The Asus ZenBook Pro 15 (starts at $1,799; $2,299 as tested) boasts an Intel Core i9 CPU and
A Touchpad With a Major Twist
With the ZenBook Pro powered off, the ScreenPad looks like any other oversize glass pad of the sort that graces countless Asus ultraportables, such as the ZenBook UX430. At 5.5 inches on the diagonal, it’s rather large, though by no means as gargantuan as the 7.28-inch touchpad on the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The glass surface means that it’s smooth to the touch, although like with many touchpads on Windows laptops—even expensive ones—I noted a bit of annoying flex when you click the pad near the bottom left or right corners.
The ScreenPad’s real magic begins once you touch the ZenBook Pro’s power button. The full HD panel (yes, it’s actually 1,920-by-1,080-pixel resolution) behind the glass cover roars to life almost immediately. Thanks in part to the Core i9 and in part to the swift PCI Express solid-state boot drive, boot time was a lightning-quick 10 seconds or so in my testing. The default ScreenPad mode results in a rather generic background image filling the display, with a thin white bar at the top center. You drag the white bar down with your finger to open the Toolbar, a strip of icons that provides one-touch access to ScreenPad apps.
Our review unit came with six shortcuts pre-installed: a calendar, a music player, a link to the ScreenPad app launcher, Spotify, and two calculators. You can reorder, add, or delete shortcuts by tapping on a seventh settings icon in the upper right corner.
The existence of two calculators belies one of the most fundamental (but perhaps most confusing) aspects of the ScreenPad. You can use the pad to display an entirely self-contained app, or you can use it to display controls for an app whose main window is displayed on the ZenBook Pro’s 15.6-inch 4K panel. In the case of the two calculator apps, one of the ScreenPad apps only works when the Windows Calculator app is running (allowing you to input digits that then show up within the main app), while the other ScreenPad calculator app lets you perform all of your calculations on the ScreenPad itself.
Confusing? Yes, and in the case of the calculator, two separate apps is not very useful. But ScreenPad extension apps can be useful when it comes to something like Spotify. You can minimize the full-size Spotify window and simply play, pause, skip tracks, and flip through playlists using the ScreenPad without interfering with what you’re doing on the main display. Even more useful are the ScreenPad apps for Microsoft Office. In Excel, you can enter formulas and perform calculations using a virtual number pad, a physical version of which is absent from the ZenBook Pro’s keyboard.
The best way to find more ScreenPad apps is to enter the term “ScreenPad” into the Microsoft Store search bar. This will return about a dozen apps that Asus has created, which, in addition to the Office and Spotify apps, include a utility for using the ScreenPad to draw your signature and add it to a PDF file in Adobe Reader. There’s a link to “Get more apps” in the ScreenPad’s setting menu, but it merely takes you to a cryptic “Asus Giftbox” app in the Microsoft Store that mostly hawks free trials for Dropbox.
The entire ScreenPad customization experience feels about equal to customizing the Apple Touch Bar, and the two input methods share similar limitations. For example, if you’re using an app that doesn’t have ScreenPad or Touch Bar support, the mini-screens just enter their default modes. In the case of the ScreenPad, that’s a touchpad with a background image of your choosing. In the case of the Apple Touch Bar, it’s screen-brightness and volume controls.
Need a Tiny Second Display?
The ScreenPad enters true gimmick territory when you switch it from default mode to Extension Display mode. You do this by pressing the Fn-F6 key combination. It instantly transforms the pad into a secondary display, complete with a Windows Taskbar and a desktop background. You can drag an app window from the main display to it, a trippy experience when you do it for the first time. Because of the ScreenPad’s small size, the only practical use I found for using it in Extension Display mode was watching videos.
Even in this mode, you can still use the ScreenPad as a means of controlling the cursor, whichever display that cursor might currently be on. It’s a familiar feeling to anyone who’s ever used a multi-monitor setup. The only thing that feels strange is that tapping on the ScreenPad to click doesn’t actually do anything. You have to first move the cursor to where you want to click, and then tap. This contrasts with the main display, where tapping on an onscreen element is certainly possible thanks to the touch-screen support that comes built into every Windows PC.
Finally, you can turn the ScreenPad off completely by pressing Fn-F6. In this case, it functions like a normal touchpad, and it looks like one, too. In fact, during a day of intermittent use with the ScreenPad off, I couldn’t tell that there was a display built into the touchpad, even when fluorescent lights were shining directly on it. This is markedly different from the finish on Apple’s Touch Bar, which clearly betrays the border between the screen and its housing when it’s hit directly with bright light.
At 4.1 pounds, the ZenBook Pro is comfortably light for a 15-inch laptop. It’s even lighter than the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1, which is designed for occasional use as a tablet. Another pricey desktop replacement powerhouse, the Dell Latitude 5591, weighs in at 4.6 pounds, while the budget Acer Aspire E 15 is a porky 5.3 pounds.
The ZenBook Pro’s weight is even more impressive when you consider that Asus managed to cram in two cooling fans and three heat pipes to deal with all the heat that the powerful CPU and GPU generate, not to mention a metal exterior. As it turns out, the secret weapon in keeping weight down is a small chassis. At 0.75 by 14.37 by 9.88 inches (HWD), the ZenBook Pro is essentially a 15-inch laptop masquerading in the chassis footprint of a 14-inch laptop design from a few years ago. Asus is hardly the only laptop maker performing these contortions, but they’re certainly put to good use here.
