An ALMOST Perfect Ryzen Ultrabook – ASUS ZenBook 14 Review
It’s been a really long time since we have taken a look at a thin-and-light notebook. The last one that I remember checking out was the Dell XPS 13, which a fantastic display, amazing build quality, and the battery life was also really impressive. The performance was also pretty good, which combined to make it an all-round solid ultrabook, but it did come at a premium. It started at $1,800 USD, which means that it was an expensive laptop outside the reach of many buyers.
However, what if I told you if there was an AMD-based notebook that has almost the same build quality as the XPS 13, a bigger display, better battery life, and can run circles around the XPS 13. Oh, and what if I told you you could buy almost two of these devices for the same price as the Intel-based notebook? Well, it’s true, and I present to you the ASUS Zenbook 14. It has some really good features that might make it one of the best ultrabooks in that category. With that being said, I do have some frustrations with it as well.
Let’s start off by talking about the Zenbook 14’s lineup, because in some instances you might have trouble finding the exact same spec or a spec that fits your needs. If you look at the other system integrators like Dell, HP, and Lenovo, they offer their notebooks directly on their website, but ASUS relies solely on retail partners like Newegg or Best Buy. And in some cases those retailers do offer different configurations and specs. The Zenbook that I have is listed as the UM425IA, but watch out since there is also a UX425JA, which has the same design but uses Intel’s Ice Lake CPUs and it’s generally a bit more expensive. Trust me, after watching this review you will probably want to avoid that model.
Models & Price
Without of the way, let’s see what makes this thing tick. the version that I have has an 8-core/16thread Ryzen 4700U, 16GB of dual-channel LPDDR4x memory operating at DDR4-3733, a 1TB NVMe SSD. And if 14-inch IPS display with a peak brightness of 250 nits. There is also a 400-nit screen option, that one uses 1W of power, but we didn’t get that one. Color options are available in Pine Grey or Lilac Mist. Pricing is a little bit all over the place right now, but technically you should be able to find it for $900 USD/€900 EUR/$1,100 CAD. This is the highest-end spec available, but if it’s too expensive for you there are other options going down to a Ryzen 5 4500U, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a 250 nit display for under $600 USD.
Design & Accessories
In terms of size, like with all ultrabooks, the Zenbook 14 is literally focused on portability before anything else, but it does have a full 14-inch display crammed into a body that is no bigger than most 13-inch laptops. It’s also super thin at just 0.6 inches and it weighs between 2.5-2.7 lbs. The wall adapter for the Zenbook is pretty straightforward, but the charging cable is only 78 inches or 198 centimeters long, which is a lot shorter than notebooks with a power brick-style setup. Luckily, the Zenbook can accept a charge from any 65W or higher USB charger, and it can fast charge up to 60% in less than 50 minutes, which is pretty cool.
One of the first things that really jumped out to me was the build quality. Honestly, the days of less expensive notebooks feeling cheap are mostly gone, and this notebook is proof of that. Now yes, most of the chassis is plastic except for the lid, which has a spun metal finish, but everything else feels super sturdy. The metal lid does attract a lot of fingerprints, and it’s definitely really hard to keep clean. Also the bottom panel isn’t exactly flush, I have noticed a few spots here and there that don’t go flush to the edge. Other than that this is a really well built notebook for the price.
I really liked the hinge mechanism ASUS has used here, because it elevates the entire surface to a slight angle, which makes typing a lot more natural and comfortable. The display is actually stabilized by your work surface, so there is very little wobble as you are working on the laptop. Also ASUS has implemented rubber pads at the bottom, so it doesn’t really slide off as you are working on the laptop.
Speaking of the display, it’s matte so reflections won’t be an issue. As I mentioned earlier, I have the 250-nit version, and I have to say ASUS nailed it in the colour accuracy department with a 97% sRGB, along with respectable Adobe RGB and DCI-P3 numbers. In my test it also output 285 nits, so it’s a bit brighter than ASUS claimed spec. Like I said, for a $900 ultrabook these are some really good numbers.
