Asus ZenBook 3 review: A Windows cure for your 12-inch MacBook envy

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MSRP: $1,599.00

The Good Powerful Core i7 processor in a slim, portable package with an excellent touchpad. A helpful USB-C mini-dock is included.

The Bad The 12.5-inch display is locked at 1,920x1,080 resolution, and it isn't a touchscreen. Lots of extra bloatware. Battery life isn't as good as the MacBook. Other similarly configured systems cost less.

The Bottom Line The Asus ZenBook 3 mimics many of the best features of Apple's 12-inch MacBook, but in a Windows version with a more powerful processor.

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8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 7

When is a MacBook not a MacBook? There's a long history of PC makers selling computers that have a striking resemblance to one of Apple's laptops. Sometimes this is in the form of a subtle homage, other times, it's a literal attack of the clones. We'd even previously taken to calling one of Dell's older designs the "DellBook Air."

After Apple released the very minimalist 12-inch MacBook laptop in 2015, we saw a handful of similar designs, with Core M processors and ultra-shallow keyboards, and the Samsung Ativ Book 9 came closest to mirroring it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Now there's a new contender for most MacBook-like, called the Asus ZenBook 3. It's a close-to-total clone, at least on the outside. But under the aluminum chassis, this ambitious, slim laptop trades midtier Intel Core M processors for a low-voltage Core i7 CPU.

But, the ZenBook 3 also shares the MacBook's weaknesses, specifically a very shallow keyboard that's not conducive to long-form typing, and an extremely limited set of connection options, which consists of a single USB-C port and a headphone jack (no one is taking the headphone jacks out of laptops, yet).

This might seem like too small a laptop, with too many compromises, to be an effective tool for either work or leisure, but the design grows on you. In the case of the 12-inch MacBook, I decided after a year of on-and-off use that it was actually one of my favorite laptops to use, because of its extreme portability and overall ease of use.


The ZenBook 3 next to the Apple MacBook.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The same could be said of the ZenBook 3, but with a few important caveats. This Windows version of essentially the same design is missing a few advantages that the Apple version has. The touchpad, while good by ultraportable Windows laptop standards, can't come close to the responsiveness and multitouch gesture integration of any MacBook. That's the home-field advantage Apple has in closely designing both the computer hardware and computer operating system, including the just-released MacOS Sierra.

The second advantage Apple has is a singular focus on battery life, and the current version of the 12-inch MacBook (that system's second iteration) runs about 3.5 hours longer per charge than the ZenBook 3. That's an important consideration when toting around a superslim laptop that might very well travel with you all day long for start-and-stop sessions at meetings, in coffee shops or on airplanes.

This configuration of the ZenBook 3 has a low-voltage Intel Core i7-7500 processor, along with 16GB of RAM and a sizable 512GB of PCIe SSD storage. That configuration, when it's available later this fall, should cost $1,600 in the US. International Asus configurations often differ slightly, but that works out to £1,229 or AU$2,085. A better bang for your buck may be the $1,100 configuration (£845, AU$1,433), with a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.

ZenBook 3

Price as reviewed $1,600
Display size/resolution 12.5-inch 1,920 x 1,080 screen
PC CPU 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U
PC Memory 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz
Graphics 128MB Intel HD Graphics 620
Storage 512GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)

The one spec that you can't change, and one of the ZenBook 3's main letdowns, is the standard 1,920x1,080 screen resolution, which is the only option available on this 12.5-inch non-touch display. Premium laptops, even with smaller sub-13-inch screens often hit 2,560x1,440 or higher.

There's a good case to be made for the very similarly configured Razer Blade Stealth, another slim laptop with a 12.5-inch screen. The newly refreshed Blade Stealth (full review coming soon) has the same Core i7-7500 CPU, and can be configured with similar RAM and hard drive specs. But, its display is a 2,560x1,440 touch screen, and our test configuration (Core i7/16GB RAM/256GB SSD) is $1,250 in the US. My biggest knock against that system is the dated-looking extrawide bezel surrounding the screen.


The very similar Razer Blade Stealth, which has a higher screen resolution, but a wide bezel around the display.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Of course, you could also just get a 12-inch MacBook, starting at $1,300 (£1,050 and AU$1,800). It's a fun, fast-feeling little computer, with a higher-res screen and new MacOS features such as Siri and a universal clipboard that shares content between the laptop and an iPhone. But, its Core m-series CPU isn't as powerful, and it tops out at 8GB of RAM, rather than the 16GB found here.