In addition to keeping weight down, the smaller chassis also results in thin borders around the display, known as bezels. This results in a very sleek look when the laptop’s lid is open, but it also necessitates some compromises when it comes to fitting a webcam into such a small space. The camera’s VGA quality leaves a lot to be desired. Images and video are quite grainy, even in a well-lit room, and the laptop features no IR sensors to allow you to log in to Windows using face recognition.
The display itself, however, is gorgeous. Its 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) resolution and glossy finish results in brilliant colors, made even more brilliant by Pantone color calibration and a blue-light reduction feature. As a result of the blue-light reduction, the default color temperature is much warmer than other 4K displays I’ve used, but that’s a good thing. Not only does research show that blue light from gadgets can disturb sleeping patterns, but the warmer colors also give the screen a cinematic effect, as if you’re watching an art film even when you’re just typing up notes from a meeting.
The quirkily named Asus Splendid app offers easy color-temperature adjustments, including Normal, Eye Care, Vivid, and a manual mode that offers a slider for more fine-tuned adjustments. Asus also makes a version of the ZenBook Pro with a full HD display instead of this 4K panel, but the company is not currently selling it in the US.
A Sturdy, Comfortable Keyboard
The keyboard on the ZenBook Pro is sturdy and comfortable, with a generous 0.6 inch of travel. It’s backlit, too, and it sports a convenient vertical row of Home, Page Up, Page Down, and End keys. Even better, Asus arranged the directional arrow keys in PCMag’s preferred inverted-T shape, which is more intuitive than a row. A fingerprint reader is at the keyboard’s bottom right edge.
On the ZenBook Pro’s left edge, you’ll find a dedicated power port, a full-size HDMI output, and two USB Type-C connectors with Thunderbolt 3 support for lightning-fast 40Gbps connections to external hard drives,
In fact, the ZenBook Pro technically supports as many as five (yes, five!) displays: The built-in ScreenPad and the 15.6-inch display, two monitors connected to the Thunderbolt ports, and another monitor connected to the HDMI output.
The right edge sports two USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports, a microSD card reader, and a 3.5mm audio jack. Wireless connectivity includes 802.11ac Gigabit Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0.
Asus offers a one-year warranty for the ZenBook Pro.
Roaring Core i9 Power, Deafening Fans
Inside our review unit, specs include a six-core Intel Core i9-8950HK processor, one of the first Core i9 CPUs we’ve seen in a non-gaming laptop, as well as
The principal draw of the Core i9 is better performance on applications that can make use of multiple processor cores and threads. The Core i9-8950HK has six cores and 12 threads, which make the ZenBook Pro eminently equipped for tasks such as rendering video and 3D images. Indeed, it took just 46 seconds to transcode a short HD video into a smartphone-friendly format using the Handbrake app, and only 2 minutes and 24 seconds to apply a series of 11 filters to a sample image in Adobe Photoshop CS6. Best of all, its Cinebench score of 1,222 is extraordinarily high. Even Intel Xeon-powered mobile workstations typically top out at around 1,000 on this 3D-rendering test.
Although the Core i9 is a rarity in laptops, you can get the same number of cores and threads in a Core i7 chip, such as the Core i7-8750H that powers the 2018 Razer Blade we reviewed in June. That gaming laptop is neck-in-neck with the ZenBook Pro on the Handbrake and Cinebench tests. It also scored significantly higher than the Asus on the PCMark 8 benchmark (3,949 versus 3,316), which simulates everyday tasks like web browsing, video conferencing, and word processing, although anything above 3,000 on this test indicates a PC that will easily manage these basic tasks.
The Razer Blade’s most significant advantage over the ZenBook Pro is gaming performance. The difference between the Razer’s GTX 1070 and the Asus’ GTX 1050 Ti is vast. The result is that the Blade is about twice as fast as the ZenBook Pro on the grueling Fire Strike Extreme graphics test, and it posted around 100 frames per second (fps) on our Heaven and Valley gaming simulations at 1080p resolution, compared with the approximately 40fps that the ZenBook Pro achieved. The ZenBook Pro still came in above our 30fps floor for enjoyable gameplay, but if you have an especially demanding game that you want to experience at maximum quality settings, your results could be worse.
The upshot is that the Razer Blade is better as a gaming laptop (and it should
While I was running each of these benchmark apps, the twin cooling fans on the ZenBook Pro spooled up, creating a formidable roar easily heard above the rest of the considerable noise from other systems and the air-conditioning vents in PC Labs. Even web browsing caused the fans to spool up. This is not a quiet laptop.
But you shouldn’t expect any laptop with two fans, three heat sinks, a 4K display, a
It’s All About That ScreenPad
That the ZenBook Pro is a proficient multimedia editor is without question. It’s even reasonably priced for the key Core i9 and GeForce GTX 1050 Ti components that give it that bragging right. But you can get similar multi-thread, multi-core performance for the money with the Razer Blade, which also offers superior gaming performance.
That means that the ZenBook Pro’s star attraction is not its muscle, but its ScreenPad. Equal parts novelty, creative tool, and gimmick, the ScreenPad is a unique addition that doesn’t require any sacrifices. If you don’t like it, just turn it off. You’ll forget it even exists, and you’ll still have a powerful, sleek desktop-replacement laptop under your fingertips.