Nearly ten years since its introduction, the Apple MacBook Air is still iconic, and no other company has managed to create a model or even a series that comes to mind as readily when you try to think of ultraportable laptops. Dell has its XPS 13 which has endured for some time now, and the Microsoft Surface line might qualify for some people, but these are niche products and are much too expensive for most buyers. The same goes for HP's Envy lineup and Lenovo's Yoga series. Asus did manage to grab our attention with its ZenBook UX305F two years ago, and we went as far as to call it a MacBook Air killer, but then the company never refreshed it. Asus went ultra-high-end like everybody else, and while the ZenBook 3 UX390UA was highly attractive, our hopes for a reasonably priced, reasonably powerful Ultrabook running Windows were dashed.
Now, Asus is back with a new ZenBook model, and it seems as though the company is back on track. The ZenBook UX430U looks like the perfect everyday Windows Ultrabook - it's slim and light, seems to have excellent up-to-date specifications, and doesn't break the bank. We're going to take a very close look at it today, in the hope that it finally fills a gaping hole in the laptop market.
Asus ZenBook UX430U look and feel
Whereas the UX305 was trying very hard to look exactly like the MacBook Air, Asus has gone in a totally different direction with this new model. The most striking thing about it is the lid - our review unit had a glossy Royal Blue paint job, created using a process that Asus calls Nano Imprint Lithography. What this means is that the trademark concentric ring pattern was created using an electroplating process to adhere crystals of colour to a finely etched surface, with a UV coating on top to give it a super-smooth finish.
Asus offers the UX430U with Royal Blue and Rose Gold lids using this process, or the less flashy Quartz Grey and Shimmer Gold with conventional metallic finishes. At launch, only the blue finish will be available in India, but Asus is promising to bring the others in soon. No matter which one you choose, the ZenBook UX430U will stand out in a crowd. We worry that the lid will be susceptible to scratches and scuffs, and it is a huge fingerprint magnet as well. Still, Asus has managed to create a distinctive identity for itself rather than copying another design, and we hope that it stays on this path.
In terms of overall shape and size, this laptop is fairly compact considering that it has a 14-inch screen. Its footprint is actually slightly smaller than that of the 13-inch MacBook Air. The body is evenly thick, rather than wedge-shaped, with only a slight taper towards the front lip. The bottom is completely sealed and no components are externally accessible. The total weight of 1.3kg makes the UX430U incredibly easy to carry around, and it will slip into practically any backpack, briefcase, tote, or messenger bag.
Flipping the lid up, we see that there isn't much plastic around the screen. The sides are very thin, but there's still enough space on top to accommodate a webcam, which we actually like. The giant Asus logo below the screen, however, is a bit too distracting for us. There's more dark blue plastic on the keyboard deck, while the keys are black. We find the Intel and Nvidia stickers a little too garish, and not just because they were slightly crooked on our test unit. Personally, we're extremely happy to see that there's none of the garish gold printing and accents that we saw with the ZenBook 3 UX390UA.
The keyboard layout is actually quite good, with no major keys missing or cramped. Even the arrow keys aren't as badly squashed as we've seen on most ultraportables. The power button is integrated into the keyboard cluster, and just like on the UX305, it's a little firmer than the rest of the buttons to prevent accidental presses. We found the backlighting to be even, without any distracting leakage around the keys. The trackpad is also large and comfortable, and even though there's a fingerprint reader embedded into it creating a dead zone, we never found ourselves hitting it at the wrong time.
The selection of ports on the sides is relatively sparse. Other than the DC power inlet, there's a single USB 3.0 port, a Micro-HDMI video output, a 3.5mm audio combo socket and a USB Type-C (USB 3.1 Gen 1, 5Gbps) port on the left. On the right, there's just one USB 2.0 port and an SD card slot. Asus includes a Micro-HDMI adapter and a USB Ethernet dongle in the box, but we don't see any reason why there couldn't have been a better selection of ports on the laptop itself.
Asus ZenBook UX430U specifications and software
Asus is selling three different versions of the ZenBook UX430U in India. The entry-level option priced at Rs. 72,990 has an 8th Gen Core i5-8250U CPU and a 256GB SSD. The next step up gets you a 512GB SSD and will cost Rs. 79,990. The top-end variant has an 8th Gen Core i7-8550U CPU, 512GB SSD, and also a discrete GeForce MX150 GPU but costs a lot more at Rs. 93,990. All variants have 8GB of RAM and a 14-inch full-HD, LED-backlit, non-glossy screen that can reproduce 100 percent of the sRGB colour gamut.
There's also Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1, a 720p webcam, a pair of 1.5W stereo speakers certified by Harman Kardon, and a 50Wh battery that Asus claims will run for nine hours. We had the top-end model in for review, and we're interested in seeing how it works not only for daily productivity, but also a bit of casual gaming, thanks to the discrete GPU.
The ZenBook UX430U comes with Windows 10 Home preloaded. As far as bloatware goes, there's the usual Microsoft Store junk that can be cleared away. Asus has installed only one app of its own, but it's incredibly annoying. It's called Giftbox, and it encourages users to download all kinds of other apps, some of which are free or freemium and others that are just pure spam. This wouldn't be so bad if Giftbox didn't launch itself automatically and full-screen, at the first boot and then every so often thereafter, potentially fooling users into thinking it's part of the initial setup process.
