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July 13, 2017

Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe (UX490UA) review

by John_A

Research Center:
Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe UX490UA-XS74-BL 

Clad in midnight blue and chased in gold, the original Asus Zenbook 3 was lauded for its bold, unconventional style. It was a gorgeous laptop, but it had a few critical flaws. Its successor, the Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe aims to set things right. During our Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe review, we found that this little thing was just full of surprises.

Our review unit shipped with an Intel Core i7-7500U processor, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB PCIe solid state drive, and a 14-inch 1080p display panel, with a retail price of $1,700. Despite that, the internals aren’t that different from the original Zenbook, and the overall silhouette is very similar — just stretched out to 14-inches instead of the original’s 12-inches.

If it’s only a minor revision, did Asus change enough to make the Zenbook 3 Deluxe worth your time and money? Well, this laptop is full of pleasant surprises, so let’s dig into it.

Gilded elegance

Asus decided to stick with its winning design for the Zenbook 3 Deluxe, with a few small refinements. It’s still that deep Royal Blue, and the lid still features that opulent gold finish around its edge.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The Deluxe model is a bit larger, with a 14-inch display to the original’s 13-inch. It’s almost as thin, at .51 inches to the original’s .47 inches. It’s also a little heavier at 2.42 pounds to the original’s weight of 2 pounds flat.

The build quality here is excellent, as the Zenbook’s chassis doesn’t flex, creak, or crack the way cheaper all-plastic laptops do. The hinge is a little looser than other laptops tend to be right out of the box, but its construction is great, and solidly attached to the body without any give at the edges.

When the lid is closed, the whole thing feels solid, like it’s just a single plate of aluminum. It doesn’t feel hollow, or flimsy despite its incredibly lightweight build. On top of that, the signature concentric ring design unique to the Zenbook lineup adds an eye-catching sheen to the lid. Like a luxury watch, it feels substantial, and has an effortlessly premium look to it.

The build quality here is excellent. It feels solid, like a single plate of aluminum.

The premium ultrabook market is defined by products with that kind of weighted quality. These notebooks differentiate themselves from business, consumer, and gaming laptops by bringing an extra level of craftsmanship to the table.

Just look at Microsoft’s Surface Laptop, or HP’s Spectre x360, both are exceptionally well-crafted machines that feature remarkably similar internal components. These notebooks are defined more by their design, their aesthetics, than by their hardware.

Even if they do sometimes borrow design elements from one another. For instance, the display bezels on the Zenbook are very similar to those on the MacBook Pro 13 — but that’s not a bad thing. It’s the 21st century, it’s about time we shrug off the oppressive yoke of overly thick bezels.

A dongle in every port

The original Asus Zenbook 3 featured a single Thunderbolt 3 port, which had a certain elegance to it, but was impractical. The Zenbook 3 Deluxe aims to remedy that issue by including not one, but two Thunderbolt 3 / USB Type-C ports, and one standard USB Type-C port.

Okay, that’s still not a lot. However, Asus went one step further and set an example the rest of the industry should follow immediately. The Zenbook 3 Deluxe ships with a set of Thunderbolt 3 dongles to help replace those old ports. In the box, buyers will find a Thunderbolt 3 to HDMI dongle, alongside a standard Thunderbolt 3 to USB Type-A dongle.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The system is still $1,700 so they’re not free, they’re just included, but it’s the kind of small gesture that makes you feel good about a purchase. Pick up a MacBook Pro 13 and you’ll be out $10 to $20 per dongle, if you get the cheap ones on Amazon — double that if you go for the Apple-branded options. That can feel like a manufacturer reaching back into your wallet after you just handed them nearly two thousand dollars.

There’s no such issue here. The Asus branded dongles are simple, high quality, and they do an excellent job of bridging the gap between old standards and new ones. Still, if you end up needing other ports, like Ethernet, or DisplayPort, there are plenty of dongles for that.

The Thunderbolt 3 ports themselves are conveniently located, two on the right side, one on the left, so you can charge the Zenbook 3 Deluxe from either side with enough room to plug in a mouse or other accessory.

