The latest premium offering from Asus features dual 4K touch displays. But is it more than a gimmick?
- Superpowered internals
- Vivid 4K OLED primary display
- Second screen is genuinely useful
- Awkward ergonomics
- Thermal management issues
- ScreenPad Plus software needs work
It’s finally here – Asus’ long-awaited laptop with not one but two 4K touchscreens. When I previewed the Asus ZenBook Pro Duo at Computex 2019 in Taiwan, I was dubious of its practicality. But could this be a double-screened glimpse into the future of laptops?
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo review: What you need to know
Multi-display laptops are not a new concept. Apple has its TouchBar, Lenovo has the Yoga Book and HP has the Omen 2XS. Next year we’ll also be treated to the Surface Neo, a dual-display Windows hybrid from Microsoft.
Indeed, Asus itself has previously released ZenBook Pro models that feature a secondary display, or ScreenPad, housed within the touchpad. Back in 2012 it even made a laptop with rear and front displays, the Asus Taichi. But the ZenBook Pro Duo is the most ambitious take on the concept yet.
The model I’m reviewing here is the top-spec ZenBook Pro Duo UX581GV. It’s powered by an octa-core Intel Core i9-9980HK CPU, supported by 32GB of RAM, 1TB of PCIe SSD storage and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 GPU. Put simply, it’s a monster.
Then, of course, there are those dual screens. The primary display is a 15.6in, 3,840 x 2,160 OLED touch-enabled panel with a reflective glass coating. The lower display, known as the ScreenPad Plus, is a 14in LCD touchscreen with a matte finish and a distinctly letterbox-shaped resolution of 3,840 x 1,100.
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo review: Price and competition
At the time of writing, the only UK retailer that has this particular configuration in stock is John Lewis, where it’ll set you back £3,000. That’s a whopping wad of cash, but you can reduce the price by dialling back on the loadout or size: Amazon has a 14in model with an Intel Core i7-10510U CPU and Nvidia MX250 graphics available for £1,500, and there’s also a 15.6in version with a Core i7-9750H and RTX 2060 going for £2,500.
Within a similar price range to my review unit, you could alternatively invest in a top-of-the-line Razer Blade 15 (2019). Costing roughly £2,800 from Amazon, this is currently our favourite gaming laptop, thanks to a ninth-gen Intel Core i7-9750H, Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q graphics and a stunning 240Hz display. Jump up a grand and you could get yourself an Acer Predator Triton 900, a ludicrous £4,000 laptop with a rotating 4K 17.3in display and desktop-beating performance.
On the subject of high-end mobile workstations, I’d be remiss not to mention the 15in Apple MacBook Pro (2018) too. This stupendously powerful laptop (specification depending) can set you back anything from £2,350 for a base model up to £5,000-plus for the top-spec.
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo review: Design
The ZenBook Pro Duo is a futuristic-looking machine with a tasteful aluminium chassis that comes exclusively in a “Celestial Blue” finish. At the unveiling in Taiwan earlier this year, Asus described this colour as “a little bit green, but very dark”, while also optimistically suggesting that it might be “the new black”. Whatever colour it actually is, I can tell you that it’s a fiend for fingerprints, and I had to wipe it down frequently during my tests.
Weighing 2.5kg and measuring 359 x 246 x 24mm (WDH), the ZenBook Pro Duo is a lot bulkier than your typical laptop. That’s probably because the base has to house that second display, as well as a pretty serious set of cooling fans and heat vents. In this respect, it feels more like a gaming laptop than a workstation, although its design is understated compared to Asus’ ROG laptops: the only LED effect here is a thin light bar on the front edge of the base, which activates when using the Pro Duo’s integrated Alexa function.
As with some other Asus designs, the laptop’s lid extends out at the bottom, which tilts the base upwards when the lid is raised. This lifts the keyboard up to a slightly more comfortable typing angle and allows some breathing room below the base. Even so, I’m not convinced that Asus has done enough to prevent overheating inside the chassis – but I’ll get into that later.
Given that this workstation is marketed at creatives, the array of interfaces feels slightly limited. The right-hand side holds a single USB Type-A 3.1 port, a 3.5mm audio jack and a Thunderbolt 3 connector, with DisplayPort, in the USB Type-C format. On the left, there’s one more USB Type-A 3.1 port, an HDMI 2 output and the power socket. The obvious omission, in my opinion, is a built-in SD-card reader.
Audio is provided by Harmon Kardon-certified SonicMaster “surround sound” stereo speakers. Sadly, these don’t produce the all-encompassing wall of sound you might expect from such a description: they sound decent but they could be louder and, like practically every set of laptop speakers, they could use some more bass.
