Apple recently refreshed its MacBook Air, the notebook that originally kicked off the modern thin-and-light trend. The updated 2018 MacBook Air takes that even further, while updating the look. The market hasn’t stood still though. A number of excellent notebooks have surpassed the MacBook Air that are thinner, lighter, and smaller.
The Asus ZenBook 14 UX433 is one such notebook, and it uses another modern trend — tiny bezels — to fit a 14-inch display in a chassis usually reserved for 13-inch panels. Does it beat out the industry’s trend-setter?
The first thing you’ll notice when you open up the ZenBook 14 is the expanse of display framed by so little bezel. The MacBook Air also has smaller bezels than the original, but they’re not nearly so small. That results in the ZenBook 14 being only half an inch wider than the MacBook Air and half an inch less deep — that’s right, Asus manage to pack a 14-inch display into a frame that’s smaller in one dimension than the Macbook Air with its 13.3-inch display.
The ZenBook 14 is almost as solidly built as the MacBook Air, which benefits from the usual Apple-quality construction. Asus subjected it to the full range of MIL-STD-810G military standard testing, and the lid and chassis are just as rigid as the excellent MacBook Air’s. But the ZenBook’s keyboard deck is more flexible. In that regard, the Asus is a step behind.
Aesthetically, the ZenBook 14 comes in a Royal Blue color with gold trim, including a gold bar above the keyboard that looks a lot like a sound bar but is actually just ornamental. The MacBook Air retains its wedge shape, though smaller than the original. Overall, it still looks a lot like a Mac — and that’s a good thing. You can get it in three very luscious colors, including Gold, Silver, and Space Gray.
The ZenBook 14 enjoys a keyboard with more travel than Apple’s 3rd-generation butterfly keyboard, and we liked it better thanks to a precise mechanism. For its part, the MacBook Air sports the usual large — and excellent — Apple touchpad with Force Touch support. Meanwhile, the ZenBook 14’s more traditionally-sized Microsoft Precision touchpad works well and offers the innovative NumberPad LED numeric keypad for number crunchers. Neither notebook has a touch display.
Finally, the ZenBook 14 focuses on strong legacy support by including USB-A 3.1, USB-A 2.0, and USB-C 3.1 ports without Thunderbolt 3 support, a full-size HDMI connection, and a microSD card reader.The MacBook Air is all-in on the future, with just two USB-C ports with 40Gb/s Thunderbolt 3 support.
The ZenBook 14 deserves some kudos for squeezing a large display into a chassis that’s similar in size to the MacBook Air’s, and its NumberPad is a nice feature for people who work with numbers. But you can’t beat Apple’s build quality, especially given the ZenBook’s spongey keyboard deck.
Asus equipped the ZenBook 14 with the latest and greatest Whiskey Lake 8th-generation Intel Core CPUs, quad-core processors that are both faster and more efficient than the previous generation. Our review unit used the Core i7-8565U, and it’s significantly faster than the low-power, dual-core Core i5-8250Y that powers the MacBook Air. For both basic productivity and more advanced tasks like video editing, the Asus is going to trounce the Apple.
The MacBook Air does use a much faster PCIe solid-state drive (SSD) than the ZenBook 14. That makes it better at opening and saving files and booting the operating system. In practice, though, the ZenBook 14 is simply a much faster notebook.
Display quality is another important performance factor, though, and there the MacBook Air doesn’t maintain the usual Apple advantage. Its 13.3-inch display is much sharper at 2,560 x 1,600 compared to the Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) 14-inch display on the ZenBook 14. And Apple’s panel had a wider and more accurate color gamut. But the Asus display was brighter and had better contrast and a more accurate gamma (so video will be neither too light nor too dark). Neither are the best displays, but we would choose the MacBook Air’s panel for its better colors and considerably higher sharpness.
Unless you’re only going to use your notebook for the most basic productivity tasks, then you’ll be much happier with the ZenBook 14’s performance.
The ZenBook 14 is 0.63 inches thick and it weighs 2.62 pounds. That compares to the MacBook Air at 0.61 inches inches at its thickest point and 2.75 pounds. That makes both of these notebooks thin, light, and small enough to slip into a backpack without being noticed.
In terms of the other important portability factor, battery life, these two notebooks are again closely matched. They both come with 50 watt-hours of battery capacity, but in spite of the MacBook Air’s low-powered CPU they achieved very similar scores on our battery tests. The ZenBook 14 lasted a few minutes longer in our Basemark web benchmark and video tests, while the Macbook Air browsed the web for slightly longer.
In terms of portability, it’s a draw between the ZenBook 14 and the MacBook Air.
MacBook Air offers more for its MacOS users
The ZenBook 14 is attractively priced, with our review unit coming in at $1,200 ($1,100 on sale) for a Core i7-8565U, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD. You can spend as little as $1,000 for a Core i5-8256U, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. The MacBook Air starts at $1,000 for a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD, and it jumps up to $1,800 for 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. That makes it a much more premium notebook.
The ZenBook 14 packs a larger display into a similarly small chassis, and it’s much faster. But it’s not as well built and its display isn’t as sharp — making the MacBook Air a more compelling choice for its target audience.