Asus ZenBook Pro Duo full review

You can usually rely on Asus to come up with something a little different for its laptops, and Computex 2019 was no different: the company unveiled what it calls the future of laptops: the ZenBook Pro Duo, a high-end creative device that boasts not one, but two 4K displays.

Thanks to a 4K OLED main panel and RTX 2060 GPU backed by up to 32GB of RAM and a Core i9, the specs are about as premium as it gets, making this a veritable portable powerhouse. With a secondary display built into the main body, the ZenBook Pro Duo is built for multi-tasking and heavy duty creative work - think Apple's MacBook Pro Touch Bar on steroids - but that brings with it design changes and compromises that you're likely to either love or hate.

Price and availability

It should probably come as no surprise that the ZenBook Pro Duo isn't exactly cheap. There are two models available, which differ in processor, RAM and storage. The cheaper model has a Core i7, 512TB SSD and 16GB of RAM, and is available for £2,499/$2,499 in most places.

Jump up to a Core i9, 1TB storage and 32GB RAM and the price will also shoot up to £2,999/$2,999. That'll be overkill for most people, but then the whole laptop is overkill really, and the extra processing power and RAM could make the difference for serious creatives. Both models feature the same RTX 2060 GPU at least.

Asus itself also sold another model that dropped the RAM way down to 8GB and the storage to 256GB, but this is sold out on the company's own site and I haven't seen it for sale elsewhere - and with those specs is likely to be unattractive to most potential Pro Duo buyers in any case.

It's worth noting that there's also a cheaper 14in model - the ZenBook Duo - which drops the 'Pro' moniker but boasts roughly the same design. Beyond the smaller screen it caps out at an i7 processor, 512GB storage, and and 16GB RAM, but more importantly drops down to HD on the display and an MX250 GPU.

ScreenPad Plus: Two screens or not two screens?

Here's a choice you didn't used to have to make when buying a new laptop: how many displays do you want it to have?

Secondary displays have been around in some form for a few years, seen in the likes of the MacBook Pro's slimline Touch Bar or Asus's own ScreenPad, which replaced the traditional laptop trackpad with a small touchscreen. The ZenBook Pro Duo takes this to the next level, with a full-width 4K display built into the body of the laptop, right above the keyboard.

If that sounds either mad or pointless to you, then you're probably not alone. Still, it's remarkable how quickly I got used to the second screen once I started using it, and while I never quite felt it was indispensable, I definitely miss it when I'm back on a regular ultrabook.

The lower screen sprawls across half of the laptop's body, starting at the edge of the main display and running down to the top edge of the slightly smushed in keyboard and trackpad, and most of the way to the edges of the body too.

In terms of raw specs, it's a 14in IPS LCD with an aspect ratio of 3840 x 1100 - so it's just about half the size of the main OLED panel, which is 15.6in and 3840 x 2160. Asus touts the secondary display as 4K, which isn't technically true, but is accurate in the ways that count: it's the same pixel density as the top panel, so there are no awkward resolution shifts between the two panels.

You might have noticed that the screens differ in more than size. While the top panel is OLED the secondary screen is only an LCD. That's a compromise presumably driven mostly by cost, but one that shows in side-by-side comparisons - the only kind of comparisons that are really possible, given the two screens are basically touching. The second screen is dimmer and less rich, even with brightness cranked up to the max, and has a more matt finish - I got used to the difference eventually, but never totally stopped noticing it.

The difference makes sense when you consider that Asus still intends you to use the bigger display for the main part of creative work, which bears out in the display quality. While that big screen covers 100% of the colour gamut in both sRGB and AdobeRGB, the lower panel drops to 97% and 78% respectively - enough to still look nice in use, but not quite there for full-on editing work, which it really isn't designed (or needed) for.

From a software perspective things mostly work well. Mostly. You can fit up to three different app windows in the bottom panel side-by-side, dragging them around to suit whatever multi-tasking you want to do at the time - whether that's keeping the file explorer open while you work on a project, keeping an eye on Google Maps and a calendar while you book hotels on the main screen, or just running Spotify and Slack while you get on with your work up top (guilty).

You can switch between apps quickly on the fly, set app shortcuts to open some programs straight to the second display, and save certain combinations of programs , letting you quickly access your favourite setups.

There are headaches though. Reopen the laptop after letting it go to sleep and it forgets the screen layout of all your apps, instead tucking all your apps back behind each other on the main display. Both displays are touch screens, which is convenient until you have the instinct to drag windows between the two panels and forget there's a gap between that basically stops it working.

If you'd rather focus on one task at a time that's an option too. You can let one program sprawl across both screens, ideal for programmers who want extra vertical real estate, or complex creative apps where you can move certain controls down to the bottom display - keeping the project timeline on the lower screen while editing video, or dragging a couple of Photoshop's three million tools down and out of the way.

The average user will, in all honesty, not get a whole lot out of this unless they really, really hate switching windows - though it is admittedly great getting to drag distractions down to a secondary display. But for anyone used to working on a desktop with multiple monitors who wants the same experience on the road, it's clear to see why the Pro Duo might appeal - so long as you can put up with the impact that second screen has on the rest of the laptop's design.

Design: Squished by the screen

So here's the downside: it's quite tricky to actual fit a 14in display into the body of a laptop. For what it's worth, Asus has done a good job of it, with minimal bezels around the screen and not a lot of wasted space: mostly just a thin black bar that boasts the ZenBook logo between the screen and the keyboard.

