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March 3, 2018

Asus Zenbook Flip S 14 UX461UN review

by John_A

Research Center:
Asus Zenbook Flip S 14 UX461UN

If you’re in the market for a thin and light Windows 10 convertible 2-in-1 in the 13-inch or so class, then you have a ton of great options. Asus knows this, and so it’s new entry into the market, the ZenBook Flip 14, offers the same ability to flip the display around to table mode but with a new twist. Specifically, the machine sports an entry-level discrete GPU to significantly speed up its gaming chops.

The notebook sports a 14-inch display and is competitively priced for a premium 2-in-1. It starts at $900 for an eighth-generation Core i5-8250U CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SATA solid-state drive (SSD), and a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 or 157 PPI) display. Step up to a core i7-8550U, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB PCIe SSD — our review unit — and you’ll spend $1,300.

Discrete GPUs generate extra heat, which can be a problem for thin and light machines. Read on to see if Asus managed to squeeze some real performance out of its latest highly-mobile convertible 2-in-1.

A conservative design and build that doesn’t stand out

If you’ve seen a ZenBook, you’ve seen them all. Okay, that’s not precisely true, but it’s pretty close — and there’s nothing wrong with it. Asus has created a distinctive aesthetic for its premier line of notebooks, and the ZenBook Flip 14 maintains it. There’s the iconic Asus concentric circle pattern on the lid, and the usual all-aluminum build. Asus offers Slate Gray (our review unit) and Icicle Gold, and they’re both attractive without being ostentatious. Dell’s newest XPS 13 and HP’s Spectre x360 13 are both much more striking, but the Asus won’t embarrass you in a coffee shop.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

In terms of build quality, the ZenBook offers a metal chassis that’s only slightly bendy in the lid and keyboard deck but solid underneath. We’re noticing this increased flexibility as notebooks get ever thinner, and both the Spectre x360 13 and the XPS 13 suffer from it along with the ZenBook. Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 13, on the other hand, is solid as a rock, but it’s also considerably thicker.

The ZenBook’s
all-metal chassis
is  just slightly too flexible in the lid
and keyboard deck.

The ZenBook Flip 14’s hinge is quite stiff, which means you’ll need two hands to open it but also that it holds the lid in place through the 2-in-1’s various forms. Whether in laptop, tent, presentation, or tablet modes, you won’t need to worry about the display losing its place. Although we’ll note that with its 14-inch 16:9 display, the ZenBook Flip 14 is like most 2-in-1’s right on the verge of being uncomfortable as a tablet — the tear-off 3:2 display on the Surface Book 2 13 makes for a much better tablet design.

Asus could have made the ZenBook Flip 14 more portable by trimming off some bezels and reducing the chassis size. Lenovo’s Yoga 920 has slightly smaller bezels and is thus slightly smaller in every dimension. It’s also slightly thinner at 0.5 inches versus the ZenBook Flip 14’s 0.55 inches, and the ZenBook is a little heavier at 3.31 pounds versus 3.02 pounds. Get the theme here? The ZenBook Flip 14 isn’t the most svelte 14-inch 2-in-1 you’ll find, but it’s not exactly a heavyweight either.

Plenty of ports, but no Thunderbolt 3

The ZenBook Flip 14 packs in a fair number of ports, and they almost make for a complete set. There are two USB-A 3.0 ports, a USB-C 3.1 port, a full-size HDMI port, a microSD card reader, and a 3.5mm combo audio jack. Unfortunately, the USB-C port doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3, which means that although legacy support is there the future is left hanging – an omission that the Yoga 920 doesn’t mimic.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Of course, there’s also the usual 2×2 MU-MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. Because the USB-C port doesn’t power the notebook, Asus has packed a proprietary power supply and connector into the box. That’s not our favorite choice, but at least it enables a fast charge function that brings the notebook to 60 percent battery life in only 49 minutes.

Extremely average 2-in-1 input options

As a convertible 2-in-1, the ZenBook Flip 14 provides the usual wide range of input options. There’s a rather typical island keyboard sporting black keys with white lettering, and it offers up a standard layout and consistent backlighting with three brightness levels. While there’s an ample 1.4mm of key travel, the keyboard’s bottoming action is surprisingly abrupt. It’s a comfortable keyboard, but not nearly as precise as the one you’ll find on the Spectre x360 13.

The Zenbook Flip 14 sports an ample 1.4mm of key travel

The touchpad is large and provides a pleasant surface for mousing on the go. The Microsoft Precision protocol support means Windows 10 gestures are precise and responsive, and the buttons are clicky without being overly loud. The only distraction is the Windows 10 Hello-supporting fingerprint scanner in the upper-right corner of the touchpad, which takes a little getting use to.

Of course, Asus builds active pen support into the ZenBook Flip 14’s display, and includes an Asus Pen in the box that offers 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. That’s well behind the curve today, where machines like the Yoga 920 and Surface Book 2 offer 4,096 levels along with tilt support. Also, the ZenBook 14 Flip’s display has a slightly tacky surface the offers up too much resistance — inking is therefore less comfortable and precise as it should be.

