While Asus released nearly a dozen 13 inch Zenbooks in the last two years, they failed to compete in the larger segment of 15 inch multimedia ultra-portables, a niche dominated by the Apple Retina Macbook Pro or the Dell XPS 15.
Not anymore though. Asus announced the NX500 and the GX500 lines at Computex a while ago and is now time to have a detailed look at the Zenbook NX500JK, the top version of the NX500 series, in this post.
The NX500 packs powerful specs, a high resolution screen, nice speakers and a large battery inside a sleek aluminum body and all these make it, on paper, one of the most interesting premium 15 inchers of the moment. But does it actually deliver? And what is it good for? Well, you’ll find the answer by the end of this thorough review.
Before we start, here’s the disclosure. I have an Asus Zenbook NX500JK for this test, offered by Asus. I’ve used it for a little over a week and then it got back where it came from. On top of that, this is a pre-production model and not the final-retail unit, so it can have some issues that Asus is going to hopefully fix on the final models, which should be available in shop several weeks after the post-date of this review (July 23rd 2014). Even so, you’ll probably find this post useful anyway, even if you read it several months from now.
Asus Zenbook NX500JK video review
The specs sheet for the Asus Zenbook NX500JK
|Asus Zenbook NX500 JK|
|Screen||15.6 inch, 3840 x 2160 px resolution, IGZO IPS, touchscreen|
|Processor||Intel Haswell Core i7-4712HQ CPU|
|Video||integrated Intel 4600 HD + Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M 2GB GDDR5|
|Memory||16 GB DDR3|
|Storage||512 GB SSD|
|Connectivity||Wireless AC, Bluetooth, Lan (with adapter)|
|Ports||3xUSB, SD card reader, HDMI, mini-DisplayPort, RJ45 (with adapter)|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1|
|Size||378 x 255 x 19 mm (22 mm think, including the feet (19 mm without))|
|Weight||about 2.2 kg (4.85 pounds)|
|Extras||backlit keyboard, Bang&Olufsen Speakers|
Design and exterior
The Zenbook NX500 looks and feels how a 2G+ laptop should look and feel. Its entire body is solid and made out of metal, but the NX500 has a larger footprint than the Retina MBP or the XPS 15 and is about half a pound heavier than those as well.
Note: Excuse me for interrupting, I'm gathering my favorite Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals on ultraportable laptops over here, if you're interested.
The lid cover houses the characteristic concentric circles we’ve seen on all Zenbooks before, with a more subtle texture though, like on the UX303 I tested a while ago, which should make it less prone so smudges.
The bottom is strong and does not flex or squeak and you’ll notice that there are no cooling cuts over here, which on one hand allows you to place the laptop on any surface without worrying about obstructing the cooling system, but at the same time has an impact on running temperatures, as you’ll find below.
The Asus Zenbook NX500JK is beautiful and solid built
The interior is cast from a single slab of aluminum, with a large palm-rest, tapered edges and two grills of precision drilled holes that spread from the keyboard. This was borrowed from the N550 line and hides the speakers underneath, but if you’ll look at the laptop from an angle you’ll notice that the speakers only occupy two small areas on each side. Even so, there’s good quality sound coming out of this laptop, but more about that later.
While we’re here, it’s worth mentioning that the screen’s hinge is sturdy, massive and keeps the display in place exactly how you set it up. You can only lean it back to about 130-140 degrees and that’s alright for a computer that’s going to spend most of its life on a desk.
When it comes to ports, the NX500 offers pretty much the same options we’ve seen on the Zenbook UX303LN. There are 3 USB 3.0 ports, a card-reader, HDMI and miniDP connectors, plus the heapdhone/mic jack and some very subtle status LEDs/mics on the front lip, but I wished Asus put at least one more USB slot on this device, which is after-all a 15 incher. They do however offer a USB to RJ45 connector in the pack, alongside a nice padded sleeve for this laptop.
Keyboard and trackpad
You probably noticed by now that Asus ditched the NumPad Area on the NX500 and as a result the keyboard feels very roomy, with plenty of space around it. The keys are properly sized and spaced and the layout is a lot similar to the one on the Macbook Pros, with the smaller arrows and Function keys. That’s not a bad thing though, too bad this laptop does not borrow more aspects from the MBP.
One thing could have been the contrast between the silver case and the keys. Asus put Silver keys on a Silver background on the NX500, which is both aesthetically unappealing and impractical, as the white back-lightning system makes the keys poorly visible when the illumination system it active. That’s why I actually turned it OFF, at least this way I’d have some contrast between the Dark Gray writing on the keys and the sea of silver around.
