Apple recently refreshed its MacBook Air, the notebook that originally kicked off the modern thin-and-light trend. The 2020 MacBook Air takes that even further, introducing a new Magic Keyboard with scissor switches, faster processors for better CPU and GPU performance, more storage space, and a $999 starting price. The rest of the market hasn’t stood still, though. A number of MacBook Air rivals are now thinner, lighter, and smaller.
The Asus ZenBook 14 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 trendsetter?
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 has smaller bezels than its predecessors, but they can’t compete with the Zenbook. Despite being a 13.3-inch laptop, the Air’s overall frame is almost half an inch wider than the 14-inch Zenbook — that’s all thanks to its chunkier bezels.
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 it’s 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 for its 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 40Gbps 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 spongy keyboard deck.
Asus equipped the ZenBook 14 with the latest and greatest eight- and 10th-gen 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, 10th-gen dual-core Core i3 that powers the baseline MacBook Air (though you can upgrade your MacBook Air to a quad-core i5 for some additional power). 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 when it comes to that, 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 has a wider and more accurate color gamut. The Asus display was brighter and has 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.
That said, 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 weighs 2.62 pounds. The MacBook Air measures 0.63 inches at its thickest point and weighs slightly more at 2.8 pounds. These two notebooks are thin, light, and small enough to slip into a backpack and use on the go.
In terms of the other important portability factor, battery life, these two notebooks deliver similar performances. They both come with 50 watt-hours of battery capacity, but despite the MacBook Air’s low-powered CPU, they achieved very similar scores in our battery tests. The ZenBook 14 lasted a few minutes longer in our Basemark web benchmark and video tests, while we were able to browse the web on the MacBook Air for a little 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 remains an affordable notebook. Our review unit cost $1,200 or $1,100 on sale. It comes with a Core i7-8565U, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD. If you don’t need a high-end processor, you can get the ZenBook 14 for $1,000 with a Core i5-8256U, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. It’s a great buy in this price range since the $1,000 MacBook Air comes with a Core i3, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. If you want a MacBook Air with a quad-core i7 process, 16GB of RAM, and a 2TB SSD, you will have to spend around $2,250.
The large display of the ZenBook 14 looks slightly out of place in its small chassis, and the build is somewhat disappointing. Display sharpness can be an issue as well. Even though the ZenBook 14 is fast and affordable, the MacBook Air is a more compelling choice for its target audience.
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