Home Computers ASUS ZenBook 3 – damned sexy (review)

ASUS ZenBook 3 – damned sexy (review)

ASUS calls it the world’s most prestigious laptop with unprecedented performance. They are almost right – it is the world’s sexiest laptop with great performance.

I had seen the Zenbook 3 UX390 at an evening launch function and, yes, it looked nice, light, and distinctive but it is not until you open the box, remove it from its elegant black faux leather sleeve that you really see the wow factor kick in. This is the stuff of electric dreams if you like waif-like notebooks – 11.9mm thin, 910g, and smaller than an A4 sheet of paper at 296 x 191mm.

And while beauty is skin deep, under that is an Intel Kaby Lake Core i7-7500U processor, 8 to 16GB RAM, 512GB or 1TB M.2 NVMe SSD, a 12.5”, 1920 x 1080 LED backlit panel, 4 x Harman/Kardon speakers, and a USB fast charger.

Increasingly a rarity in high-end notebooks is the absence of a touch screen. Now you, like many others, may not think that is necessary but if, like me, touch is a deal-breaker you will need to look at the ZenBook Flip UX360 or the yet to be released 13.3” ZenBook Flip S (UX370) – both have 360° hinges and touch screens and well exceed my expectations for quality and desirability.

First a segue. One of iTWire’s regular readers contacted me wanting a recommendation for a small, light, notebook. I offered several choices of 360° hinge or clamshell laptop, all touch, all with Core i5/i7 processors:

  • Microsoft Surface Book 13.3” (interesting, but out of his price bracket)
  • Microsoft Laptop (definite contender)
  • HP x360 Spectre 13 (definite contender)
  • Lenovo Yoga 720 13” (he had had issues with Lenovo before so it was a long shot)
  • Dell XPS 13 (maybe)
  • ASUS ZenBook Flip or wait for the ZenBook Flip S

Perhaps, he said, he had too many options. So, we arbitrarily narrowed it down to the HP, Dell, Asus.

And like a dog with three bones, he drew up an Excel spreadsheet, compared specs (they were all too close for comfort) and spent copious time in major retailers looking at them all. In the end he bought the ZenBook 3, a non-touch screen, purely on instinct – it was lovely. Who said the head should rule the heart?

The segue is an important lesson. There are so many choices that often you buy the one that wows you — the ZenBook 3 — hell the whole ZenBook range with its beautiful dark spun alloy and gold trim finish is wow.

In the box – ASUS ZenBook 3 UX390UA

  • ZenBook 3, i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SATA3, M.2 SSD
  • A faux leather sleeve in the same spun finish
  • A USB-C fast charger 5V/2A, 12V/2A and 20V/2.25A (approx. 10-45W)
  • A USB-C to HDMI, USB-A 3.0 and USB-C for passthrough charging

 ASUS ZenBook 3 header

I think I have spent enough time on first impressions – wow it is beautiful.

Specifications

Model

ASUS UX390UA

Screen

12.5”, 1920 x 1080, IPS LED Backlit, 178° viewing angle
Gorilla Glass 4
Matte screen – not overly reflective
82% screen to body ratio (thin 7.6mm side bezels)
1000:1 contrast
300 nits (not the best in direct sunlight)
135° tilt (could be greater but not a deal breaker)
ASUS Tru2Life video enhancement for up to 2x better video display

Processor

Intel Core i7-7500U
There are some parallel imports with i5

GPU

Intel HD Graphics 620

RAM

Base model 8GB LPDDR3 2133MHz (go for 16GB if you can get it)

SSD

512GB SATA3, M.2 NVMe – 3x faster than standard SSD.
Partitioned into OS (C:) and (D:) – wasteful
1TB option

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi AC Intel AC8260 dual band, 2 x 2 MIMO
Theoretical speed 867Mbps
Actual speed 234-540 on D-Link AC5300 router at 20 metres – see later
Would have achieved more with if adaptor supported MU-MIMO

Bluetooth

4.1

USB-C

1 x USB-C Gen 1

Keyboard

Fill-sized, gold letter, backlit
.8mm throw
Oversize trackpad and fingerprint reader

Audio

2 x harman/kardon upwards-firing tuned, 5 magnet speakers
2 x harman/kardon downwards-firing
4-channel Smart amp
Realtek driver
Array (2) mics
3.5mm audio combo connector
720p front facing web camera

Battery

40WHr claimed for up to 9 hours
45W fast charger (also powers Dongle USB-A)
Fast charge 60% in 49 minutes

Dimension
Weight

296 x 191 x 11.9 mm
910g

OS

Windows 10 Pro

Colours

Rose Gold, Quartz Grey, Royal Blue (more a black blue) spun finish aerospace-grade alloy – unibody single block of milled metal

What it has not got

Windows Hello via Fingerprint, not web camera
USB-A full size or HDMI (uses dongle supplied)
Touchscreen

Performance

The Intel Core i7-7500U, 2.7/3.5GHz, two-core/four-thread processor is a low-voltage processor for ultralight laptops and tablets. It is not the desktop “powerhouse” i7 that you expect with a Passmark of 5244 – the desktop versions will give from two to four times the grunt.

