It’s hard to “reinvent” the laptop in 2019, but ASUS believes it has found a successful formula with the new ZenBook Pro Duo, a dual-screen laptop, which adds to last year’s concept of “ScreenPad” that replaced the trackpad with a touch screen. The company proposes this model especially for productivity in the professional field, but the truth is that there is enough power under the casing to provide quite good performance in most video games. However, when you draw the line, this is not a computer that is really suitable for productivity, but for gaming. It is something new that could have a bright future if it is to be improved in the future.
ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo: a laptop with two touch screens
Over the past few years, ASUS has begun to build a true brand identity around ZenBook devices. What initially started out as an imitation of Apple’s MacBook devices has evolved over time into its own design, with its unique features. But ZenBook Pro Duo throws this whole process of design evolution out the window, proposing something different: a slightly larger laptop, equipped with two screens and top-end hardware, comparable to what we generally find on gaming computers.
The exterior construction is still made of aluminum, but the bottom is significantly thicker than we’ve seen on other ZenBook models so far. The reason is obvious: the company had to “squeeze” the cooling system and a whole display (or rather half a 4K screen) in addition to the top components. All the underside of the main screen is covered by the secondary one, instead of the keyboard, which has been moved down to the extreme edge. Because there was no more space under it, the trackpad was moved to the right.
We have also seen similar keyboard and trackpad designs in the past, especially on the “ultraportable” gaming laptops of the last two years. However, the ZenBook Pro Duo is neither ultraportable, nor a computer built specifically for gaming. We have to admit, strictly from a design point of view, this computer looks great. It gives us a little glimpse into the future and made us excited again when we think of laptops, a category of products that has become quite “boring” in recent years, based on successive iterations with new and better-performing components, yet minor design changes.
ASUS seems to have done a very good job when we look “on paper.” We have an impressive 4K OLED screen, another 4K screen cut in half and positioned below it, a well-spaced keyboard and top specs. Of course, specifications are not everything, nonetheless how to use this laptop is not exactly “suitable” for all users.
For better ventilation, ASUS made this computer with a design that lifts the bottom from the ground when you open the screen, and because the keyboard and trackpad are so close to the bottom edge, in the ZenBook Pro Duo package box you can also find a palmrest. However, the latter is not magnetic. It is made according to the shape of the laptop, to be comfortable in use, being at the same level as the computer. Unfortunately, any movement of the laptop on the desk leaves the palmrest behind. For such a “premium” computer, the experience of using this accessory is disappointing.
Above the main screen there is also an infrared camera compatible with the Windows Hello authentication system, which may exempt you from entering a password. The laptop also boasts an advanced microphone system, compatible with Amazon’s Alexa assistant, and even includes an “ASUS Pen” stylus, which can be used on both screens, as both have a touchscreen and benefit from support for Windows Ink. Other interesting features would be the possibility to transform the trackpad into a “virtual numpad”, being illuminated with buttons on the entire surface.
Given that the laptop weighs 2.5kg and benefits from a 230W socket adapter, the ZenBook Pro Duo will not be the most portable productivity laptop on the market.
ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo: What’s under the “hood”?
- Model: ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo UX581
- Main screen: 15.6″, 4K (3,840 x 2,160 pixels), 60 Hz, OLED (glossy)
- Secondary Screen: ScreenPad, 14″, 4K (3,840 x 1,100 pixels), 60 Hz, IPS (anti-glare)
- CPU: Intel Core i7-9750H @2.6 GHz (boost up to 4.5 GHz, 6C / 12T)
- GPU: Intel UHD Graphics 630 + NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 6 GB GDDR6
- RAM: 16 GB DDR4-2666
- SSD: SK Hynix 512 GB, M.2 NVMe
- Sound: stereo, SonicMaster (harman / cardon certificate)
- Connectivity: 802.11ax Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5, 2 x USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-A, 1 x Type-C Thunderbolt 3, 1 x HDMI 2.0, 1 x 3.5 mm combo jack
- Other features: backlight keyboard (white)
- Power supply: 230W
- Weight: 2.5kg
- Operating system: Windows 10 Pro
ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo: How does this laptop behave when in use?
