The Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 has power equivalent to the £1499 MacBook Pro, but it'll cost you £600 less. And we've been sent the turbo-charged Core i7 version with 16GB RAM – which starts at £999.99 (£1299 RRP) online – which would push an equivalent MacBook config to over £2000. Because that's Apple maths.

Is the Asus UX434 as nice as a MacBook? No, but it is a practical buy as it handles games better than most. Asus also continues its experimentation with dynamic touchpads, this one offering in-pad apps. With this standout point of difference, is the ZenBook 14 an exciting and ideally priced laptop?

ScreenPad 2.0

  • 5.65-inch inter-trackpad display
  • Can be switched on / off
  • 2160 x 1080 pixels

Asus has really gone down the touchpad rabbit hole. It started playing seriously with its ScreenPad tech in 2018. It's a mouse pad with a display underneath.

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The Asus ZenBook 14 UX434's ScreenPad 2.0 is a response to the MacBook Touch Bar, the touchscreen display above the keyboard of all new MacBook Pros.

Asus ScreenPad is in one sense less contentious, as it has less of a cost sting attached. But it is also more contentious because it takes over the whole touchpad.

ScreenPad 2.0's homepage features shortcuts for a bunch of different apps. Most of these offer Microsoft Office's functions, but there's also a numpad, system-wide shortcuts for copying, pasting, or anything you can type without using the Fn keys.

The Spotify mini app is perhaps the most interesting add-on, as it's not really that "mini" at all. You can run a version of the Spotify UI in the UX434's pad, which is handy if you work on screen-filling spreadsheets with a mouse and still want instant control over your music.

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After living with the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 for a while, we can only conclude you'll probably want to switch it off if you use this as a genuine portable laptop. And, thankfully, you can. A tap of the F6 button switches between the standard and ScreenPad modes.

The pad is still a little less smooth than the average glass pad. This one is genuine glass, and matte-finish glass at that, but has less finger glide-friendly texturing than some, as that would ruin the clarity of the display.

Asus goes all-out on this small screen. It's a 5.65-inch display of 2160 x 1080 pixels, although by default it displays at 1000 x 500 pixels to help the scaling of its micro apps. It is like a decent budget phone screen jammed into a laptop keyboard surround.

ScreenPad does have a TouchPad mode, which lets you use it as a mouse rather than a second screen. But this still leaves you with the ScreenPad homepage dimmed underneath, and a "X" button in the corner begs you to start using it properly. This is not what we want when we're trying to file a 2000 word article and already have the distractions of Twitter and Facebook to contend with.

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Plug a mouse into the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 and it becomes more useful, if no less distracting. Our main ScreenPad 2.0 issues stem from it not fitting that well with how we use a laptop, either as a real roving computer, or attached to a keyboard and monitor. The ScreenPad either gets in the way or isn't near enough, but may be useful if you use a laptop with a mouse. A solution to a problem that doesn't really exist? Yes, probably. 

Design

  • Ports: 1x USB-C, 2x USB-A, 1x HDMI, 1x microSD
  • Dimensions: 319 x 199 x 16.9mm
  • Weight: 1.26kgs
  • 3.5mm jack

It's a good job the rest of the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 is solid enough to make it a sensible buy even if you won't use ScreenPad much. This is a highly portable two-tone blue and gold aluminium laptop. There are slimmer and lighter models, the HP Envy 13 being an obvious comparison. It's fractionally lighter and slimmer, but does not have anything like the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434's smart touchpad.

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There are three criticisms to level at Asus's outer hardware. First, the hinge doesn't let you fold the display all that far back. This is no huge issue, but is notable as this is a touchscreen. The more flexible, the better, when touch is involved. There's also some flex to the keyboard panel. It doesn't make typing feel spongy, but does lower the impression of quality. Last, and strangest, the Asus UX434 does not sit completely flat. The bottom-left corner rises off any table it sits on just slightly, so you end up pressing it down with a palm. Again, this simply doesn't leave you with a huge amount of confidence in its construction.

The Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 is otherwise wonderfully practical. There's a full spread of connectors on its sides, including a 10Gbps USB-C, two full-size USBs (one of which is a 3.1 standard, the other just a second-gen), HDMI and a microSD slot. That's everything you need, without annoying adapters. Asus also supplies an Ethernet adapter in the box, gratis.

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Its footprint is also petite for a laptop with a 14-inch screen, thanks to its very small screen borders. Mid-price slim border laptops like this often have a big blank space below the display, but here only the top surround is slightly larger, and it's not huge. Asus says the UX434 is 13 per cent smaller than the previous model, and there's still plenty of room to rest your palms.

Screen

  • 14-inch LED-backlit display
  • Full HD (1920 x 1080)
  • 60Hz refresh

The 14-inch Full HD LCD screen is also covered by a single pane of glass, for a slick look. The panel is solid, too, with Asus claiming it can display 100 per cent of sRGB colour space.

