Asus’ ZenBook UX305C was almost a perfect midrange laptop, at least by my estimation. The cheaper models were missing extras like touchscreens or backlit keyboards and they weren’t as fast as Dell’s XPS 13 or the MacBook Pro, but they offered enough speed for most people and Asus got a lot of stuff right: $700 for a 1080p IPS screen, a sturdy build, a decent keyboard and trackpad, and a respectable 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. There are better laptops and there are cheaper laptops but that one sat right at the intersection of both.
Asus’ follow-up to the UX305C is a slightly different riff on the same idea. The Zenbook Flip UX360CA (hereafter Zenbook Flip or just Flip) still uses Intel’s Skylake Core M processors, still includes 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, still uses a 1080p screen, is still really thin, and still starts at $700. But it’s got a Lenovo Yoga-style 360-degree hinge and a standard touchscreen, turning what was once a basic laptop into a basic laptop that can pretend to be a tablet.
A lot of what I liked about the old Zenbook design is still here, but a few things have been improved and, sadly, a few things have gotten worse.
Look and feel: That flippin’ hinge
The Zenbook Flip looks a lot like the old Zenbook at first glance: same burgundy-ish metal body, same multitouch trackpad and chiclet keyboard, same 13.3-inch screen surrounded by a large bezel.
Look closer, and you’ll notice the differences. The laptop is slightly thicker throughout, probably to make room for the larger hinge mechanism. One pleasant side effect is that the bottom of the lid no longer rests on your desk when the laptop is open, risking possible damage both to the laptop itself and to whatever surface it’s sitting on. All four rubber feet are making contact with the table at all times, which also makes the laptop more stable while typing.
The port layout has been changed, too. The UX305 had three full-size USB 3.0 Type-A ports, a full-size SD card reader, a micro HDMI port, and a headphone jack. The Zenbook Flip has two USB Type-A ports, a full-size SD card reader, a micro HDMI port, a headphone jack, and a single USB Type-C port. The power button and a volume rocker also migrate to the side of the laptop to make them easier to reach when you’re using it as a tablet or convertible.
As Type-C ports go, this one is sadly underutilized. It can’t charge the laptop—Asus ships the Flip with a power brick identical to the one that came with the UX305—nor can it support DisplayPort or other output via the USB Alternate Mode spec. This means that 60Hz 4K external display support over a single cable isn’t possible (the HDMI 1.4 spec can push 4K but not at 60Hz). I like USB Type-C and I’m glad to see it creeping into more products, and this early into the Type-A-to-Type-C transition I can understand and even approve of Asus’ decision to include a couple of Type-A ports. I just wish that the Type-C port in the Flip was doing everything we know a Type-C port can do.
Adding a touchscreen to the laptop has a couple of side effects. The old non-touch Zenbooks had a matte LCD screen, something that is becoming increasingly rare as more laptops pick up touchscreens and glass coatings. The glass on the Zenbook Flip is much more reflective, and it doesn’t appear to be mitigated by any sort of anti-glare coating like the ones Apple uses on its MacBooks and MacBook Pros. There’s also a small air gap between the glass and the LCD panel underneath, which makes the contrast look lower and the colors less vibrant than they were on the older Zenbooks. The air gap and the high reflectivity make it difficult to see the screen outdoors. It’s an IPS display with great viewing angles and it still looks better than the vast majority of the display panels you’ll find on most $500-and-below laptops, but it’s still a small step in the wrong direction.
If you want to be able to use the laptop as a big tablet—either in “tent” mode with the base of the laptop as a kickstand or with the screen folded all the way against the base, both of which will prompt a switch into Windows 10’s tablet mode and disable the keyboard and trackpad—the Yoga-style 360-degree hinge is stable and works well. The touchscreen works fine, and I didn’t have any problem with responsiveness or accuracy. It doesn’t get in the way if you just want to use the Flip as a regular laptop. Especially since Windows 10 re-prioritized the desktop and de-emphasized touch, I don’t see touch as an essential feature in a Windows laptop, but it’s here if you want it and it doesn’t add anything to the price.
The keyboard is still just as good as it was in past Zenbooks. Key spacing and travel are good, and the matte plastic keys feel nice to type on. The lack of a backlight continues to be its only shortcoming relative to the keyboards that Apple, Dell, and HP use in their nicer laptops. And the speakers mostly sound pretty good, though their positioning on the bottom of the laptop is awkward—you’ll block them with your legs if the computer is on your laptop, though they otherwise sound fine.
The main disappointment is the trackpad. The pad itself is OK—in fact, it’s one of Microsoft’s Precision Touchpads, which means that finger tracking is accurate and it fully supports all of Windows 10’s useful multi-touch window management gestures. The problem is the amount of flex in the palmrest, which bends based on downward pressure from your palms and, if you’re actually using the laptop on your laptop, upward pressure from your legs.
The quest for thinner laptops means that they have less space to move than they used to. Companies like Synaptics and Apple have circumvented this in some of their products by introducing pressure-sensitive trackpads that don’t actually move (Apple’s is a good facsimile of a clickable trackpad; Synaptics’ not so much). But most PCs just use trackpads that don’t need as much space to move around in.
In a sturdier laptop like HP’s EliteBook Folio G1, this isn’t a problem. But the Zenbook Flip flexes around enough that the trackpad can get moved into the “clicked” position by accident. Sometimes this means that clicks happen when you’re just trying to type. Sometimes this means that single clicks become double clicks or hold clicks. I got excited when I heard the Zenbook Flip would have a Precision Touchpad, but the way that touchpad has been implemented makes it annoying to use.
There are no problems if you’re using the laptop on a flat surface, and after a few days of using it you can make small adjustments to the way you sit and the way you rest your hands on the laptop to minimize the number of accidental clicks. But at its worst it makes the laptop infuriating to use and it’s really too bad that Asus didn’t catch this before bringing the Zenbook Flip to market. I have asked Asus if this is a problem unique to our review unit, but as of this writing I haven’t heard back.
Listing image by Andrew Cunningham