An average display mates with nice sound for a decent enough audiovisual experience

Asus offers only one display option with for the ZenBook Flip 14, a 14-inch Full HD display that remains popular at this price point. Depending how sensitive you are to such things, you may find that 14 inches and Full HD results in some pixelated text. It’s unfortunate that Asus isn’t offering a 4K UHD (3,840 x 2,160) option — that would make for a much shaper display at this physical size.

When we subjected the ZenBook Flip 14’s display to our colorimeter, we discovered that it provides an objective experience that’s on the low side of average. Its brightness was considerably lower than we like at 239 nits, which is well below the 300 nits baseline we prefer and that the Yoga 920 and Spectre x360 13 exceeded. Contrast was at the low end of our comparison group (particularly the Surface Book 2 13, which is a standout performer here), and color gamut support was just average. In its favor, color accuracy was better than all but the Samsung Notebook 9 Pen, and gamut was spot on at 2.2 — meaning videos and images will be neither too dark nor too light.

As is usual with the displays on today’s premium notebooks, average colorimeter results translated into a good subjective viewing experience. For the usual productivity tasks and for consuming media, the ZenBook Flip 14 was plenty colorful and vibrant. Only the displays relatively low brightness and less sharp resolution held it back from being more than just okay.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

For its notebooks’ sound capabilities, Asus works closely with Harman Kardon. The ZenBook Flip 14 is a standout example of how well that collaboration works, with dual speakers and a “Smart Amp” that combine to create some impressive audio. Volume isn’t terribly loud, but you can crank it up to its full volume without distortion. Music and TV shows sound great, and only the usual lack of deep bass holds music back from being enjoyable. You can tweak the audio settings if you want with Asus’s AudioWizard utility, which allows you to optimize the sound based on the source material.

Just as fast a thin-and-light 2-in-1 as you’ll find

The ZenBook Flip 14 joins the growing list of machines to pack Intel’s excellent quad-core eighth-gen Core processors, in this case the very fast Core i7-8550U. Usually, that results in a fast machine at the high end along with one that sips power when running less demanding productivity tasks.

Unsurprisingly, the ZenBook Flip is a sprightly 2-in-1. Looking at both synthetic benchmarks and a real-world test, it offers similar performance to its competitors including the Yoga 920 and Spectre x360 13. That means it’ll make short work of the usual productivity tasks, and it can even be asked to tackle some demanding tasks like video editing. Indeed, regarding the latter, the inclusion of a discrete GPU in the Nvidia MX150 promises some extra oomph — more on that in the next section.

Looking at storage speeds, Asus split the difference between low-end SATA drives and the fastest PCIe versions by opting for the Intel 600p PCIe SSD. This drive provides solid but not spectacular performance, meaning it will churn through everything but the most demanding storage tasks. Most productivity users will find it to be plenty fast.

Decent entry-level gaming in a thin and light machine

The ZenBook Flip 14’s real claim to fame, at least among thin and light convertible 2-in-1s, is its Nvidia GeForce MX150 discrete GPU. That’s an entry-level option that’s a real step up from integrate Intel graphics but significantly less powerful than gaming-oriented GPUs like the GeForce GTX 1050. The biggest question is how well the ZenBook Flip 14’s thin chassis can handle the heat the chip generates.

As it turns out, the ZenBook Flip 14 makes decent use of the GeForce MX150, at least when stacked up against most other similarly-sized convertible 2-in-1s. Not surprisingly, its gaming results are almost identical to those of its sibling, the ZenBook 13. As our benchmark results demonstrated, the ZenBook Flip 14 provides a much more satisfying gaming experience than machines that rely solely on Intel’s UHD 620 graphics.

Essentially, the MX150 is an upgrade from the older GeForce 940MX, meaning it’s about midway between integrated graphics and the GTX 1050 used by 2-in-1s such as the Surface Book 2 13. Notably, the ZenBook Flip 14’s implementation falls a little behind some thicker machines, such as the 15.6-inch Acer Aspire 5, that benefit from a thicker chassis that can dissipate heat a little more efficiently.

Asus Zenbook Flip S 14 UX461UN Compared To

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1

HP Envy x2 (2017)

Asus NovaGo

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga (2017)…

Acer Spin 7

Dell Inspiron 17 7000 2-in-1 (2016)

Acer Switch Alpha 12

HP Spectre x360 13-w023dx

Huawei Matebook

Dell Inspiron 11 (2015)

Toshiba Satellite Radius 14…

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Special…

Lenovo Yoga 3

Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi

Toshiba Satellite Click 2 Pro

Consider a few benchmark results, where the ZenBook Flip 14 falls short of being able to comfortably run a few modern titles at 1080p resolution and medium to high graphics settings. For example, while the 2-in-1 managed to run Civilization VI at Full HD and medium detail at 33 frames per second (FPS) — a playable result — it couldn’t manage ultra details, running at only 16 FPS. Battlefield 1, meanwhile, was almost playable at 26 FPS at Full HD and medium detail – while the Acer Aspire 5 managed a much more playable 34 FPS. The ZenBook Flip 14 fell far short on the rest of our higher end titles, such as Deux Ex: Mankind Divided.

