You want a laptop that looks nice. Asus understands that. That’s why the company has tried so hard to build a better MacBook. The ZenBook line has given birth to many beautiful, powerful, desirable machines that offer PC people a chance to preen—even when they’re surrounded by MacBooks at their local cafe.

The newest addition to the family, the ZenBook Pro UX501, is a competitor for the 15-inch MacBook Pro in looks and performance. At least, it wants to be.

What Is It?

A high-end 15-inch laptop for creative professionals and other power users who want a stylish machine. Pretty much what you’d expect from a non-enterprise “pro” laptop: a Core i7 CPU, a discrete Nvidia graphics chip, a lot of RAM, all-metal construction, attention-grabbing design elements, and a 4K screen. Basically the same computer as its gamer sibling, the Asus G501, except for the shiny silver aluminum finish and an added touchscreen.

Competitively priced considering the specs: just $1500 right now.

Design

Asus keeps things simple—and very, very familiar to anyone who’s ever hefted an Apple machine. There are some fluorishes, though. The edges are chamfered to keep them from biting into the skin as much as they might. (I still wouldn’t call it comfortable.) Instead of a matte finish like the MacBook Pro, the ZenBook’s lid has a spun metal design. A ripple pattern across the top of the keyboard serves as both the stereo speaker grilles and a nice design touch. Sadly, the audio quality doesn’t live up to the aesthetic one.

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The full size keyboard is standard Asus—not mushy; not very springy, either—and the numeric keypad, while a little squished, is just wide enough to use without having to look.

Though the aesthetics are clearly meant to evoke comparisons to the MacBook Pro and exude a similar creative professional aura, I can’t deny that it looks good. Add a beautiful 4K resolution 15.6-inch display with popping colors, wide viewing angles, and responsive touch, and the ZenBook Pro could definitely attract a few Apple-eschewing Windows lovers.

Using It

This is not a laptop you buy if all you do is check email, process words, and challenge your Facebook friends to Bejeweled Blitz duels. It’s called the ZenBook Pro because it’s meant for work, and those are the specs you’re paying for.

If you’re a serial tab opener like me, you’ll be happy to know the 16GB of RAM makes it possible to have a ridiculous number of them open in Chrome and Firefox without stealing all the resources.

Once you get into more performance-intensive applications, the ZenBook’s limits become clear. Like the G501, this machine runs on an Intel Core i7-4720HQ processor and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M GPU (with 2GB VRAM instead of 4), with a 512GB SSD and 16GB of RAM. Sounds pretty speedy, no? Yet somehow I only managed to get midrange performance.

Instead of zooming through tasks like batch processing hundreds of images or rendering and encoding a 7 minute video, the ZenBook took enough time that you’d either want to multitask in another window (entirely possible with this hardware) or go get a snack. It’s powerful, but it doesn’t feel blazing fast. I wonder which component is to blame.

At five pounds, it’s not terribly heavy for a 15-inch computer, but it still feels like a PC that’ll sit on your desk more than you carry it around. If you put it in your shoulderbag, you’ll definitely feel that weight after a short walk. The power brick is large and adds another pound and a half on its own. Good news: the battery lasts five to six hours, so you might not need to bring it along.

The Best Part

The UHD screen is a joy to behold. When you’re watching video or looking through photos the high pixel density feels worth it.

Tragic Flaw

That 4K resolution is also the ZenBook’s Achilles heel. That pixel density may make for beautiful images, but it also causes problems with some apps. Adobe Premiere Pro, GIMP, and a few other programs were nearly unusable due to teeny, tiny icons and menu fonts. Even programs that scaled UI elements appropriately still looked weird and wrong.

Unless you’re sure all the programs you need will scale properly, a 4K screen is going to hinder your workflow more than it helps.

Review Notes

  • The large touchpad sits in the center of the ZenBook’s deck and not centered below the G and H keys on the keyboard.
  • Most 15.6-inch laptops are stocked with plenty of full size ports. The ZenBook is thin for the size and that means the VGA and Ethernet ports are relegated to dongle-hood. Both dongles are included.
  • Other ports: 3x USB 3.0, HDMI, Thunderbolt, an SD card slot, and a 3.5mm headset jack.
  • The entire touchpad clicks down for a left click, but only the right-hand-corner of the pad activates a right-click.
  • The power button looks just like a regular keyboard key, and is located above the num-pad. It takes getting used to, especially if you reach without looking.
  • There’s lots of pre-installed software on the ZenBook, including some Asus-branded apps and some “deals.” You’ll likely end up uninstalling most of them.
  • Even when performing intensive tasks, the ZenBook stayed quiet and didn’t get unduly hot on the bottom.

Should You Buy It?

Maybe. The design looks nice and the screen definitely rivals MacBook Retina displays. It’s the kind of machine that looks great in the coffee shop when you’re surrounded by glowing Apple logos. The price is pretty nice for a laptop with a 4K screen and a sizable 512GB solid state drive, too. But I just don’t think that 4K screen and mid-range performance make sense if you actually want to get some work done.

The display is beautiful, and if all you want to do is play 4K video on it (with a speaker connected for better audio) that’s good enough. We also know it plays games decently well. But if you’re here for content creation and other resource-intense work, this machine probably won’t cut it.

What might? Creative professionals could pick up the Lenovo ThinkPad W550s (Intel Core i7, 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD, Nvidia Quadro K620M GPU, 2GB of VRAM, nontouch 15.5-inch 2880 x 1620 screen) or, for those who want something a bit more stylish, the HP ZBook 15u G2 (Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM, 256GB SSD, AMD FirePro M4170 GPU, 1GB of VRAM, nontouch 15.6-inch 1920 x 1080 screen) instead.

Both offer speedier performance and screen resolutions that are less likely to cause a problem. And in the case of the ZBook, you get a lighter laptop that’s a bit easier to carry around.


Contact the author at kaytee@ktbradford.com.