ASUS is proposing to change the way you work on the ZenBook Pro laptop. During the time we had this computer available, although we tried to use all its capabilities to the maximum, the truth is that the extra half screen, located above the keyboard, is not something really useful, and even the execution is not well developed.
In order to realize new features that benefit from the “ScreenPad” secondary screen, the company further developed the software it used on ZenBook devices in the past. Thus, the entire Windows experience is now modified to adapt most of the functions of resizing, moving and managing windows to “ScreenPad”. At any time, you can move an application from the main screen to the secondary screen, you can create several “groups” of applications that run in parallel on it (maximum three at a time) and you can also close this screen at any time. However, this is the main reason why you would choose such a laptop over others, so chances are you will want it.
The problem arises when ASUS software conflicts with how the Windows operating system manages windows and applications. Especially in “fullscreen” applications, your computer may get in the way, minimizing applications or forcing them to start in the window, moving from one screen to another or any combination of these symptoms. It’s an unfinished, frustrating and difficult to understand experience on an expensive premium computer. ASUS was not satisfied with the functionality of an “extended” screen, but wanted to provide extra functionality, which they failed to develop enough.
This is especially evident in video games, which in turn may have overlay on Windows, such as GeForce Share, Steam Overlay and Xbox Game Bar and other such “complications.” When you take into account the management of the windows on ASUS, nothing responds as you would expect. Some games, such as Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, can only run in the window, while others return to the desktop at startup, requiring an Alt + Tab to actually enter the game.
Of course, this is not a gaming computer, but its hardware strongly recommends it in this direction, and its secondary screen might be even more useful for gamers and streamers than for those who want it for productivity. You can keep a Twitch chat at the bottom while you play, or you can keep a video stream, a music player, podcasts, or a guide on the bottom screen so you don’t use a smartphone anymore.
But why do we still say that the “productivity” mode with two screens is not good? Because anyone who works professionally with computers in an office already has one or two physical side screens, which are larger than a laptop and are already in front of them. What’s more, the ZenBook Pro Duo is not just a “laptop”, so you’ll only be using it at an office anyway. If you’re already there, you probably already have side screens. In order to look at the ScreenPad screen, you have to take a look at what you are working on and look down at the keyboard, something that professionals in the creative environment do not usually do.
In Adobe Premiere, you could put the editing timeline at the bottom, but so you have a work process where you constantly look from the bottom up, something that gets very tiring, very quickly, especially since the bottom screen is not as good as the main one.
While the main panel is a 4K OLED panel with HDR that displays everything flawlessly, being factory calibrated and validated by Pantone, the bottom one is an ordinary IPS panel, not necessarily calibrated. For work, this screen is extremely good, and for movies, it will be difficult to find a better laptop. But for gaming, it’s not exactly right. Being an OLED panel, and these panels being on laptops, chances are that it will develop a burn-in over time if you play too much of the same title. In fact, even items such as taskbar or desktop icons could develop similar side effects.
Then we consider that we have a 4K screen on a laptop, so it will be difficult to run games at native resolution with the built-in hardware. A big disadvantage of this screen, however, is that it is protected by glossy glass, the light reflections being a real problem in the equipment.
The ScreenPad does not suffer from these problems. Unfortunately, it has other problems as it does not integrate a panel as well. Thus, even the functionality of choosing colors from a palette, for use on the main screen, is not recommended.
In fact, even ASUS recommends this screen only for a few “secondary” functions. You can have a virtual numpad there, or an area to type with your stylus to convert words into digital text, you can keep Spotify on, or even a browser window with a YouTube, or a to-do list. For this, it is really unhelpful, but it is not something that is required or that greatly improves your workflow.
