Asus Zephyrus Duo 15 GX550 Review – Double take

The Asus Zephyrus Duo 15 isn’t just a gaming laptop — it’s an ideal. A philosophy of technological innovation and progress. That might sound political party rhetoric but in this case, it’s quite literally true. Let’s start with the dual screens –  how many laptops do you know that have two screens? I can only think of two others, one of those being another Asus – the Zenbook Duo.

The AUD $5, 999 Asus Zephyrus Duo 15 is an evolution of what started with the Zenbook Duo and its ScreenPad. This new ScreenPad Plus is bigger, sharper and now rises up to meet you when you open the lid. The larger main display is either 4K or 300Hz Full HD and all the swankiest internals you’d expect. But does Asus dream of a world of dual screen laptops actually work? Why yes it does.

Asus Zephyrus Duo 15 G550 Review

Our review unit is the top end G550LXS which has a 10th Gen core i9-10980HK CPU and an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 SUPER. It will set you back an eyebrow-raising AUD $5,999. There’s a cheaper G550LWS which has an i7-10875H and RTX 2070 SUPER for about $1000 less. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a hell of a lot of money. But you also get a 300Hz Full HD Display, 32 GB of memory and a 1 TB M.2 SSD drive — more than enough for most things. All this just means that the Zephyrus Duo is a performance beast.  In our CPU intense benchmarks, the Duo 15 put up some decent numbers when compared to a similarly spec’d Alienware m15 R3.

Zephyrus Duo 15 Synthetic Benchmarks

Playing games was a similar story. The Duo 15 deftly runs AAA games at Ultra settings at an average of 100 frames per second. Only Shadow of the Tomb Raider made the Duo 15 sweat when I turned ray-tracing on. Oddly enough, even at medium settings, I couldn’t get any game to run anywhere near the displays 300Hz refresh rate. Which then begs the question, why have such a fast screen, if it can’t reach those frame rates? Seems absurd, especially when you count the cost of the Duo 15. I should point out that you can get a few extra FPS by disabling the secondary screen. But that’s yet another compromise you shouldn’t have to make for such a pricey machine. 

Zephyrus Duo 15 Gaming Benchmarks

Now, with great performance comes great heat and the Duo 15 does get hot. I recorded peak CPU temps of 96C for the Duo 15 compared to 99C on the Alienware. The 3-degrees of separation makes a difference, I guess. There also a massive 28.5 mm vent behind the second screen to help with air flow thereby alleviating the fans from working too hard. In theory, this means less fan noise but in practice the Duo 15 still gets plenty loud when pushed. Asus is also using liquid-metal thermal compound on the CPU which it says reduces temperatures by up to 14% more than traditional thermal pastes. That’s a really generous figure from what I saw. But what matters is that during long gaming sessions, the Duo 15 maintained average temps of 80C and 70C on CPU and GPU. 

Design

The industrial design team at Asus has been on fire lately and the hit train continues with the Duo 15. This is a gorgeous piece of machinery. A metal alloys shell, polished chamfered edges, clean lines all point to an obsession with detail. Even with that rising ScreenPad, the Duo 15 remains only 20.9 mm thick and 2.4 Kilos. It feels sturdy and confident. The new screen rises out to meet you when you open the lid. It’s totally nerdy and immensely satisfying the way it rises out of the deck. And this isn’t just for show. Having the screen tilted towards you makes it so much easier to see, removing the need to hunch over every time.  You’ve also got some vents on the sides, back and underneath. Some solid rubber feet give enough clearance for that hot hair to flow and keep the Duo 15 from sliding around.

It’s impressive to think that a dual screen laptop with so much power is still small enough to comfortably chuck in a backpack. The downside to having a second screen means you have to move the keyboard lower. The touchpad also had to move — in this case to the right, where the number pad on a full size keyboard normally lives. The result is one of the worst ergonomics for user input on any laptop. You need to push the laptop further away from you just to type relatively normally. Inevitably, most people will use an external mouse for serious work and play anyway.

Seeing double 

The marketing headline for the Zephyrus Duo 15 is the dual displays. The main is a 15.6-inch Full HD IPS panel with 300Hz refresh and 3ms response time. There’s also a 4K 60Hz display which is better suited to content creators. Then the second display or ScreenPad Plus is a 14.1-inch 3840 x 1100 which is like 4K sliced halfway down the middle. It’s also touch enabled although I didn’t feel it was as responsive as say a smartphone or iPad display. It’s also redundant because it’s just easier to use the mouse. I mean, I’m already holding it, why lift my hand to touch the screen? 

Whether you get the 300Hz Full HD or 4K panel, they will be Pantone Validated with 100% sRGB colour coverage. Colours look great, they’re punchy and vibrant across gaming and other media. True gamers will want the 300Hz which is smooth as baby oil. I never noticed even a slight hint of screen tearing or stuttering. Content creators will want the higher resolution 4K option for greater pixel accuracy. Both screens are great although the ScreenPad Plus is noticeably hazier, like it has a film over it. This is possibly just the effect of the off angle at which you look at the screen. It’s still clear and readable in most lighting conditions though. And it’s better than having to lean forward to look down at it. 