Webcam & Speakers
This is the webcam test, and I’m pretty surprised by the video quality. It’s actually significantly better than the XPS 13 that I checked out recently. Also the microphone sounds really good, so you shouldn’t have an issue with Skype meetings or just casual business meetings. You can easily use this notebook for that, so really good job ASUS. The speakers are bottom facing, and they are pretty good, but not as good as the XPS 13. However, honestly, for casual media consumption – just watching YouTube videos here and there – this thing should get the job done just fine.
For I/O, ASUS has done a pretty good job, but you will notice what could be a huge omission for some of you. On the left-hand side, there is a full-sized HDMI output and two USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C connections, either one of which can be used to charge the laptop. On the right-hand side, there is a USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A port, which is nice to have since some ultrabooks like the XPS 13 have gone all-in with USB Type-C. There is also a microSD card reader.
Now were you able to find the missing connector? The most crucial connector that we all love. That’s right, there is no 3.5mm headphone jack. This is the first notebook that I have come across that does not have a 3.5mm connector. Listen, I get that some people have transitioned to wireless headphones and according to ASUS and some of the studies they have conducted people end up using wireless headphones with their notebooks. However, I am not a fan of this elimination, because I constantly use headphones when I’m using a laptop, so this to me is just bad. Now some models do include an optional USB-C to 3.5mm adapter that also has a built-in ESS Sabre DAC, but that is just another dongle to lose. There is also a USB-A to LAN adapter as well. Some versions do come with a travel case, which is a really nice addition. Make sure that all these accessories are included in the package when you pick this up.
The keyboard has an edge-to-edge design, and it is backlit, but only in white. Lighting is well done on this notebook, and you can adjust the output with three brightness options. The keys themselves are pretty good, they have a very short throw which means it is going to have little tactile feedback. Now it is definitely better than some of the other ultrabooks that I have tested, so for instance it is superior than the Blade 15 or even my Blade Stealth ultrabook.
The trackpad is really good, ASUS has implemented a glass surface so finger navigation is absolutely smooth. The primary left and right buttons are also integrated and they are nice and tactile. Honestly, I was surprised by the trackpad, especially on a notebook that costs almost $900. I also love the integration of the numpad. If you press the button in the top right corner of the trackpad long enough it will turn on, and it really comes in handy when you need to do some quick calculations. It almost feels like you have a full-size keyboard once you get used to it. There is also a brightness adjustment when you hold the button in the top left corner. You can still use the trackpad since the software does really well at predicting when you are trying to use the numpad.
As for upgradeability, well the first thing you need to know is that getting inside this notebook is a bit of a hassle. You need to remove the two rubber feet and then remove the screws underneath that. There is not all that much going on inside since the LPDDR4x is soldered onto the motherboard, but it is pretty evident that ASUS didn’t really have the space to put an audio jack anywhere since a ton of space is taken up by that massive 67Wh battery. Personally, I would cut out the microSD card slot, but let me know what you think. The one thing that you can upgrade is the Intel 660P SSD, but I’m not sure why you would want to since it’s a decent size at 1TB and has pretty good read and write speeds.
The battery is something really impressive about this laptop. Usually we see 67Wh batteries on gaming notebooks, but here it is attached to a super efficient thin-and-light notebook. And guess what that means? Yeah, literally all day battery life while browsing the web or running basic productivity suites. But then when the system is put under a constant load, battery life drops to a pretty normal rate and that is probably due to the 8-core processor chewing its way through power. You actually tend to see this on a lot of Ryzen 4000 series notebooks. They have awesome power gating during less demanding scenarios, but the raw number of cores means a bit less battery life when they are under higher load levels.
Thermals are really well managed during load as well, at least on the top. Most of the heat is sent out the back and the only real hotspot is mostly pushed away from the normal typing zone. But on the bottom there is a pretty worrying amount of heat directed right towards your lap, so something to keep in mind. Usually we can overlook 40°C to 45°C, but 50°C+ means that I would not use this on my lap for any intensive workloads. In terms of acoustic performance, this notebook is pretty much dead silent under idle scenarios. The fans are either completely turned off or they are running at super low RPMs. Even during heavy load gaming scenarios the noise level is pretty respectable.
