Which are the best-looking laptops? Some may vote for the swoopy stylings of gaming notebooks or the tapered slabs of desktop replacements, but most would agree that the prettiest portables are ultrabooks—elegantly thin, under-three-pound compacts like the rose-gold-and-white Dell XPS 13 or the ceramic-finish HP Spectre 13. Now there’s a new contender for fairest of them all: With its radiant “Deep Dive Blue” color and rose-gold accents, the Asus ZenBook S is an ultra-slim stunner. Better yet, the $1,499.99 machine runs as good as it looks, matching a $2,049.99 configuration of the Dell. Those savings and its fashion-forward design nearly earn the ZenBook S an Editors’ Choice, but its battery life is lackluster.
Good as Gold
The test configuration (model UX391UA-XB74T) features a 13.3-inch touch screen with a 4K native resolution (3,840 by 2,160 pixels); a 1.8GHz Core i7-8550U processor; 16GB of RAM; a 512GB PCI Express solid-state drive; Intel UHD 620 integrated graphics; and Windows 10 Pro. As I said, you’ll spend $550 more to get an XPS 13 with comparable specs, though the Razer Blade Stealth matches the ZenBook’s price.
The aluminum unibody features Asus’ trademark concentric circles on the lid, whose dark-blue hue is matched by the keyboard deck. The Asus logo centered in the lid, a thin stripe around the edges, and the keyboard lettering are tastefully done in gold. What Asus calls an “ErgoLift hinge” is slightly forward of the rear edge, so when the lid is opened, the keyboard tilts up to a 5.5-degree angle for comfortable typing and, the company claims, better cooling thanks to the airflow clearance underneath. The total package is one of the most attractive I’ve seen, though the lid is prone to finger smudges.
At 2.31 pounds, the S is lighter than its rivals the Spectre 13 (2.45 pounds), the XPS 13 (2.68 pounds), and the Blade Stealth (2.98 pounds). It measures 0.51 by 12.2 by 8.4 inches, a tad larger than the Dell ultrabook (0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches) but super-easy to slip into a briefcase—or the carrying sleeve Asus provides.
The ZenBook is too skinny to host standard ports along its edges, so all you’ll find are one USB Type-C port (which works with the supplied AC adapter) on the left and two Thunderbolt 3 ports, plus an audio jack, on the right. Asus puts a USB Type-C-to-A dongle and a USB Type-C-to-HDMI dongle in the box. Flash cards will require a separate, not-included one; the laptop’s body has no SD or microSD card slot.
Just Enough Bezel
Though its screen bezels are svelte, the ZenBook S makes room for the webcam in its proper place above the display instead of the infamous below-the-screen, up-your-nose angle of the XPS 13. Webcam images are a little dark but nicely detailed and in focus.
Speaking of detail, the display’s 4K resolution makes the finest, tiniest aspects of an image stand out, even though some apps’ default text may appear too small. (The system arrives with Windows 10’s screen-element zoom set to 300 percent.) You’ll notice the common touch-screen problem of mirror-glass reflections in dark areas and at extreme angles, but otherwise the panel is a pleasure to use, with richly saturated colors and high contrast. Brightness is good if not great (I stuck to the top two or three backlight settings), with inky blacks on pure white backgrounds.
I thought the tilted keyboard would be a gimmick when I first opened the ZenBook S, but soon pronounced it perhaps the best in the ultrabook segment. The angle helps relax your wrists, while the typing feel is shallow but snappy, with lively feedback and clicky sound effects. The layout features dedicated Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys, though their placement (F9 through F12) takes some getting used to; the F7 key controls a gold-tinted keyboard backlight with adjustable brightness.
My only gripe with the key arrangement is that the power button occupies the Delete key’s place in the top right corner, so I put the system to sleep several times before learning to aim a bit to the left. The touchpad glides and taps smoothly, and it has a fingerprint reader in the corner for Windows Hello logins.
The speakers on the laptop’s bottom front produce accurate sound complete with a small thump of bass, but they aren’t loud enough to fill a room—even with the volume turned up to 100, they’re weaker than other laptops I’ve listened to. Asus has worked some minor miracles with laptop audio in the past (see, for example, a review of the company’s VivoBook Flip 14), so the output here is a smidge disappointing.
Worth noting: Asus backs the ZenBook S with a one-year warranty (which isn’t rare) that includes accidental damage protection (which is).
“S” Is for “Swift”
With its quad-core, eight-thread Core i7 CPU and ample RAM and storage, the Asus went toe-to-toe with its peers in our performance benchmarks. Earlier in this review, I mentioned the Dell, HP, and Razer contenders charted out below. For performance context, I also mapped in a couple of other fellow travelers, namely the latest iteration of the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro 13-incher (which was stuffed to the brim with top-shelf components), as well as Lenovo’s winning Yoga 920 2-in-1.
The ZenBook S was an insignificant 100 points shy of the 3,000 that we consider excellent in the PCMark 8 Work office productivity test, which can be attributed to that program having a dampening effect if the laptop has a greater-than-1080p display (which the 4K one here surely is). It landed in the top half of our test set in our Cinebench CPU measurement and Handbrake video-editing exercise, and it tied the Razer and Dell in our Adobe Photoshop image-editing workload.
Graphics-wise, the ZenBook S and its rivals waved the “Productivity, Not Playtime” banner, finishing nowhere near the 30 frames per second required for smooth play in our Heaven and Valley gaming simulations. Like other slimlines with integrated graphics, these laptops are suited for casual or browser-based games but not the latest top-tier titles.
The ZenBook’s only real letdown came in our battery rundown test, in which it lasted for just eight and a half hours of video playback. That’s not terrible—it should get you through an average workday—but it’s not competitive with systems like the Spectre 13 (over 12 hours) or the amazing Lenovo Yoga 920 (over 22 hours). Blame the 4K screen and a relatively small four-cell battery, but know that unplugged life is pretty much the only black mark on this work of art.
A Classy Contender
And “work of art” isn’t an exaggeration for the ZenBook S. Its slimness, screen, and keyboard are all impressive; it looks gorgeous; and it’s fairly priced. It’s a winning argument against critics who say laptop design has been ho-hum lately, and it’s a must-see for ultrabook shoppers who don’t need double-digit battery life.