But why do you need a second display your laptop anyway? Well, take a look at your computer screen right now; I bet there’s at least four(or forty) different apps open. The ScreenPad Plus answers the age-old problem of lacking screen estate on laptops. Now you can have more apps open, visible and usable. I had my main workspace up on the big screen with something like Adobe Creative Suite or my web browser. Then I’d put my Email app, Discord or Google chat down the bottom, so I don’t have to keep tabbing in and out of apps. Some apps can have toolbars or timelines in the second display leaving more working space up top. 

When you’re gaming, you can have Discord or Twitch streams open on the ScreenPad. Asus is working with game developers to allow you to use the ScreenPad in game too. Imagine having your map or inventory always available in the second display. Think Nintendo DS with its dual screens. Dying Light 2 will be one of the first games optimised for the Zephyrus Duo 15  with more to follow. 

Did you mean to tab out?

Asus has got some handy Windows tools to make using the ScreenPad easier. For example, when you drag an app, a quick menu appears offering you options to snap to the bottom or tile the apps. There’s also a touch key shortcut on the left side that opens up a menu of ScreenPad different apps. It’s all pretty nifty but there’s still one giant obstacle and that’s Windows. At the moment, Windows sees the two displays as two separate ones, just like if you had connected an external display. This means that every time you interact with one screen, the focus is removed from the other. In games, that means you get tabbed out of the game and it’s annoying. You can run your games in full screen windowed mode which can help but it won’t work for all games.  

The other problem is the ScreenPad’s aspect ratio. 3840X1100 is not a standard aspect ratio which wreaks havoc with Windows automatic resolution scaling. This is obvious when apps go full screen — especially YouTube videos. The videos sit in the middle of the screen and get cut in half with black pillars surrounding them. Asus is working hard to fix these issues and provide greater utility for the ScreenPad. However, a lot of the issues stem from Windows 10 and there’s not much Asus can do. New iterations of Windows 10 promise much better dual screen device support so all we can do is wait and see. 

Get an external keyboard and mouse

And for all the potential benefit the second screen brings, it comes at a very high price to the keyboard and mouse experience on the Duo 15. As it is, you can’t use the keyboard comfortable unless you position the Duo 15 far in front of you. Obviously, unless you have freakishly long thighs, typing with the duo on your lap is out of the question. If you can get around that, it’s actually a good keyboard. The keys are spacious with good travel and some excellent RGB lighting. 

The same goes for the touchpad which is a glass pad with Windows Precision drivers. Yes, it’s responsive and smooth but its awkward placement and orientation make it so awkward to use. As a laptop user, you expect the touchpad to be below the keyboard. It’s more natural. It’s not all bad though. In a clever design twist, the touchpad also transforms into a number pad with a long press on the top left of the pad.  

Thankfully, the Duo 15 has a generous assortment of I/O ports for connecting all the things. I like that the display ports, Ethernet and Charging ports are now on the back of the laptop. It makes cable management cleaner. Audio on the Duo 15 isn’t the best I’ve heard on an Asus laptop but it’s loud and clear without sounding too tinny but bass isn’t great. Again, you are better off using a good pair of headsets so you can enjoy the Hi-Res audio output from the ESS Sabre HiFi DAC built into the Duo 15. The laptop has separate mic and headphone jacks so you can have a dedicated quality mic for team chat or streaming.

Battery

I know what you’re thinking, battery life must suck on such a powerful machine. Well, you’d be wrong actually although there’s a catch. Running two high performance displays and an i9 processor is going to hurt any battery. The Duo lasted 2hrs 50min with both screens running and just over 5 hours with only the main screen. Clearly, if you want longevity, you’ll have to forego the benefits of the second screen. It all depends on your particular use case but compromises need to be made. 

And we finally get USB-C charging! Apple MacBook’s have had this for years but PC makers have lagged behind. The USB-C Thunderbolt port supports up to 65W USB charging. Don’t expect to game while on USB charging as that’s not enough power throughput — stick to low power tasks like web browsing or light office work. You’ll need a capable charger but it’s great to finally have this option. Now you can have one charger for your laptop, smartphone, headphones and iPad. 

Verdict

And that brings us to the crux of the issue. The Zephyrus Duo 15 is a phenomenal piece of engineering that’s innovative, performant and exciting. It’s a gorgeous device with exceptional performance in work and games. Yet, it’s hampered by the compromises needed to get the absolute best out of it. The ScreenPad is genuinely useful but Windows dual screen limitations and the enormous toll on battery ruin the premise. Add the bad keyboard ergonomics and the Duo 15’s $6,000 price tag and the very thin ice starts to crack. 

Now, you do certainly get a lot of tech for your buck and all the performance that comes with that. But in the end, the Zephyrus Duo 15 is reminiscent of the Asus Mothership. A wildly beautiful concept that was too expensive and totally unjustifiable. The only difference is that the Duo 15 is far more practical for daily use. In an ideal world where Windows 10X with better dual screen support exists and if Asus can get game developers on board, the Zephyrus Duo 15 is a sure winner.

Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 Review
I LIKE
Gorgeous design
Exceptional performance
Genuinely useful second screen
Better battery than expected
DON'T LIKE
Keyboard positioning is awful
Very pricey
9.5
Finally an viable dual screen laptop

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Kizito Katawongahttp://www.medium.com/@katawonga
Kizzy is our Tech Editor. He's a total nerd with design sensibilities who's always on the hunt for the latest, greatest and sexiest tech that enhances our work and play. When he's not testing the latest gadgets or trying to listen to his three whirlwind daughters, Kizzy likes to sink deep into a good story-driven single player game.

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