ASUS ZenBook S review: A solid Ultrabook but not ASUS's best

The ZenBook S from ASUS is pretty good, but not necessarily the one you should get.

ASUS stepped up its ZenBook game lately, and laptops such as the ZenBook Flip S and ZenBook 3 Deluxe have really taken the PC maker into the upper echelons of the premium space.

The ZenBook S is another in the ever-growing ZenBook family. It's a small, stylish, powerful Ultrabook with a couple of neat features that make it stand out. On its own, it's quite good, but it also has a lot of competition ... especially from ASUS itself.

What you'll like about the ASUS ZenBook S

ASUS ZenBook S

Much like the rest of ASUS's current ZenBook lineup, the ZenBook S is something of a looker. The unit we have isn't the seemingly trademark blue but a rather fetching shade of red, and it certainly stands out. One thing you can be sure of with an ASUS ZenBook is that it'll break through the boring.

The ZenBook S has a 13.3-inch display available in either 1080p non-touch or 4K-touch forms. The 1080p version is what we have, and it's very nice. Despite being glossy, it's still bright enough to use in a well-lit room or on a train without straining to see through your own reflection. A matte finish would be preferable, though, on a display that you can't touch.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
CategorySpec
CPUQuad-core Intel Core i7-8550U, eight threads
RAM8GB/16GB
SSD256GB SATA3 SSD
512GB NVMe
Display13.3-inch IPS, 1920 x 1080
Optional 4K display
GraphicsIntel UHD 620
PortsUSB-C
Battery50Wh

The display is flanked by very skinny bezels, keeping the overall footprint very small. There's still room for a webcam, though, in the usual place. It's not a fancy Windows Hello-capable camera, however, but you have a fingerprint scanner embedded into the Precision touchpad to take care of your biometric needs.

The touchpad is very good, and the keyboard, while shallow, has quite firm, clicky-feeling keys. ASUS keyboards are usually top notch, and this one is no exception, but it is also very different than most others.

The hinge on the ZenBook S has been cleverly designed to elevate the base of the laptop in a similar way to the Surface Pro Type Cover. It's hard to explain until you try it, but it's so much more comfortable than a flat base you'll wonder how you did without it for so long. The ZenBook 15 has an angled base, but not nearly as dramatic as the ZenBook S.

ASUS ZenBook S

The clever hinge is helped by a sleek, super-thin body, with only USB-C ports. The headphone jack is actually built, unusually, into the display portion of the laptop.

Inside the sleek exterior, you find pretty much everything you'd hope to in a current high-end Ultrabook. An 8th-Gen quad-core Intel Core i7 is joined by 8GB or 16GB of RAM, and in this review unit, a 256GB SATA3 solid-state-drive (SSD), though a super-fast 512GB NVMe SSD is also available for storage. There's no dedicated graphics, which is a little disappointing since an NVIDIA MX150 would certainly have been welcomed over Intel integrated.

Nevertheless, graphics aside, you get some pretty solid performance from the ZenBook S. Here's how the numbers play out.

CPU

Geekbench 4.0 benchmarks (higher is better)

Swipe to scroll horizontally
DeviceCPUSingle coreMulti core
ZenBook SRow 0 - Cell 1 i7-8550U4,122 | 11,432
ZenBook UX331i5-8250U4,13312,805
ZenBook UX410Ui5-8250U3,96712,402
Surface Book 2 15i7-8650U5,03614,237
Surface Book 2 13i7-8650U4,86214,694
XPS 15 (9560)i7-7700HQ4,50313,587
Razer Blade 2017i7-7700HQ4,27713,597
Surface Laptop i7i7-7660U4,7149,535
Surface Pro 2017i7-7660U4,5139,346
Surface Booki7-6600U3,9777,486

SSD

CrystalDiskMark (higher is better)

Swipe to scroll horizontally
DeviceReadWrite
ZenBook S (SATA3)550 MB/s512 MB/s
ZenBook UX331509 MB/s433 MB/s
Zenbook UX410U530 MB/s455 MB/s
Surface Book 2 1TB1,411 MB/s1,202 MB/s
Surface Laptop i7486 MB/s244 MB/s
Surface Pro 20171,284 MB/s963 MB/s
Surface Book 1TB1,018 MB/s967 MB/s
Surface Laptop i5423 MB/s237 MB/s

The ZenBook S delivers pretty much everything you'd expect from a high-end Ultrabook. It looks great, performs great, and it's small and light enough to toss into any bag. The SSD on our review unit isn't the fastest, but by SATA3 drive standards, it's very good.

What you'll dislike about the ASUS ZenBook S

ASUS ZenBook S

One drawback of small, thin laptops is that you physically have less space to fit important bits, like a battery, into. And that's the case with the ZenBook S. Compared to laptops from a year or two ago, it's not bad, but given the current state of the competition, the ZenBook S falls pretty far short on battery life. During the course of this review, it's been impossible to go beyond six and seven hours off the charger, and the 4K model certainly won't be any better.

That's a shame, and naturally, if you're restricting intensive use then you'll get towards the higher end of that scale. But it's still disappointing.

Also disappointing is the heat generated when you are using it under load. The bottom of the laptop gets too warm for my tastes, to the point where I'd be uncomfortable with it on my lap for long periods. That's, again, a shame because the size is perfect to use in cramped spaces such as on the train.

And like a few of ASUS's other premium laptops, the speakers are poor. They face down, which is the first problem, the second is that they're just not loud enough to use for a prolonged period, and the third is that they just sound bad. There's no crispness at all, voices sound a little crackly and frayed at higher volumes, there's no particular detail to get excited about, and they'll be driving most of the sound into the table.

Should you buy the ASUS ZenBook S?

ASUS ZenBook S

The ZenBook S is a good laptop, but it's far from ASUS's best. The 4K model costs around $1,500, which isn't the highest you'll pay for a laptop of this level of hardware by any stretch. But it's let down by the sub-par battery life and the sometimes uncomfortable heat warming the metal bottom.

The Ultrabook space is full of superb laptops and to truly stand out, it takes more than a fancy hinge, even though the typing angle on the ZenBook S is second to none for comfort. I'd have liked to see some form of dedicated graphics, too, like ASUS included on other laptops like the ZenBook 15 or ZenBook UX331.

In fact, for most people, I'd say that either of those two would be a better purchase from the ASUS lineup. The latter is cheaper, has dedicated graphics and similar performance, while the former is one of the best laptops released this year and still comes in below the price of 4K model ZenBook S.

If you buy one, so long as you carry your charger on longer days out and don't put it on your lap, you'll enjoy it a lot. But it's not the one I'd get from the ZenBook lineup. That honor goes to the ZenBook 15.

Richard Devine is an Editor at Windows Central. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently you'll find him covering all manner of PC hardware and gaming, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.