Note: This review was first published on 9 Jan 2021.
I know this is a review of an ASUS notebook but I have to talk about Intel. Usually, when Intel releases a new processor, there’s whoops of cheer and champagne popping. But this time, there’s a sense of gloom and doom in the air. Intel is in trouble and everything feels somewhat ominous. Mostly this is because despite its best efforts, Intel has confirmed that its 7nm chip won’t be ready until 2022 at the earliest. This won’t help when rivals AMD already has an established line of 7nm processors which are garnering rave reviews.
Tiger Lake is the response to all this. It’s still built on a 10nm process (like its predecessor Ice Lake) but with enhancements that Intel claims will deliver performance and efficiency gains that are comparable to that of a full node transition. It also boasts Intel’s new Xe graphics, which the company is asserting to be better than the competition. All very bold claims.
Happily, we have just received ASUS’ new ZenBook 14 Ultralight. This is ASUS’ new premium 14-inch ultraportable notebook and it has some very noteworthy features. Let's take a closer look at it now.
The name probably tells you all you need to know. The ZenBook 14 Ultralight is the ultraportable model of ASUS’ new lineup of Tiger Lake notebooks. Visually, it’s almost impossible to distinguish the new ZenBook 14 Ultralight from earlier ZenBook models. They all look about the same and have roughly the same dimensions.
The construction of the ZenBook 14 Ultralight, however, is entirely different because it’s made out of magnesium-lithium alloy. This has enabled ASUS to bring the weight of its mainstream 14-inch ZenBook down to just 995g, making this one of the lightest 14-inch notebooks in the market.
Since notebooks that are made out of magnesium tend to feel a little plasticky, ASUS puts the ZenBook 14 Ultralight through a micro-arc oxidation process to create a layer of ceramic over the chassis. Primarily, this gives the chassis greater hardness and resistance to oxidation and corrosion but it also helps make it feel less plastic. Overall, this notebook feels sturdy and well put together.
Despite a thickness of just 14.9mm, ASUS has managed to cram a full-size HDMI 2.0 port as well as USB-A USB 3.2 Gen 1 port into the ZenBook 14 Ultralight. It also has two USB-C ports that support Thunderbolt 4 and a microSD card reader. Fortunately, there’s no DC-in jack. You can charge and power the notebook using one of the two USB-C ports. And fear not, there's a 3.5mm audio jack. On the wireless connectivity front, you have support for Wi-Fi 6 as well as Bluetooth 5.0.
The display measures 14 inches diagonally across and it's Full-HD in resolution. It isn't a touchscreen though. Also, it has a matte finish, which is quite uncommon to see. While it does mean that it looks less vibrant, the upside is that it is less prone to glare and reflection. Overall, it's by no means the best display in its class but it's decent enough.
The speakers are quite remarkable. Its gets quite loud and it's clear even at full volume though there's little palpable sense of bass. One feature that ASUS wants to highlight is ClearVoice which uses AI to nullify environmental noise when you are speaking on a conference call. This is enabled using the MyASUS app and can be useful if you are using a cheap microphone or headset.
Here are the key specs of the ZenBook 14 Ultralight:
It’s a formidable combination of the latest mobile CPU and GPU from Intel and NVIDIA respectively for ultraportable notebooks. ASUS has also thoughtfully equipped the notebook with a generous amount of memory and storage.
The keyboard and trackpad will feel familiar to anyone who has used a recent ZenBook. One nice design feature of the newer ZenBooks is ErgoLift, which uses the display cover as a prop to gently lift the notebook by a couple of degrees. This creates a tilt making it more pleasant to type and also improves ventilation under the chassis.
The keys are well-sized and have a nice weight to them (though too light for my liking) and a rather surprising amount of travel. ASUS claims 1.4mm of verticality and it feels about right. The layout is mostly sensible but users will need to get used to the extra column on the right for the navigational keys. I kept hitting Home when I wanted to hit Backspace. Like the ZenBook 14 UX425, the ZenBook 14 Ultralight also has some special shortcut keys in the function row.
The trackpad measures 10.5cm across and 6.3cm from top to bottom, which is slightly less wide than the older ZenBooks. Thanks to a glass top layer and Windows Precision drivers, it feels smooth and responsive but if I want to nitpick, I’d say there’s some haziness to it and it doesn’t feel quite as accurate as the best trackpads that I have used.
It features ASUS NumberPad 2.0 technology so it can double up as a number pad. Even when activated, the trackpad is mostly intelligent enough to know when you are trying to use the number pad feature and when you are trying to use it to navigate and click. Depending on how comfortable you are with it, this feature can be handy especially if you need to work extensively with spreadsheets or if you have to do heavy calculations. Nothing beats a physical set of keys, but in lieu of space on a compact notebook, this is a unique option that hasn't been replicated by other brands.