Asus ZenBook 15 UX533 review

Asus’ Zenbook 15 hides a high-performance laptop in a surprisingly small frame

The ZenBook 15 packs some serious productivity power into a very small package.
The ZenBook 15 packs some serious productivity power into a very small package.
The ZenBook 15 packs some serious productivity power into a very small package.

Highs

  • Small and light chassis for a 15-inch notebook
  • Extremely thin bezels
  • Excellent productivity and entry-level gaming performance
  • Very good battery life

Lows

  • No 4K option
  • Keyboard deck has too much flex

Asus has its sights on Dell’s XPS line, using some very small bezels to pack a lot of notebook into unusually small chassis. The ZenBook 15 is the largest in the company’s latest line, and it outdoes the XPS 15 with a display that seems to float in the air and allows for a surprisingly small frame – while still packing in some powerful components.

Our review unit was the only ZenBook 15 configuration that Asus offers: A Core i7-8565U, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Max-Q, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB PCIe solid-state drive (SSD) for $1,400. That’s an attractive price for such a well-equipped premium notebook. There aren’t a lot of configurations available, but Asus incorporated some impressive components into the ZenBook 15’s svelte chassis. Is that enough to take on the best of the best?

A 15-inch notebook in a 14-inch chassis

We could simply refer to our ZenBook 14 review when it comes to describing the ZenBook 15’s build and aesthetic. They’re essentially identical, only the ZenBook 15 is slightly larger thanks to its 15.6-inch display. The larger model has the same Royal Blue with gold trim color scheme, the same textured gold bar above the keyboard (no, that’s not a sound bar a la the Lenovo Yoga C930), and the same iconic Asus concentric swirl on the lid.

The ZenBook 15’s build quality is also identical to its smaller sibling’s, in that Asus tested the notebook against the MIL-STD-810G military standard for robustness. The ZenBook 15 is equally as rigid in its lid and chassis bottom, and it has the same unfortunate level of flex in the keyboard deck. That makes the ZenBook 15 somewhat less rigid and premium than the Dell XPS 15, its biggest rival.

Like the XPS 15, the Asus also has very tiny bezels. They’re 3.0mm along the sides and 4.5mm up top, which is slightly smaller than Dell’s 5.7mm versions, and yet the ZenBook 15 has the webcam above the display where it belongs. Dell can take a lesson here on how to avoid unpleasant up-the-nose camera angles. Those are also much smaller bezels than you’ll find on other 15-inch notebooks like the Apple MacBook Pro 15 and the HP Spectre x360 15.

It’s a good keyboard, but it’s quite not as precise as the snappier version on the XPS 15.

Thanks to a class-leading screen-to-body ratio of 92 percent, the ZenBook 15 is a very small notebook. It measures just 13.94 inches wide by 8.66 inches deep, which compares to the XPS 15 at 14.06 inches wide and 9.27 inches deep. The MacBook Pro 15 has a slightly smaller 15.4-inch display and comes in at 13.75 inches wide and 9.48 inches deep, while the Lenovo ThinkPad x1 Carbon with its 14-inch display is 12.73 inches wide by 8.54 inches deep.

The ZenBook 15 also shares the ZenBook 14’s ErgoLift hinge, which props up the notebook at a three-degree angle to make for better airflow and audio performance. We found the angle provided comfortable typing as well. The 15-inch model’s hinge is smooth and makes it easy to lift the lid open with a single hand.

Asus Zenbook 15 UX533FN
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The ZenBook 15 isn’t quite so thin as it is small. It’s 0.70 inches thick, compared to the XPS 15 at 0.66 inches thick at the rear and the MacBook Pro 15 at 0.61 inches. The Asus weighs 3.73 pounds, making the XPS 15 significantly heavier at up to 4.5 pounds and the MacBook Pro 15 only slightly heavier at 4.02 pounds.

As with the ZenBook 14, Asus packed some good connectivity into the ZenBook 15. In fact, the ports are identical, including a USB-A 3.1 port, a USB-A 2.0 port, and a USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 port to go along with a full-size HDMI connection, a 3.5mm combo audio jack, and a microSD card reader. Once again, there’s no Thunderbolt 3 support, which is a real disappointment. Wireless connectivity is provided by 2×2 MU-MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0.

Good input, but we wish the display were touch-enabled

The ZenBook 15 sports a typical island keyboard with black chiclet keys and three levels of consistent backlighting. It has a solid 1.4mm of travel, and we found the mechanism just the tiniest bit too spongy. It’s a good keyboard, but it’s quite not as precise as the snappier version on the XPS 15. It falls well behind the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme.

