Asus ZenBook S review

The ZenBook S doesn't like to show off, but it's one of the best PCs you can buy

The Asus ZenBook S has a nicely blended mix of design, build, and innovation that delivers the whole package.
The Asus ZenBook S has a nicely blended mix of design, build, and innovation that delivers the whole package.
The Asus ZenBook S has a nicely blended mix of design, build, and innovation that delivers the whole package.

Highs

  • Superior build quality
  • Great performance for a thin machine
  • Pin-sharp and high-contrast 4K UHD display
  • Comfortable keyboard
  • Reasonable pricing for the power

Lows

  • Battery life takes a 4K hit
  • Lack of configuration options limits choices

If you’re looking for a premium, thin and light laptop, chances are you’re considering the latest offerings from Apple, HP, and Dell. You might not even consider Asus, and while we don’t blame you — that’s a  real shame. Though not as well established, the company actually has one of the broadest selections of thin and light selections around — many of which come highly recommended from us. A case in point is the new ZenBook S, a refresh of the thinnest and lightest in Asus’s arsenal, and one that’s clearly aimed at the market leaders.

Asus sent us the more powerful of two retail configurations to look at, packing an 8th-generation quad-core Intel Core i7-8550U CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB PCIe solid-state drive (SSD), and a 13.3-inch 4K UHD display for $1,500. You can also drop down to 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 or 166 PPI) display for $1,200.

Asus has clearly focused on refining its thinnest and lightest notebook to make it a great all-around and highly portable machine. Has its attention to detail pushed it beyond its rather strong competition?

A gorgeous little gem of a notebook

If you’ve paid attention, you’ll notice that the ZenBook line rivals Lenovo’s ThinkPad and Microsoft’s Surface in maintaining a recognizable design aesthetic. The ZenBook S sports the usual Asus concentric circle swirl and diamond chamfered edges (this time in rose gold accent), and two color schemes — Deep Dive Blue and Burgundy Red — offer a touch of choice.

Our review unit was the blue version, and we loved its understated elegance that stands out without being ostentatious. Dell’s XPS 13 and HP’s Spectre 13 are also nice looking notebooks, but the ZenBook S strikes us as possessing the more cohesive design. While the XPS 13 has the tiniest bezels, the ZenBook’s are still small enough for a modern appearance — and Asus kept the webcam above the display where it belongs.

And it wasn’t just the look that we adored. The ZenBook’s build quality was also superb. We could discern no flexing, bending, or twisting in the lid, keyboard deck, or underbelly without exerting unreasonable force. In fact, Asus designed the ZenBook S to pass the MIL-STD-810G set of tests for drops, temperature, humidity, and altitude, and it shows. Whether open or closed, the notebook felt like one solid little chunk of metal and glass — it’s the equal of the Apple MacBook and it beats out both the XPS 13 and the Spectre 13 for sheer rigidity.

The same extends to the hinge, which allowed for opening the display with one hand but still managed to hold precisely the right angle. We could pick up the notebook by the keyboard deck with the display open and carry it around with everything essentially locked in place.

One of the challenges of designing such a thin and light notebook is managing heat. The ZenBook S is just fractions of an inch thicker than the Spectre 13 and XPS 13 at 0.51 inches (although it’s thinner than the MacBook), and it’s lighter than most at just 2.2 pounds. That’s not a lot of space for managing airflow and for pushing heat out of the chassis.

Whether open or closed, the ZenBook S feels like one solid little chunk of metal and glass.

Asus took a two-pronged approach to solving this dilemma. First, it designed a new cooling system with a liquid-crystal-polymer fan that’s thinner and more efficient than previous designs. That keeps things five degrees Celsius cooler than before. Second, the company built in its new ErgoLift hinge that props the keyboard up at a 5.5 degree angle, which increases airflow through rear vents that pull and expel air across the display.

Dell’s approach with the XPS 13 was to incorporate some new materials to keep the bottom of the chassis cooler to the touch. The ZenBook S’s approach is even better, because the hotter surfaces are simply lifted away from your skin entirely. The vents are also kept free if you’re using it on a bedspread, for example, and if you’re using it on a desk then there’s plenty of room to pull in cool air.

The system worked, keeping the notebook purring along for the most part and while the fan did spin up during testing, it was never too loud. And Asus bundles in a “Quiet Fan” utility that’s no gimmick — turn it on, and the utility does a remarkable job of balancing performance and fan noise. In fact, if you’re doing typical productivity tasks or watching Netflix, then the ZenBook S acts more like a fanless notebook.

