You can get a better OLED notebook for less money
Zenbooks of this size are all usually a pretty similar deal — if you’ve used one, you’ve used them all. Two traits attempt to make the Zenbook 14X OLED, slated for release in early 2022, unique. The first is its OLED display, which is one of the first 90Hz OLED panels to appear in mass production. (Asus’s Vivobook Pro 14 OLED, which I reviewed earlier, is another.) The second is that the touchpad is also a screen. Like, it’s literally a tiny touchscreen. You can put windows down there and navigate them as you would with any other touchscreen device.
A bit of a spoiler: both of these features are cool but not quite as cool as they sound, especially considering their impact on battery life. Ultimately, if the Zenbook is a package you’re interested in, you’re better off going for the Vivobook Pro 14 OLED, which has the same OLED screen with an eight-core processor and a better GPU for a couple hundred dollars cheaper. The Zenbook’s target audience is really folks who want something out of the ordinary and are willing to pay for it.
To start with the OLED screen — it’s neat. It’s 16:10, it’s 2880 x 1800, and it’s a step up in the visual experience from a standard 1920 x 1200 panel. Colors are vivid, and blacks, the trademark of OLED technology, are very, very black. It makes text just a bit more striking, which is fun for me as someone who reads and writes all day. It almost maxes out our colorimeter, covering 100 percent of the sRGB gamut, 99 percent of Adobe RGB, and 100 percent of P3, and reaching 395 nits of brightness. Some glare is visible in a bright office setting, but nothing that interferes with work.
The 90Hz refresh rate is quite nice — scrolling is noticeably smoother — but, again, I’m not sure it’s worth the battery life impact. (More on that in a bit).
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
Pretty color scheme.
Second, the touchscreen touchpad. This is a similar idea to Asus’s Zenbook Duo, Zephyrus Duo 15, and other various dual-screen laptops that the company’s tried. The touchpad essentially functions as a tiny external display — you can drag windows back and forth between it and the primary panel.
When you don’t have a window open on the touchpad and you’re not actually using it as a touchpad, it’s essentially a secondary desktop with a grid of apps and shortcuts. The most useful one, to me, is the Group button, which allows you to “capture” whatever group of tabs and apps you have open at the time and pull it back up later. You can pull up a number pad and a calculator (which you can also do on the Vivobook’s screenless touchpad, though it doesn’t look as cool). There are shortcuts to open Voice Recorder, Solitaire, and the like on the primary screen (and you can add your apps and webpages of choice). There’s a Handwriting app — scribble on it, and the words will appear as text wherever your cursor is (email, Slack message, whatever).
This technology is very cool, and Asus has done a nice job making its interface attractive and easy to use. I’ll also admit that I still haven’t really found a use case for it. For a while, I tried sticking Slack or Twitter down there to glance at every so often while I worked. But neither was usable on such a tiny screen. This touchpad is the same size as many smartphones, but apps and webpages that you use on your smartphone are designed to be navigated on a tiny screen — apps on the Zenbook are not. Text was tiny, and clicking was clumsy (and I have small fingers).
The Handwriting app is actually impressive, and the device interpreted my terrible handwriting perfectly. That said, you should understand that this is a text-recognition app, not a full note-taking app — you can’t draw pictures or diagrams and expect the Zenbook to reproduce them. (And it couldn’t recognize Chinese and Korean characters I wrote, at least not with my language set to English.) As a pure handwriting-recognition tool, it is fun, but it does seem mostly to be fun — I’m not sure who actually needs something like this for their job (and folks that do can get fine Wacom tablets for under $100).
As I noted earlier, the most compelling component for me of the touchscreen touchpad is the grouping feature, especially since the numpad and calculator functions are available in plenty of other Asus laptops. But I don’t think that’s worth a several hundred dollar premium over the Vivobook.
It also seemed to confuse my external display a bit — windows I brought over were often too big by default and needed to be resized manually. I’m guessing the Zenbook is considering the touchpad as an extension of the primary screen (rather than a secondary screen), and that’s somehow throwing off its sizing. Regardless, this isn’t a disaster, but it is something I hope Asus can figure out before this ships.
Lone USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A on the left.
All the other portson the right (two Thunderbolt 4 USB-C, one HDMI 2.0, one microSD reader, one audio combo jack).
Behold the ScreenPad, running ScreenXpert 2.
Elsewhere, this is Zenbook through and through. It’s a fine-looking device with a nice lustrous lid that you can easily open with one hand and no screen wobble. A warning about Zenbooks, in general, is that the lids are fingerprint magnets — my unit was constantly smudged. The build is a bit plasticky — there’s a small amount of flex in the screen and keyboard, and I saw one small dent in the bottom of the deck after battering the device around in my full backpack for a few days — but a step above budget fodder. There’s a dark gray futuristic-y finish. It’s 0.67 inches (16.9 mm) thick and just over three pounds (1.4 kg) — not a featherweight but portable enough.
