Updated: May 17
1) Powerful Core i7 processor in a slim, portable package with an excellent touchpad. A helpful USB-C mini-dock is included.
The Asus ZenBook 3 mimics many of the best features of Apple’s 12-inch MacBook, but in a Windows version with a more powerful processor.
When is a MacBook not a MacBook? There’s a long history of PC makers selling computers that have a striking resemblance to one of Apple’s laptops. Now there’s a new contender for most MacBook-like, called the Asus ZenBook 3. It’s a close-to-total clone, at least on the outside. But under the aluminum chassis, this ambitious, slim laptop trades midtier Intel Core M processors for a low-voltage Core i7 CPU.
But, the ZenBook 3 also shares the MacBook’s weaknesses, specifically a very shallow keyboard that’s not conducive to long-form typing, and an extremely limited set of connection options, which consists of a single USB-C port and a headphone jack (no one is taking the headphone jacks out of laptops, yet).
This might seem like too small a laptop, with too many compromises, to be an effective tool for either work or leisure, but the design grows on you. In the case of the 12-inch MacBook, I decided after a year of on-and-off use that it was actually one of my favorite laptops to use, because of its extreme portability and overall ease of use.
The same could be said of the ZenBook 3, but with a few important caveats. This Windows version of essentially the same design is missing a few advantages that the Apple version has. The touchpad, while good by ultraportable Windows laptop standards, can’t come close to the responsiveness and multitouch gesture integration of any MacBook. That’s the home-field advantage Apple has in closely designing both the computer hardware and computer operating system, including the just-released MacOS Sierra.
The second advantage Apple has is a singular focus on battery life, and the current version of the 12-inch MacBook (that system’s second iteration) runs about 3.5 hours longer per charge than the ZenBook 3. That’s an important consideration when toting around a superslim laptop that might very well travel with you all day long for start-and-stop sessions at meetings, in coffee shops or on airplanes.
This configuration of the ZenBook 3 has a low-voltage Intel Core i7-7500 processor, along with 16GB of RAM and a sizable 512GB of PCIe SSD storage. That configuration, when it’s available later this fall, should cost $1,600 in the US. International Asus configurations often differ slightly, but that works out to £1,229 or AU$2,085. A better bang for your buck may be the $1,100 configuration (£845, AU$1,433), with a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.
ZenBook 3 Sneak Peak:
Price as reviewed: $1,600
Display size/resolution: 12.5-inch 1,920 x 1,080 screen
PC CPU: 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U
PC Memory: 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz
Graphics: 128MB Intel HD Graphics 620
Storage: 512GB SSD
Networking: 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system: Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)
The one spec that you can’t change, and one of the ZenBook 3’s main letdowns, is the standard 1,920×1,080 screen resolution, which is the only option available on this 12.5-inch non-touch display. Premium laptops, even with smaller sub-13-inch screens often hit 2,560×1,440 or higher.
There’s a good case to be made for the very similarly configured Razer Blade Stealth, another slim laptop with a 12.5-inch screen. The newly refreshed Blade Stealth (full review coming soon) has the same Core i7-7500 CPU, and can be configured with similar RAM and hard drive specs. But, its display is a 2,560×1,440 touch screen, and our test configuration (Core i7/16GB RAM/256GB SSD) is $1,250 in the US. My biggest knock against that system is the dated-looking extrawide bezel surrounding the screen.
Of course, you could also just get a 12-inch MacBook, starting at $1,300 (£1,050 and AU$1,800). It’s a fun, fast-feeling little computer, with a higher-res screen and new MacOS features such as Siri and a universal clipboard that shares content between the laptop and an iPhone. But, its Core m-series CPU isn’t as powerful, and it tops out at 8GB of RAM, rather than the 16GB found here.
Attack of the clones:
This ZenBook is a deep blue color, with a circular brushed pattern on the back of the lid (the lower-spec version is gray). These things help differentiate it from the MacBook, but color and pattern aside, they could be separated-at-birth twins. The hinge on the ZenBook 3 feels a little tighter, and it’s actually a hair thinner and lighter, but you could hold them both in your hand and not be able to discern a difference.
It’s already been pointed out that Apple has a natural advantage when it comes to building around exclusive hardware and operating system synergy. That remains true, but the Asus has managed to steal at least a little of that magic pixie dust, because the touchpad on the ZenBook 3 is about as predictable and responsive as any I’ve tried on a Windows laptop. The two-finger scroll is as smooth as on a Mac (although the inertial movement feels a bit off) and even the Mac-like three-finger swipe movement to show all open windows works as well as on the MacBook.
The keyboard, like Apple’s, is backlit but shallow, with wide, flat-topped island-style keys going nearly to the edge of the chassis. The keeps are a bit deeper than on the MacBook, but also have more of a plastic, clacky feel. This isn’t a whisper-quiet keyboard.
Asus is one of the last holdouts shipping systems with tons of extra preloaded software, some marginally useful, some bloatware.
Evernote, Dropbox, TripAdvisor and others all get valuable desktop or start menu real estate, and system pop-ups keep reminding you to sign up and take advantage of a whopping 5GB of free Asus cloud-based storage (5 gigs, guys? Really, you shouldn’t have). One extra that’s at least worth trying out is the awkwardly named Asus Eye Care Switcher. It switches the screen to a mode that reduces blue light emissions to reduce eyestrain.
While the single USB-C port (plus headphone jack) is very minimalist, kudos to Asus for including a mini-dock in the box. This small unit connects to that lone USB-C port and offers an HDMI out, USB-A port, and another USB-C for charging while you’re using the dock.
Faster than a speeding MacBook:
Performance was excellent, as one would expect from a Core i7 laptop that costs more than $1,500. There’s not a ton of daylight between this and Razer Blade Stealth in, terms of application performance, and both are great for websurfing, HD video playback, basic photo and video editing and general office tasks, but neither is suited for games.
Battery life gets a solid B, at 6:45 in our online streaming video battery drain test. The Razer Blade Stealth scored about 10 minutes better, making this yet another area those two systems are essentially tied in. However, this is where that Apple magic comes in, and the 2016 version of the 12-inch MacBook ran for 10:33 on the same test.
For anyone longing for the extreme portability and ease of use of Apple’s 12-inch MacBook, but in a Windows-friendly version, the Asus ZenBook 3 is essentially that. It has a faster processor, and the included mini-dock is a generous extra, at least compared to Apple’s $79 version.
The case versus the new version of the Razer Blade Stealth is a trickier one to make. The ZenBook 3 is thinner and lighter, and it doesn’t have the massive screen bezel that mars the Stealth’s design. But it’s also more expensive for the same specs and performance, while the Razer has a higher-resolution screen that also offers touch. That’s the toss-up — you’ll have to choose between portability and design versus features and price.
Quick System Configurations Within The Same Line-up.
Asus ZenBook 3 UX390U: Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 512GB SSD
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016): Apple El Capitan OSX 10.11.4; 1.2GHz Intel Core m5-6Y54; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 515; 512GB SSD
Razer Blade Stealth (2016): Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (Gold Edition): Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2HGz Intel Core i7-6560U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel Iris Graphics 540; 256GB SSD
HP Spectre: Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5HGz Intel Core i7-6500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD.