Gaming laptops are in a bit of a weird space at the moment. On the one hand, every vendor wants to get a portable gaming rig out in the market with the new suite of Nvidia RTX cards.
At the same time, they’re trying to strike the balance between power and portability.
It’s an odd conundrum, taking ostensibly some of the most powerful gaming hardware out there, then potentially throttling it to fit into the smallest case as possible.
This is where I find myself reviewing the new Asus ROG Zephyrus S GX531; a mouthful, so I’ll use GX531 from here on out. It’s a capable, fast, sleek gaming laptop, but with more than one Achilles Heel that’s keeping it off my must-buy list.
The GX531 is the Goldilocks edition of the new Zephyrus S lineup, sitting between the GX501 and the GX701 in terms of features and price.
From the outside
Let’s get some specifics out of the way first.
For a gaming laptop, the GX531 is very, VERY slim. Asus is calling it the world’s slimmest gaming laptop at 15.35~16.15mm thick. That means it feels pretty at home on a desk but wouldn’t feel out of place at uni or in a coffee shop.
It still has a massive screen at 15 inches, which is a good thing for me as a gamer, but might not be the most subtle option for a student.
By the same token, if you’re looking to pass this off as anything but a gaming laptop, the RGB keyboard is a dead giveaway. The GX531 comes with an Aura backlit RGB keyboard, the four independent lighting sections are all controlled through the onboard software.
Around the outside, the last bit before we dive into the detail is connections. The GX531 comes with Type-C ports at USB 3.1 Gen 2 and Gen 1 speeds, Type-A ports at USB 3.1 Gen 2 and 2.0 ports. There’s also one HDMI 2.0b output at the back which supports 4K UHD displays up to 60Hz, so you can game on big-screen TVs.
The laptop body feels decidedly premium, solid metal construction, sturdy hinges and a keyboard with very little flex. The only downside to a slim frame like this is that it conducts plenty of heat from the hottest parts of the system straight into the metal body, so watch out there.
One touch I do really like here is that the GX531 is able to charge from one of the Type-C ports, meaning you can take a battery pack with you to charge on a plane or when you can’t get to an outlet.
It’s a small touch, but one that I would value when travelling.
The GX531 that I was testing came with a new Nvidia RTX2070 MaxQ GPU, an Intel i7 8750H CPU, 16GB of DDR4 memory and one 512GB SSD for storage. All this means that it was quick, responsive and good at multitasking.
Over the course of my time, I tested the laptop with Total War Warhammer 2, as this provides a great balance of GPU load for models and special effects while putting a decent amount of pressure on the CPU in managing the number of units on screen.
And I can say that it handled the game really really well. With settings totally maxed out and repeated tests on huge battles with hundreds of orcs, elves and spells being thrown around the system only slowed a few times. These were mostly at the start of battles with all of the units on screen at once but otherwise kept the game at a decently solid 60 FPS.
The only downside here was in cooling, but we’ll get to that a little later.
My second run of testing was in Warframe. If you haven’t played it, Warframe is incredibly fast and showcases some pretty over-the-top particle effects. It isn’t the most demanding game on the system, but from my perspective gives a great test of how a system renders at speed, and whether the display can keep up with the action.
Once again, the laptop handled admirably, the load times were relatively quick, the longest being into a large open area at about a minute, and the shortest being loading into an ordinary level at about 20 seconds.
In battle was where this system really shone, because the highly detailed character models in Warframe mixed with the quick animations and explosive particle effects really showed off the 144hz display and powerful GPU combo.
What can I say?
Having a 2K or 4K panel is nice, but of course, those come at a massive cost premium. But for me, running a 1080/144hz panel is often better. Having the 144hz refresh rate makes everything feel so much smoother and more responsive and really showcases how the hardware can keep up with modern games.
While I was testing, I’d say I spent at least an hour zoomed all the way into a battle map in Total War Warhammer 2; just looking at the character models and the battle animations. And sweeping around the battlefield, zooming in and out and moving rapidly to different points, the screen held up pretty flawlessly without lagging, tearing or losing focus.