0.4 millimeters makes all the difference

One if the major issues the original Zenbook 3 had was its keyboard. Its short key travel made each keystroke feel like it ended abruptly, as if typing on wood. Thankfully the new Zenbook 3 Deluxe remedies that issue by offering deeper key travel, 1.2mm to the original’s .8mm, and better tactile feel overall.

Each keystroke is deep, ending in a satisfying click — even if it is softer than you’d get out of a typical mechanical keyboard. The keyboard also features a gold backlight which shines through the key caps without much light leakage, even in a completely dark room.

The touchpad is the perfect size for this form factor – big enough without being overwhelming, small enough to conserve space without feeling limiting. Plus, its Windows Precision Touchpad multi-touch gestures are quick, responsive, and accurate.

Unfortunately though, the fingerprint sensor takes us the top right corner of the touchpad, and its immediate area is a dead zone on the touchpad. Despite that, it works with Windows Hello and works well, even if you tap it at an odd angle.

A case for 1080p?

At 14 inches, the Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe is the right size for a 1080p display panel. It’s small enough that everything looks bright and crisp without getting too stretched out. A higher resolution display would’ve been nice to see, and 1080p does put it a bit behind the curve — most of its competitors, like the HP Spectre x360, offer optional 4K panels.

In our display benchmarks, the Zenbook held its own against a few high-profile competitors in the premium laptop space. The Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon topped our list with its contrast ratio of 990:1, while the HP Spectre x360 managed 910:1, and the Acer Spin 7 hit 860:1. The Zenbook is right in the middle there, tied with the HP Spectre, and just ahead of the Acer Spin.

Moving on to color gamut, the Zenbook edged out the Acer Spin 7’s decent-if-below-average AdobeRGB percentage of 69 percent, with its own score of 72 percent. Both fell behind the HP Spectre x360’s score of 75 percent. All four achieved very typical results here, reproducing acceptable percentages of the finicky AdobeRGB color space.

When it comes to color accuracy though, the Zenbook 3 did fall a bit short of our expectations. Its average color error of 2.19 isn’t terrible, it’s small enough that most users wouldn’t even notice unless they fired up Photoshop and found their custom palettes slightly askew. But the HP Spectre x360 and Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon both come much closer to pitch-perfect accuracy. Again, for most users it won’t be a big deal, but it’s the kind of small detail that could end up being a problem down the road — if you plan on using the Zenbook 3 Deluxe for professional photo or video editing, for instance.

On its own, the glossy screen looks great in most environments. It’s bright enough to maintain its color fidelity even under fluorescent office lights. Despite the glossy screen, we never had any issues with glare, unless the Zenbook was in direct sunlight but most laptops have trouble competing with the sun.

The Asus Boombox 3 Deluxe

The original Asus Zenbook 3 featured an impressive set of speakers which were capable of filling a room with rich, lifelike sound. The Zenbook 3 Deluxe follows suit, and includes what are very likely the same speakers — because they sound as good as they did on the original.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

With two speakers right above the keyboard, and two on the underside of the chassis, the Zenbook sounds best when sitting on a flat surface. Sitting on a desk or table, its speakers reproduce music remarkably well. On a lap, it’s a little less impressive, but still sounds better than most laptops. This is the kind of detail that can set a premium ultrabook apart from the rest. The Acer Spin 7, and Thinkpad X1 Carbon are portable and stylish, but their speakers were less than impressive.

At this price, there’s no excuse not to have decent speakers in a laptop anymore, so it’s always nice to see a company like Asus go the extra mile to include a feature most manufacturers overlook.

Intel vs Intel vs Intel

The Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe features an Intel Core i7-7500U processor. It’s a workhorse, but it’s still a dual-core processor. It’s the same one in the non-Deluxe version of the Zenbook 3, which is fine, but including the same processor doesn’t feel Deluxe.

As we mentioned, it’s an admirable performer. It’s not going to slow you down during day-to-day productivity tasks, it has enough headroom to run the entire Microsoft Office suite simultaneously — with several massive spreadsheets and Word documents open at the same time. It does start to chug when running a bunch of applications alongside a normal load of browser tabs, however. Yes, all those Reddit tabs are essential and work related.