There’s a webcam above the display too, although it has a low 1MP resolution, records in 720p at just 7fps and looks awful in low light conditions. It is at least partnered with a Windows Hello IR lens for instant face-unlocking. In the box, you’ll also find a bundled, battery-powered Asus Pen for doodling on the bottom and primary screens. This works pretty well, but there’s nowhere to store it so I can imagine it being easily lost.
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo review: Keyboard and touchpad
The ZenPro Duo’s keyboard is a slightly odd shape since everything gets pushed forward by that second display. As a result, it can feel a bit cramped to work on, and when typing on the top two rows it’s possible to inadvertently brush against the ScreenPad Plus and register unwanted clicks. The location of the touchpad, squashed down into the bottom right-hand corner, makes it easy to graze accidentally with the pinky too.
On the plus side, the keys have a healthy 1.4mm of travel, and the metal plate beneath them feels perfectly solid underhand. A few special keys are included, letting you switch between Turbo and Auto performance modes, swap the contents of the two screens and temporarily deactivate the keyboard – which is necessary if you’re using it as a palm rest while doodling away on the ScreenPad Plus. There are also shortcut keys for switching between the keyboard’s three white backlighting settings, as well as adjusting the luminance of the main display. Frustratingly, though, there isn’t a key to adjust the brightness of the ScreenPad Plus.
Probably my biggest gripe, from an ergonomic perspective, is to do with the touchpad. It’s quite tiny, and the surface is friction-heavy, so tracking is not smooth at all. A shortcut in the upper corner lets you turn it into a touch-sensitive numeric keypad, and you’re probably best leaving it in that mode. Anyone who buys the ZenBook Pro Duo, whether for creative work or not, will need an external mouse from the off.
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo review: Display
The ZenBook Pro Duo’s primary display is a 15.6in touch-enabled panel with a 4K (3,840 x 2,160) resolution. Thanks to its OLED technology, it has an effectively infinite contrast ratio: this helps images leap out from the screen with stunning clarity and boldness, and viewing angles are absolutely superb.
Touch response on the display is perfect too, and thankfully the lid doesn’t have much wobble. I could live without the glossy finish, however, because every now and then I found I had to adjust the screen angle to avoid glare from light sources. Still, a retina-searing maximum luminance of 387cd/m2 means the display is normally perfectly viewable even in the brightest lighting conditions.
If you’re considering the ZenBook Pro Duo for a professional role, you’ll be encouraged to hear that, in our tests, the screen delivered 100% sRGB gamut coverage. However, it tends to oversaturate colours, with a total sRGB gamut volume of 174.9% – and an average Delta E of 3.96 means colour accuracy is way off base for professional-standard video and photo editing. It looks fantastic for films and games: just be aware that it tends to exaggerate vivid colours.
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo review: ScreenPad Plus
The ScreenPad Plus is about half the height of the main screen, and it’s about half as good: it’s an LCD panel rather than an OLED, and it has a matte finish instead of a glass coating. Asus calls it a 4K panel, but its 3,840 x 1,100 resolution translates to a shortened 32:9 format, with fewer than half of the pixels of a regular 4K display.
Though the aspect ratio may be unfamiliar, the ScreenPad Plus definitely comes in handy for multitasking. Creatives can use it as a control panel when working with video, image or music software, and it can house up to three apps at a time, all easily arranged using the standard Windows snapping functions. It’s also ideal for spreading out toolbars or for displaying reference materials while working off the main screen. During my time the ZenBook Pro Duo, I found myself regularly using the ScreenPad Plus as a convenient place to keep mundane windows like Spotify or Google Analytics.
Sadly, the experience is far from seamless. When an app or web page is spread across both displays, some of the content is concealed beneath the partition that separates them, so you can’t combine the two panels into a true extended desktop. It’s also fiddly to use: sometimes it failed to detect taps made with either a finger or the Asus Pen, and if you’re touching the surface even gently then you can’t use the touchpad, keyboard or primary display at all.
Perhaps the biggest drawback is the limited viewing angle of the ScreenPad Plus: I often found I had to lean over and look directly down onto the panel to see everything clearly. The fact that it has a separate brightness control to the main display (not to mention a lower maximum brightness) is also annoying, and there’s no way to link the two together without using third-party software.
