Reviews

Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 review: Xiaomi got everything right, almost

Has one deal breaker

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When Xiaomi first introduced the original Mi MIX in 2016, it wasn’t like any other smartphone we had seen. All display, all screen. It was supposed to represent the future and, quite literally, pushed the boundaries of phones as we knew them. Not long after, others followed suit, each with a different approach to an edge-to-edge smartphone: big notch, small notch, curved edges, and pop-up cameras.

In its first three attempts, Xiaomi’s approach to the borderless concept involved moving the selfie camera to the lower-right corner of the screen. This meant that the phone’s upper half looked like the future, while its bottom half, not so much. The front camera was both awkward and impractical; it meant not being able to use Instagram Stories or video calls normally.

Four iterations later, Xiaomi fully embraces full borderless and takes bold new steps into the future with the new Mi MIX 3 by hiding the front camera completely. This setup gives the phone a 93.4 percent screen-to-body ratio and brings users closer to Xiaomi’s original vision for the phone — computing on an embellished piece of glass.

Durable design

No matter which way you look at it, there’s no denying that a notch-less, all-display phone is gorgeous. While this solution solves one issue, does it create another? By tucking away the front camera system, you’ll need to slide the display down to use it. It’s similar to what we saw from OPPO earlier this year with the Find X sans the motorized mechanism.

The OPPO Find X and Xiaomi Mi MIX 3

While OPPO’s offering presented durability problems not just with its overall build quality, but also by relying on a single motorized mechanism to support all of its sensors, Xiaomi says its approach is more durable. The Mi MIX 3 employs magnets for that bit of resistance, and snap. It’s pretty satisfying actually and Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun says it can double as a fidget toy replacement — and fidget with it, we did.

Xiaomi says the phone is rated for 300,000 snap cycles. That means if you plan on using the phone for three years, that leaves you with around 274 cycles a day. As of now we can’t really say if this claim is accurate, but the Mi MIX 3’s design does feel solid and durable — no wiggle room for bigger particles to get stuck in between the display and camera.

Not available during our time with the phone were sound effects and app toolbars that bring an expanded feature to the slider mechanism. Xiaomi says these will roll out another time through a software update.

For that peace of mind, Xiaomi bundles a black hard plastic case in the box that works seamlessly with the phone. There’s a cutout at the bottom that allows the display to slide down without obstruction.

Cameras that can compete

Apart from looking good, Xiaomi says they chose the sliding form factor with photography in mind. So it makes sense that the phone comes with pretty good cameras.

In all, there are four: two on each side — a first on a Xiaomi flagship. Its dual 12-megapixel rear cameras are arranged vertically on the phone’s back and not built into the slider. To our delight, Xiaomi kept the 2x telephoto lens as a secondary camera that many brands opt to omit in favor of a rather inadequate depth sensor.

These cameras are highly rated on DxOMark, a subjective but still pretty good measure of smartphone camera performance. The phone is now the third-highest-ranked smartphone camera — tied with the US$ 1,000-Samsung Galaxy Note 9, and one step above the regular Huawei P20.

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Compared to last year’s model, photo quality has improved, albeit the difference is only noticeable in the most challenging scenarios like when shooting against the light.

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We thought we’d also throw in some comparisons versus the Pixel 3 XL, iPhone XS Max, and Huawei Mate 20 Pro to show how it fares against some of the best smartphone cameras available in the market.

There are new features like 960fps super slow-mo video, video bokeh, as well as night mode, which works similarly to handheld low-light exposure shots on the Huawei P20 and Mate 20 series.

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Here’s how it looks against similar shots taken with the Mate 20 Pro’s night mode.

There’s still AI scene detection built in, which you can turn off with a tap. This mode usually boosts color and saturation, although we usually prefer to leave it off since there’s no option to do so after taking the shot the way you can on Honor phones and Huawei’s Nova series.

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Here are more photos we took around Beijing.

Underneath the display is the front camera system: a whopping 24MP selfie camera and a secondary 2MP lens to assist with portrait blur, plus a flash for low-light selfies.

There are also some fun portrait mode features available on both the front and rear cameras that you can add after the fact like adjusting background blur, light trails, and studio lighting effects. Our favorite is light trails, which was first teased during the Mi MIX 2S’ launch in spring. You can even save them as videos!