If your preferences run to lower-end or older games, though, the ZenBook Flip 14 is a more realistic option. Consider Rocket League: Even at the highest detail at Full HD, the 2-in-1 ran at a decent 47 FPS, while dropping to medium detail netted 69 FPS. Interestingly, that’s the one result that was faster than the ZenBook 13.

Lower the graphics a bit and you’ll find this a viable gaming 2-in-1.

Ultimately, these results are good news for other lighter titles, such as esports games, as well as many recent but not quite current options. If you’re willing drop to 720p resolution or to reduce graphics a bit further, you’ll enjoy a decent gaming experience — a nice plus for a convertible 2-in-1 that’s around half an inch thick and converts to a tablet.

Note as well that the discrete GPU is good for more than just gaming. If you need to do some video encoding on the run, for example, then the MX150 is going to prove a speedier option than the integrated graphics on other 2-in-1s.

Battery life

Asus packed in 59 watt-hours of battery capacity in the ZenBook Flip 14. That compares to the 63 watt-hours in the Spectre x360 13 and the hefty 70 watt-hours in the Yoga 920. Combined with the highly-efficient Intel Core i7-8550U when running less demanding productivity tasks, and we were hoping to see a full day’s worth of battery life.

Overall, the ZenBook Flip 14’s battery life was mixed. It did just fine running our most intensive Basemark web benchmark test, lasting a little longer than the Yoga 920 but calling short of the Spectre x360 13. It was also strong in our web browsing test, where it beat out both of these machines. In terms of looping our local test video, though, the ZenBook Flip 14 barely managed to exceed 10 hours, well short of the Yoga and Spectre that both exceeded 14 hours.

Overall, this promises close to a full day’s battery life when running typical productivity tasks. If you fire up the MX150, however, be prepared to pull out your power brick.

Our Take

The Windows 10 2-in-1 market has grown by leaps and bounds, with a passel of excellent thin and light options to choose from. Any brand-new option needs to set itself apart, and the ZenBook Flip 14 depends entirely on its discrete GPU to do so. In terms of general performance, battery life, and build quality, the Asus doesn’t stand out, but once you consider light gaming and creative app performance, the ZenBook Flip 14 is much more compelling — particularly given its reasonable $1,300 price as configured.

Is there a better alternative?

The most direct comparison to the ZenBook Flip 14 is the Lenovo Yoga 920, another 14-inch premium convertible 2-in-1 that tries to offer a slightly larger display in a reasonably svelte frame. In the same Core i7-8550U, 16GB RAM, and 512GB SSD configuration, the Yoga 920 costs $1,730 (on sale for $1,600). That’s over $300 more than the ZenBook Flip 14 even on sale. The Yoga 920 is considerably more solid in its build and has a more precise active pen, but it doesn’t offer much more to justify the higher price and slower graphics performance.

If you slip down into a smaller chassis, then you can consider the HP Spectre x360 13 that’s $1,480 ($1,280 on sale) for the same configuration. That convertible 2-in-1 is considerably lighter and thinner, and it enjoys a superior keyboard and inking experience. Once again, though, it’s limited to integrated.

Of course, if it’s higher-end graphics you’re looking for, then Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 13 is another interesting option. It’s much more expensive as configured with its optional Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 GPU, at $2,500, but it’s also a much more viable gaming system that can run modern games at 1080p and reasonable graphics detail. It’s thicker but more solidly built, and it has a much better keyboard and a  Surface Pen that is more accurate, offers tilt support, and is more responsive.

Finally, if you want a thin-and-light notebook with discrete graphics but don’t care about the 2-in-1 format, you can consider the ZenBook 13 UX331UN, a sibling of the ZenBook Flip 14. You’ll get almost identical performance with the same typing experience and general build quality, but you’ll be limited to a Core i5-8250U, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB SSD configuration for $1,000.

How long will it last?

The ZenBook 13 is well-equipped to last for several years of solid productivity work, thanks to its utilization of the latest generation of Intel Core processor, and it’s built well enough that it should survive the usual mobile office worker’s treatment. The notebook will also support future USB-C peripherals, which is a plus, although the lack of Thunderbolt 3 support is limiting. Also, Asus includes a one-year accidental damage protection policy with its ZenBooks, meaning your covered should you drop it or spill coffee on it.

Should you buy it?

Yes, if you want a thin and light convertible 2-in-1 that can play some lightweight games and speed up video encoding while on the road. If you do neither of those things, then there are some better options.

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