The touchpad is large and works well, with Microsoft Precision support and a light button click that’s not too loud in a quiet room. It’s easily the equal of the XPS 15, but it falls behind the gargantuan and Force Touch-enabled touchpad on the MacBook Pro 15. Asus included a physical numeric keypad, and so the ZenBook 15 doesn’t include the LED NumberPad option on the ZenBook 14 and ZenBook 13.

Just like the ZenBook 14, this model also doesn’t have a touch display. Not everyone cares about touch on a clamshell notebook, but it’s a convenience for swiping long web pages and tapping the occasional dialog button.

You can log into the ZenBook 15 via Windows 10 Hello and an infrared camera with facial recognition. It works as well as all such solutions, and we found it both fast and accurate.

The bezels are small, but the display inside is just average

The ZenBook 15, as its name implies, equips a 15.6-inch display. It’s a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 or 141 PPI) IPS display, which means it’s going to show off some pixels while saving some battery life. We do wish Asus would offer a 4K display for some increased sharpness, even at the expense of some longevity.

Our colorimeter says this is a display that’s just average for its class. Mind you, that means it’s a good display historically, but it doesn’t measure up to the best displays available today. Take brightness, for example, at 302 nits – that’s above our preferred cutoff of 300 nits, but it’s well behind the Dell XPS 15’s 397 nits. Contrast is also low at 710:1, where the XPS 15 comes in at 1050:1. The Lenovo ThinkPad Extreme’s 4K display is also better at 384 nits and 1150:1.

Looking at color support, the ZenBook 15 enjoys 72 percent of the AdobeRGB color gamut and 94 percent of sRGB. That’s average, whereas the XPS 15 4K display and ThinkPad X1 Extreme both come with considerably wider colors. And a color accuracy of 2.03 makes the ZenBook 15’s display good but not great, which would be a score of under 1.0.

Asus Zenbook 15 UX533FN
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Subjectively, while we see some pixels thanks to the Full HD resolution, the display was pleasant for our usual productivity tasks. Watching Netflix was also a good experience thanks to a perfect gamma of 2.2 – scenes were neither too dark nor too bright. Asus is doing its U.S. customers a disservice, though, by not offering a 4K display option.

Audio also didn’t stand out, even though Asus built in a keyboard angle and downward-firing speakers that use that angle to bounce soundwaves around. The ZenBook 15’s “Smart Amplifier” and Harmon Kardon tuning resulted in sufficient volume, but there was a lot of distortion at full volume. The quality was better at lower volume, but you want to use headphones or a Bluetooth speaker whenever possible.

The fastest Intel U-series system yet

The ZenBook 15 joins a growing crowd of notebooks to use Intel’s absolute latest Whiskey Lake 8th-generation processors. The only option on this machine is the quad-core Core i7-8565U, which we expect to be slightly faster and a touch more efficient than the previous version.

According to our benchmarks, Asus squeezed some real performance out of this chip: The ZenBook 15 is the fastest machine we’ve yet tested based on Intel’s U-series Core CPUs. In Geekbench 4, for example, the notebook scored a strong 5,330 in the single-core test and 17,607 in the multi-core test. The next-fastest is the Dell Inspiron 13 7386 based on the same processor, which came in at 5,242 and 16,019. That even beats out the HP Spectre x350 15 based on the higher-wattage Core i7-8705G.

Next, we ran our Handbrake test that encodes a 420MB video to H.265. That test puts more strain on the CPU and is a better measure of a notebook’s thermal performance. The ZenBook 15 scored the shortest time we’ve seen for a U-series processor at 195 seconds. All other similarly equipped notebooks score over 200 seconds, and you have to jump to notebooks based on 45-watt CPUs (like the XPS 15 with its six-core Core i7-8750H) to get a significantly faster result.

The ZenBook 15 isn’t meant to be a hardcore gaming notebook, and it doesn’t perform like one.

The ZenBook 15 uses the same Western Digital PCIe SSD as the ZenBook 14, and it achieves a similar score. It’s faster in write speeds than some other premium notes, like the Inspiron 13 and Spectre x360 15, and slower in read speeds. But don’t fret: The ZenBook 15 is plenty fast at both reading and writing data.

Thermal performance was very good. The chassis never got overly warm, and the fans spun up but were never overly loud. There’s supposed to be the same Quiet Fan utility that we liked on the ZenBook S, but we couldn’t find it in our review configuration.

A real GPU provides entry-level gaming chops

Asus equipped the ZenBook 15 with the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Max-Q. It’s the first notebook we’ve tested with that particular graphics chip, but we fully expected it to act like other Max-Q versions.

