In 2017, the Asus ROG Zephyrus became the first gaming laptop we reviewed that was built conforming to Nvidia’s Max-Q philosophy. In a nutshell, Max-Q Design enables powerful graphics processors to fit inside thinner-than-ever laptops by limiting the power ceiling and the heat output of the chips. That gives laptop designers more sway in how they slim down their wares. Asus has pushed the concept and its engineers further with the ROG Zephyrus S, an even slimmer version of that pioneering, premium Max-Q machine. We haven’t had a chance to formally test this S model yet, but were able to get some extended hands-on time with it, in advance of its public unveiling at Gamescom 2018. (Pre-orders begin Aug. 31; availability is slated for Sept. 15.) We worked up some impressions ahead of its announcement; here they are.
See Me? I’m the Slimmest in My Class
The best place to start? The Zephyrus S’s proudly trumpeted claim of being the world’s thinnest 15-inch laptop.
The original model was already quite slim, at 0.66 inch thick. But the Zephyrus S shaves that down even further, coming in at 0.588 inches. It’s not purely through refinement that Asus got the laptop thinner, however. The Zephyrus S tops out at a Max-Q GeForce GTX 1070 graphics processor, while the original boasted the option for a Max-Q GeForce GTX 1080. Since the less-powerful card requires less cooling, Asus engineers had that much more leeway to trim down the chassis.
Max-Q can do wonders for a laptop’s size, and nearly every gaming-laptop manufacturer that matters is adopting it in at least one product in its lines. Razer, for one, made its flagship laptop, the Razer Blade, even thinner earlier this year using the same design concept, and the Origin EVO15-S and MSI GS65 Stealth Thin offer similar advantages.
It’s worth noting, though, that even without a GeForce GTX 1080 GPU, Asus warned, flat-out, that the battery life will take a hit to achieve the form, so don’t expect the S to last long off the charger. While you probably won’t play games off the battery, it does somewhat defeat the purpose of being thin and light if you can’t use the laptop on the go as your regular work and play warrior. That said, it’s still less cumbersome to put it in a bag and carry for plugged-in use later on. So the smaller size has its benefits.
The drop from a Max-Q GeForce GTX 1080 is combined with a redesigned cooling hardware scheme—the fans have more blades (now 83 blades, up from 71 on the previous model) and run at a higher spin rate than before. The CPU and GPU share two pipes and heatsinks, and each has an independent pipe linked to a dedicated heatsink. (That’s the internal apparatus below.) Asus had no choice but to put extra care into the cooling when going for such a slim form factor, but we can’t yet confirm that the new Zephyrus runs cool or quiet while gaming. At least in casual trials while photographing it, fan whir was audible. (It seems only appropriate in a laptop named for the Greek god of the west wind.)
The system’s very trim profile does get a bit thicker when you raise the screen from clamshell position. As with the original Zephyrus, a bottom ventilation flap opens as you pull the screen open, propping up the laptop by about an inch. This is another engineering element Asus developed to cool the components in such a thin body, but the first time around, the apparatus was a little flimsy for a premium machine. The flap on the new model is a bit sturdier: In addition to using a magnesium alloy instead of plastic, it only starts halfway up the bottom of the chassis, instead of running all the way from back to front. As such, it’s not as long and saggy, and you won’t put pressure on the flap if you hold the laptop on the bottom. Before, the bottom’s flex when the laptop was open was downright worrisome.
The rest of the exterior design also went through some changes. Its general aesthetic remains the same, including the split-tone lid and copper trim. The lid logo is now a red-backlight mesh instead of silver, though, and the ventilation area above the keyboard has an entirely different texture. Where before this panel was perforated to allow cool air through the top, the Zephyrus S has a slatted zigzag design here. It still allows air to flow through, but it looks different and, in my opinion, better.
As for that keyboard, it’s still shifted to the very front edge of the laptop to allow for that cooling panel between the keyboard and the screen, rather than set back or midway into the chassis like on most any other laptop. It’s still a little awkward when the laptop is against the edge of a table, as there’s nowhere to rest your wrists. But if you set it back slightly, it works as a more desktop-like experience. I had only a short time to try typing, and I thought the keys weren’t particularly satisfying to bang away on (they’re pretty shallow), but they seem serviceable. The keys are backlit across four customizable zones, which can sync with compatible peripherals, as well as with some ground-effects mood lighting that shoots out from the bottom vents. (You can just make it out, in red and blue, below.)
