Asus ZenBook 14 UX434FL review: A solid ultraportable, with added ScreenPad

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • Compact, lightweight and robust
  • Minimal screen bezels
  • Innovative ScreenPad/touchpad combo
  • Good speakers
  • Discrete Nvidia GPU

Cons

  • Reflective main screen
  • ScreenPad drains the battery

Last year, I reviewed the Asus ZenBook Pro 15 UX580GD, a 15-inch laptop with a secondary touchscreen doubling up on the trackpad. This innovation, the ScreenPad, turned a powerful laptop into something that stood out from the crowd. 

Asus has worked on the concept, launching 13-, 14-, and 15-inch laptops with an updated ScreenPad. I was sent the 14-inch ZenBook 14 UX434FL, which is available in two versions in the UK: with a Core i5-8265U processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD (£1,099 inc. VAT; £915.83 ex. VAT); and with a Core i7-8565U CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD (£1,299 inc. VAT). I looked at the high-end Core i7 version.

The ScreenPad might be the ZenBook 14 UX434FL's headline feature, but there's a lot else to like. This is a laptop with great build, an impressive speaker setup, and some very nice internal specifications. 

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The 14-inch ZenBook 14 UXX434FL runs on 8th-generation Core i5 or Core i7 processors with 8GB or 16GB of RAM and 128GB or 256GB of SSD storage. It comes with discrete Nvidia GeForce MX250 graphics and weighs 1.26kg. The ScreenPad functions as a touchpad and a second screen.

Images: Asus

Asus has overhauled the general design of its ScreenPad-equipped laptops. The ZenBook 14 UX434FL is styled in Asus' characteristic blue and gold, with the gold appearing as the speaker grille above the keyboard section, the key markings, port and connector markings, and the Asus branding on the lid, which has the company's familiar concentric-circles finish. 

The deep blue of the bulk of the chassis looks smart, and should prove equally acceptable in the office, at home, or in a coffee shop.

The build is robust: this laptop has undergone drop, vibration, altitude, and temperature tests, and meets MIL-STD-810G. Even so, a protective sleeve would be useful to keep the lid scratch-free. It weighs 1.26kg, which is perfectly acceptable for a 14-inch laptop, and its power brick is small and light. It fitted nicely into even my smallest (15-litre) backpack, so transportation should not be a problem.
 
The screen is a very shiny and reflective 14-inch LED backlit touchscreen with FHD (1,920 x 1,080) resolution. I needed to wipe finger-marks from the screen fairly frequently, and am not the greatest fan of reflective screens generally, but the colour reproduction here is very good -- certainly good enough for watching movies. I worked very happily with the screen at 40% brightness, too, so there's plenty of illumination behind it. Viewing angles are superb. This is not a 360-degree rotating laptop, however: the screen pushes back a fair way beyond 90 degrees, but gets nowhere near flat on a desk or table. 

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With its second-generation ScreenPad laptops, Asus has paid more attention to the screen's bezel. What we have here is a 'frameless NanoEdge' design, for which Asus claims a 92% screen-to-body ratio. The bezels all around are certainly small, and much smaller than on the ZenBook 14's predecessor. The top bezel is necessarily deeper because it houses the IR camera that supports Windows Hello biometric facial recognition.

Beware of the headline claims here. In the online specs, Asus says there is a 2.9mm-thin side bezel and 3.3mm bottom bezel, employing a footnote to explain that "the stated width of the side bezel is the distance between the edge of the non-active screen display area and the inside edge of the case. If the case width is included, the side bezel width is 4mm. The stated width of the bottom bezel is the distance between the edge of the non-active screen display area and the visible edge of the display when the laptop is opened to 90°."

So, the bezel is thicker than the initial information might suggest. Still, it's impressively narrow. Asus doesn't mention the upper bezel, which I measured at 8mm to the outer edge of the chassis.

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The keyboard is a full-size backlit unit with 1.4mm of key travel.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The keys have 1.4mm of travel and are nicely springy. They 'thunk' rather than click, and there's a rather hollow feeling behind them. The Fn key row includes a facility for toggling the ScreenPad as well as a shortcut to a snipping tool. The arrow keys are wide but shallow, while the Enter key is two keys wide but only one key deep. None of this is an issue, and I was able to touch-type comfortably at my usual speed.