In the Chinese version of the phone, there’s also feature called Magic Mirror which rates your mug on a scale of 1 to 10. There’s clearly something wrong with the software here since since we only got scores below 8. 😂 Rest assured, we didn’t let this affect our self-worth all that much.

It’s also worth mentioning that since the front cameras are no longer placed at the bottom of the phone, they now double as a face unlock system. While unlock times are quick and sliding the phone down make us look really cool, we personally prefer using the back-side fingerprint sensor in this case since it was still the more convenient option between the two.

Beauty and a beast

Just like its predecessors, the Mi MIX 3 is a handsome phone. With the right amount of curves and a ceramic finish, it looks good from any angle. Apart from the usual black, it comes in two extra colors — Sapphire Blue and Jade Green, inspired by, well, jade. Because of its ceramic finish, the phones look somewhat similar when viewed in certain angles.

There’s also a special Palace Museum Edition that comes in a different shade of blue, inspired by Chinese ceramics. This variant boasts of a 10GB+256GB configuration.

Sapphire Blue is our favorite color of the three. Its front camera module has the same blue finish as the back, unlike Jade Green, which has black.

The ceramic finish is still a fingerprint magnet, and can be slippery at times. The phone is also taller, narrower, curvier, and less boxy than the MIX 2S. This makes it easier to wrap your palms around, although it could feel too tall sometimes. Unless you have large hands, sliding the display down might be a bit of a struggle.

On the left side, there’s an extra button dedicated currently to Xiaomi’s personal assistant Xiao Ai (literally translated “little love”). For its global versions, Xiaomi says it’s working on Google Assistant functionality, although it would be nice if they also gave users the option to remap it. A dual-4G nano SIM card slot also slides out of the left side, but there’s still no expandable storage.

There’s an earpiece at the very top of the phone, and when you slide the display down, you’ll find a set of speakers underneath. The sound that comes out of it is very faint compared to the main speaker grille found at the bottom, beside the USB-C port. And nope, there is no headphone jack.

Internally, Xiaomi packed what is expected of a 2018 flagship: Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line Snapdragon 845 chipset, up to 10GB of RAM, and 128GB or 256GB storage configurations. This means the Mi MIX 3 can handle virtually anything you throw at it without lag. Yes, PUBG works perfectly fine at the highest settings.

One of the MIX line’s strong suits has always been great battery life, partly due to a higher-than-average battery capacity. To say we’re disappointed to see a measly 3200mAh battery in the MIX 3 is an understatement. During our time with the phone, we barely got through the day with minimal use on a single charge. We had to plug in the phone even before we got around to playing PUBG on it.

Of course, battery capacity isn’t everything. With MIUI’s consistent updates, we’re hopeful the phone can be optimized further to handle basic tasks without sucking too much power. This being a Chinese version with side-loaded apps might also be a factor. On a more positive note, the Mi MIX 3 supports Quick Charge 4+ and is bundled with a Quick Charge 3.0 adapter. Fast charging is always welcome, and should be a standard in any flagship device launched this year.

Like the MIX 2S, the MIX 3 also supports wireless charging. In even better news, there’s a 10W wireless charger included in the box — a really nice touch. Other brands should take note: add free accessories, don’t take them away.

Stunning display

More than anything, this phone is all about its display, all 6.39 inches of it. After all, an all-screen experience is what Xiaomi’s most premium line of phones has always been about. For the first time in the MIX line, the Mi MIX 3 gets an AMOLED display and we can say that it does this borderless design justice.

Everything pops at you, or is it the other way around? The display draws you in. Colors are vibrant, text is crisp, and viewing angles are great.

Although, just like any phone with a taller aspect ratio, videos aren’t designed to fill the entire screen, which defeats the purpose of immersive entertainment. When you’re watching YouTube, for example, you can pinch to fill the screen, but expect some content to be cropped out unless the video was made for the taller aspect ratio.

Netflix also doesn’t fill the entire screen even when zoomed in. There’s a black bar on the right when watching in landscape mode so the phone ends up looking like it has a huge chin that fans love to hate.