Silver keys on a silver background
The typing experience is good, but not great as it should be on a laptop in this price range, mainly because the keys are not firm enough and have a plasticky, slippery finishing. So you’ll end up missing some stokes from time to time.
The trackpad however is quite good. It’s not very big, but it is properly positioned in the middle of the palm-rest and has a smooth glass surface which proved to be accurate and reliable in my tests. Performing actual clicks is not as noisy as on other Zenbooks I’ve tested, which is again something I appreciated, but the pad still misses occasional taps, which might steer you towards a mouse in the end.
There’s a 15.6 inch touchscreen on this laptop, with a Sharp made IGZO IPS panel and a whooping 3840 x 2160 px resolution, with a 60 Hz refresh rate at 4K.
Needles to say you’re not going to be able to use it at native resolution unless scaling up the content, and Asus ships the laptop with everything scaled to 200% by default. This translates in the same canvas size you’re getting from a regular 1080p 15.6 inch screen, but much sharper details, visible especially when browsing and reading texts. Keep in mind that not all third party software will scale well though, so you might end up having to handle minuscule texts and interface elements from time to time, but that’s a given with all high-res panels on Windows.
- 4k at 200%
- 4k at 100%
- Next to the iPad Air
You can of course change the screen’s resolution to let’s say 1920 x 1080 px with 100% scaling, but in this case everything looks slightly blurry, which you’ll notice when dealing with texts and fine details. So personally I wouldn’t go this way, unless playing games often. Some games will run in centered windows if the in-game resolution is lower than the resolution in Windows, regardless of the settings. In this situation, I found that I’d have to match the Windows res to the one I want in games in order for the image to stretch on the entire canvas.
The screen itself is actually very good. It covers 100% of sRGB, 92% of NTSC and 97% of the Adobe RGB standards and has the following characteristics (I’m using a Datacolor Spyder4 Elite for my measurements):
- measured gamma: 2.1 ;
- max brightness: 270 cd/m2;
- contrast at max brightness: 740:1;
- white point: 6900 K;
- Black on max brightness: 0.36 cd/m2.
The brightness and contrast are decent and they don’t vary in any way when changing the resolution. Asus actually advertised a wider gamut panel for the NX500 (100% NTSC) when it was launched and this sample is close. The colors are fairly well calibrated out of the box and the brightness distribution is decent, although the center is considerably brighter than the sides.
Long story short, there’s a high quality panel on this laptop, as proven by the numbers above, but Asus needs to tweak it for battery use. It should work the same regardless if the laptop is on battery or plugged in. Don’t forget I’m testing a pre-release unit here, so hopefully they will address the issues on the final retail models.
Hardware, performance and upgrade options
There’s an Intel Core i7-4712HQ processor on this laptop and an Nvidia GTX 850M graphics chip with 2 GB of GDDR5 memory, plus the integrated Intel HD 4600 graphics. My configuration also comes with 16 GB of RAM and a PCI-E Samsung 512 GB SSD.
GPU-Z shows that the Nvidia chip is clocked at 850 MHz in idle, but HWInfo shows that it runs at 1150 MHz under load (haven’t checked with GPU-Z ), which means that Asus factory-overclocked the chip. Some of the benchmark results below are also a proof of that:
- 3DMark 11: P4503;
- 3DMark 13: Cloud Gate –13047, Fire Strike – 3281, Fire Strike Extreme – 1618;
- PCMark 08: Home Conventional – 2495, Home Conventional Battery Life – 2966;
- CineBench 11.5: OpenGL 55.23 fps, CPU 5.35 pts;
- CineBench R15: OpenGL 82.35 fps, CPU 490 cb.
All the tests were performed with Nvidia’s 337.88 driver installed.
If you’re planning on upgrading this laptop yourself, have a look at the internals illustrated in the pictures below. The CPU and the GPU are soldered on the motherboard and not-upgradeable. The heat-pipes go over them and are cooled by the two fans on each side of the unit.
8 GB of RAM are also soldered on the MB, and there’s an extra DIMM that now has an 8 GB memory module in it, for the total of 16 GB. That aside, you’ll notice the M.2 NGFF PCI-E 512 GB SSD on the left side of the laptop, as we’re looking at it from the back, the Wi-Fi module on the top-left and another free M.2 connector on the right, which can take an extra SSD (looks like only a 60 mm card will fit in there, while the main connector is longer and can take a 80 mm NGFF SSD).
Besides these, you’ll notice the battery on the bottom (under the palm-rest) and the speakers on the sides, firing upwards, through those holes in the aluminum case.
