Super-thin GTX 1080 laptop. Tasteful design with innovative, quiet thermal solutions. Top-end performance in initial testing. 120Hz G-Sync display. Plenty of ports, including USB-C with Thunderbolt 3.
Short battery life. Only 1080p resolution. Bottom panel isn't sturdy when venting. Skinny right-aligned touchpad.
- Bottom Line
Thanks to Nvidia's Max-Q initiative and a clever design, the Asus ROG Zephyrus looks to be the new benchmark for powerful, thin gaming laptops.
Aside from a few exceptions that focus on raw power, gaming laptops have undoubtedly trimmed down in weight and size over the years. Technology like Nvidia's Pascal graphics architecture has brought more power to increasingly trim systems, and now another initiative is moving the bar again. The Asus ROG Zephyrus (GX501VI) ($2,699) is one of the first laptops built with Nvidia's Max-Q design, an approach that makes it possible to fit high-end graphics cards like the GTX 1080 into thin laptops via a pinpointed performance cap and thermal solutions. Gaming notebooks such as the Alienware 17 R4 and the Razer Blade Pro are much larger to accomodate the card, while the 15-inch Zephyrus is just 0.66-inch thick. Our time with the Zephyrus has shown that Max-Q laptops can deliver levels of proficiency near that of these bigger machines, which bodes well for the new approach.
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The design and size of the Zephyrus is the story here, given the power inside. Its thickness is good for any notebook, and it's the thinnest laptop bearing a GTX 1080. (It's also 14.9 inches wide, 10.3 inches deep, and weighs 4.9 pounds.) For comparison with another high-end 15.6-inch gaming laptop, the Alienware 15 R3 includes a GTX 1070, but weighs 7.8 pounds and is an inch thick.
Putting aside the components for a moment, the Zephyrus is a nicely built laptop with a sleek look—a design style I'd been hoping to see more of from Asus given some of its rather garish offerings. The body is all black, edged in metal with a brushed aluminum lid. The copper trim looks nice, and is used in a more restrained fashion than in some previous ROG laptops.
It should be noted that Razer has set the benchmark for thin gaming laptops for several years via its own cooling technology and attractive design, as seen in the sleek Bladeand the Blade Pro. To house a GTX 1080, though, the Pro is a larger 17-inch, 7.77-pound system, and its fans get louder than the Zephyrus' under load. Even then, Razer is ahead of the competition, as the GTX 1080-equipped Alienware 17 R4 is much bigger and heavier at 1.18 inches thick and 9.77 pounds. A design as slim as the Zephyrus' with that much power is not solely the work of clever Asus engineers, however (though they were part of the collaboration), but also a result of the entirely new Max-Q initiative pushed by Nvidia.
The graphics company revealed this design approach, a method for getting the most powerful cards in its current architecture into increasingly thin laptops, at Computex this year. Asus will not be the only beneficiary of Max-Q, as all major manufacturers will want to get in on the action that's changing the image and portability of gaming laptops, but the Zephyrus is the first to come through our lab.
The GTX 1080 in this laptop is physically the same as non-Max-Q versions, but factory software puts a cap on its performance to lower power consumption, which limits the heat and sound it generates. This in turn allows it to fit into a smaller chassis without overheating or inconsistently throttling, problems that traditionally led gaming laptops to be built into big, bulky bodies that don't travel well. On paper, a non-Max-Q GTX 1080 delivers 150W of graphics power, with a base block speed of 1,556MHz. The Max-Q version offers 90W to 110W of power, with a base clock speed between 1,101MHz and 1,290MHz. How much the card's performance is limited by these factors is obviously the important question, and is covered in a separate section below.
The innovation is not all in the preset software limits, either, but also in the physical ventilation. Max-Q is all about efficiency—finding the sweet spot of maximum performance just under the heat threshold—and Asus worked closely with Nvidia to design the Zephyrus to do just that. The interior fans have been tweaked to be thinner, so there are more of them pushing more air with each spin than you would typically find in a gaming laptop. They're made from a liquid-crystal polymer to withstand the added speeds, which would warp standard fans.