The touchpad is once again a narrow, more vertical patch on the very right-hand side of the keyboard, another difference from standard laptop layouts. Asus knows that gamers will be using a mouse most of the time, so this setup is perfectly fine for the times where you need to use the touchpad. It also maintains a neat trick from the first model: By pressing a dedicated button, you can turn the touchpad into a touch-sensitive number pad. (This was a feature pioneered, ironically, by a scandalously large MSI mega-laptop some years ago, the MSI GT80 Titan SLI.) The touchpad itself lights up with a red numbered grid to emulate the numpad, which remains a clever trick for fitting one onto a smaller body where there isn’t physical space for more keys.
High-End Price, High-End Features
The Zephyrus S will come in two models in the US, keeping things relatively simple. Both include the same processor (a robust Intel Core i7-8750H “Coffee Lake” six-core chip), 16GB of memory, the same display, and the same ports. (More on those below.) The first model, the GX531GM, includes a full-power (not Max-Q) GTX 1060 and a 1TB NVMe SSD for $2,099; this will be the model available across retail and etail channels in the States. The second model, the GX531GS, is an Amazon exclusive that includes the Max-Q version of the GeForce GTX 1070 and a 512GB NVMe SSD for $2,199.
While the look and location of the keyboard and touchpad remain unchanged, the display panel underwent some alterations. Gone are the relatively thick bezels of the original model, and in come some very narrow borders (7.5mm on the left and right sides). As on any laptop, that change alone makes the design look much more modern, and it lets laptop designers fit the same-size screen into a smaller chassis (or, conversely, a larger screen into the same-size body). In this case, it’s the former: The Zephyrus S includes a 15.6-inch 1080p display, like on the original.
However, unlike that version, the new screen has a 144Hz refresh rate and a 3ms response time. The original had “only” a 120Hz rate, though it did include support for Nvidia G-Sync. The increase in refresh and response time should be very appealing to performance-minded enthusiasts, as games will run noticeably smoother (at least, in theory, and so long as you aren’t a G-Sync diehard). A Max-Q GTX 1070 likely won’t push frames rates that exceed that refresh rate in most games, but getting as close as possible still makes use of the premium screen here, versus the “wasted frames” you wouldn’t see on a standard 60Hz laptop panel.
Cracking Open the Crate
Above the touchpad is a dedicated ROG button, which pulls up all the Asus software you’ll need. That was true on the original model, as well, but it will pull up wholly different software on the Zephyrus S.
Asus is combining its Aura Sync lighting and ROG Gaming Center component-monitoring and control software into a new program, named Armoury Crate. (Yes, mind the “U.”) It will be shared across new ROG laptops, desktops, and components, so while this isn’t technically specific to the Zephyrus S, this is the first time I’m seeing it. While I didn’t get long to play with the software, the UI was pretty clean and intuitive. If nothing else, it’s inherently nice to have lighting controls, shortcut functionality, and system monitoring all in one program, rather than having to poke through and keep an eye on several apps.
As for ports, Asus keeps it pretty straightforward and doesn’t let the thinness kick anything essential to the curb. The Zephyrus S includes an HDMI connection, a headset jack, two USB 2.0 ports, a Type-A USB 3.1 Gen 2 port, and two USB Type-C ports (one Gen 1, one Gen 2). You could say an Ethernet jack is a casualty of the slim design, but you’re also often not guaranteed one on a thin laptop. A USB-to-Ethernet dongle might be a good buy alongside this machine in the same e-order.
The Winds of Change Blow…Thinner
On an aesthetic and functional level, the Asus Zephyrus S looks like a solid refinement of the original. It’s thinner, it looks better, and it has some new features that the 2017 version lacks. Its power ceiling of a Max-Q GTX 1070 is lower, however. (Perhaps the GeForce GTX 1080, like another figure of Greek mythology, flew too close to the sun, judging by the thermal-design hoops necessary to leap through in a machine like this.) So you’ll have to decide how much value a slightly thinner build adds for you, considering what you give up.
Not to mention the money you’ll give up. This is a pricey laptop, and much of that is down to the extreme design, so it makes sense only if you’re going to benefit a bunch from its portability. That’s especially true for the $2K-plus GeForce GTX 1060 version. It has lots of high-end features, but you can get GeForce GTX 1060-equipped laptops for much closer to $1,000.
Stay tuned for a full review of the Asus Zephyrus S once we get a review sample in hand for testing. Meanwhile, enjoy our gallery of even more shots of this nifty-looking machine.