Is the Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 your GadgetMatch?

The MIX line is not for everyone, and the Mi MIX 3, with all its bells and whistles, is no exception.

It’s an interesting piece of tech, still with bits and pieces of the future Xiaomi envisioned this phone to represent. The sliding display is a novel idea but we’re curious to see if it will stick or if other manufacturers can find even better solutions to the all-display, no-notch dilemma.

With the headphone jack and expandable storage indefinitely absent in the MIX line, we would have loved to finally see water resistance for added protection instead. The Mi MIX 3 would have been an easy phone to recommend had it offered a bigger battery to match its larger display. Unfortunately, it’s no longer a phone made for heavy users the way its predecessors were.

Just like its predecessors though, selfies are still not a priority for this phone despite the dual-camera upgrade in front. Unless you genuinely enjoy sliding half the phone down just to reveal the front cameras, taking selfies is still an inconvenience compared to a few quick taps on other phones. If you have small hands and are clumsy, we’d even go as far as saying this is more inconvenient than the previous generations’ awkwardly placed cameras; you will end up dropping this phone at some point sliding the mechanism down trying to take a selfie.

But at a starting price of CNY 3,299 (US$ 475), the Mi MIX 3 is easily a top contender in the best bang-for-your-buck race. It’s not perfect, but it’s closer to perfection than most smartphones in this price point. Aside from impressive cameras, the beautiful notch-less display, and overall performance, we recommend this phone for its novelty and for users who hate Thanos-like chins on smartphones.

Otherwise, the MIX 2S launched in March is a great choice and is still one of the most beautiful and capable smartphones this year. You’ll get the same performance, dual cameras, wireless and fast charging, and a much better battery life. It’s likely to get a discount, too, as soon as the MIX 3 starts rolling out to more markets outside China. Xiaomi says most of the new camera features on the MIX 3 will also come to the Mi MIX 2S.

If you live in Europe, it’s also best to wait as Xiaomi promises that 5G versions of the Mi MIX 3 will launch in the region some time in early 2019.

Gaming

ASUS ROG Strix Scar II (GL704) Review: Feels smaller, performs better

Now with RTX graphics

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This is not the same laptop we reviewed before from ASUS. They do look alike and even have identical names, but this one is the bigger brother. This is the GL704 model of the ROG Strix Scar II with a 17-inch display.

It’s not every day that we get to play with 17-inch laptops, because they are simply cumbersome to bring around. They’re heavy and bulky, plus they don’t easily fit inside laptop bags. This one is different though; it’s like a 15-inch notebook thanks to its ultra-slim bezels.

Not only that, but it also has the latest discrete graphics available for laptops — the GeForce RTX series from NVIDIA.

What is it like to bring around a 17-inch gaming laptop? Here’s my review.

It’s got a high-gloss metal lid

The ROG logo still lights up, too

There are plenty of ports on the left

(L-R) Power, Ethernet, mini-DisplayPort, HDMI, 3x USB-A, 3.5mm audio 

With a few more on the right

(L-R) SD card slot, USB-C, USB-A, Kensington lock 

The back is where the heat comes out

Away from the user 

The keyboard is FPS-friendly

You won’t miss the WASD keys for sure 

There’s another ROG logo inside

To remind you that it’s a gaming laptop 

The ultra-narrow bezels are to die for

Kinda reminds me of the Dell XPS 13 

It looks very familiar

The GL704 is essentially an enlarged version of the previous 15-inch variant. Right off the bat, you can tell that this is an ROG laptop. It has the aesthetics of a gaming notebook complete with a camouflage pattern and RGB lights.

The chiclet keys which ASUS calls HyperStrike Pro are not mechanical, but they are clicky and well-spaced. Since the Scar II is designed for FPS games, it has transparent WASD keycaps. If you’re more into MOBA, you should look into the Strix Hero II.

What makes this keyboard game-friendly are the little adjustments that make a world of difference. There are gaps between the function keys for easier identification, the spacebar is slightly extended and reshaped for fewer misses, and the arrow keys are not cramped.

As for the trackpad, it has a smooth surface and it uses Windows Precision drivers. It has support for all the Windows 10 gestures and two separate buttons for left and right click. While the trackpad is a good one, ASUS also bundles the Strix Scar II with a gaming mouse.