ScreenPad

Beneath the keyboard, instead of a traditional touchpad, we have the ScreenPad. This measures 5.65 inches across the diagonal -- similar to many smartphones. It comprises a 2,160-by-1,080-pixel IPS display, while a glass cover makes it less susceptible to finger smears than the main screen. It incorporates standard touchpad features and can handle four-finger smart gestures.

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The ScreenPad will run applets from Asus and third parties, or you can drop apps from the main screen into it. An icon at the bottom toggles the ScreenPad into standard touchpad mode.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The ScreenPad has its own settings area where you can control brightness, set a background image, switch between resolutions (2,160 x 1,080 and 1,000 x 500 pixels), and even change the refresh rate (50Hz or 60Hz). 

The ScreenPad software has had an update since its first outing and is now at version 2.0. There are a number of pre-installed applets. Quick Key lets you automate frequently used keyboard sequences. Handwriting allows you to write onto the ScreenPad with a finger and enter text into an app or web page. Even though it will autocorrect, I found this much slower and less convenient than typing. NumKey allows you to enter numbers into apps, but doesn't do any calculating -- there's a separate Calculator app for that. 

Further apps provide control and input features for Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and there's MyAsus -- an Asus utility app. Third-party apps are available, and Spotify was preconfigured on my review laptop. You can also drag apps onto this area, making it easy to launch them at speed right into ScreenPad or from the ScreenPad launcher onto the desktop if you prefer.

A sweep of the ScreenPad takes you to a new screen where you can switch desktops or create a new one.

ScreenPad can also be used as a second display. Any app can be dropped down into the ScreenPad, where it will continue to function. For example you could keep social media feeds there while working on a document, or have a video running to glance at while doing something else. 

There are some tiny tappable controls on a navigation bar that runs along the bottom of the ScreenPad. One of these allows you to toggle into ordinary touchpad mode. You can also make a two-second dip into touchpad mode with a three-finger tap. That's handy because while you're using ScreenPad to view apps it can't function as a standard touchpad.

During testing I found the ScreenPad intriguing, but only intermittently useful -- and sometimes irritating. The most annoying thing is having to remember to switch into touchpad mode to do standard touchpad control. A longer term test -- for a few months -- is needed to determine whether ScreenPad has real utility as an everyday feature.

ScreenPad and battery life

What's certain is that the ScreenPad drains the battery. I did two four-hour controlled tests to measure how battery fared with and without the ScreenPad on. On both occasions the main screen was at its recommended 40% brightness for battery-based working, and that was plenty bright enough. 

For one test period I had the ScreenPad on and worked into apps, listened to streamed music, and used the web as well as the ScreenPad. The battery drained from 100% to 45%.

For another four-hour period I used the same regime with ScreenPad switched off, and the battery drained from 100% to 55%. 

The Harman Kardon speakers produce sound that's rich and deep, with no distortion at top volume. They are perfectly loud enough to push presentation audio across a meeting room. There is always more to ask for from laptop speakers, of course, and in this case a shade less treble would be good. I'd also like some granular controls for different environments. Still, what's on offer is perfectly good enough for both work and leisure use cases. 

The two versions of the ZenBook 14 UX434FL currently available differ in only three respects. The Core i5-8265U, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD version costs £1,099 (inc. VAT,) while the Core i7-8565U, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD version reviewed here costs £1,299 (inc. VAT). Discrete Nvidia GeForce MX250 graphics come as standard.

Asus has included a reasonable array of ports and connectors. The right edge has a USB 2.0 port, a 3.5mm headset jack, and -- a rare sight -- a MicroSD card reader. The right edge has the round-pin power jack, a full-size HDMI port, a USB 3.1 port, and a USB-C Gen 2 port. 

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Image: Asus

Conclusions 

The ZenBook 14 UX434FL is worth serious consideration if you're looking for a capable, lightweight yet robust 14-inch laptop. The ScreenPad may or may not appeal, but don't let that distract you from the rest of what's on offer here.

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