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo review: Performance and battery life
The promise of multi-display multitasking calls for some serious hardware heft, and Asus has kitted out the ZenBook Pro Duo appropriately with a huge 32GB of RAM and an octa-core ninth-gen Intel Core i9-9980HK. This is the most powerful mobile processor currently available, with a base frequency of 2.4GHz and a maximum Turbo speed of 5.0GHz – yet, sad to say, the ZenBook Pro Duo fails to extract its full potential. As you can see below, the Pro Duo’s Bench result of 209 is spectacularly speedy, but it’s nowhere near the 291 recorded by the similarly-specified Acer Predator Triton 900.
The cause is easy to identify. While our in-house benchmark tests were running, I used the free CoreTemp tool to monitor CPU temperatures, and found that – regardless of whether the laptop was in Auto or Turbo mode, and despite the whirring fans and continuous stream of hot air pumping out of its side vents – three of the eight cores had hit their maximum limit of 100°C, while the remaining five were blazing along either 99°C or 98°C. Clearly, thermal throttling holds the CPU back from achieving its maximum performance.
Still, its CPU speed and multitasking abilities are furlongs ahead of the Razer Blade 15 (2019), and the Apple MacBook 15in (2018).
Since the ZenBook Pro Duo’s 4K panel only has a refresh rate of 60Hz, it’s not necessarily ideal for gaming. If that’s what you want to do, though, there’s a good chunk of power on hand. In the off-screen GFXBench Car Chase test, the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 GPU cranked out an average of 255fps (while the on-screen variant was obviously limited to 60fps). That’s well below the rivals shown in the above chart, but those machines all benefit from either RTX 2070 or RTX 2080 units.
Even Triple-A gaming is well within the Pro Duo’s wheelhouse. It ran the 1080p Metro: Last Light benchmark on high detail settings at 141fps, and even managed 35fps in the crushing 1080p Hitman 2 Mumbai benchmark at medium detail settings. The SteamVR Performance Test gave the system an overall score of “10.2 (Very High)”, meaning it’s more than VR-ready.
As for storage, this top-spec model has a generous 1TB PCIe SSD, and performance is fairly nippy: in the AS SSD benchmark it read sequential files at 1,561MB/sec and wrote them at 1,244MB/sec. Neither result is close to the fastest we’ve seen, but you certainly won’t be sitting around all day waiting for files to save or open.
Whenever a laptop arrives boasting a top-end processor and a discrete GPU, the trade-off is almost always battery life – and that’s especially true when said laptop also has two 4K displays. We weren’t expecting great things from the Pro Duo’s battery, therefore, and in the event, it lasted for just 3hrs 31mins in our standard video-playback rundown test.
Note that that’s not even in high-performance mode, and with no applications running besides VLC. If you turn the secondary display off you might be able to make the 71Wh battery last a bit longer, but in general, we’d recommend you think of this as a portable desktop replacement, rather than a truly mobile companion.
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo review: Verdict
As I mentioned earlier, the ZenBook Pro Duo is certainly ambitious. Aside from the unreleased Razer Project Valerie, it might well be the most daring multi-display laptop ever made. Impressively, it’s also the most successful effort I’ve seen.
That doesn’t mean I’d spend a spare £3,000 on it. The ScreenPad Plus has some annoying problems, and the disparity in quality between that and the primary OLED panel is jarring to say the least. Couple that with those thermal issues, short battery life and ghastly touchpad and I have to say it’s a flawed machine.
Even so, there’s no denying that the Pro Duo’s ScreenPad Plus can be a genuinely useful innovation, for content creators especially. There’s real potential here, and I’m excited to see what Asus does with the dual-display concept next.
|Asus ZenBook Pro Duo (UX581GV) specifications|
|Processor||9th-Gen Intel Core i9-9980HK,|
Coffee Lake, launched Q2 2019
|Additional memory slots||0|
|Graphics adapter||Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060|
|Graphics memory||6GB DDR6 VRAM|
|Storage||1TB PCIe SSD|
|Screen resolution||3,840 x 2,160|
|ScreenPad Plus size||14in|
|ScreenPad Plus resolution||3,840 x 1,100|
|ScreenPad Plus pixel density||285.3ppi|
|Pointing devices||Touchpad, touchscreen,|
ScreenPad Plus, Asus Pen
|Memory card slot||No|
|3.5mm audio jack||Yes|
|Graphics outputs||Thunderbolt 3 (USB Type-C)|
|Other ports||USB Type-A 3.1 x 2, DC-in|
|Web Cam||1MP, 1,280 x 720 @ 7fps|
|Speakers||Asus SonicMaster stereo|
|Wi-Fi||Intel Wi-Fi 6 with Gig+ (802.11ax)|
|Dimensions (WDH)||359 x 246 x 24mm|
|Operating system||Windows 10 Home 64-bit|
|Operating system restore option||Windows recovery drive|