Inside the box, you get a free ROG Impact mouse which I find responsive. The mouse has an RGB ROG logo which is customizable via ASUS Aura Sync, as well. It also has a DPI switch smack in the middle that’s handy in combat games. You’ll just have to get a nice mousepad to match the peripheral.

The overall construction of the Strix Scar II is near premium. By mixing metal and hard plastic, you get the best of both worlds. The aluminum cover lid defines the craftsmanship of the laptop, while the majority of the chassis is understandably made out of polycarbonate to help with the thermals.

Speaking of, ASUS is proud of their new HyperCool Pro thermal system which doesn’t only keep the laptop’s temperature in check, but it also expels dust particles and dirt that may get trapped inside the fans.

Specs make the difference

The main reason why you should get the GL704 is its graphics card. It’s one of the first in the market to have the latest GeForce RTX graphics from NVIDIA. The particular model I have for review sports the RTX 2060 with 6GB GDDR6, although it also comes with the more capable RTX 2070.

The full specs of the laptop include an Intel Core i7-8750H processor and 16GB DDR4 memory. For storage, it has a main 256GB PCIe SSD and secondary 1TB SSHD for the large chunk of files like your AAA games.

On the software side, there are a lot of pre-installed apps to complete the ROG experience like the ROG Armoury Crate which acts as a hub to check the laptop’s condition. There’s also GameFirst V for network optimization, ROG GameVisual for tweaking the display, Sonic Studio III for adjusting the audio, and Sonic Radar III for optimizing the surround sound effect on supported games.

There aren’t many titles out there that take advantage of ray tracing, which is the main selling point of the new RTX graphics. Good thing Battlefield V got updated to support ray tracing for improved reflections. However, Battlefield V is such an action-packed game that you might not fully notice the improvements during combat.

Here’s a comparison with ray tracing turned on and off. The game’s settings panel doesn’t allow for complete shutdown of ray tracing, so the closest to off is low. The preset graphics has to be set to low as well, which drastically changes the whole environment.

Anyhow, ray tracing is all about realistic and real-time reflections. You can see the water puddles nicely show the capabilities of RTX. Everything is shinier with ray tracing. In ultra settings, Battlefield V on the Strix Scar II averages around 55fps and spikes above 60fps when there’s not much going on in the scene.

Outside ray tracing, the Strix Scar II can easily handle other popular titles. I was able to enjoy Apex Legends on its highest-possible settings at around 110fps, while Fortnite averages 100fps

Is ray tracing worth the upgrade? That depends on where you’re coming from. Those on GTX-series graphics might not find RTX on mobile to be lucrative enough, and they can skip this for now because the previous generation’s graphics cards are still some of the best out there. Also, the number of titles supporting ray tracing won’t excite the whole gaming population.

It’s not an Ultrabook

Nobody should expect long battery life from a gaming laptop, at least for now. When playing games on the Strix Scar II, you should have it plugged in to ensure that the graphics card is not working with limited power.

When you do need to unplug and use the laptop remotely, you have three hours before the laptop puts itself to sleep and wait for its charger. Charging the Strix Scar II will take about an hour and a half using the included 230W power adapter.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

The ROG Strix Scar II is ASUS’ special machine for those who are competitive in FPS gaming. It’s also a treat to AAA-title gamers thanks to its upgraded RTX graphics. It’s the smallest 17-inch gaming notebook with next-generation performance, so what more could you ask for? Aside from a better webcam placement and battery, of course.

A machine this good comes at a price. It starts at PhP 124,995 (US$ 2,400) which gives you RTX 2060 graphics. If you want to have a more powerful 17-inch gaming laptop, you could get the RTX 2070 variant for PhP 149,995 (US$ 2,885).

A piece of advice: If you’re getting a gaming notebook and have the money for it, you should go for the high-end model because you won’t be able the upgrade the graphics chip after purchase.

SEE ALSO: The ASUS ZenBook S13 does the job while looking good

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Gaming

Kingdom Hearts III review: More for long-time fans

It didn’t spark joy

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I played the first Kingdom Hearts game for a grand total of around 40 minutes, so I don’t think I can qualify that as actually playing. I didn’t have my own PlayStation 2 at the time so I was mostly watching my friend play, waiting for him to wrap up so I could beat him on NBA Live.

