It’s been a while since we’ve reviewed a laptop that does something completely new. Most new models are updates: faster, with more RAM, more storage, slightly better screens – and sometimes fewer ports.
Over the last few years we’ve seen laptops made out of leather, and the emergence of flip-able laptop-tablets that are actually powerful and usable for designers and artists, the iPad becoming a major competitor to owning a laptop if drawing is your main creative process. All of these innovations are incredibly useful to us – but the last truly ‘new’ laptop feature was probably the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, an attempt to replicate the true purpose of a touchscreen without being a touchscreen that turned out to be Apple’s first big design blunder since the ‘dead cockroach’ charging process of its Magic Mouse.
Asus’ ZenBook Pro 14’s unique feature is an additional touchscreen that lives in the trackpad. This ’ScreenPad’ can act as a second HD monitor, or let you trigger application specific controls for the likes of controlling music playback, or you can just use it as a normal trackpad – switching quickly between modes by pressing F6. It’s genuinely something new, but is it a Touch Bar-like gimmick, or is it actually useful?
One thing it definitely is, is cool. Everyone we’ve shown the laptop here is initially impressed and intrigued – this is definitely a laptop for those who want to show off. And it’s a genuine feat of engineering to put an HD display into a trackpad. But over the course of a couple of weeks of testing, I’ve found it to be quite – rather than very – useful, a nice addition though hardly essential.
As a second screen, the ScreenPad is too small to make out much detail, but it can be useful for looking at single visual references. Unless you like squinting, you’re unlikely to put a full moodboard or a render on there.
However, in the standard ScreenPad mode, it’s more useful. You swipe down from the top of the pad to access six options, which initially can be a little too easy to trigger as you move your fingers down from the keyboard to the trackpad to move the pointer around, but you soon build the muscle memory to stop doing this.
There’s a numeric keypad that’s useful for additional keyboard shortcuts if you’re using a mouse with the ZenBook and don’t need the pad (niche).
There’s a calculator that’s really rather useful if you regularly need to pull one up to work out rates or sizes or whatever.
The same is true for the calendar.
The music player is less useful, as it only works with music on your computer – not Spotify.
The Launcher gives you a quick way to access your favourite apps, which you can set. You initially think it’s handy, but in practice, swiping down on the trackpad, selecting the Launcher and then your app isn’t much faster or easier than tapping on those apps on the Windows Taskbar (as the ZenBook Pro 14’s main screen is also a touchscreen). Even if you’ve hidden the Taskbar and have to run your finger to the bottom of the trackpad to make it appear, a quick click is little more effort than using the Launcher.
The final use for the ScreenPad directly replicates the functionality of Apple’s Touch Bar, giving you quick access to copy-and-paste and formatting controls – but only for Microsoft Office apps like Word and Excel. This is great for business users but unless Adobe or Asus release application-specific extensions for the likes of Photoshop or InDesign or Cinema 4D or Premiere Pro, its kinda worthless. Asus has helpfully provided a full set of developer specs for the Touch Bar – but considering how few application developers have built Touch Bar controls, it’s unlikely they will for the ZenBook’s almost-certainly smaller user base.
Take away the ZenBook Pro 14’s ScreenPad and what are you left with? Well, a rather nicely-specced laptop for those who want on a budget of £1,200 rather than two grand or more, that’s not too much larger than most 13-inch models but noticeably smaller than a 15-inch laptop (which usually have much more powerful components).
This laptop’s design is rather pleasing, but also well-thought-out from a practical perspective. The hinge is inset a little into the screen, so the base is raised a little off the desk/your lap when open. This means the keyboard is at three degrees off horizontal rather than flat, which makes for a more comfortable typing experience. Asus says that this also helps with cooling as air can flow under the base, and makes the audio sound better too.
For that money, you get a 14-inch, 1,920×1,080 touchscreen that’s ‘Pantone-certified’. There’s a 8th-gen, Core i7 8565U quad-core chip running at 1.8GHz – which is less powerful than you’d get in a 13-inch MacBook Pro but the same as you’d get in a Dell XPS 13 (we’re using 13-inch laptops for comparison here as pro-suitable models are generally available in 13-, 15 and sometimes 17-inch variants).
There’s 8GB RAM, the same as the base models of those two 13-inch laptops. The MacBook and XPS have integrated Intel graphics, but this ZenBook has an NVidia GeForce GTX 1050 – which is as powerful as it gets with models like these. If you’re working with applications that can take advantage of this – 3D apps like Cinema 4D certainly, but also if you’re working with complex Photoshop or Illustrator files – you’ll really see a boost from this chip.
For comparison, we’ve benchmarked the ZenBook Pro 14 against Dell’s XPS 13 and the ‘go-to’ laptop for creatives, Apple’s MacBook Pro 15-inch. The Dell XPS 13 currently costs £1,379/US$1,309 (it’s on sale in the US), while the MacBook Pro costs £3,689 – having a 6-core Core i9 processor, 32GB of RAM, an AMD Radeon Pro 560X graphics chip with 4GB RAM, and a 1TB SSD (and not enough variety of ports).
We first ran Puget’s Photoshop CC tests, using 16-bit images to really put it through its paces. Here, you can see that while the ZenBook Pro was (unsurprisingly) way behind the MacBook Pro, its graphics chip put it ahead of the Dell XPS overall and in the General performance test as well as the GPU-accelerated effects test that you’d expect it to do well in.
We also ran our standard set of Cinebench R15 tests, where the ZenBook Pro was equal to the XPS in CPU-based rendering, which is unsurprising as they have identical chips. For real-time 3D, the ZenBook left the XPS in its dust
We tested the screen using our usual Datacolor Spyder5Elite colourmeter and found that the screen could output 75% of the Adobe RGB colour space, 97% of sRGB and had an average delta-E – ie a colour accuracy score – of 1.0. This is good for a laptop of this price/size – though clearly not in the same league as popular 15-inch models for designers such as Apple’s MacBook Pro or Dell’s XPS 15/Precision 5530, which can output up to 100% of Adobe RGB and have average delta-E scores of 0.6-0.8.
The screen is Pantone-certified, meaning that it has been accredited by the colour system vendor as being able to ‘demonstrate superior fidelity in reproducing the Pantone Matching System’. If this sounds rather woolly, it is – it’s more marketing than a clearly defined standard. The results above are more telling.
In itself, the screen is great – but there’s no ability to upgrade if you want a higher resolution display, as there is the with the XPS 13 to a 3,200 x 1,800 pixels screen (and the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a higher resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 as standard). For this, you’ll need to look to the ZenBook Pro 15, which is a different class of laptop.
This is a shame as combined with a maxed out 16GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive and the already pretty-damn-powerful Core i7 chip and GTX 1050 graphics chip – you’d have the ability to turn this from a cost-conscious choice into a high performer.
Despite the high-end chips, we saw decent performance in our battery tests. Playing back an HD video on loop – our standard test – the ZenBook Pro lasted nine hours. For comparison, the XPS 13 lasted almost 11 and a half hours – which is what you’d expect considering that the XPS doesn’t have a touchscreen or a separate GPU.
It feels slightly odd that what was introduced to us as an innovator turns out to be a solid budget laptop for designers with some nice new touches – which also include Alexa-driven voice control – but that’s what the ZenBook Pro 14 is. And judged under these terms, it’s a largely a success.