Long battery life, a good cost-to-power ratio, sleek looking design, high portability and the lack of bloatware makes the BlackBook Zero 14 an excellent choice of Ultrabook.
- All-day battery life
- Includes two chargers
- Has minimum Photoshop specs
- Doesn’t get too hot
- Core M CPU only up for light multimedia work
- Average media encoding speed
- Slightly different keyboard layout
Some of the biggest breakthroughs in the ultraportable laptop category over the last year have taken the form of more compact cooling architecture – something that’s allowed full-spec Intel Core i5 and i7 laptop CPUs to squeeze into sub 1.5cm (⅝ inch) laptop chassis’. As a result, many of our recommended slim-and-light laptops often feature powerful components that professional customers won’t mind paying a premium for.
With Intel’s power-saving Core M CPU family now into it’s third generation, however, the chip giant has been making steady gains in overall performance when compared to the ‘real’ Core i5 and i7 mobile CPUs. In fact, it’s now at the point where the latest Kaby Lake Core M chips can meet the minimum specs for demanding applications like Photoshop, and for many professional users that’ll be all they really require. Intel’s so confident that it’s even rebranded Core M processors to use the same Core i3, i5 and i7 naming scheme – the giveaway is that the contain a Y in the model identifier number, such as Core i5-7Y75.
When you factor in that Core M also offers better power efficiency and removes the need for active fan-based cooling – and all the breakable and dust-gathering moving parts that come with it – then there’s arguably never been a better time to make an Ultrabook with a Core M processor. Venom’s new BlackBook Zero 14 is hoping to appeal to the creatives or professionals who’d prefer to spend a little less on a system but still get a system that has enough power to do everything they want.
Price and availability
The Venom BlackBook Zero 14 range is currently available through Venom’s online global store (or www.mln.com.au in Australia) with prices starting at $999 (£829.86 and AU$1,499) for the Intel Core i5, 128GB model. A unit with the same Core i5 processor and a larger 240GB SSD goes for $1,099 (£912.93 and AU$1,699), while the largest 500GB SSD variant comes in at $1,199 (£996 AU$1,899). The BlackBook Zero 14s with faster Intel Core i7 CPUs start with a 240GB SSD model for $1,249 (£1,037.54 and AU$1,949), with a larger capacity 500GB Core i7 model landing at $1,349 (£1,120.61 and AU$2,149) and the largest capacity 1TB SSD Core i7 model costing $1,549 (£1,286.75 and AU$2,549).
With a body honed from a black sandblasted metal alloy composite, this 1.4kg (3 pound) clamshell is around 15% heavier than the lighter 2-in-1s and Ultrabooks that you’d generally pit it against. It might seem counter-intuitive for an ultraportable unit to intentionally pack on the pounds, but when you consider that its extra weight is mostly due to the sturdy metal chassis and its fractionally bigger 14.1-inch screen, it’s a trade-off we think many people will be willing to take.
Balancing the two halves of this black metal laptop is a sturdy hinge that has a soft resistance, allowing the screen to be tilted without having to hold onto the base. We hope that the hinge, like the rest of the laptop, has been built for longevity, as the one on our test unit did sit on the looser end of the spectrum already.
At a total folded thickness of 14mm (0.55in), the BlackBook Zero 14 slips nicely into carry cases, briefcases and backpacks and the accompanying diminutive charger and cable makes it an exceptionally portable package on the whole.
Keyboard and trackpad
Continuing the matte-black theme is a black-coloured chiclet keyboard that has powdery soft-to-touch keys. The key travel distance feels generous for a device this thin and we were happy with the responsiveness and strong feedback for a membrane keyboard.
The only grievance we had was that the Home, ‘Page Up’, ‘Page Down’ and End keys sit at the far right edge of the unit, making the Backspace, Enter and Shift keys slightly out of a regular alignment. This has been done in a way that makes sense for any power users who are willing to tweak their keyboard techniques and use their pinky for fast scrolling, but it will likely create problems for new users. That’s mainly because the Home button sits just outside the Backspace key, so it was common for us to nudge it rather than delete a mistake, meaning the tail end of a sentence was regularly spliced into the beginning of a paragraph.
The trackpads on Windows PCs have, on the whole, gotten significantly better in the past few years, and though we have no complaints with the temperament and performance of the BlackBook Zero 14’s powdery-finished trackpad, it’s still a little shy of a MacBook or even ASUS ZenBook experience. That said, it’s notably better when it comes to responsiveness than many PC laptops and it was easy enough to become accustomed to in our testing.