Of course, very thin machines like this are typically short on connectivity, and the ZenBook S is no exception. You get two USB-C 3.1 Gen2 ports with 40Gbps Thunderbolt 3 support for dual 4K displays and external eGPU docks, along with one USB-C 3.1 Gen1 port with data, display, and power support. Add in a conveniently-located combo audio jack, 2X2 MU-MIMO 802.11AC and Bluetooth 4.2, and that’s all your connectivity. Asus does bundle a USB-C mini-hub with a USB-C, HDMI, and USB-A port with some configurations (including our review unit), which you’ll need for accessing legacy devices.

A surprisingly comfortable keyboard and precise touchpad

Some extremely thin notebooks have terrible keyboards, and that’s simply not the case with the ZenBook S. While its keyboard has relatively short travel at 1.2mm, Asus engineered it with a snappy mechanism that provided excellent tactile feedback and a precise bottoming action during our testing.

Asus ZenBook S review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

We also found the yellow backlighting behind the large, slightly sculpted keys to be consistent and attractive, with three useful levels of brightness.

It would be an excellent keyboard even on a thicker notebook, and we found it at least the equal of the very good keyboards on the HP Spectre 13 and the Dell XPS 13. And in our opinion, it’s in a completely different league compared to MacBook’s exceedingly short-travel keyboard with its “typing on a block of wood” feel.

The keyboard’s snappy mechanism has excellent tactile feedback and a precise bottoming action.

The touchpad was also excellent. It’s about as big as it could be given the size of the keyboard deck, and it provided a smooth and comfortable surface with perfect Microsoft Precision touchpad support. That means Windows 10 multitouch gestures were a pleasure to use, and we didn’t find ourselves longing for a mouse. Of course, the display supports touch and was reliable for the usual use on a traditional notebook.

Windows 10 Hello support is provided by a fingerprint reader that’s embedded in the touchpad. That’s not our favorite location, but it didn’t get in our way during use and fingerprint scanning and authentication was instantaneous and reliable.

A lovely 4K display that’s worth the hit on battery life

Our review ZenBook S came equipped with a 4K UHD display that provided a pin-sharp 331PPI while promising to exact a toll on battery life. Pixel-peepers will be happy with the option, while those who value longevity might want to opt for the Full HD alternative.

In our colorimeter tests, the display offered average color gamut support that equaled the Spectre 13 but fell short of the XPS 13’s excellent 4K display version. Color accuracy was better than both notebooks at 2.13 (less than one is considered excellent), and gamma was just slightly too dark at 2.3.

Contrast, on the other hand, was superb at 1300:1, rivaling Microsoft’s class-leading Surface line and promising deep blacks against stunning whites. Brightness was merely good at 306 nits, just exceeding the 300 nit standard we like to see on modern notebooks.

Asus ZenBook S review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Our subjective tests bore out these objective results. The ZenBook S’s display was simply excellent in all use cases, whether we were enjoying extremely sharp black text that stood out nicely against white backgrounds or Netflix at 4K with nearly perfect light and black scenes. Photo and video editing professionals might yearn for wider and more accurate colors, but for anyone else, this is a luxurious display.

Audio was also very good, thanks to the keyboard angle and downward-firing speakers that bounce sound around on a flat surface. The “Smart Amplifier” and Harmon Kardon tuning also helps, providing solid mids and detailed highs that flesh out movie trailers. Volume is good enough for a smaller room but not exceptionally loud, and of course bass is lacking as usual. It’s more than good enough for watching Netflix and listening to the occasional tune.

A good little performer

Intel’s 8th-generation Core processors generally provide great productivity performance balanced against excellent efficiency. Our review ZenBook S came equipped with the Core i7-8550U, which has been a reliable performer throughout our testing.

As usual, we weren’t disappointed. The ZenBook S performed in line with the competition, scoring well on the Geekbench 4 single- and multi-core benchmarks and easily matching the similarly-equipped HP Spectre 13 and Dell XPS 13.

The ZenBook S also did well on our video encoding test, which runs a 420MB trailer through Handbrake and encodes it as H.265 video. It was just slightly slower than the XPS 13 but faster than some other Core i7-8550U notebooks in our comparison group.

For anyone but photo and video professionals, this is a luxurious display.

Next, Asus chose the excellent Samsung PM961 PCIe SSD for the ZenBook S, which is a fast drive that typically churns through our storage benchmarks. Our review unit was equipped with the 512GB version of that drive and provided the usual speedy performance that means booting up the notebook, opening apps, and accessing files will never be a bottleneck. We only wish that Asus offered a 1TB SSD option to go with the current sizes, and that buyers could mix and match configuration options generally.