One of the main ventilation tweaks is visible from the exterior: When the laptop's lid is open, the bottom panel lifts away from the frame about a quarter of an inch. Air is sucked in through this bottom gap and perforations above the keyboard, cooling the components before being pushed out through the side vents. This is pretty novel, and red LEDs shine out of either side for dramatic effect, but it makes the bottom panel feel flimsy. It's only plastic to begin with, but when it's lifted away from the base and you're holding it from the bottom, it flexes in, and it's not clear how resilient the hinges are. I don't have concerns about the gap being damaged when it's resting on a surface since the feet support the body, and it didn't give me any problems or show signs of wear, but it definitely feels like a vulnerable area on an expensive machine.
It's Not All About Max-Q
Outside of the Max-Q design, the Zephyrus includes some other nice features. Its 1080p display doesn't look especially sharp or vibrant, but it features a 120Hz G-Sync display. G-Sync synchronizes the screen's refresh rate to the speed the GPU renders visuals, limiting screen tearing like V-Sync, but without suffering from V-Sync's latency. The screen has a matte finish, which reduces glare to practically nonexistent levels, though it somewhat dulls the picture. Its 1080p resolution is understandable for performance (bumping up to QHD or 4K lowers frame rates, since many more pixels are being pushed), but with such a powerful graphics card and at this price, it's a bit disappointing to not get at least a QHD screen. I said the Alienware 15 R3 missed an opportunity in similar fashion, and it only includes a GTX 1070, so there's even more power available here that could've displayed those resolutions. That said, it's likely that a more demanding screen would've thrown off the delicate Max-Q balance, and Asus had to make a call between the two.
The Zephyrus' keyboard is pushed down right to the bottom edge of the deck, which multiple colleagues commented on as odd. This is a necessity, though, as the area above the keyboard is entirely dedicated to cooling, both on top with the air holes and beneath with fans and ventilation. As long as you're not using the laptop on the very edge of a desk, your wrists can rest on the surface beneath rather than on the keyboard deck like usual—it just takes some getting used to. Asus must be aware of this oddity, and that it might be uncomfortable for some, as a rubber wrist rest is included. The keys aren't mechanical (a noteworthy and fairly unique feature of the Blade Pro), but they are RGB backlit, and feel responsive and nice to type on.
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The keyboard location also requires a compromise from the touchpad: It's smaller and placed to the right of the keys. The Blade Pro has the touchpad in the same location, but because it's a 17-inch laptop, the pointer has the room to be full-size. It's not a huge issue, but the skinnier touchpad is slightly irritating as there's less room to pan, and its position on the right will frustrate lefties. Still, it's responsive, has two dedicated left and right click buttons just beneath, and you can press a button to make an LED number pad appear on the touch surface, which is a very cool solution to the lack of space for a physical one. The Zephyrus' speakers weren't noticeably strong in testing, but the quality is solid at high volumes. Voices weren't recessed, which I see sometimes in thinner laptops, and it's loud enough to fill a small room, so you can watch a movie on it.
Despite its slim form, there are plenty of ports on the Zephyrus. Its left flank holds two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, and a headset jack. On the right, there's a USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 and two more USB 3.0 ports for a well-rounded selection. The remaining connectivity features are 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2, with no Ethernet. For storage, there's a single 512GB NVMe PCIe solid-state drive. That's not a ton of storage, but it is fast, and adding more SSD storage is pricey. You don't often get more than that with portable systems—the Blade starts with 256GB and the Blade Pro with 512GB. The Origin EVO15-S is one of the exceptions here, a compact GTX 1060-bearing 15.6-inch laptop that houses a 512GB SSD and a 2TB hard drive, while the Alienware 15 R3 is close with a 512GB SSD and a 1TB hard drive. Asus supports the laptop with a one-year warranty.
Punching Above Weight
In addition to the Max-Q GTX 1080, the Zephyrus includes a speedy 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ processor and 16GB of memory. There is 8GB of memory soldered to the motherboard, and an 8GB DIMM in one of the system's slots. That's top-notch hardware for any machine, and all the more impressive when you remember this one's size. Because we were using a pre-production system with 24GB of memory, we can't report our day-to-day and multimedia test scores, but during informal testing, we saw numbers that were competitive with other systems in this category. We will be testing the final production unit when we receive it from Asus. From experience, with all other factors staying the same, we don't see the scores skewing too far from the numbers below.