Venom’s Managing Director and Chief Designer Jaan Turon said that the decision for an Intel Core M CPU in the BlackBook Zero 14 was driven by the long term thermal benefits and prolonged physical integrity of computers that don’t require fans. “We were getting a lot of feedback from customers saying that the heat of laptops on their laps was a big problem,” he told us, “and fans, when they are this small, have a tendency to make a lot of noise and collect dust over time, which will eventually cause issues in performance.
“Our engineers did a lot of work restructuring the internals of the BlackBook Zero 14 to accommodate a CPU that didn’t need fans, so we could pass on those longer term benefits to our customers.”
We haven’t had the BlackBook 14 for quite long enough to verify whether the unit is more robust than Ultrabooks requiring fans, but the internal thermals are quite moderate (considering the performance) and the chassis definitely has less intense hotspots than many thin-and-light laptops we’ve tested. This reduction in heat stems from the Intel Core i5-7Y75 CPU’s lower base operating frequency of 1.2GHz, which generally sits at around 80ºC (176ºF) in intensive work or home usage conditions in ambient temperatures of 20 to 25ºC (68-77ºF), although when pushed to the extreme it can reach up to 86ºC (186ºF) at times. Under a similar load, the SOC draws 14.66W which is about 17.5% less than a Skylake Core i5-6200U. When running PCMark 8’s general home usage and work benchmarks, the BlackBook Zero 14 hits 3,088 and 4,210 respectively — scores that are almost identical to the ASUS ZenBook Flip UX360UA’s more powerful Core i5-6200U chip. For an Ultrabook aimed at professionals, this is exactly the level of performance you generally want, and it’s encouraging that Venom’s managed to get this result using a more-efficient but less powerful chip.
The Core M chips don’t hold up so well in the multimedia-oriented tasks that are tested by Cinebench’s multi-threaded and single-core CPU rendering benchmarks, where the ASUS UX360UA’s older Core i5 came off better, with respective scores of 268 and and 112, against the BlackBook Zero 14’s scores of 174 in multi-threaded and 71 in single-core CPU. That’s a considerable difference and though this specific category of Ultrabook arguably isn’t aimed at users looking to do that kind of intense rendering work, this is likely to be the area where you will see the biggest difference in performance from Intel’s Core M chips. That said, in subjective testing we found that the BlackBook Zero 14 had more than enough grunt to complete the few simple image editing tasks we threw at it, without having to close web browsers or other background applications.
When it came to GPU heavy tasks, the ASUS ZenBook Flip UX360UA’s integrated GPU (an Intel HD Graphics 520) netted 38fps in Cinebench’s OpenGL graphics benchmark, notably more than the Zero 14’s Intel HD Graphics 615, which only managed 25fps. This result was further corroborated by 3DMark’s Cloud Gate benchmark, where the former managed a score of 4,690 while the Zero 14 only mustered 3,497. So, the BlackBook Zero 14 isn’t quite as well-rounded when it comes to performance, and you shouldn’t expect it to do wonders when it comes to gaming – this is for light and casual titles only – but then, at least manages to keep up in the most important work-related areas.
The Zero’s 14.1-inch 1080p IPS LCD display is one of its standout features. Now, 14.1-inches isn’t a particularly common screen size, which means it’s likely to be more expensive (from a manufacturing perspective) than the far more common 13.3-inch displays. Not only this but it is going to draw a bit more power than these smaller screens and increase the footprint of the laptop. It’s a bit of a wash then as to whether the 14.1-inch display is worth it; in exchange for a nice-looking but barely noticeable screen size boost, the BlackBook Zero has been put on the back foot in terms of being a little thicker and slightly heavier.
As with most IPS displays, this one features wide 178º viewing angles, and has a matte, non-glare screen finish. The Full HD resolution is a high enough at this display size for visuals to avoid any noticeable pixelation, but it’s worth pointing out that it isn’t a touchscreen – something that many similarly-specced units offer. There are also Ultrabook offerings out there with QHD (2560 x 1440) and even 4K screens, though you’ll generally pay a lot more for those higher resolutions, which are often a waste at this physical screen size.
Video and audio playback
Two speakers sit on the underside of the laptop’s front edge – one on the left and one on the right. As with any downward-firing laptop speaker design, the drivers can be obscured if the laptop is sitting on a soft surface, although on harder surfaces like desks and countertops the audio radiates well. The two drivers provide enough volume at a quality that is reasonable, although by no means an exemplar. In ideal tabletop conditions, the wide-format screen combines with the well-positioned stereo audio to give you a pleasant movie or TV-watching experience.