However, it’s such a popular game that it was impossible for me to not at least be familiar with the premise. I did play my fair share of Final Fantasy games and like most people, Disney titles and characters aren’t complete strangers to me.

Ready to take on some Heartless!

I didn’t have any major expectations jumping into Kingdom Hearts III, but I thought the way the Disney levels are woven in would at least be clever. It was not.

The backstory is massive

The first thing you need to consider when coming into this game is that you’re stepping into a massive pile of backstory. It can be hard to catch up to. If, like me, this is your first game in the franchise, it will be like watching Avengers: Infinity War without seeing even at least a quarter of the movies that led to it.

That said, the game is aware that it has tons of lore to get into. Right in the title screen you’ll see a Memory Archive which is a chapter by chapter summary of the Kingdom Hearts story. It’s best watched in its entirety which means sitting through over 20 minutes of backstory. For the most part, it does its job of catching you up. If that’s not enough, there are several story-so-far videos on YouTube. This one I liked in particular.

Despite all of these recaps available, no amount of summarizing can truly prepare you for the tangled mess that is the Kingdom Hearts lore. During certain parts, it even feels like the game is self-aware of how much of a mess it is and pokes fun at itself. That’s one of the more entertaining aspects of the game, intentional or not.

The story just isn’t gripping enough

This is my main gripe with the game. After playing titles like God of War, Detroit: Become Human, and Marvel’s Spider-Man — all of which had stories and characters that you will inevitably invest in as you play — Kingdom Hearts III’s story pales in comparison.

I understand the comparison may not be fair. The games I mentioned are either standalone stories (Detroit and Spider-Man) or a fresh start to a long-running franchise (God of War). Given all of that, I can’t help but feel the storytelling could have been so much better.

The way I feel about Kingdom Hearts III is similar to how I felt about Final Fantasy XV which, coincidentally, was initially helmed by the same guy behind Kingdom Hearts — Tetsuya Nomura. The story’s pacing felt off and it went into places that maybe it shouldn’t have.

There’s also something off about the dialogue during cutscenes. I felt the characters were talking so much slower than usual and it invites zoning out if you’re not that into the story.

That’s a thing? Okay.

If you’re a long-time fan of the franchise and have played most, if not all, of the games and feel differently than I do, then that’s all good. In fact, I’m really interested to hear what the likes of you thought about the game.

The Disney stuff can be fun

It’s not all bad. After I realized the story isn’t gonna spark joy in me whatsoever, I started treating each Disney level as a non-canon mini-game. That made me enjoy it for what it had to offer.

Some levels felt like rushed versions of the original films with Kingdom Hearts lore thrown into the mix. Others offered some value-add to the stories we already know and love, and that truly made it more fun to play.

There’s also enough variation in each level that can make you forget you can get through most of the game by just smashing X and pressing △. The animations during battle look super flashy and the combat has a few other options you can tinker with if you get tired of smashing X.

Might be made more for long-time fans

I suspect this game was really made as more of a pay-off for long-time fans than an opportunity to acquire new ones. That’s perfectly fine. In fact, playing Kingdom Hearts III made me crave another good Final Fantasy game, but perhaps one that features tight turn-based combat versus an action RPG (role playing game) type.

Is there a game where Kairi actually does something?

There are plenty of ways to have fun with Kingdom Hearts III, but the story — which I believe should be paramount in RPGs — just isn’t one of the them. If you’re just coming into the franchise through this game, I suggest you play it for the fun Disney levels and just push the overarching story to the side.  The visual spectacle in this game is off the charts, so go ahead and enjoy that too.

By now, long-time fans would have already bought the game. If you’re one of those who are still deciding whether to get it or not, I suggest waiting a little longer for the price to drop. If you simply can’t wait, I recommend getting a second-hand copy which would also be cheaper. But whatever you decide to do, may your heart be your guiding key.

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Laptops

ASUS ZenBook 15 review: Everything you need in a laptop?

