Asus ZenBook 13 (2018) review

Asus made a laptop light enough for Starbucks runs, but gutsy enough for games

The Asus ZenBook 13 truly benefits from packing a discrete GPU into a very svelte frame.
The Asus ZenBook 13 truly benefits from packing a discrete GPU into a very svelte frame.
The Asus ZenBook 13 truly benefits from packing a discrete GPU into a very svelte frame.

Highs

  • Solid CPU performance
  • Better than usual entry-level gaming
  • Competitive battery life
  • Palm rests stay cool even when it’s working hard
  • Attractive design

Lows

  • Fans get quite loud under heavy loads
  • Some throttling in game performance
  • Lid, keyboard deck, and bottom bend under pressure
  • SATA SSD holds back performance

If you’re like a lot of people, you want a thin and light notebook that you can toss into a backpack and carry around without wrenching your back. You need to get real work done, but that doesn’t mean you’re against the occasional light gaming session to break things up either. If that’s you, then Asus might have finally very made the notebook you’ve been looking for.

Specifically, we’re talking about the Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UN. This 13.3-inch notebook is priced at the low-end of the premium market, at $1,000 for an eighth-generation Core i5-8250U CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SATA SSD, and a Full HD display. The twist? Asus has fit in a discrete GPU, the entry-level Nvidia GeForce MX150, making the ZenBook 13 the “thinnest notebook with discrete graphics.”

That’s a nice trick, if Asus managed to pull off the feat of managing a discrete GPU’s heat inside a thin-and-light’s chassis. Did Asus work some magic and squeeze out the maximum potential from the potent combination?

A familiar design, tweaked

The ZenBook 13 looks a bit like other modern ZenBooks, with just a hint of the iconic Asus concentric circle pattern adorning the lid of the all-aluminum notebook. Interestingly, Asus utilized a special nano-imprinting lithography (NIL) technique to lay on a special ultraviolet coating that’s cured to a hard, glass-like finish over the anodized metal surface. That gives the lid a glossy sheen that feels like a layer of glass but isn’t one — and it significantly subdues the pattern.

While ZenBooks are usually solidly built with minimal flexing, the ZenBook 13 is a bit bendy.

Some will prefer the look of other ZenBooks, but the Royal Blue color scheme is attractive and elegant, giving the notebook an extra bit of flair. It also has thin enough bezels to look up-to-date, but they’re not as miraculously thin as those on the Dell XPS 13 or the HP Spectre 13. As a result, the ZenBook 13’s chassis isn’t quite as small overall as some of these competitors, although at 0.55 inches thin it’s definitely in the same class in that particular dimension.

In terms of weight, at 2.47 pounds the ZenBook 13 is almost identical to the Spectre 13, while falling in between lightweights like the 2.19-pound Samsung Notebook 9 Pen and “heavier” lightweights like the XPS 13 and the HP Spectre x360 13. Ultimately, while the ZenBook 13 isn’t the thinnest or the lightest notebook around, it’s very much a modern machine that won’t weigh you down or take up too much room wherever you need to get some work done — especially when you consider some of the internal components.

Build quality, though, is one area where the ZenBook 13 departs somewhat from its siblings. Whereas ZenBooks are usually solidly built, with minimal flexing, the ZenBook 13 is a bit bendy. Press on the lid, the keyboard deck, and the bottom of the chassis and you’ll notice some flexing. It’s not too egregious, but it falls short of other Asus thin and light notebooks like the ZenBook Flip S and the ZenBook 3 Deluxe.

Asus talks up its thermal management design, which makes sense given the inclusion of a discrete GPU in such a thin machine. Specifically, the ZenBook 13 utilizes a fan design that aims to keep not only the internal components cool but also the areas that come in contact with a user’s fingers and palms. By pushing 30 percent more air through the chassis, the cooling system is also intended to keep things quieter — in our experience, the keyboard deck indeed remains quite cool but the fans can get a bit loud when the rest of the system heats up.

More old-school than futuristic connectivity

Asus clearly put its emphasis on packing in plenty of legacy connectivity into the ZenBook 13. Despite its thin frame, the ZenBook 13 still packs in two USB-A 3.0 ports and a full-size HDMI port, to go with the more logical USB-C 3.1 Gen1 port. A microSD card reader and 3.5mm combo audio jack are also on hand. Unfortunately, the USB-C port doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3, something you’ll find on the XPS 13 and Spectre 13, and so it’s not as futureproof as some of its competition.

In addition, there’s 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.

