MSI looks to add executive chic to a winning laptop formula
Venom Blackbook Zero 14 laptop review
An ultraportable that competes with the big boys by focusing on what’s important to a notebook
- Solid and well built
- Fast in 2D applications
- Good battery
- Matte screen
- Not ideal for multimedia
Venom removes all the bells and whistles leaving you with a fast, reliable, 14-inch laptop that you can work on all day.
Price$ 1,699.00 (AUD)
Venom is the unusual Australian-based system integrator that sells computers globally to an enthusiastic, brand-loyal audience. The company is a bit like BMW’s M Division in that it takes away the frills and bloat of the modern computer market and leaves behind a focused machine, with high-quality parts, that does its specified job well, fast and reliably. The Blackbook Zero 14 (Zero references the lack of graphics and the focus on general, work-related productivity) is another of its monolithic laptops but it’s thin, very robust and good-looking. The specs are reasonable and, uncommonly, we’re looking on a 14-inch laptop as an ultraportable.
14.1-inch, matte screen, 1920 x 1080, non-touchscreen IPS LCD; 1.2-3.3GHz Intel Core i5-7Y54 processor; 8GB RAM; 240GB M.2 SSD; Intel HD Graphics 615; 41Wh battery; 1.4KG. SKU: L13303. Full specs here.
On the left reside two, standard USB 2 ports while on the right are all of the others: USB-C (which supports charging and external video), a USB 3.0 port, micro HDMI, 3.5mm headset jack and a microSD card reader.
Design and Build
The chassis is listed as a Sand Blasted Alloy composite which sounds about right. It's basically a solid, black metal unibody but with a removable base that allows access to the removable battery and hard drive. The black is matte and uniform but on the edges and around ports we did notice scratches appearing revealing a silver metal beneath. While the whole chassis and lid (which has hardly any flex in it) feels very robust indeed, the paint job is less so. It should also be noted that the matte finish is one heck of a fingerprint magnet. Don't leave it at a crime scene.
In terms of styling, monochrome and monolithic are the best descriptors. But we also found it very cool from a multitude of angles as our pre-review slideshow demonstrates. If it wasn't for the blue Intel sticker at the front there'd be no colour here at all. It's all very Henry Ford, but in a good way. The finish gives it a quality feel, as do the flush-fitting ports.
The IPS screen is crisp and clear but not the most colourful. We've been testing TVs using the excellent Costa Rica 4K 60fps demo on YouTube over the past year and are used to colours popping off the screen, but they're more muted and neutral here. They are. However, accurate and motion blur was minimal.
The resolution is 1920 x 1080. Some may lament the lack of Ultra High Definition but lettering gets very small in those circumstances. For a laptop that's set up for predominantly typing-based workloads the resolution fits the 14.1-inch screen size very well and it's comfortable to work on for long periods. The viewing angles experience some image degradation from the side, but then with work-oriented notebooks like this, you don't really want people sitting beside you having a crystal clear view of what you're working on. This is also an increasingly-rare breed of laptop that has a matte-screen with minimal reflections – a boon worth the sacrifice of glossy, vibrant colours to many people.
We liked it when the Windows 10 Professional image started up and had Chrome and Firefox already installed. That was a nice touch.
The keyboard is a scrabble tile affair but feels different to many we've used in the past. The keys have a an-ever-so-slightly-rougher surface than competitors and are substantially stiffer than seen elsewhere. All but the top row are full-sized though and this, combined with the spacing, stiffness and coating meant it was one of the most accurate keyboards we'd used in a while - but that doesn't go for the Space Bar whose stiffness takes some getting used to. Indeed, if you're typing all day long you could experience finger fatigue. All in all, though, we were impressed – it feels like a high quality unit.
As for the mouse pad we're slightly-less convinced. It's smooth enough and accurate enough when sliding your fingers across it and gently tapping it, but the 'buttons' are quite stiff and this might be a bit uncomfortable for some.
We respect the choice of Core i5 chips for ultraportables. We've used i7s before and even with Kaby Lake's power efficiencies, they seem to cause problems with heat. This processor however, was very responsive for basic office and media functions, didn't get too hot which means it doesn't toast your unmentionables or have any annoying fans to spin up with that annoying, battery-draining whine. It can get warm at the rear, right-hand side but not enough to be uncomfortable.
There's only 8GB of RAM installed but it's an LPDDR3 Ultra Low Voltage variant which has been specially chosen to work efficiently in conjunction with the processor and M.2 SSD to operate at optimum levels for long periods without overheating or system speed throttling. The amount might limit hardcore photoshoppers and multimedia workers but it flew along for other tasks.
It scored 2415 in PC Mark which is very respectable for 2D applications. In the dedicated Work 2.0 test it scored 2977 which is among the top scores we've ever seen in this test (which, to be fair, we reserve for ultraportables). For reference, a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (with a more power-hungry Core i5-6300U processor) scored 2613.
The integrated Intel graphics couldn't handle the modern 3D Mark tests but it did score 3691 in the Cloud Gate test which shows it can still play older 3D games, at least to some extent.
Next: Battery Life, Warranty and Other Features, Conclusion...
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