We found the default 150 percent Windows 10 UI scaling setting a bit too high, making everything larger at the cost of information density. We were fine at 100 or 125 percent.
Asus ZenBook UX430U performance
First of all, we have to say that we loved the ZenBook UX430U's screen. Reflective finishes are less practical, but manufacturers use them because they can be more vibrant. Even with the UX430U's non-reflective screen, we didn't feel that there was anything lacking. Colours were always bright and vibrant, text was crisp and readable, and we had no trouble whatsoever when watching movies, playing games, or just working on documents. Brightness is adjusted automatically by default but you can disable this whenever you like with a simple keyboard shortcut.
Sound is also fairly impressive for a laptop. The two stereo speakers are placed at the bottom, so you'll need the laptop to be on a flat surface to get the most out of them. We found the audio to be loud and clear, with minimal distortion.
In terms of general performance, we never found this laptop to be lacking. With the 8th Generation mobile CPU lineup, Intel has gone from two cores to four, so buyers should definitely make sure they're getting the latest models when they go out shopping. Even the lower-end ZenBook UX430U models should have more than enough grunt for everyday tasks.
Our benchmark tests all ran well - Cinebench R15 returned 166 and 529 points respectively in its single-threaded and multi-threaded runs. POVRay took 3 minutes, 31 seconds to render its standard test file. PCMark 8's Home, Creative and Work tests gave us 3,820, 4,789 and 5,083 points respectively. SiSoft SANDRA posted strong scores as well, and revealed to us that the M.2 SSD uses the SATA 3 bus and not PCIe, which is slower but still perfectly fine for mainstream usage. Sequential reads and writes came in at 516.3MBps and 451.4MBps respectively.
There is one big thing to note though, and that is fan noise. As soon as we started doing anything even slightly taxing, we would hear the ZenBook UX430UA start growling. The intensity wasn't constant, which made it even more distracting. This is a very rough edge on an otherwise highly polished experience.
Let's talk a bit about gaming. The GeForce MX150 is a significant step up from integrated graphics, but this is still an extremely thin and light notebook with limited provisions for power and cooling. 3DMark's Time Spy and Fire Strike Extreme tests gave us 959 and 1,303 points each. We were able to get 25fps in Unigine Valley, running at 1920x1080 at the High preset using 2x antialiasing, though it's important to note the huge variance between the minimum of 13.7fps and the maximum of 45.7fps, which means there were some very choppy sections in between.
Rise of the Tomb Raider managed to run somewhat smoothly after we experimented with it. We started out at 1920x1080 with the High preset and it was extremely choppy, averaging only 19.51fps but going down as low as 4.99fps in sections. Stepping down to 1366x768 and Medium quality, we were able to average 25.01fps and while it still stuttered slightly in sections with lots of movement, it was playable and looked fine.
Similarly, in Far Cry 4, we tried a variety of resolution and quality settings. We settled on 1366x768 with the Medium preset, and were able to enjoy the experience with an average frame rate of 39fps because this almost eliminated stuttering and the minimum rarely dropped below 30fps.
Battery life unfortunately did not live up to Asus' claims. We were able to get between six and seven hours of usage, with the screen brightness set to automatic. This mostly involved Web browsing and some office work, with a little YouTube video streaming thrown in. The Battery Eater Pro test, which taxes all components, ran for only 1 hour, 52 minutes when we would have expected close to twice as much.
Asus seems to have paid attention to what the market really wants, and that is a simple, no-nonsense laptop that's easy to carry around. Even with the base model, you get a modern processor and comfortably large SSD, and we're happy to see that creature comforts such as the excellent screen and backlit keyboard are common across the board. We aren't thrilled about the lack of useful ports, which is the only truly major limitation here.
Our ratings apply to the specific variant we tested which costs a lot more than the others becasue of its better CPU and discrete GPU. When we really get down to it, we have to pause to consider who this laptop is really aimed at, with its Rs. 93,990 price tag. It's good for casual gaming, but then too you're restricted to older titles at lower quality settings. You could pick up a decent gaming laptop with a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti GPU for the same amount or less (though it wouldn't be half as portable). The ZenBook UX430U variants without the discrete GPU cost a lot less, and if you don't want to run games at all, they make a lot more sense. For under Rs. 80,000, you still get a large SSD and all the other features. There's only a small niche that the top-end variant would appeal to.
That brings us back to our original question - could the ZenBook UX430U be a better deal than the venerable MacBook Air? At Apple's official retail prices of Rs. 77,200 and Rs. 92,500 for models with 128GB and 256GB SSDs respectively, the answer is overwhelmingly in favour of Asus. However, the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Air has consistently been available online for as little as Rs. 46,000 (after cashback offers) for the past few months. With this kind of a price difference, people are likely to flock to Apple anyway.
Asus ZenBook UX430UA
Price (as reviewed): Rs. 93,990
Ratings (Out of 5)