Overall, the ZenBook S provided excellent real-world performance that more than meets even high-end productivity needs. As we mentioned earlier, the chassis did get warm and the fan spun up when the system was being pushed, but the ErgoLift hinge did its job and kept any heat away from our skin. And turning on the Quiet Fan utility efficiently balances performance and fan noise for moderate productivity use in a hushed environment.

Gamers look elsewhere

The ZenBook S is limited to Intel UHD 620 integrated graphics, and so we didn’t expect much in the way of gaming chops. You’ll need to step up to a larger notebook for better gaming, such as Asus’s own ZenBook Flip 14 that includes a discrete Nvidia GeForce MX150 GPU. But so far, nobody’s managed to fit real gaming into quite so thin a notebook.

Unsurprisingly, the ZenBook S performed pretty much in line with other thin and light notebooks. It fell slightly behind the Spectre 13 and XPS 13 in the 3DMark synthetic benchmark, with scores that promise nothing better than casual games or older titles at lower resolutions and detail. In Rocket League at 1080p and performance mode, it ran at 49 frames per second (FPS), which dropped to 22 FPS in high-quality mode.

In short, don’t buy this notebook if you’re looking for portable gaming.

Easy to carry around, but there’s a 4K tax on battery life

Asus packed 50 watt-hours into the ZenBook S’s minute chassis, which is around average for this class of notebook.

The 8th-generation Intel CPU usually promises efficiency, but the 4K display on our review unit made us a bit nervous as we started our testing.

As we expected, battery life wasn’t stellar. The ZenBook S managed just over three hours in our most grueling Basemark web benchmark test, which beat out the Full HD-equipped HP Spectre 13 but couldn’t keep up with the 4K-version of the Dell XPS 13.

The same held true with our web browsing test, where the ZenBook’s just over seven hours was stronger than the Spectre 13 but considerably weaker than the XPS 13’s nine hours. And in our video test that loops a local video until the battery runs dry, the ZenBook S lasted just over eight hours, not a terrible score but one that still couldn’t keep up with some members of our comparison group.

The bottom line is that the ZenBook S suffers in the battery life department when equipped with its power-draining 4K display. If you absolutely need to make it through a full workday without needing your charger, then you’ll want to choose the Full HD display instead.

Our Take

Asus worked hard to refine its thin and light ZenBook 3, and it succeeded while slightly upping the screen size (along with the thickness and weight). The ZenBook S is solid as a rock, looks great, and provides good performance with an excellent keyboard and touchpad. It comes about as close to being a perfect little notebook as any machine has so far managed. Battery life is subpar thanks to the luscious 4K display, but longevity can be improved by selecting the Full HD option — although you give up some RAM and storage space in the bargain. Speaking of options, we really wish that Asus would offer more configurations — for example, a high-end version with the Full HD display would better meet the needs of power users who are also road warriors.

Is there a better alternative?

HP’s Spectre 13 is the most direct thin and light competitor, and it rivals the ZenBook S in good looks and solid productivity performance. It’s also more expensive at $1,860 for the same Core i7-8550U, 16GB of RAM, 512GB PCIe SSD, and 4K display, but even the Full HD version only beat out the ZenBook S in battery life when watching video. With the higher resolution display, we suspect that the Spectre 13 would fall even further behind in longevity.

The Dell XPS 13 is another strong competitor to the ZenBook S, offering equally good performance, a nice design, and better battery life. But it’s also considerably more expensive at $2,100 for the same Core i7-8550U, 16GB of RAM, 512GB PCIe SSD, and 4K display. And while Dell keeps the heat down as well, the ZenBook S still keeps things more comfortable with its ErgoLift hinge.

Finally, you could opt for the Apple MacBook, which is just about equally thin but slightly lighter with the same kind of rock-solid build quality. And you’ll pay more for the MacBook, at $1,950 for a 7th-generation low-power Core i7-7Y75, 16GB of RAM, 512GB PCIe SSD, and less-sharp display. You’ll give up some performance and efficiency with the MacBook, and you’re likely to greatly prefer the ZenBook S’s keyboard.

How long will it last?

Given its robust design, the ZenBook S will last as long as any other thin and light notebook and longer than most. It’s CPU and other components are the latest available, and its USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 support promises long-lasting connectivity. Asus adds a year of accident and spill protection to its standard one-year warranty, which is a real plus.

Should you buy it?

Yes. Sometimes the whole really is more than the sum of the parts, and the ZenBook S is a prime example. In fact, it’s a really small notebook that might just appeal to someone who doesn’t normally like really small notebooks. Just make sure to opt for the 1080p display if a full day’s battery life is absolutely vital.

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