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You can tell a laptop with a weak screen as soon as you bring up the Start menu. Its red blocks will look undersaturated, the blue ones distinctly pastel-like. But here those tones look powerful and punchy.

Top brightness is good but not standard-setting, enough to let you use the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 outdoors comfortably. The size of the screen is also a good fit if you want a laptop to use for your day job (or at least some serious work) but also need something you can carry around all day.

Keyboard

The Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 keyboard is a good fit for the serious stuff too. Its keys have far more travel than some style laptops, most notably MacBooks. There's real feedback to each depress, and the keys are not too wobbly or remotely hollow-feeling. A three-stage backlight sits under the keyboard, for easier night typing.

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There's no numpad, like every laptop of this style, but you can always convert the touchpad into one if you want. That touchpad is the one drawback we keep coming back to, after several days of using the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 as our work PC. There are no major driver issues and the clicker depress has a satisfying clunk, but a top-quality conventional glass trackpad still feels better than this one.

Performance

  • Intel Core i5 or i7 processor options
  • Nvidia GeForce MX250 graphics
  • 8GB/16GB LPDDR3 SDRAM
  • 256GB-1TB SSD storage

Performance matches the ambition of the outer hardware. Our Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 has the Intel Core i7-8565U processor, 16GB RAM and a 1TB SSD. It is a powerhouse.

This is, annoyingly, slightly different to the specs of the machines you'll see sold online today. You can get the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 with this CPU and 16GB RAM, but a 512GB SSD. Or the Core i5 version with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD is £899. The last is the one we'd recommend.

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Both have an Nvidia MX 250, which provides a different side to the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434's performance. This is a graphics chipset. It's a puny one by the standards of gaming laptops, but adds enough power to let you play older AAA games comfortably. Trim the resolution down and you can even try more recent titles at a reasonable clip, like Resident Evil 2 and Dirt Rally 2.0. This isn't how they're meant to be played, but they will run better here than on a Dell XPS 13.

Alternatively, you can get the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 with one of Intel's 10th generation processors, for the same price, but without Nvidia MX 250 graphics. Judging by benchmark results published online, the dedicated graphics card is a much more meaningful improvement than the shift in CPU generation. Our Asus ZenBook 14 UX434's Intel Core i7-8565U CPU is already very powerful, capable of handling industry standard creative apps without blinking.

Battery life

However, battery size means this is not the best choice if you want a laptop that'll let you work all day away from the charger. It's a 50Wh cell, not a poor capacity and only slightly smaller than the Dell XPS 13's 52Wh. However, we found its real-world general use longevity is five to six hours rather than the more desirable eight or more.

We also set the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 to stream YouTube for a few hours both with and without the ScreenPad turned on, to see how much of a difference this 5.65-inch bonus screen makes.

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The battery level dipped by 16 per cent with the pad turned off after an hour, or 18 per cent with it switched on. ScreenPad 2.0 doesn't kill the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434's stamina, but does have a significant effect on it. And we didn't get close to Asus's claim of nine hours with the pad screen disabled.

The laptop uses a standard cylindrical adapter for recharging, rather than USB-C, but the power block is unusually small. This is quite a significant benefit if you travel with your laptop a lot.

Verdict

The Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 is a good laptop with a gnawing problem: its in-trackpad screen feels like an awkward appendage. We don't think ScreenPad 2.0 will be particularly useful for most people, and it impacts the feel of the touchpad, making it less appealing than the normal kind. We would also like to see better battery life in a laptop begging to be used as an ultraportable.

These issues are offset by plenty of positive aspects. Connectivity is wide-ranging, the design is compact given the screen size, the keyboard is responsive, and there's real performance versatility here. Sure, the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434 isn't a real gaming laptop but will let you play many surprisingly demanding games well if you cut back the graphics enough.

With a price starting at £899, you don't seem to pay extra for ScreenPad 2.0 either. But at the £1099 recommended price we're less keen. Get the right price point and it's a capable bargain though.

Also consider

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HP Envy 13

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A very sensible alternative to the Asus ZenBook 14 UX434, the HP Envy 13 is a little cheaper and has similar core hardware. And a standard trackpad. This is a plastic trackpad, which is disappointing, but we're not sure we'd pay the extra cash for a fancy display pad we don't use much.

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Apple MacBook Pro 13

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Touch Bar, come back, we forgive you. We may not be the biggest fans of Apple's Touch Bar but it is significantly more useful than ScreenPad 2.0. However, a MacBook Pro 13 specced-up to the same level as the £1200 Asus will cost you £2149. Ouch.

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Acer Swift 5

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Acer's Swift 5 offers better portability. It weighs under 1kg, and is cheaper too. However, this laptop is also less fun than the Asus as it only has baked-in Intel UHD 620 graphics. The games the Asus can scrape by playing if you tweak enough will run pretty badly on a Swift 5.