On single-core performance, the Zenbook’s Intel Core i7-7500U fared a bit better than Acer Spin 7 and fell just behind the HP Spectre x360. The Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon, with its slightly faster Intel Core i7-7600U, pulled ahead of the pack with an impressive single-core score of 4,598. Moving on to multi-core performance, the Zenbook managed to push into second place past the HP Spectre x360. It still fell behind the Thinkpad X1 Carbon, which led the pack by a comfortable margin.

Our Handbrake tests were a bit more positive for the Zenbook, which performed a 4K video encode in about 17 minutes. The Acer Spin 7 took 29 minutes to perform the same encode, while the HP Spectre x360 managed it in about 18 minutes. The Lenovo X1 Carbon took the lead again, finishing the encode in a bit over 16 minutes. None of these are particularly dazzling results. All of these notebooks feature dual-core processors which are perfectly suitable for everyday productivity tools, but tend to drop the ball when it comes to heavy lifting like 4K video encodes.

Fleet-footed

Hard drive performance isn’t exactly a marquee feature, but it’s critical, especially for a laptop like the Zenbook 3 Deluxe. This thing is designed to be carried everywhere, which means it’ll end up doing a little bit of everything. The Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe ships with a 512GB SSD, and it’s quick on its feet. Hitting a read speed of 1,349 megabytes per second, and a write speed of 1,285 MB/s, the Zenbook’s SSD is more than capable of taking on with almost about anything you throw at it.

The Zenbook’s SSD is second only to the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon, which hit a read speed of 1,879 MB/s and a write speed of 1,508 MB/s. There’s a fair bit of space between them on read/write speed, but there’s an even bigger gulf between the Zenbook and the Acer Spin 7, with its lowly SATA drive — which is much slower than a PCIe drive, like the ones in the Zenbook and Thinkpad.

Intel HD vs Intel Iris

The little Intel HD Graphics 620 chip that resides on the Zenbook’s processor provides enough horsepower for games like Hearthstone and League of Legends, but little else. For the most part, it’s powerful enough for everyday applications, but games thrash this poor little graphics chip.

This isn’t a Zenbook specific issue, it’s a fact of life for ultrabooks without discrete graphics cards. On our benchmarks, none of the Zenbook’s nearest competitors did particularly well. In 3DMark’s Sky Diver benchmark, the Zenbook scored 3,914 to the Spectre x360’s 3,299, while the Thinkpad X1 Carbon pulled ahead with a score of 4,416.

The Microsoft Surface Pro is another machine with Intel integrated graphics, but its processor, the Core i7-7660U, features the more powerful Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640. It’s still not quite powerful enough for most games, but the extra horsepower does make the Surface Pro a better choice for low-intensity games like Civilization VI. On medium settings, the Surface Pro managed 16 FPS in Civlization VI, while the Zenbook managed about 12 FPS. That’s not exactly jaw-dropping performance, but there’s a noticeable difference between Intel HD and Intel Iris graphics. Even if it’s a small one.

A good compromise

At half-an-inch thick, and weighing just 2.42 pounds, the Zenbook 3 Deluxe is surprisingly thin and light. It’s even thinner and lighter than the MacBook Pro 13 — which weighs 3.02 pounds and is .59 inches thick. Neither one is going to weigh you down during a daily commute, but you might end up feeling that extra half-pound on the MacBook Pro 13 at the end of a long day. The Zenbook, on the other hand, fits into very small messenger bags with ease. It even fits into an internal messenger bag compartment designed for a 13-inch laptop with room to spare. However, there is more to portability than size alone, so let’s look at how long the Zenbook lasts on a single charge.

During everyday use, we were able to get around six hours of battery life out of the Zenbook, which fits nicely between the two results from our formal benchmarks. Using the Peacekeeper browser test, which constantly renders objects and effects in HTML5, the Zenbook managed a little over three and a half hours before going completely flat. On our video loop test, which is a bit more forgiving, the Zenbook managed about seven hours. That’s not bad, but it’s not great overall.