With great power, comes all the caveats in between

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Very few laptops have everything a person would ever need out of it. Whether it’s just for typing Word documents or playing all the latest games, only a handful of laptops fit the bill. ASUS has one laptop to offer, which was announced back in IFA 2018.

The ASUS ZenBook 15 has almost every piece of hardware for everyone. But is a device powered by a powerful Intel processor and a gaming-ready graphics card really worth it? Let’s find out.

Same premium design through the years

ASUS dubs their ZenBook lineup as its top-of-the-line Ultrabook. Through the years, ZenBooks have retained their premium design and feel. So when I got the chance to try the new ZenBook 15 (UX533) out, I expected nothing less — and I was impressed. The build quality of the device is great, with a sturdy metal-plastic chassis that shows little to no flex. It even feels light to bring around, at only 1.59kg.

My unit has the Icicle Silver finish that shows off the elegance of the laptop. There is an option to get it in the bolder Royal Blue color, but it will definitely feel like you own a premium device the moment you set your eyes on it.

The only real change the company implemented was the addition of the ErgoLift. Essentially, it frees up space for the laptop to release hot air instead of blasting them on the table or your lap. It’s also supposed to make the bottom-facing speakers sound better, although this really wasn’t the case when I used it.

It almost has everything for everyone

The ZenBook 15 is one powerful machine, from the inside out. My unit comes with an eighth-generation Intel Core i7-8565U processor and 16GB of RAM. This configuration alone guarantees superb performance, and the ZenBook 15 did not disappoint. Typing Word documents, surfing the web, even photo and video editing felt like a breeze with this machine. You can play games here too, but let’s save that discussion for later.

On the outside, you have a 15-inch Full HD anti-glare NanoEdge display — perfect for outdoor use at full brightness. It comes in a resolution of 1920 by 1080, a full 16:9 display with tiny bezels on the side.

It’s also equipped with a full-size backlit keyboard, with the number pad separated from the trackpad — unlike its 13-inch and 14-inch variants.

The ZenBook 15 does come with three USB Type-A ports and one USB Type-C port that supports external displays; however, it would have been better to make it as Thunderbolt port to fully maximize the potential. The laptop also comes with a dual-band Wi-Fi card, although an additional Ethernet port would have been nice, as well.

It’s got game, but it really destroys your battery life

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ZenBook 15 is the fact that it comes with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Max-Q. With this graphics chip, gaming on this laptop actually feels pretty damn good. It managed to get competitive frame rates for fast-paced games like Fortnite, PUBG, and Rocket League, all with high settings. But, don’t expect the same from AAA titles like Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

Also, there is a significant increase in the laptop’s overall temperature with longer than 30 minutes of play time. The left side of the laptop felt so hot, it’s almost like you could fry an egg on it. Of course, playing for long hours on this device drains the 73Wh battery significantly faster. I got about nine to ten hours on regular use, and only two to three hours on full game mode.

The camera is honestly only good for Windows Hello

The ZenBook 15 comes with an 3D infrared HD camera that supports Windows Hello. The infrared sensors were great at facial recognition, and Windows Hello felt really easy to set up and use. But, the camera was lackluster when taking photos and videos. It only seems passable to use for video calls, but the overall image quality just doesn’t equate to HD.

The bottom-facing speakers could be better

The two Harman/Kardon speakers on the ZenBook 15 are placed on the bottom side, facing the table or your lap. Sound quality is impressive until you turn it to maximum. Apart from that, I was expecting that they would sound better because of what ErgoLift supposedly does for them.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

For PhP 89,995 (US$ 1,720), the ASUS ZenBook 15 jams almost everything you need in a premium device. And for that price you get the highest, most powerful configuration possible. Anyone can do pretty much anything with the hardware that comes with it. Apart from that, its elegant design and lightweight body make it a perfect on-the-go device. 

If you’re low on cash, you can also get the 14-inch ZenBook 14 for PhP 77,995. It only has 8GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce MX150 graphics card that offers similar, but less powerful overall performance. But, you do get the illuminated number pad on the touchpad.

Of course, that is if you don’t mind the otherwise average camera and fryer-like temperatures with heavy gaming. However, if you’re looking for a laptop that can handle anything, the ZenBook 15 is for you!

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