We’d expect Venom’s use of a more efficient chip to afford a generous follow-through in battery life, but it seems that extra inch or so in the BlackBook’s 14 display does cancel out some of the battery-boosting grace afforded by the lower-voltage CPU. In the demanding PCMark 8 Home (Accelerated) battery benchmark, the BlackBook Zero 14 stretched out to a decent 4 hours and 51 minutes – slightly less than the UX360UA’s 5 hours and 26 minutes, but a duration that should still translate around a full working day of moderate use.
The solid state
While you can get two CPU variations of the BlackBook Zero 14, there are also four sizes of SSD available: 128GB, 240GB, 500GB and 1TB. All of these various SSDs use the SATA 3 (6 gigabit per second) interface, rather than the significantly faster PCIe interface, so you won’t get the potential 1,500 to 2,500MB/s read speeds that you see on devices like the early 2017 here. The 240GB Western Digital SSD and Core i5 configuration clocked transfer speeds of 552.9MB/s for sequential reads and 513.4MB/s for sequential writes in the Crystal DiskMark Q32T1 storage speed benchmark. These read speeds are only fractionally better than what we were expecting, but the write speeds sit at the top end of what SATA 3 SSDs are capable of. Unfortunately, this performance dipped when it came to smaller files on the SSD-tailored multi-queue/single-thread benchmark (which uses tiny 4KB files), scoring only 100.4MB/s and 89.5MB/s in read and write tests respectively, scores that should ideally be around 50MB/s higher. Still, overall, we were happy with the speeds of the 240GB SSD in our test unit.
Ports and connections
The BlackBook Zero 14 has opted to avoid following the trend started by Apple — in other words, it hasn’t ditched everything but USB Type-C connections to save a few millimeters. With the earlier Core M Ultrabooks there was a valid line of argument that they weren’t really powerful enough to need the connectivity of display ports and SD card inputs, but as we said in this review earlier, the Kaby Lake Core M platform is powerful enough to make the most of as much connectivity as possible. Kicking that off here are two USB 2.0 Type-A sockets on the left edge that are useful for connecting mice, keyboards and devices just requiring USB power. On the right-hand side there is a power socket followed by the USB 3.1 Type-C connection, a USB 3.0 Type-A socket, a mini HDMI connection, 3.5mm audio jack and a microSD card reader. All up then, there’s ample methods of connection and the hardware under the hood is powerful enough to make good use of them.
A little extra bite
Sometimes it’s the little things that count and Venom does a lot to differentiate itself from other big name laptop vendors. The most significant, from the software side of things, is that there’s no bloatware or annoying affiliated virus protection software preinstalled on the BlackBook Zero 14. So this laptop is one of the only PC Ultrabooks that won’t pester you to use unwanted software or have intrusive pop ups interfere with your workflow from the moment you first turn it on. You will, however, find a free 1-year subscription to Norton Internet Security included in the box – it’s entirely up to you whether you want to install it, though.
Another less immediately relevant (but arguably equally useful) tool is the accompanying USB recovery drive — it’s preconfigured to make it easy for you to clean-reinstall Windows if anything goes wrong or you just wish to factory reset the machine. Just plug it in, select to restore the system to factory settings and it’ll give you a completely clean system in under 15 minutes.
When comparing this unit against fuller-priced (and specced) competitors, the BlackBook Zero 14 does put up some compelling arguments for opting for a slightly less expensive Ultrabook – but, that said, if Venom had managed to include a ‘full’ Core i5 part in at this price this unit would likely have scored half a point higher. The problem for Venom is that Dell’s XPS 13 and ASUS’s ZenBook 3 have been out long enough to come down in price a little, which means you can get that full Core i5/i7 power for a similar price.
On the other hand, Venom’s said that with its passively-cooled design, it’s invested heavily in the long-term functionality of the BlackBook Zero 14 and if you only need to occasionally do multimedia work (like occasional photo editing), then the Core M chip could improve the unit’s overall longevity. Other than that, our only significant gripe is that the BlackBook Zero 14 could have done with a PCIe connected SSD, for the considerable increase in read speeds and general OS responsiveness – but really, there’s very little else to complain about. For anyone looking for an Ultraportable work computer, this is a really solid offering that should continue to perform well, long after the purchase date.