The hardware inside the Zenbook NX500
Given the powerful hardware, the NX500 simply flies in casual tasks, with the CPU rarely passing the economical 0.8 GHz minimum frequency. But the laptop can also handle serious work, from video and photo editing software, to programming solutions, all sorts of high-resolution video content and of course, games.
The gaming experience is mostly alright, but somewhat inconsistent. You should not expect too much from the Nvidia GTX 850M chip, which is merely a main-stream solution; if you need a true gaming ultraportable, I suggest having a look at this article. The NX500 cannot handle gaming at 4K resolutions, but is able to run well pretty much all the recent titles on 19 x 10 resolution with details set to at least High. Check out some results below (measured with Fraps).
|19 x 10 high details|
|Dirt 3||81 fps|
|Grid 2||90 fps|
|Tomb Raider||51 fps|
|NFS Most Wanted||38 fps|
|Bioshock Infinite||63 fps|
|Metro Last Light||37 fps|
Judge them by yourself and let me know what you think in the comments section at the end of the post.
However, while the numbers don’t look bad, the laptop tends to occasionally freeze when running certain games and that’s especially visible in titles like Dirt 3 and Grid 2, which require fast response times. I’ve logged the activity with HWInfo and it looks like the CPU throttles under load, as its Cores frequency even drops to 800 MHz for short periods of time and then bounce back again. The graphics chip on the other hand runs smoothly at 1149 MHz. I can’t say for sure if freezes occur exactly when the CPU throttles, but I can say that they were less freqent in titles like Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite than on those racing games.
The laptop’s case gets hot while running games, but the internals reach temperatures of around 85 degrees Celsius (both the CPU and the GPU), which are not that high. However, HW monitor does detect CPU throttling under load which leads to a drop in frequency, as said above, which might be some sort of software capping designed to protect the silicone or some sort of drivers glitch. If it’s the first, something could be made. Asus could allow the CPU to reach maybe 90 degrees before lowering the frequency, that should be alright long term. If it’s the later, then a fix should be available by the time this hits the stores.
BTW, room temperature was about 25 degrees Celsius while conducting all these tests.
For now though, it’s impossible to draw final conclusions on the NX500’s true gaming abilities. This particular pre-release version struggles and freezes when running some games, which should not happen, despite the fact that the numbers (fps) are high. And this needs to get addressed before having the series officially released.
Another thing worth mentioning involves the Battery Boost setting in Nvidia’s Geforce Experience, which by defaults limits frame rates on battery mode at 30 per second. That’s why it might feel that the laptop performs poorer on battery but that’s not the case if you disable the Set frame rate target on battery check-box from the settings.
I also put the laptop through a quick stress test. Pushing the CPU alone with Prime95 causes no throttling (all Cores run at 2.3 Ghz) and gets the Cores to about 80 degrees. Launching Furmark while running Prime 95 immediately drops the CPUs operating frequency under 2.3 GHz and progressively crawls it towards 800 MHz, which it reaches and where it stabilizes in about a minute after launching Furmark. During this time, the GPU runs consistently at 1149 MHz and the CPU’s Cores get to 85-86 degrees. The situation remained unchanged for the next 5 minutes of running Prime95 and Furmark together, at the end of which I stopped the workers, as I didn’t want to push this pre-production model too much. In conclusion, the NX500 does throttle quickly to the minimum CPU frequency under the stress test, but the graphics do not.
Noise, Heat, Connectivity, speakers and others
I was mentioning that the case reaches high temperatures when playing games and unfortunately I don’t have a proper thermometer to back this with numbers. The area just on top of the keyboard and the exact same surface on the underbelly reach high temperatures though, high enough so they can’t be touched with your finger. So gaming on your lap is clearly not an option.
At the same time, the entire body gets slightly warm when playing games for hours, including the palm-rest and the keyboard area, which leads to unpleasant, sweaty palms. But to be frank, all these were expected from a thin aluminum made laptop like this one and the Zenbook doesn’t seem to get as hot as the XPS 15 does, for instance.
The cooling system is entirely hidden behind the screen’s hinge. From what I can tell, air is sucked in from the middle, just beneath the Asus logo, and then pushed out on the sides by the two fans.
The NX500 tends to run fairly cool and quiet when not heavily pushed. Daily use noise is about 40 db at 50 cm from the screen, and gets to about 46 dB under load. The fans are always active though, even when using the computer lightly, and in this case there’s some sort of constant high-frequency whining/noise coming out of them that I personally found disturbing in a very quiet room. If you don’t plan on working in a silent environment tough, that shouldn’t bother you much.