That was our experience, for the most part. Looking at most of our benchmarks, the ZenBook 15 performs just below the GTX 1050 and around the same as the AMD Radeon RX560X. First, there’s the 3DMark Fire Strike synthetic benchmark, where the ZenBook 15 equalled the Asus VivoBook Pro N580 with its GTX 1050.

Looking at esports title Rocket League, the ZenBook 15 matched up better with the GTX 1050 Ti Max-Q in the Dell XPS 15, at 220 frames per second (FPS) at 1080p and performance settings and 132 FPS at high quality. The ZenBook 15 had a hard time with Civilization VI, giving scores that were way out of line for the GPU – we’ll set those results aside.

Stepping up to our first truly GPU-intensive title, Battlefield 1, the ZenBook 15 was roughly equivalent with the Acer Nitro 5 and its Radeon RX560X, at 58 FPS at 1080p and medium settings and 30 FPS at ultra settings. The VivoBook Pro, Dell G3 Gaming (GTX 1050 Ti), and Razer Blade 15 Base (GTX 1060 Max-Q) were each incrementally faster.

Asus Zenbook 15 UX533FN
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Finally, we ran our most demanding benchmark, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and the results were similar. The ZenBook 15 was just under the 30 FPS standard at 1080p and high settings, at 29 FPS, and it hit only 17 FPS at ultra settings. The Nitro 5 was around the same speed, and then the VivoBook Pro, Dell G3 Gaming, and Razer Blade 15 Base ramped up from there.

The ZenBook 15 isn’t meant to be a hardcore gaming notebook, and it doesn’t perform like one. But it’s more than good enough for entry-level gamers, and it can handle modern titles at 1080p and lower settings and older titles with very good performance.

Small, light, and reasonably long-lasting

Asus packed in 73 watt-hours of battery into the ZenBook 15. That’s a good amount of juice. Coupled with the Full HD 15.6-inch display and efficient Whiskey Lake 8th-gen Intel CPU, it promises strong battery life. That’s just what we experienced.

In our most demanding Basemark web benchmark test, the ZenBook 15 managed right at five and a half hours. That’s stronger than all our comparison systems, including the Dell XPS 15 with its whopping 97 watt-hours of battery capacity (and more powerful CPU). The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme lasted just over half as long.

When running through a suite of web pages, the ZenBook 15 took a slight step back to just under 10 hours. It fell behind both the XPS 15 and the Lenovo Yoga C930, both of which exceeded 10 hours, but it beat out the ZenBook 14 and the ThinkPad X1 Extreme. Finally, the ZenBook 15 lasted over 13.5 hours when looping our local test video. That falls an hour behind the XPS but is longer than the rest of our comparison group.

Those are strong results for a 15-inch notebook, and they promise all-day performance away from a charger.

Our Take

The ZenBook 15 is a better notebook than its next smallest sibling, the ZenBook 14. The better performance, battery life, and gaming chops make for a more pleasant notebook to use. And, the ZenBook 15 is small enough to make the larger display size less burdensome to carry around – although we do wish Asus would offer a 4K version.

Is there a better alternative?

The most direct competitor to the ZenBook 15 is Dell’s XPS 15. At least, that’s true in terms of chassis size. The XPS 15 offers a faster six-core Core i7-8570H CPU, better Full HD and 4K display options, and a slightly faster GPU. But it’s also more expensive, coming in at $1,710 ($1,530 on sale) for the same 16GB of RAM and 512GB SSD.

Another 15-inch option is Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Extreme. It isn’t quite so small as the ZenBook 15, but it too offers a faster CPU and GPU and that iconic ThinkPad look and build quality. It’s also more expensive, at $2,079 ($1,726 on sale) for equivalent specifications.

Finally, if you’re okay with MacOS, then the MacBook Pro 15 is an option. Apple’s premium notebook is exceedingly well-built, offers superfast CPU options and up to the AMD Radeon Pro Vega 20 GPU, and it looks great. But focus on the word “premium” here: The MacBook Pro 15 starts at $2,400 for 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.

How long will it last?

The ZenBook 15 is well-built and feels like it will last a lifetime. It has the most up-to-date CPU and fast components that should keep it running well for years. And the 1-year warranty and added value of a year of accident and spill protection will help the notebook keep going.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The ZenBook 15 offers great productivity performance and very good battery life, in a package that’s easier than most 15-inch notebooks to carry around. It’s not as premium as the XPS 15, but it’s a solid alternative at a notable price discount.

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