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Hands On: ASUS ZenBook 3 UX390UA

We’ve been looking forward to getting our hands on the ASUS ZenBook 3 UX390UA -- not only is it all kinds of fancy, it's rocking the new 7th Gen CPU, also known on the mean streets as Kaby Lake.

We just got our sample a few minutes ago but wanted to give you our thoughts on one of the first 7th Gen devices to hit the market.

ZenBook is ASUS’s premium svelte laptop line and the new ZenBook 3 UX390UA continues the tradition of slimming down in every possible dimension.

If you see a comparison to a Macbook, you wouldn’t be wrong -- not only are the dimensions and specs similar, but the ZenBook 3 ditches all ports save for a single USB-C and a headphone jack. Unlike the Macbook, ASUS throws in a dongle for more ports.

There are two models for launch -- an i5-7200U with 512GB SATA drive and an i7-7500U with a 512GB NVMe drive. We received the top i7 model in Royal Blue that runs for $1599.

Classing It Up

ASUS has positioned the aesthetic and hardware of the ZenBook as top of the line, and that’s clearly on display here. The case has a spun metal finish and an all metal unibody enclosure that contributes to the premium feel.

Our model is “Royal Blue” -- a deep navy finish with a thin line of gold trim around the display.

Really, if you have fantasies of yachting with Ralph Lauren in Nantucket wearing cableknit sweaters, the Royal Blue is the perfect option.

Obviously it depends on your preference of color, but the ZenBook 3 definetly looks and feels expensive. While the Royal Blue is a unique choice, we really loved how it looked. And we hate yachting. But ASUS has done a great job making the laptop look really premium with a cool contrasting color theme. We have no problems rocking it at the local premium laptop catwalk known as Starbucks. 

The other available colors are Quartz Grey or Rose Gold. All of them have the gold trim.

Unfortunately the finish does collect fingerprints, far more than ASUS’s own Zenbook Flip 2-in-1 with the purple finish. So get your polishing cloth ready for action after extended use.

As for weight, the ZenBook 3 comes in at a stellar 2.1 pounds. It’s remarkably portable at 11.7" x 7.5" x 0.5", and has the weight and thickness of an average tablet, with the remarkable specs of a highly functional PC.

Getting on the Feels

The keyboard is perfectly adequate given its slim profile. It doesn’t have the tactile joy of some other laptop keyboards, but it’s easy to use, and the arrow keys are a good size which can be an oversight on some keyboards this small.

Interestingly, the board backlight is in “gold” aka a darkish yellow. Our fingers definitely felt the bling at night. In reality, the yellow is unique and the ASUS designers pulled off the look without making it seem cheesy (cheddar-colored or otherwise).

The trackpad is fairly standard as well, though it does have one intriguing feature; a small square in the top right corner that reads fingerprints. Though it’s sort of an odd placement (Why not just put it next to the trackpad?) the unlocking feature works exactly how it is supposed to. Great for those of you concerned with security.

The 12.5” Full HD (1920x1080) display is covered in Gorilla Glass, which makes me feel better about my clumsy behavior not immediately ruining a $1,600 purchase.

The downside is that the screen is a bit dim, and is somewhat difficult to see when using in bright light or outdoors.

It would be nice if it was a touchscreen, or for that matter a 2-in-1, but that would no doubt raise the price even higher. Nearly every person who tried the ASUS thought the screen was touchable and got confused.

For this price and form factor, it’s so close to a 2-in-1, it seems ASUS could have easily added the touch screen and the flip hinge.

The ZenBook also comes with a very attractive case. It looks like a leather envelope with yellow stitching, and a magnetic flap keeps dust away from the laptop. It doesn’t have a strap, but it could be a great way to keep it clean and safe while you transport it around.

Brains of the Operation

One of the most exciting things about the ZenBook 3 is the new CPU. The i7-7500U 2.7 (or Turbo to 3.5 GHz) is the seventh generation in Intel’s CPU line, and is also known as Kaby Lake (pronounced “kay-be” not “cab-e”). While Kaby isn’t an evolutionary upgrade from Skylake, it has been optimized to provide better performance, 4k video and much longer battery life.

Kaby Lake’s improvements explains why we’re not seeing desktop gaming CPUs first. Kaby’s tweaks focus more on battery and video so extensive Youtube video drains far less battery life than before.

Strangely, Kaby Lake is also part of Intel’s larger rollout of Thunderbolt 3. But no Thunderbolt 3 on the ASUS. We think every device needs to get on the Thunderbolt bandwagon, especially with graphics docks around the corner. Sweet Strix anyone?  While the low power i7-7500U isn't exactly the ideal match for a GTX 1080, we can't wait to see just how far itty bitty PCs with GPU docks can really go. 

As for the SSD, the Zenbook 3 has only two options -- 512GB or 512GB. That’s right -- same capacity but the lower model is SATA meaning max transfers of around 500MB/s vs the NVMe PCIe SSD in the higher model that eclipses 2000MB/s. The Royal Blue model has the top NVMe drive.

RAM is 16GB DDR3 but 2133MHz variety.

Loud and Proud

We were not expecting this, but the ZenBook 3 has remarkably good sound for such a small computer. The four Harman Kardon speakers in tandem with the four channel amplifier produce a surprisingly loud and clear audio. It’s not going to replace an external set of speakers, but it held up well against much larger laptops, and for that ASUS should be commended.

Unfortunately, the fan is a little on the loud side as well. Even when it was sitting idle, occasionally the liquid-crystal-polymer fan would be audible, sounding almost like static. It’s understandable given the heat being generated by the toasty CPU, and it wasn’t loud enough to be distracting, but it’s definitely noticeable.

The Ins and Outs

As we mentioned, the ZenBook 3 went the route of the Macbook and removed all but the headphone jack and a single USB 3.1 Type C port. Our model shipped with a USB hub that allowed for HDMI, USB 3 and another USB-C. There are already numerous USB-C docks available if you use more than one USB port at a time. Still though, there is no getting around that this could provide an issue for those of you who utilize peripherals like a wireless mouse and keyboard.

Battery Life

A critical component of portability is battery life. This can be difficult to predict as so much is dependant on the habits of the user, but there is no question that the ZenBook 3 has a solid battery. The battery is a 40WHrs, 6-cell Li-ion polymer model, so pretty standard. We'll be looking to do more extensive battery life testing, especially since Kaby Lake is all about the juice. 

The power supply is a 45W  brick with non retractable prongs, and uses the USB-C port to charge the battery.

Zen Thoughts

Overall, it’s easy to be impressed with the ZenBook 3. The inclusion of a 7th generation i7 CPU in addition to the solid storage specs and attractive design make this an easy recommendation for someone who wants a high performance laptop in a tiny case.

We do think ASUS will eventually combine their ZenBook Flip with the ZenBook 3 and just make a tiny 2-in-1. Regardless, ASUS clearly has a winner on their hands and, if you’re skeptical about the blue/gold, don’t be. We loathe anything that screams old money. But the ASUS team won us over. Nicely done.

Photos by: Joel Moody