Before I get into performance I do want to talk about some of the issues that I had with this laptop. The first thing has to do with its sleep/wake functionality. When I close the lid and open it back up, it either opens up and then it just freezes with a blue screen. The mouse doesn’t work and you have to basically do a hard reset. In some cases it just wouldn’t go to sleep. In other cases, as soon as I opened the lid the system just BSODs and then reboots. All of this was super frustrating. Also, the other thing that I noticed is as I was testing the webcam and went back to play back the footage I started experiencing a loud super odd noise. We did update the drivers and the BIOS to the latest version, but we still ended up experiencing these issues. We did talk to other viewers who had the same sample and they didn’t seem to have any of these issues, so I think it’s just our sample. If you end up having these issues just make sure you at least try to update the drivers through the MyASUS app. I just thought this was worth mentioning, because honestly it was pretty frustrating using this laptop and experiencing a bunch of issues.
Temperatures & Clock Speeds over Time
Time to move onto performance and clock speeds over time. Just to recap, the Ryzen 4700U is rated to run at a base clock of 2.1GHz and boost up to 4.1GHz. It has a 15W TDP rating though it can be configured from 10W to 25W depending on the notebook design. In this case, the Zenbook starts off really strong, which would be beneficial for a shorter test, but over the long run its clock speeds gradually reduced even in the highest performance mode. After a few minutes they leveled about to about 2.15GHz, while CPU temps were below 70°C. By the end of the test, the 4700U was sucking down just 13W. Now I guess you are wondering why the CPU was running at its base clock, even though temperatures were low. Well in thin-and-light notebooks it’s all about managing surface temperatures. CPU thermals are kept low so heat doesn’t make its way into the chassis and then into the keyboard area or your lap.
As expected, the performance of the 4700U was excellent. It literally destroyed the Intel Ice Lake CPUs in basic productivity and editing tasks. Even in lightly threaded apps like Excel, the AMD system performed really well. Then we get to two applications where I expected AMD to shine, and it didn’t. The first is Adobe Premiere because ever since the 14.2 update hardware acceleration is supposed to be enabled for Radeon GPUs. I have seen it do amazing things on the 4000H series, but that didn’t happen here at all. Regardless of power plan settings, the Vega graphics were only used between 5% to 10%, so the end result was beating for the Zenbook. Switching over to DaVinci Resolve, and it was a complete failure for AMD. While it rendered the entire project and it utilized 100% of the integrated graphics, the final output was pretty corrupted. I can’t really point fingers at either Adobe or DaVinci/Black Magic because I think this has to do with AMD’s integrated encoder and decoder engine, or it might be just drivers not being able to communicate properly with the software. I mean listen no one is going to buy an inexpensive ultrabook for hardcore video editing, but if you are someone who is just planning on casually doing some cuts here and there those longer export times are certainly something to consider. Personally, I wouldn’t really use this to create or edit content.
Now when you look at gaming performance, the Zenbook 14 keeps pretty far ahead of other more expensive Ice Lake-based notebooks. However, I was also surprised by how close Intel kept it. That is likely because the 4700U doesn’t have the fully enabled Vega graphics, like what is found on the 4800U. Either way, I think we might have to revisit this with more games when Tiger Lake gets rolled out.
To conclude, I am really impressed with what ASUS has been able to deliver with the Zenbook 14. I think they have nailed the build quality for the price, it surpassed my expectations. The keyboard is really nice, the trackpad is great, the screen is also colour accurate, but I would recommend picking up the 400-nit version because it is a lot brighter so outdoor visibility would be a little bit better. Perhaps mostly importantly it performs really well, the 4700U is not a slow processor, it can get a lot done. The battery life is just phenomenal too, that is one of the amazing aspects that just completely surprised us a with this laptop.
That being said, I am not a fan of the removal of the headphone jack, the fact that they eliminated one of the most crucial connectors will disappoint a lot of people. Also, the issues with the sleep/wake functionality and just some other weird quirks here and there are a red flag and made me not want to recommend this laptop. However, having confirmed with other reviewers they don’t seem to have that issue so it could just my sample. I suppose we will just have to wait and see what happens when these notebooks reach the hands of consumers.
Buy items in this review from Amazon & other partners at the links below:
ZenBook 14 UM425IA – https://geni.us/ZENBK142020