But in another sense, that's exactly the problem: with no wasted space there's also no free space, and the whole design is inevitably cramped and squeezed. There's still a full-size keyboard, but the trackpad has had to shift to the right-hand side of it, squeezed into the corner, and doubling as a numpad thanks to LED strips you can activate to illustrate the number keys.

There's almost no un-used space at all on the main body, which means there's nowhere to rest your hands while you type. Asus also includes a detachable palm rest, but that's just another thing that you have to carry around with you in order to use the laptop comfortably, and either way you'll probably find that the Pro Duo is tricky to use in cramped conditions.

The keyboard itself is pretty comfortable to use at least, with a tactile, responsive feel, good-sized keys (no compromise for space there), and a comfortable 1.4mm travel distance. The track pad is great too, and I quickly adapted to having it next to rather than below the keyboard, but you just can't get away from the fact that it's seriously small, and that may be a compromise too far for some. I'd recommend investing in a portable mouse.

The Pro Duo is hefty too. Between the top-end specs and the extra display, this thing is thicc, and it's got the weight to match at 2.5kg (5.5lbs) - an ultrabook this ain't. Portability clearly wasn't the priority here, and while it's still just shy of the biggest gaming devices out there, there are plenty of other premium creative laptops from the likes of Apple or Dell that offer similar performance with a slimmer build.

One advantage of the heft is that it does leave Asus space for plenty of ports, though the potential does feel a little wasted. You get two full-size USB ports, one USB-C, and one HDMI, along with a dedicated power port - Asus still hasn't jumped onto the USB-C charging bandwagon, sadly. Still, given the intended use case it's odd that there's not even a MicroSD card slot, let alone full SD, while limiting it to a single USB-C slot and no ethernet at all means you might still need to cart a dongle round anyway.

As is standard for Asus laptops these days, sound is provided by Harmon/Kardon, though I found it unexpectedly weedy. The tone of the audio is strong, with a nice balanced sound profile, but max volume is actually a little lower than I'd have thought, and I found myself cranking things up higher than I usually ever would.

The Asus ErgoLift hinge design returns, naturally propping the base of the body up at a slight angle - ideal for both cooling and comfortable typing - and beyond the silly screen the rest of the design is actually very restrained. It's available in dark blue ('Celestial Blue') finish with pretty minimal detailing, with both the Asus logo and its concentric circle finish offset slightly on the aluminium body.

Specs: Like it or not, this is what peak performance looks like

So it's a bit of a brute, and the second screen (mostly) works, but does the ZenBook Pro Duo deliver where it counts?

Yes, but not without downsides. I reviewed the top-spec model, with a Core i9-9980HK backed up by 32GB of RAM, which is more than enough for even fairly demanding work, and unsurprisingly it pretty much breezed through our benchmarking.

Battery is an issue though. All that power doesn't come easy, and I found that even simply using the device for writing in Chrome, with Spotify, Slack and Twitter going on elsewhere, I'd be lucky to get three or four hours of continuous use unless I cut the display brightness right down. Do anything more demanding and that runtime will naturally drop further. That means you'll always want the power brick nearby, and that's big and hefty in its own right.

There's cooling too. Asus has gone all out, with much of the side chassis occupied by large vents which spew out hot air pretty much continuously. It's another reason you won't want to use this thing on your lap, but you'll even want to avoid keeping any cold drinks in the way of the exhaust - they won't stay cool for long.

With all that oomph and cooling power, you might think this would be a capable gaming laptop too. And it sort of is, with the RTX 2060 in particular letting you tap into the latest ray-tracing tech. There's not quite enough oomph to power the full 4K display at respectable frame rates, but drop down to 1080p and this thing should run.

The downside is that it's hard to really make the most of the second screen while playing. You can leave Twitch, YouTube, or other apps open on the lower display, but because of how Windows handles full-screen games you'll end up minimising your game window the moment you tap on anything else. You can work around this by playing in windowed mode, and I'm sure there are other hacks to make the most of it, but it's not quite a smooth, flawless experience yet.

One final up note - alongside the usual wireless connectivity options this also includes support for Wi-Fi 6. Not every router will make the most of the new tech anyway, but under the right conditions it should help you get noticeably faster connection speeds.

Verdict

Don't write the ZenBook Pro Duo off as a mere novelty without trying it. This may or may not be the future of laptops, but for creatives, multi-taskers, and the attentionally challenged, the second display quickly makes a case for itself.

The question isn't really whether you need an extra display then - it's how much you're willing to compromise elsewhere to get it. Rubbish battery life and a giant chassis are the immediate downsides, but the cramped keyboard, teeny trackpad, and excessive heat will all irritate more or less in their own way - and that's before we even get to the price tag.

The thing is, after a few days of working with two screens, dragging apps around and saving different pre-set layouts, most of those headaches fall to the wayside, and the Pro Duo is an easy laptop to love. It's not perfect, and no doubt future dual-screen devices will find better ways to make the form factor work. But this is one hell of a first attempt.

Specs

Asus ZenBook Pro Duo: Specs

  • Windows 10
  • 15.6-inch 4K OLED (3840 x 2160) touchscreen display
  • 14-inch 4K LCD IPS (3840 x 1100) touchscreen ScreenPad Plus secondary display
  • 8th Generation Intel Core i7-9750H or Core i9-9980HK processor
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 GPU
  • 16/32GB RAM
  • 512GB/1TB SSD
  • 2x USB-A 3.1
  • 1x USB-C 3.1
  • 1x HDMI
  • 1x 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Wi-Fi 6
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • IR webcam with Windows Hello
  • Full size, backlit chiclet keyboard
  • Numpad built into touch pad
  • Audio system from Harman Kardon
  • 359x246x24mm
  • 2.5kg