Looking at how its nearest competitors performed, it’s clear the Zenbook could benefit from a larger battery. It came in dead last on both tests, falling behind the Acer Spin 7, the HP Spectre x360 by a small margin, and lagging far behind the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon. Overall, the Zenbook 3 Deluxe is light enough to carry around all day without any issues, but most users would probably overlook a little extra weight if it meant the Zenbook would last long enough to make it past lunch.

Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe UX490UA-XS74-BL  Compared To

Huawei Matebook X WT-W09

Toshiba Portege Z30-C1310

Razer Blade Stealth

Toshiba Portege Z20t

LG Ultra PC 14Z950

Dell XPS 13 (2014)

Lenovo ThinkPad X240

HP Spectre 13t

Acer Aspire M5 Touch

HP Envy 4

Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5

Acer Aspire S5

Lenovo IdeaPad U310

HP Folio 13

Asus Zenbook UX31

Bloatware-lite, the Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe ships with a delightfully clean install of Windows 10. There are a few manufacturer utilities in there, but none of them bug you for registration information, or otherwise compromise the system. Thankfully, the only unwelcome houseguests come courtesy of Windows 10. The Zenbook does come with a few pre-installed Windows Store apps you’ll have to pluck out of your start menu, but that’s it.

Warranty

The Zenbook 3 ships with a standard one year warranty covering parts and labor to repair any manufacturer defects. It’s pretty much the same warranty you’d get elsewhere, and the same one you’d see on similar products. Still, for $1,700 it would’ve been nice to see a longer warranty, or an included care program.

Our Take

With the Zenbook 3 Deluxe, Asus aims to beat Apple at its own game, and it comes perilously close to doing so. The Zenbook is every bit as stylish and high-quality as the iconic MacBook Pro, but is it more than just a copycat?

Is there a better alternative?

Oddly enough, there aren’t many alternatives that are better than the Asus Zenbook 3, depending on what you’re looking for. If you’re in the market for a premium laptop and build quality is of paramount importance, then the Zenbook 3 Deluxe is an excellent choice without many peers.

If you’d be willing to carry a little extra weight, the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon has demonstrated that it’s a good alternative. It’s not as stylish, or slick as the Zenbook, but with powerful hardware and killer battery life, it’s an excellent business-class notebook.

Also, if you’re open to a less traditional laptop experience, the Surface Pro is an excellent choice. It’s lighter than the Zenbook 3, it’s more powerful, and you get nearly identical internals for about $100 less — though you’ll probably end up spending more than that on essential accessories.

If you’re not quite sold on the whole tablet-as-laptop thing, Microsoft has two other Surface options available, both of which make worthy competition for the Zenbook 3. The Surface Book is a less thin-and-light version of the Surface Pro, but what you lose in portability you gain in performance. Then there’s the Surface Laptop, which combines the elegant design of the Surface Pro — and its super-soft Alcantara keyboard — with the Spartan workaday performance of the Surface Book.

Speaking of accessories, the Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe is one of the only laptops we’ve reviewed that came with a few helpful and common-sense accessories. They’re useful, thoughtful, and every bit as high-quality as the laptop they’re designed to accompany. It’s refreshing to see a company throw in extras without any added cost.

How long will it last?

Well, chances are the Zenbook 3 Deluxe will last long enough to become outdated — and that’s a good thing. The aluminum chassis will undoubtedly outlast the internal hardware, though its stylish design might not be as timeless as a simple black or silver laptop would. Make sure you really like that blue-and-gold design, this thing’s going to be around a while. Or pick up the grey version.

Should you buy it?

Yep. Intuitive design and stellar build quality make the Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe a killer laptop. By building on the success of the earlier version and improving on its shortcomings, Asus has gone above and beyond with the Zenbook 3 Deluxe. At $1,700, it’s not cheap, but you get what you paid for: a high-quality laptop that goes the extra mile to deliver an excellent mobile computing experience.

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