[Editor’s note: Monica Chin is The Verge’s former senior laptop reviewer, currently taking a break from tech journalism. But some things are hard to quit.]
Once upon a time, back in the old days of March 2020, a small company called Asus released a spritey whippersnapper of a gaming laptop called the ROG Zephyrus G14. It weighed just over 3.5 pounds and was powered by a truly monstrous AMD processor, the likes of which had never been seen before in a 14-inch form factor.
I still remember reviewing that laptop almost four years ago like it was yesterday. I remember having the Red Dead Redemption 2 benchmark – the ultimate test at the time – over and over again, going through the game settings and desperately trying to figure out what I’d messed up to make the wildly high frame rates I was seeing make sense. (The best information Intel had to offer at the time was Comet Lake. And yes, we don’t talk about Comet Lake in this household.)
And then there was the design. The G14 had a retro aesthetic, spaceship-like character, with large, luxuriously comfortable keys and a keyboard font reminiscent of Johnny Rockets. The lid eschewed the smooth and streamlined aesthetic around which laptops were just beginning to converge, opting to be covered in a curious but totally unique dot matrix. If you paid a little (okay, a lot) extra money, those dots became animated LEDs that let you do all kinds of fun things, from raising a virtual pet to making a guy’s head explode all the time. Since then, there has been a G14 model that doubles as a DJ deck and another model covered in obscure shapes with “BLACK HOLES IN THE NOW” scrawled on the bottom. It has never been a laptop concerned with blending in with its surroundings.
I remember emailing Asus to ask if the $1,449 price they sent me was a typo – shouldn’t something so extraordinary be $1,000 more? And I clearly remember the feeling I got when the Asus representative replied: no, believe it or not, that was the real price. It was a realization that this computer was something new, that this computer was something different.
The G14 created an essentially new category of gaming laptops for years to come. The popularity of the product basically made it impossible to buy it for quite some time. It’s been a huge product for Asus, a near-consistent presence on Best Buy’s bestseller lists, and, anecdotally, one of the gaming laptops I saw most often in the wild.
Today, innovative 14-inch rigs abound. Asus wasn’t the first ultraportable gaming notebook – that honor goes to the Razer Blade, of course – but the Zephyrus G14 still proved to everyone that heavy gaming couldn’t just run well on a 14-inch laptop with all-day battery life and a funky , daring design, but also that such a machine did not have to cost an arm and a leg.
It redefined the category, in other words, by being the exact opposite of a MacBook in almost every way.
Fast forward to CES 2024. The G14, which has largely retained a facsimile of its 2020 chassis since release, was unveiled with a major redesign. It is much thinner and much lighter. The spaceship atmosphere is no more. Gone is the dot matrix, just like the exploding heads and the virtual fauna it spawned. The lid is now sleek and professional, with a – I don’t know, is it a slash? – across the middle as the only decoration. Everything about it is more rounded, polished and prestige. As reports from the show indicate, it suddenly looks, feels and looks a lot like a MacBook.
The G14 is far from the only CES release to shamelessly chase the Mac line when it comes to design. Dell has replaced its 15-inch and 17-inch XPS configurations with a 14-inch and 16-incher respectively (sound familiar?). The models not only lost their full-size SD slot (sigh), but also their physical feature row in favor of haptic touch buttons (something a certain Cupertino company tried). Everyone and their mother are grumpy about it. And it’s emblematic of a larger trend we’ve seen in the computing world in recent years, with 13-inch and 14-inchers converging on boardroom aesthetics while becoming thinner and lighter at all costs.
Now I understand the desire to emulate the MacBook. It’s a phenomenal set of computers. It’s at the top of the best laptop pages on the Internet, and there’s little disagreement about its value.
But there are a few things I really hope manufacturers will keep in mind as they think about whether to ditch designs that are unique and different in pursuit of the MacBook’s look and feel. The first is that the MacBook is not just now its look and feel. It’s much more.
I would argue that the reason Apple computers have become the machine that, like any professional, is above all their performance. It’s the industry-leading strength of both their chips and their battery life – it’s the combination of power and efficiency they offer. After all, the early 2020 MacBook Pro 13 and the late 2020 MacBook Pro 13 had very similar chassis, but only the latter had both top performance and unmatched battery life, and it only took a few months for it to completely eclipse its Intel sales counterpart. Top performance and top-level battery life are also what the G14 has had for several years.
I don’t want to say that design is unimportant. I am saying that the pursuit of slimness, tonedness, softness, whatever you want to call it, often comes at a cost.
We’ve seen that happen time and time again. You can watch the transition from the Dell XPS 13, an all-round exceptional laptop that topped the best pages in the pre-M1 era, to the Dell , a shallow touchpad, disappointing performance, and a frustrating keyboard that received mediocre reviews from almost everyone. (Tom’s guidenoted fans of the XPS line, calling it “a stunning step backwards.”)
You can look at the ThinkPad Z series, which had to leave out most of the features that make ThinkPads world famous in order to maintain a slim frame. The Razer Blade has been doing thin and sleek for years, and has consistently been louder, hotter, more expensive, and worse in terms of battery life than the G14. You can even look at Apple. After all, it’s the thin-at-all-price mentality that has subjected us to five years of butterfly keyboarding.
I hope this isn’t what happens with the G14, the XPS 13, and other major laptops redesigned at CES this year. But I see some warning signs. Last year’s G14 could house up to an RTX 4090 – Nvidia’s top weapons – while this year’s G14 topped out at an RTX 4070. Granted, the G14’s 4090 was limited to 125W, a significantly lower number than the larger 4090 machines at the time, and the RTX 4070 model definitely hit the sweet spot in terms of performance and price. But the fact remains: SKU options for G14 fans are now more limited than before.
And then there’s the battery life, which has long been one of the G14’s most notable features. The 2024 G14 not only has a smaller battery than its predecessor, but also has a higher resolution OLED screen. Don’t get me wrong: I love an OLED screen, especially for gaming, and the Zephyrus looks great. But last year’s QHD Mini LED panel was already stunning, with some reviewers reporting that it was basically as good as an OLED. And high-resolution OLED displays paired with H-series processors are rarely a recipe for exceptional battery life. I point you again to the XPS 13 Plus. The Acer Swift 3. The HP Pavilion Plus 14. The Asus Zenbook 14X OLED. The HP Specter x360 13.5. I mean, literally, just take your pick.
I understand the impulse to follow the cool kids to their cafeteria table. Really, I do. But the Zephyrus G14 had something good. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was completely and unapologetically itself. It would be a shame, with Windows machines racing all over the market to catch the MacBook, if such bold products were to disappear.
Updated January 20, 2024 at 4:35 PM ET: Added additional context about the power consumption of the RTX 4090 in last year’s G14 that was present in the original design.