Like many Asus laptops, this Zenbook has the Ergolift hinge — the lid folds beneath the deck and lifts the keyboard up a few degrees, conveniently hiding some of the bottom bezels. This is supposed to make typing more ergonomic and help with cooling, but it was also a bit sharp on my lap.
It’s an HD camera, and it’s very tiny.
There are two Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports, one USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A, one HDMI 2.0, one microSD reader, and one audio jack. That’s a good mix, though I wish both USB-C ports weren’t on the right side. The Harmon Kardon speakers sound fine but don’t get nearly as much volume as I’d like — I sometimes had to lean far forward to hear my Zoom calls. The keyboard is comfortable with decent travel, and there’s a fingerprint sensor in the power button that didn’t give me any trouble.
One final thing to be aware of: the webcam isn’t good. Colors are accurate, but it’s grainy and a bit blurry at times — my editor said it looked like someone had smeared Vaseline over it during a Zoom call. I do enough video calls for work now that this would be a concern for me. I also appreciate physical shutters (which this one doesn’t have, though there’s a kill switch on the keyboard) the more I hear about embarrassing Zoom incidents.
You hit that tiny button in the bottom left corner to turn the Screenpad back into a regular navigable touchpad.
Inside is a Core i7-1165G7, 16GB of RAM, and 1TB of storage, in addition to an Nvidia GeForce MX450 discrete GPU. Samsung and Asus gave me a price of $1,400 for this unit but caveated that pricing may change closer to release. If that happens, I will update this review.
These specs, to put it bluntly, confuse me. The MX450 is a very entry-level GPU that I wouldn’t even recommend for esports gaming. (Forget about hitting 90 frames per second in modern games with it.) 16GB of RAM (the most you can get in this device) will also not be enough for many professional workloads. I’m happy to see 1TB of storage at this price, but I still can’t see this being a good choice for professionals or for gamers — it still seems primarily slated to be a multimedia machine for people who like OLED screens and smooth scrolling. For those folks, a Zenbook 14x is e-waste — the Vivobook pairs the same screen with an RTX 3050 for (allegedly) $200 cheaper.
That aside, the Zenbook did a fine job with my daily workload, even in the silent fan profile (called “Whisper Mode” in Asus’ control center) with Battery Saver on. It was sometimes warm but never hot, and I didn’t usually hear any fan noise.
But there’s a big tradeoff for that: battery life. I’m sure the Vivobook’s longevity isn’t helped by the fact that it’s operating a 90Hz high-resolution panel and also running a secondary screen. Still, this Zenbook doesn’t last long enough. I only averaged five hours and 38 minutes of continuous office use with this device around 200 nits of brightness. That does slightly beat the Dell XPS 13 OLED, but it’s less than we’ve seen from all kinds of high-resolution devices like Huawei’s MateBook 16 or any of Apple’s M1-equipped laptops. It means I couldn’t go a workday without plugging the device in. For most people (but especially those shopping for a 14-inch device), battery life is going to be more useful than an MX450 and a touchscreen touchpad.
My final note is on bloatware. This device shipped with a big load of annoying software preinstalled, including several McAfee programs that insisted on scanning everything I downloaded before I could open it, and that required me to close all my Chrome tabs and restart the computer in order to be uninstalled. This stuff shouldn’t be on a laptop that costs $1,400 — it just shouldn’t.
The Zenbook 14X OLED is a fairly affordable way to pair a 90Hz OLED screen with a GPU. Despite various nitpicks I have, it works well enough as a driver. The problem is that another laptop exists — the Vivobook Pro 14 OLED, with a very similar chassis, a very similar screen, and a better GPU — at a significantly lower price. I’m actually wondering if Asus and Samsung got wires crossed here because it makes no sense that the Zenbook costs so much more, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for any changes as we approach the release.
The main thing that could potentially justify the Zenbook’s price premium is its fancy touchpad. I really do like that Asus is doing this touchpad. I like that there’s a company out there trying things like this that are new and different — and that those things actually work. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is, as someone whose job it is to test a million laptops a week that are all basically the same thing, to know that there’s a company out there trying to figure out where they can do things differently.
I really, really hope there’s a group of people out there who has a perfect use for this touchpad in their life and who will turn out in droves to pay extra for this Zenbook because it’s the first laptop ever made that perfectly suits their needs. I’m not in this group, and I’m skeptical that it exists, but God, I hope it does.