre, which looks like it's longing for the catwalk.
The ZenBook is similar to the 12-inch MacBook in this sense. It also has similarly limited connectivity: with just one USB-C port (which is also used to charge) and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
There are no full-size USB ports and no memory card slot. If you don't use camera and don't like to plug-in a mouse, maybe it's not a big deal. But it would be for us.
You can of course buy an adapter, but as there's just one socket it's blocked while charging anyway.
Asus ZenBook 3 review: Keyboard and trackpad
- Fingerprint scanner embedded into trackpad
- Shallow keys with backlight
- Textured glass pad surface
What you get in exchange is a little fingerprint scanner built into the trackpad. This is used by a Windows 10 feature called Hello, letting you login with a finger rather than a password. It's a neat idea, but we've already been spoiled by the many fantastic smartphone finger scanners, and this one just isn't as fast or reliable.
The other MacBook-ification element of the Asus ZenBook 3 is the keyboard. It's shallower than most, although thankfully not quite as wafer-thin as the 12-inch MacBook's.
We still prefer a little more depth to our laptop keyboards, although we probably type away more than some of you. The ZenBook 3 keyboard has a light feel, and while it tries to fit some resistance into its shallow action, the tactile feedback of pressing a button isn't quite clear enough.
It does have a great backlight, though, which can be set to three brightness levels. It needn't be too glaring if, for some reason, you need to work in a pitch-black room. Late-night horror gaming maybe?
After a day or two, we got used to the keyboard. The trackpad is a different case, though. It has a top-quality glassy surface, and is of a decent size given the Asus ZenBook 3 is a diminutive little thing. But the clicker is bad. You don't feel the click as you press down, but as you lift your finger up. It feels odd; kind of spongy.
The trackpad is also tricky to press near the top, where pads with built-in buttons like this normally let you press any part to fire off a click. It's an annoying pad.
Asus ZenBook 3 review: Display
- 12.5-inch Full HD IPS panel with 1000:1 contrast
- Non-touch display with glossy surface
- Powerful backlight
Thankfully it's the one blunder in the Asus ZenBook 3's design. Its screen is great, for example. The surrounds are slim - little space is wasted - the colour really pops and contrast is very good.
We'd rather watch a film on a big TV, but unless you have a great one it might actually look better on the ZenBook.
You can also tweak the display a bit, too, by using an app called Splendid. Asus bungs this into its phones and tablets, where it lets you switch to an eye-strain-reducing ultra-warm mode, a cooler "vivid" one, or pick the colour temperature of your choice with a slider. It's not pro-grade control like we saw in the Dell XPS 15, but is nice to have.
As ZenBooks go, this is one of the finer examples we've seen, although it's not the sharpest. Full HD resolution looks good from the sort of distance you'll actually use the laptop from, but get closer and you can see those pixels without squinting. With 2017 laptop prices considered, though, a lot of £1,000-ish laptops have 1080p screens rather than QHD or 4K ones.
As much as we like the colour and contrast, it might actually be the ZenBook 3's fab brightness that's the most useful screen element. A glassy top layer makes the display reflective, but the backlight has the intensity to deal with bright days working outdoors. If the weather was better, we might be typing every review outside on the ZenBook.
It won't replace a tablet, though. There's no touchscreen, and the hinge doesn't have the kind of flexibility of a hybrid either. These aren't really compromises, but choices made by Asus. For all its lightness and adoption of some very recent design trends, the ZenBook 3 is a "proper laptop" first.
Asus ZenBook 3 review: Performance
- Intel Core i5 and i7 U-series CPU options
- Up to 512GB SSD
- Intel HD 620 GPU - no discrete graphics card options
The core spec is the best proof of this. Rather than using an ultra-low power chipset, the ZenBook 3 has an Intel Core i7-7500U. It's a dual-core CPU rather than a quad-core desktop-replacer, but is just about the most powerful CPU you could fit into a laptop this slim right now.
It's very fast for normal day-to-day tasks, thanks also to the pep of the 512GB SSD in our review model. It can write data at over 1400MB/s - speedy, right? That said, we expect the lower-end version of the ZenBook 3, which has a Core i5 CPU, will feel similar for light duties.
This i7 version has a higher clock speed, a faster Turbo mode and a smidge more power in its GPU, the Intel HD 620.
You get good productivity power, and we'd happily edit giant photos on this machine (well, after getting annoyed at the lack of SD memory card slot).
But can it play games? Sort of. It has more gaming power than a 12-inch MacBook, and there are loads more games for Windows than Mac OS too, but it's not ideal. New top-tier titles are a bust so we tried Skyrim instead. Without the AC adapter plugged-in, you can comfortably play the game at "low" settings, 1080p resolution. Anything higher is a chug-fest. Plug in the power supply and you can creep up to "medium" settings without ruining the fun. In other words, it can hack PS3-grade games if you fiddle about with the settings, but not PS4-grade ones.
Put under pressure for a few minutes, the ZenBook 3 starts giving out an obvious whir as the fans ramp up to deal with the heat, but it's a fairly innocuous noise – not as pervasive as the Lenovo Yoga Book 910. That's the worry with ultra-slim laptops: using fans with tiny diameters can mean they sound like a swarm of wasps.
Asus ZenBook 3 review: Battery life and speakers
- Charged over USB-C
- 7 hours battery life with normal use
- Dual speakers sit above the keyboard
The other worry is that the battery life will have been sacrificed for the sake of a few grams, or a millimetre of thickness. You'll get much better stamina out of the Dell XPS 13, but the ZenBook 3's stamina isn't too bad.
Given light tasks, like our daily use of browsing and writing, it'll last almost dead on seven hours. That's a way below Asus's claim of up to nine hours' use, and isn't quite enough to get us through a full day's work. If you spend half your time skipping between meetings rather than staring into an LCD screen, maybe you'll have more luck.
To end on a high note, the Asus ZenBook 3's speakers are surprisingly good given how thin this laptop is. There's a hint of bass, good treble clarity and enough volume to compete with the fan noise. A slightly affected edge to the sound tells us there's probably some clever software in the background designed to increased loudness.
The Asus ZenBook 3 is one of the slimmest, lightest, most like-a-MacBook-but-not-a-MacBook Windows laptops you'll find.
Its highlights, other than its extreme portability, are its strong screen and use of proper laptop processors rather ones that seem designed to run off watch batteries.
Parts of the concept are great, but the practical realities of using the laptop day-to-day are less impressive. The trackpad is the worst part, given its irritatingly spongy feel, while the fingerprint scanner isn't that effective. Add the single port limitation and high price considering what the competition offer and there's room for improvement – despite the striking looks and apparent positives.
Alternatives to consider…
Apple MacBook (12-inch)
The inspiration for some of the choices made in the ZenBook 3, the 12-inch MacBook has a very shallow keyboard and a single USB-C port. However, its trackpad is far better than Asus's. It's a less powerful laptop, as it uses Intel's M-series processors rather than U-series ones (but that means less noise). Spec-for-spec, the MacBook is significantly more expensive, but less annoying to use day-to-day.
Read the full review: MacBook (2016) review: Is port-free still the future?
Dell XPS 13
Dell hasn't subscribed to the Apple way of doing things in the way Asus has. The Dell XPS 13 is a little heavier and thicker than the ZenBook, but gets you some serious benefits in the deal. Its battery life is a lot better for light tasks and the keyboard is nicer. This laptop has a slightly bigger screen too, although thanks to Dell's InfinityEdge screen tech, its footprint is only a few millimetres wider.
Read the full review: Dell XPS 13 review: To infinity and beyond