A comfortable and function keyboard a touchpad promise easy input

The ZenBook 13’s keyboard is constructed with today’s typical black keys with white lettering, laid out in a fairly standard configuration across a flat keyboard deck that gives a little too much under pressure. Only a power button set too close to the delete key might prove problematic. Asus advertises 1.4mm of key travel that feels like less than that, although there’s a reasonably firm bottoming action that avoids a mushy feel and allows for accurate typing. The backlighting is uniform and bright, with three brightness levels.

The touchpad is also good enough, with a large glass-fiber surface that provides just the right amount of friction with buttons that are snappy but not overly loud. It’s a Microsoft Precision touchpad as well, meaning the usual Windows 10 multitouch gestures are precise and responsive. Simply put, you won’t find yourself yearning for a mouse while working away from your office.

In a fashion reminiscent of Microsoft’s Surface Laptop, the ZenBook 13’s responsive touchscreen also supports Asus’s active pen. While the machine’s hinge is sturdy enough, inking on a notebook’s upright display in general is a less-than-efficient way of entering information, but the ZenBook has the capability for anyone who wants to use it.

Finally, Asus opted for a fingerprint scanner to support Windows 10 Hello, placed on the keyboard deck to upper-right of the touchpad. It works well and allows for quick, password-less login.

A good all-around sensory experience

The ZenBook 13 has one display option, a 13.3-inch Full HD display that’s becoming the industry standard. Unfortunately, there’s no 4K UHD (3,840 x 2,160) option at this point, meaning that you’ll have to settle for reasonably sharp — but not pin-sharp – text.

According to our colorimeter, the display that Asus chose for the is at the upper end of average for today’s premium notebooks. That means is a relatively bright display with decent contrast and colors, coming in very close to other notebooks in the same class such as the XPS 13 and the Spectre 13. Really, calling it “average” means that while it might not be great for professional photo editing where a wide color gamut and great accuracy are required, the display is still very good for productivity work and watching video.

Asus partners with Harman Kardon for their notebook audio needs, and the ZenBook 13 makes good use of it with dual stereo speakers with an active amplifier. Out of the box, the notebook can pump out some serious volume with decent enough clarity, making for enjoyable movie and TV watching and even passable music in a pinch. If you want to tweak the audio settings, you can make use of Asus’s AudioWizard utility to optimize sound based on the source.

Plenty quick, as long as you’re not relying on super-fast storage

The ZenBook 13 is another in a growing list of notebooks to make use of Intel’s excellent quad-core eighth-gen Core processors, in this case the Core i5-8250U. That promises good performance at the high end, and power-sipping efficiency when running less demanding productivity tasks.

As usual, Intel’s latest CPU family delivers. The ZenBook 13 holds its own against other similar machines, with little to differentiate it from competition like the Dell XPS 13 and the HP Spectre 13. It’ll whip through the usual productivity tasks without delay, and it can even tackle some demanding tasks like video editing. Unless you work with huge photos or video files, the 8GB of RAM in our configuration system should be plenty, and the 256GB SSD provides ample storage for most productivity users.

One area where Asus cut some corners when putting the ZenBook 13 together, though, was in its choice of SSD. Our review unit came equipped with a 256GB Micron 1100 SATA SSD, which we expected to perform better than a spinning hard disk drive (HDD) but to fall short of much faster PCIe SSDs that are increasingly common in premium or near-premium notebooks.

Indeed, that’s exactly what our benchmark tests demonstrated. Asus chose a Micron 1100 SATA SSD for the ZenBook 13, and its performance was decidedly mediocre. Even compared to other systems with SATA drives, the Asus was a bit slow. While you’re unlikely to notice it in typical productivity work, you’ll be somewhat constrained if you work with very large files.

Decent entry-level gaming in a thin and light machine

What sets the ZenBook 13 apart from most other very thin and light notebooks is the discrete graphics chip that Asus baked into the chassis. It’s only the Nvidia GeForce MX150 GPU, which is a step up from integrated graphics but much less powerful than more gaming-oriented chips. There’s also the question of how well Asus managed the heat generate by a discrete GPU, which would tend to reduce performance due to throttling back to keep things cool — such machines usually benefit from having more chassis room to dissipate heat.

As it turns out, the ZenBook 13 does benefit from the GeForce MX150, at least compared to other notebooks in the same class that are limited to Intel’s integrated GPU. On the eighth-generation Intel Core processors, that means Intel UHD 620 graphics, and as you can tell from our benchmark results, the ZenBook 13 is going to be a much more palatable notebook for running older gaming titles or newer titles with graphics details turned down.