I only mention that because when people see Core i7 they expect a V8 under the bonnet. In general office use — Word, Excel, Outlook, YouTube, movies, etc — it was fine with no lag despite a dozen or so open apps but I suspect that was more to do with the 16GB of RAM on the review model.

The integrated Intel 620 Graphics will support a 4K external monitor or with the right dock, dual monitors and more. It is not designed to play more than the typical browser-based games.

The SSD is an NVMe model – as fast as you can get. On a read/write test it managed 1000MB/s – a 2GB file in 20 seconds! Externally copying to a Samsung T3 SSD it achieved and an average of 150MB/s.

USB-C is Gen 1 – 5Gbps and it is disappointing that it is not Gen 2 (10MBps) or Gen 3 Thunderbolt (40Mbps). Still it is an improvement over USB-A 3.0 at 480Mbps and will suit all.

Wi-Fi AC speed was initially disappointing sitting more often sub 100Mbps yet the Intel AC8260 adapter is capable of 867Mbps. I test all devices on a test bed approx. 20 metres (through a cement floor) from a D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 tri-band router.

But following a firmware update, it jumped up to between 234-540Mbps – more like it. This issue has been identified on various AC8260 user forums.

Screen

The screen is excellent – crisp, and clear colours. ASUS claims it reaches 72% of NTSC – that is a measurement for US buyers and means you can see 72% of NTSC colours. According to LifeWire it is equal to 100% sRGB or 76% AdobeRGB. As good as it gets for an IPS screen and I like the thinner bezels.

Like all Intel HD Graphics controlled screens it defaults to maximum battery saving and that means less than half the nits making it look dull. It is a good idea to open the driver and up the brightness, a tad – makes a huge difference to the screen.

It has a 300-nit brightness that while good for office use can be a bit washed out in direct sunlight.

Keyboard/trackpad

A shallow throw .8mm is normally too little to achieve maximum speed – indeed, initially I lost about 30% of my normal touch-typing speed. That improved after a couple of days, but it is still a shallow throw keyboard. Despite that, it is a pleasure to use and is very responsive.

The glass touchpad is Microsoft certified and oversized which is great as it reduces the need for a mouse. On occasion, I swiped the fingerprint reader (top right) and it interrupted the swipe – no deal-breaker and it is nice to have a fingerprint reader, although it is at the expense of Windows Hello facial recognition.

ASUS Zenbook 3 kyboard

Sound/camera/mics

While it boasts four Harman/Kardon tuned, 5-magnet speakers and a four-channel smart amp it is not earth-shatteringly loud. It gives a clear balanced signature (bass boosted, mids recessed, treble boosted) and this carries over to Bluetooth and 3.5mm jack (aux) when used with external devices. Four speakers help bass response and treble but it lacks the “room filling” volume for anything other than personal use.

ASUS ZenBook 32 sound

The webcam is a standard 720p but it has a very narrow field of view – it is fine for one-on-one Skype. The two array microphones, do their job well in Skype and Cortana.

Battery

ASUS claims nine hours of battery life.

In office use, I got around seven hours and in an HD video loop at 50% brightness, I got more than eight hours. Other tests have reported similar findings with the worst being 3 hours and 15 minutes with absolutely everything maxed out – 100% screen, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, HD video etc.

Fast charge delivers as promised 60% in 40 minutes but 100% took nearly two hours.

Heat

While the Kaby Lake is an energy sipper it does get hot under load. In normal use, it sat around 30° on the base but in extreme testing — video loop — it reached over 40°. That is a little uncomfortable on one's lap.

I could not test CPU throttling, but I suspect that it caps GHz speed to control heat when the minuscule fan cannot remove it.

Pros

  • Navy Blue and Gold is drop dead sexy.
  • Beautiful, well built, exudes quality.
  • Extreme portability - 910g is light and it is very compact – smaller than an A4 footprint and 11.9mm thick.
  • Despite the .8mm key throw it is a good keyboard and an excellent, accurate trackpad.
  • Four speakers help bass response and treble but lack the volume for anything other than personal use.
  • Excellent HD screen – but higher res screens are on offer elsewhere if you need it.
  • Core i7-7500 beats the hell out of Core M processor equipped notebooks.

Cons

  • Not touch – not a deal breaker if you are good with that.
  • No Thunderbolt – later models will have this.
  • USB-C Gen 1 – 5Gpbs but not a deal breaker if you are a normal user.
  • Single USB-C port means don’t lose the dongle supplied.

Summary

I used it over a period of two weeks as a travel notebook. On that score, with the included dongle and on looks alone, it is a 10 out of 10. It was hard to give back and it quickly cured my apparent need for a touch screen. I love the fast charge when travelling.

As a “productive” notebook, the shallow throw loses a point – good but not the best travel keyboard for productivity.

Would I buy it?

Yes, for absolute portability. It is a very sexy ZenBook from a company that tries hard to please and has good local Australian support. It is unique! I now understand why the iTWire reader bought this “wildcard”.

But for me, no, as I am so used to touch that I would probably choose between the new soon to be released ZenBook UX370 Flip S or the very interesting HP x2 or x360 Spectre. Then again, the Dell XPS 13 (also clamshell and 360° hinge models) was a knockout too (iTWire review here).

The point is that there is a lot of choice at present and ASUS deserves to be on the list – you will be pleasantly surprised.

 Asus ZenBook 3 screens

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!