How thin can a high-end gaming laptop get? Looking at the ROG Zephyrus of ASUS, we have a pretty solid answer.
The Zephyrus (GX501) is based on NVIDIA’s recently introduced Max-Q design, which cuts down the size of graphics chips in favor of thinner notebooks without compromising too much power. But wait — haven’t manufacturers been doing this for a while already?
Yes and no. While brands have been striving for that oh-so-slim gaming laptop for ages, it’s only now with NVIDIA’s help that it’s possible to fit a top-of-the-line GeForce GTX 1080 GPU into a frame that’s less than 18mm thick.
In this case, the 15.6-inch Zephyrus has that GTX 1080 within an approximately 17mm, 2.25kg chassis. Here’s how it fares.
It definitely looks and feels like a regular laptop
This is one of the few gaming laptops I’d actually allow on top of my lap. My only qualm is in the way the cooling system was built.
ASUS uses this technology called the Active Aerodynamic System, which lifts the rear end of the body when you open the lid for greater air distribution.
While I can attest to the efficiency of the cooling system — not once did it burn my legs or howl like a large washing machine — the design means the bottom plate is somewhat flimsy unless it’s placed on a flat surface.
But that’s fine, since the Zephyrus isn’t designed for traveling writers without a stable workplace; gamers who want to settle down in a LAN party or hotel room will appreciate this form factor.
The hands-on experience may be weird at first
Just look at it: By shoving all the internal components to the upper half, the keyboard had to be pushed to the bottom with the touchpad awkwardly placed to the right.
The abrupt cutoff of the keyboard’s bottom edge, shallowness of the keys themselves, and vertical trackpad have a really steep learning curve. One week of everyday use wasn’t enough to master this setup, and that may be a bad thing.
You must do several practice runs on Overwatch or your preferred MOBA before jumping into competitive play. ASUS bundles a rubber palm rest (as pictured above) to help ease you into the compromised part of the design, but it’s purely for table-top use since it doesn’t attach to the unit itself.
There’s some trackpad magic
By pressing the button pointed at above, you can transform the trackpad into a fully functional numpad.
If you use the bundled optical mouse — which I found to be quite delightful to use, by the way — you’re better off just ignoring the trackpad altogether in favor of this traditional keyboard-numpad-mouse-palm rest setup.
Actually, this should be the only setup you should consider, especially if you take gaming seriously. Just be sure to take the palm rest and mouse with you, and never leave them behind by accident, which happened to me a couple of times.
Comes with performance that matches a much bulkier PC
I feel like it’s justified to spend half of this review on the design alone, since this is what the Max-Q philosophy stands for, but this wouldn’t be a gaming article without talking about performance.
There’s no getting around it; the Zephyrus ticks every box for a gaming laptop. The variant we reviewed has the following: An Intel Core i7-7700HQ processor, 24GB of memory, 1TB SSD storage, and of course, a full-fledged GTX 1080 — none of that “mobile version” terminology attached to it.
It’s a given this machine can run through the latest games. Titles like Rise of the Tomb Raider and the latest DOOM can be maxed out on the laptop’s native 1080p resolution with frame rates consistently exceeding 60fps.
To be specific, I got an average of 98.14fps and 58.2fps on the benchmark tests of Rise of the Tomb Raider and Deux Ex: Mankind respectively on Ultra settings and DirectX 12. The maximum temperatures reached during these stress tests were 71 degrees Celsius for the CPU and 70 degrees for the GPU.
More importantly, the Zephyrus we tested has NVIDIA’s G-Sync enabled on the LED-backlit panel to prevent unwanted tearing and stuttering during fast-paced games.
Coupled with the 120Hz refresh rate, this is a godsend for games like CS:GO and Overwatch. Not once did I feel like the Zephyrus held me back during intense gaming with lots of action going on.
Here are closer looks at the finer details
What else is there to know?
With the exception of the somewhat uncomfortable keyboard-trackpad combo and flimsy bottom plate, the Zephyrus seems like it’s about to reach the finish line without any deal-breakers. But wait — I found something!
No matter how many optimization tricks I tried or useless software I uninstalled, I couldn’t for the life of me get this thing to last more than two hours on a single charge.
It turns out that cramming so much high-powered hardware in such a slim profile leads to atrocious battery life. I was never confident enough to unplug the Zephyrus from a wall socket to work or game on the move for more than an hour.
Is this your GadgetMatch?
That’s a tough question. As innovative and well-rounded as the Zephyrus is, its target market is as slim as the laptop itself.
With a starting price of $2,700, it’s way more expensive than building an equally capable desktop PC rig of your own, but it isn’t crazy pricey like some of the behemoths we’ve covered recently.
Our particular model was provided by ASUS Philippines, and it costs slightly more at PhP 179,995 (roughly US$ 3,550) since it has the best-possible configuration.
I often found myself taking a break in between work and gaming sessions to reflect on how far we’ve come since the impractical “mobile” PCs of the past. Those massive machines still exist, but they’re no longer the standard by which all gaming laptops must follow.
At the same time, there are drawbacks to slimming down a computing monster: The chassis loses its sturdy build, the keyboard and trackpad are relegated to awkward spots, and most of all, battery life takes a dive.
I’d say those are weaknesses you can ignore; keep the Zephyrus on a desk, insert the bundled mouse and wrist rest, and stay plugged in. Have to move to a new location? You can easily slide everything into a medium-sized backpack and bring them with you.