Of course, it couldn’t compete with notebooks, such as the Microsoft Surface Book 2, that pack in a more powerful GPU like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050. And while the GeForce MX150 is an upgrade from the older 940MX, the ZenBook 13 doesn’t quite keep up with another similarly equipped notebook, the Acer Aspire 5. That 15.6-inch notebook is quite a bit thicker, though, and it’s possible that the ZenBook 13 throttles the GPU to keep heat under control.

Taking a look at some of our usual gaming benchmarks, we find that the ZenBook 13 falls short of running our test suite at Full HD and moderate to high graphics detail. For example, while it ran Civilization VI at Full HD and medium detail at 33 frames per second (FPS) — which is definitely playable — it fell short at ultra details at only 16 FPS. Battlefield 1 was just on the cusp of playability, at 27 FPS at Full HD and medium detail — which is just short of the Acer Aspire 5’s playable 34 FPS. Don’t even bother with a game like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

However, a more forgiving title like Rocket League is very playable on the ZenBook 13. Even at extreme detail at Full HD, the notebook managed 48 FPS, and drop to medium detail and you’ll see 59 FPS. That bodes well for other lighter titles, as well as many recent but not quite current games. And, even in our test suite, you could drop to 720p or reduce graphics a bit further and have a decent experience. Not bad for a notebook that’s around half an inch thick.

But it’s not only gaming that should benefit from the discrete graphics. The ZenBook 13 will also be a much better machine for editing photos and video, at least for any application that can utilize the discrete GPU.

Battery life

Asus managed to fit a 50 watt-hour battery into the ZenBook 13, which is a decent capacity that exceeds the 43 watt-hours in the HP Spectre 13 and almost matched the 52 watt-hours in the newest Dell XPS 13. The Intel Core i5-8250U is an efficient processor when running less demanding tasks, and so we had hopes it would demonstrate close to all-day battery life.

As it turned out, the ZenBook 13 was a bit of a mixed bag. It did quite well running our Basemark web benchmark test, lasting roughly the same timeframe as the XPS 13 and beating out the Spectre 13. It fell short of its low-cost sibling, the ZenBook UX330UA, however. Web browsing was a strength, however, while it’s video playing efficiency was only the middle of its class at just under 10 hours. That likely translates to most of a working day unless your tasks are particularly demanding.

Warranty information

The ZenBook 13 comes with the industry-standard one-year parts and service warranty. The usual Asus year of accidental damage protection is also included, and that’s a real value that will cost extra from most other manufacturers.

Our Take

The ZenBook 13 would be a rather mundane thin-and-light Windows 10 notebook if it weren’t for its discrete GPU. That’s not nothing, though, as it does stand apart in its ability to support playing more than just the most casual games. And if you need to edit photos or video, then you’ll get much better performance — which is a plus for a notebook that comes in at $1,000 and provides a great productivity punch as well.

Is there a better alternative?

Probably the most interesting alternative to the ZenBook 13 is its own budget-oriented sibling, the ZenBook UX330UA. That machine comes in at $750 for the same Core i5-8250U, 8GB of RAM, 256GB SATA SSD, and 13.3-inch Full HD display, and offers roughly equivalent performance and even better battery life. In fact, there’s little to recommend the ZenBook 13 over it unless you really need the discrete GPU.

The same can be said for the $1,300 (currently on sale for $1,080) HP Spectre 13 and the $1,300 (on sale for $1,000) Dell XPS 13. The Spectre 13 is much thinner and smaller, and gorgeous, while the XPS 13 is similarly sized but more robustly built. Neither of them has discrete graphics, however, and so once again the ZenBook 13 wins out for entry-level gamers and creative professionals.

If you’re looking to spend less money but still want a GeForce MX150, then you have some other options. You could opt for the Acer Aspire 5 for around $600 similarly equipped, which will drop you back to a seventh-generation Intel Core i5 processor and add in a less-sharp 15.6-inch Full HD display. The Lenovo Ideapad 720s ($850) and Acer Swift 3 ($1,000) are two 14-inch notebooks that also sport the MX150 and eighth-generation Intel CPUs for the same or less money. None of these machines are as thin and light as the ZenBook 13, but you’re bound to get slightly better performance thanks to a thicker chassis that lets the GeForce MX150 run with a bit more headroom.

How long will it last?

The ZenBook 13 is well-equipped to last for several years of solid productivity work, thanks to its utilizing 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.

Should you buy it?

Yes, if you’re looking for a discrete GPU in a thin and light 13.3-inch notebook. If you can live with integrated graphics, however, then there are several other options available that provide better battery life, more robust designs, and more futuristic connectivity.