3D and gaming performance is the main area of interest, not just because that's the primary focus of the Zephyrus, but also because it demonstrates what a Max-Q version of a card is capable of for the first time. The Zephyrus scored 27,697 points on 3DMark Cloud Gate and 7,723 points on Fire Strike Extreme, both very high results. The Alienware 17 R4 and the Blade Pro are good points of comparison for GTX 1080 laptops: The R4 scored 29,487 points on CloudGate and 9,328 on Fire Strike, while the Blade scored 24,757 and 8,140, respectively. The R4 led the way, and its uninhibited GTX 1080 scored a couple thousand more points on both tests, but the Zephyrus' Max-Q 1080 wasn't too far behind the Blade Pro, and in fact outperformed it on CloudGate. The Heaven and Valley gaming tests told similar stories, but all three laptops averaged 100 frames per second or more on each at ultra-settings and 1080p.
We can see that Max-Q restricts the GTX 1080's performance to a degree, but you're still getting excellent power out of the card in a much smaller body—its numbers are extremely close to a standard GTX 1070. The Alienware 15 R3's results show that pretty clearly, particularly on Heaven and Valley, which are both within 4fps (frames per second) of the Zephyrus' results. The difference is, while both are 15.6-inch laptops, the Zephyrus weighs about 3 pounds less and is nearly half an inch thinner. The Zephyrus' GTX 1080 may perform more like a GTX 1070, but Max-Q is enabling much greater performance in this size tier. The Origin EVO15-S is very similar in size and weight, but only packs a GTX 1060, which topped out at 67fps and 70fps on Heaven and Valley, which drives the difference home.
With this power, you won't dip below 60fps (the ideal target for a solid gaming experience in this class) on virtually any title with the Max-Q GTX 1080, especially since the Zephyrus can't go beyond full HD resolution, it's fully capable of VR, and you get a G-Sync panel. You might feel like you're not truly getting a GTX 1080, but the performance is somewhere between it and a GTX 1070, which is a pretty reasonable compromise when you look at the size of other GTX 1080 laptops. The Zephyrus also ran quietly after long sessions, which is an area Nvidia heavily took into account when tweaking the graphics card. The same can't be said for the Blade laptops, as I've consistently noted loud fans in the Blade and Blade Pro when gaming. Between the performance and noise levels, I feel confident saying Nvidia's Max-Q technology is the real deal.
Unfortunately, there's one black mark on the Zephyrus: battery life. Gaming laptops are notorious for short life off the charger, but that trend has been slowly reversing, outside of the biggest, most power-hungry laptops. The Zephyrus behaves much more like those systems than portable alternatives like Razer's: It only lasted for 2 hours and 34 minutes on our rundown test. The Alienware 15 R3 ran for 5:33, and the Razer Blade for 10:36. The Alienware 17 R4 and the Origin EVO15-S aren't much better at 3:30 and 3:28, but the Zephyrus' battery life is at the back of the pack. The larger Blade Pro has room for a bigger battery, but with a demanding 4K IGZO display, it lasted for 3:48.
Gaming away from an outlet for long stretches of time isn't too common, but it's hardly an option on the Zephyrus (nor are any general uses for long), which is a shame because that contradicts its portability. You can easily put this laptop in a bag for a trip to play games at your destination, which is great and will weigh your bag down much less than its contemporaries, but it's just not useful for long stretches on the road in between.
Setting the Bar
The Asus ROG Zephyrus is an excellent first representation of what's possible with the Max-Q design. The partnership between Nvidia and Asus looks to have yielded a new high-water mark for performance in a thin, 15.6-inch laptop, even if there are a couple caveats. The Zephyrus' design is aesthetically tasteful, it weighs under 5 pounds, costs less than several GTX 1080 laptops, and can play games on maximum settings comfortably above 60fps like a high-end gaming laptop should. We've seen some of what's already on the way with Max-Q, but I'm very intrigued to see what other manufacturers will do, and if the Zephyrus' bottom panel vent innovation will remain a thermal solution given its pros and cons. Max-Q looks likely to stick around, and the Zephyrus is a good demonstration of the performance and design possible with the approach.
Matthew Buzzi is a junior analyst on the Hardware team at PCMag. Matthew graduated from Iona College with a degree in Mass Communications/Journalism. He interned for a college semester at Kotaku, writing about gaming. He has written about technology and video game news, as well as hardware and gaming reviews. In his free time, he likes to go out with friends, watch and discuss sports, play video games, read too much Twitter, and obsessively manage any fantasy sports leagues he's involved in. More »
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