From the outside, it’s an FHD 1080p 144hz panel, with 3ms response time, which for me was a massive step up from my ordinary office rig at 1080p 60hz. It even has a tiny thin 6.5mm bezel, which makes the panel look less like a screen and more like a window, so kudos there.
Oh, and I’m not a graphic designer, but apparently, it has Pantone colour verification. I asked a designer friend who said that was great because it means the colours are truer to what you’ll get with printed work. Good to know.
Keeping it cool
Asus has put a lot of emphasis on cooling in this generation of slim laptops. There were a lot of little changes and tweaks clearly pointed towards getting more air into the system and keeping the GPU cool.
The first and most obvious change here is a total shift in the layout from what you’d expect in a laptop. From the front, you’ll see the keyboard is pulled all the way to the front of the body, with the trackpad slimmed down and pushed to the right-hand side, where you’d normally find the numpad on a standard keyboard.
This means the whole top area which would normally be taken up by the keyboard now has space for air intake vents and exhaust for the GPU.
By the same token, when you hinge the screen open, the lower section at the back of the chassis creeps open to give the system more space to exhaust hot air and keeping the base of the laptop cool.
It’s a cool design change and was a bit of an “Aha” moment for me when I realised what this was for.
From the technical side, you have four exterior heatsinks, one on each side and two on the back. Internally these are cooled by two 12v fans connected through five heat pipes and controlled through temperature sensors or onboard software.
Those changes and redesigns are in the service of cooling and the system feels like a step forward in that department. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this experimentation on the part of Asus kind of falls flat.
Yes, it’s a different keyboard layout, and yes, you have some decent cooling hardware, but you’re still trying to cram a very hot system into a very small metal frame. This means that when the system warms up and the fans get cranking, it really can start to sound like a jet engine.
And I’d have it sitting on a table if I were you, the name “laptop” is only implied if you can actually set it on your lap without getting worried about burning yourself.
The Zephyrus line of laptops all features that same redesign that I mentioned in the cooling section of this review. Where the keyboard is pulled down towards the front of the chassis and the touchpad is pushed out to the right-hand side. It’s a bit of a non-traditional layout from an ergonomic perspective, on a standard laptop you’d rest the heel of your hands on the front part of the body, whereas here they’re dangling off the front or resting on your legs.
I know normal keyboard layouts aren’t perfect for preserving your wrist, and this took some getting used to, so time will tell if this new layout is better or worse for longterm use.
The shift from having the trackpad below the board to off to one side feels more natural for a gaming layout that the normal laptop, but feels like it’s filling a very specific niche of gamers who are gaming without their mouse, but I can see how it would come in handy.
As a devout mechanical keyboard user, going back to a plunger-style laptop board is always a shock and there’s a part of me that wonders why gaming laptop brands aren’t making use of low-profile mechanical designs.
The board used by Asus here is slim and easy to type on, with n-key rollover and rated to 20-million presses per key. But at the end of the day, that’s about all there is to say here.
The personal touch
Over the course of my couple of weeks with the Asus ROG Zephyrus S GX531, I tested it out as a diehard PC gamer.
My current rig at home is a Ryzen 5 2600x, a GTX1070, 32GB of DDR4 RAM and a spot of liquid-cooling. While it isn’t going to win any awards for the most powerful gaming rig, it capably handles any game I throw at it.
So for me, a gaming laptop is always a toss-up decision, the performance is comparable, but is the addition of portability worth the trade-off in the heat? For me, probably not.
But as a point of comparison, I had my housemate try out the system while I was at my day job. He’s an Xbox gamer by trade and has dabbled in PC gaming in the past. For him, it’s quite a different experience, because living in an apartment the slim laptop can be stowed away rather than taking up a whole corner of the room like my PC does.
It’s also a matter of making the step from console to PC gaming, even going from an Xbox One at 1080p to a 144hz display and 100+ FPS is a massive difference.
For the gamer looking for portability, looking for an upgrade, or looking for the versatility of a laptop, yes this might be a great option. For someone with the gaming rig sitting there, it’s more of a case for a pros and cons list.
Asus provided a Zephyrus S GX531 laptop to PowerUp! for this review.
Power Up! Reviews
Product Name: Asus ROG Zephyrus S GX531
Offer price: $2449