That aside, the NX500 packs a good Broadcom 802.11AC wireless adapter with Bluetooth 4.0 support, capable of delivering consistent transfer speeds even when a bit further away from my router. There’s also a Gigabit LAN module, if you need the wired connectivity, but you’ll have to use the USB to RJ45 adapter included in the pack.
I’ve kept the speakers for the end of this post, although they are one of this laptops strong selling points. The NX500 packs a set of speakers made in collaboration with Bang & Olufsen, which sound good, by a laptop’s speakers standard. They do lack bass, as the old UX51 came with an external subwoofer in the pack, but the NX500 does not anymore, so if you care about that, this new Zenbook might disappoint.
I for one am satisfied though, the audio coming out of this machine is punchy and loud enough for multimedia use and gaming. And if you need more, there’s always the option to connect an external sound system or use a pair of good headphones as the 3.5 mm audio-out is reliable and hiss-free (tested with my Nokia BH-905i headphones).
The speakers are loud and punchy on the NX500
There’s a 96 Wh battery on the NX500, but there’s also some hungry hardware inside. As a result, based on what I got with this test unit, you should expect the following:
- average discharge of 10 Wh (about 9.5 hours of life) when having the computer on idle, on Power Saving Mode, with Wi-Fi ON and the screen completely dimmed;
- average discharge of 12 Wh (about 8 hours of life) with the same settings as above, but with the screen’s brightness at 50%;
- average discharge of 18 Wh (about 5.5 hours of life) when performing daily tasks indoor (browsing, watching video, editing texts, listening to music, editing some photos, etc), on Balanced Mode, with Wi-Fi ON and the screen’s brightness at 50%;
- average discharge of 20 Wh (almost 5 hours of life) performing the same things as above, but with the screen’s brightness at 100%, which is more appropriate for working in bright light;
- average discharge of 50 Wh (almost 2 hours of life) when playing games, on High Performance, with Wi-Fi ON and the screen’s brightness at 50%.
All the numbers are measured using HWInfo and HWMonitor. I also ran a PCMark 8 Home Conventional battery test on Balanced mode with the screen at 50% and got 2966 points and an estimated battery life of 3 hours and 24 minutes, if that’s of any help to you.
Expect between 2 and 10 hours of life from the NX500
Price and availability
I will update this section in the next few days. For now, I know that the NX500JK will sell for between 2000 and 2800 euros over here, which should translate in about $2000 to $3000 in the US, but I don’t have exact details on each configuration. So stay tuned.
Update: Sven reports in the comments that ” Two models will be available in Germany soon: the DR017H and the DR018H. MediaMarkt has listed them. The 17H will be available October 15th and the 18H will be available September 20th. Unfortunately, the 18H only has a 256GB SSD. The 17H has a 512GB SSD. Prices are 2399€ and 2199€. ”
Follow the comments for other updates.
It’s hard to draw the line on the NX500 right now, after testing this pre-production sample, which ended up having quite a few issues that will hopefully be addressed on the final retail units, including the glitchy display on battery and the lackluster gaming performance.
If we look past these, the Zenbook NX500 presents itself as a really nice multimedia ultra-portable, with a beautiful and solid built case, an awesome screen and fast hardware on one side, but with only average battery life and keyboard quality on the other. And that might not be good enough when the asking price is North of $2000.
The Zenbook NX500 does not have a direct competitor that can match it hardware wise yet, but it will. Updated versions of the Retina Macbook Pro, Dell XPS 15 or HP Envy 15, all with Nvidia Maxwell hardware, will hit the stores in the next weeks and months, and the NX500 might, and I stress on MIGHT, pale in comparison when that happens. See this post if you want to find out how the Zenbook fares against the Macbook Pro and the Dell XPS 15. And these posts should also come in handy if you’re looking for a premium 15 inchers: my list of the best 15 inch ultrabooks of the moment and my list of the most powerful ultraportables.
At the same time, Asus will release the Zenbook GX500, a similar laptop, but with a faster Nvidia GTX 860M graphics chip, which will offer a different color scheme, better performance and hopefully an improved cooling solution. But let’s not get hasty and wait for it to actually become available before drawing any conclusions.
In fact, the same can be said about the NX500. This article shows what to generally expect from it, but we should wait for the final retail units to become available before drawing the line on this series. I’ll keep my eyes peeled and I’ll update the post with new links and helping info, once other publications get to test the NX500 in the future.
Till then, this was my review of the Zenbook NX500. Feel free to add your feedback and comments in the section below and don’t hesitate to share this post around or show it to your friends if you found it interesting.