[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, in the olden days of March 2020, a little company called Asus released a spritely whippersnapper of a gaming laptop called the ROG Zephyrus G14. It weighed just over 3.5 pounds, and it was powered by a truly monstrous AMD processor, the likes of which had never been seen in a 14-inch form factor.
I still remember reviewing that laptop, almost four years ago, like it was yesterday. I remember running the Red Dead Redemption 2 benchmark — the ultimate test at that time — over and over again, poring over the game settings, trying desperately to figure out what I’d messed up to make the egregiously high frame rates I was seeing make sense. (The best Intel had to offer at the time, remember, was Comet Lake. And, well, we don’t talk about Comet Lake in this household.)
And then there was the design. The G14 sported a retro aesthetic, spaceship-y in nature with large, luxuriously comfortable keycaps and a keyboard font that evoked Johnny Rockets. The lid eschewed the smooth and sleek aesthetic around which laptops were just beginning to converge at that time, opting instead to be covered with a curious but totally unique dot matrix. If you paid a bit (okay, a lot) of extra money, those dots became animated LEDs that you could do all kinds of funky things with, from raising a virtual pet to making a dude’s head continuously explode. Since then, there’s been a G14 model that doubles as a DJ deck and another covered in obscure shapes with “BLACK HOLES IN THE NOW” scrawled across the bottom. It has never been a laptop concerned with blending in.
I remember emailing Asus to ask if the $1,449 price they’d sent me was a typo — shouldn’t something this exceptional be $1,000 more? And I viscerally remember the feeling I got when Asus’ representative replied that 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 went on to create what was essentially a new category of gaming laptop over the next few years. The product’s popularity made it basically impossible to buy 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 most often saw in the wild.
These days, innovative 14-inch rigs abound. Asus’ wasn’t the first ultraportable gaming notebook — that honor, of course, belongs to the Razer Blade — but the Zephyrus G14 still proved to everyone that not only could heavy-duty games run well on a 14-inch laptop with all-day battery life and a funky, bold design, but also that such a machine did not need to cost an arm and a leg.
It redefined the category, in other words, by being the exact opposite of a MacBook in basically 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 vibe is no more. Gone is the dot matrix, as are the exploding heads and virtual fauna that it wrought. The lid is now sleek and professional, with a — I don’t know, is it a slash? — across the center as the sole decoration. Everything about it is rounder, more polished, and prestige. As reports from the show have pointed out, it suddenly looks, feels, and seems a heck of a lot like a MacBook.
The G14 is far from the only CES release that’s blatantly chasing the Mac line when it comes to design. Dell has swapped out its 15-inch and 17-inch XPS configurations for a 14-incher and 16-incher, respectively (sound familiar?). The models have lost not only their full-sized SD slot (sigh), but also their physical function row in favor of haptic touch buttons (another thing a certain Cupertino company tried). Everyone and their mother is grumpy about it. And it’s emblematic of a larger trend we’ve been seeing throughout the computing space in recent years, in which 13-inchers and 14-inchers are converging on a boardroom aesthetic while getting thinner and lighter at all costs.
Now, I understand the desire to emulate the MacBook. It’s a phenomenal line of computers. It’s on top of Best Laptop pages all across the internet, and there’s little disagreement as to its value.
But there are a few things I really hope manufacturers will keep in mind as they mull over whether to scrap designs that were unique and different in pursuit of the MacBook’s look and feel. The first is that the MacBook is not just its look and feel. It’s much more.
I would argue that the reason Apple computers have become the machine that, like, every professional has is, moreso than anything else, their performance. It’s the category-topping power of both their chips and their battery life — it’s the combination of strength and efficiency that 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 category-topping performance and category-topping battery life, and it only took a few months to totally eclipse its Intel counterpart’s sales. Category-topping performance and category-topping battery life, incidentally, are also what the G14 has had for several years.
I don’t mean to imply that design is unimportant. I am saying that the pursuit of thinness, sleekness, suaveness, whatever you want to call it, often comes with costs.
We’ve seen that play out time and time again. You can look to the transition from the Dell XPS 13, an all-around exceptional laptop that was topping Best pages in the pre-M1 era, to the Dell XPS 13 Plus, a flaming fireball of an ultrabook with about five minutes of battery life, a shallow touchpad, disappointing performance, and a frustrating keyboard that got middling reviews from pretty much everyone. (Tom’s Guide, noted fans of the XPS line, slammed it as “a stunning step backwards.”)
You can look to the ThinkPad Z-series, which had to leave out most of the features that make ThinkPads world renowned in order to maintain a slim frame. The Razer Blade has been doing the thin-and-sleek thing for years on end, and it has consistently been louder, hotter, pricier, and worse in the battery life department than the G14. Heck, you can even look to Apple. After all, the thin-at-all-costs mindset is what subjected us to five years of butterfly keyboard.
I hope this isn’t what’s happening to the G14, the XPS 13, and other major laptops that received redesigns at CES this year. But I’m seeing some warning signs. Last year’s G14 could accommodate up to an RTX 4090 — Nvidia’s top guns — while this year’s caps out at an RTX 4070. I can’t be certain that this is due to the thinner chassis’s reduced cooling capacity, but that seems a likely explanation.
And then there’s battery life, which has long been one of the G14’s most outstanding features. Not only does the 2024 G14 have a smaller battery than its predecessor, but it has a higher-resolution OLED screen. Don’t get me wrong: I love me 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 screens combined with H-series processors are rarely a recipe for exceptional battery life. I’ll point you, again, to the XPS 13 Plus. The Acer Swift 3. The HP Pavilion Plus 14. The Asus Zenbook 14X OLED. The HP Spectre x360 13.5. I mean, literally, just take your pick.
I understand the impulse to follow the cool kids to their cafeteria table. Truly, I do. But the Zephyrus G14 had a good thing going. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was wholly and unapologetically itself. It would be a shame, as Windows machines across the market race to catch the MacBook, if such bold products disappeared.