Probably this screen is most useful for drawing since the main touch screen can only be used upright. It cannot be rotated 360 degrees and used as a tablet. Drawing on a vertical surface is very tiring.
Then we have the writing experience, which is not optimal at all. If you want to write on this laptop in a “portable” way, you will have problems with your wrists after a few minutes, as there is no surface to rest your hands on. As we said, the palmrest is not magnetic, so it cannot be used portable. We have also encountered an anomaly during the test, with the CTRL and ALT keys remaining locked in the software in the “pressed” mode, although they were not pressed. A few successive presses have “unlocked” them, but this does not provide security in key resistance over time. Is it a situation similar to the one on the Butterfly Keyboard in MacBooks? Let’s hope not. The trackpad is extremely small and almost impossible to use for productivity purposes, a mouse being absolutely necessary.
As for the trackpad, turning it into a numpad is a function that exists only to tick a point on the box, as it is not comfortable to use. Anyone who needs a numpad uses it without constantly looking at it, based on the answer of the physical keys. In this case, the numpad is just a crouched touch surface.
However, it’s hard not to recognize that ASUS has managed to create a powerful computer. The i7 processor, powerful SSD and modern graphics chip can deliver good performance in any use case, whether you are working with 4K video, high-resolution photos or modern video games. The tests in the “performance” category provide a pretty clear picture of what this computer can do.
Other important things about ZenBook Pro Duo as a “professional” computer
The Harman/Kardon speakers are quite weak compared to what we saw on other models, even from ASUS. The sound is quite flat, lacking in low frequencies, and at high volume, they can even distort the sound.
Then on the connectivity side, we have too few ports for a “work” computer. We do not have a card reader for downloading photos and videos, there are only two USB Type-A ports and one Thunderbolt port. The only other jacks on the ZenBook Pro Duo’s case are an HDMI port and an audio combo jack.
As for autonomy, given the specifications, probably no one expected too good results. ASUS says it can reach 7 hours per full battery when the brightness is reduced by half, the ScreenPad screen stopped, and the results are obtained with Mobile Mark 2014 on the Productivity Office profile. In fact, in a normal use case, you probably won’t exceed three hours.
Finally, the ZenBook Pro Duo behaved strangely when it came to Windows Hello, a feature we have used with other computers in the past and which has worked well every time, until now. Very rarely did the IR camera recognize the face from the first attempt, which resulted in the use of PIN authentication as opposed to automatic face recognition. When you integrate an expensive component into an already expensive computer, it would be expected it to work.
ZenBook Pro Duo: Productivity laptop with gaming performance
While the use of the ZenBook Pro Duo is not exactly pleasant in many of the cases proposed by the shape and the way it was built, it is undeniable that we have to deal with a very efficient computer. We had to test the version with the Core i7 hexa-core processor from the new generation of Intel, but there is also a variant with i9, much more efficient, according to ASUS; in theory, it should offer an additional 50% performance compared to a top-of-the-line MacBook.
We used the same types of tests we usually use: in-game tests and some synthetic ones like CineBench, PCMark, and CristalDiskMark.
Moreover, the tests are suitable for the configuration, since we have to deal with one of the most powerful processors for laptops, a GeForce RTX 2060 graphics chip with ray-tracing and good gaming performance, as well as a rapid SSD.
All games were run in 1080p with maximum detail, without antialiasing, as these are the settings that this graphics card is aimed at. With NVIDIA’s “Studio” drivers, the video card could be “transformed” into one for productivity, with optimizations for most professional editing and modeling applications.
- Cinebench R20: 605
- PCMark 8 Creative: 4,762
- CrystalDiskMark Seq Q32T1: Read: 1,643 MB/s Write: 807 MB/s
- CrystalDiskMark 4KiB8T8: Read: 1.009 MB/s Write: 734 MB/s
ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo, the bottom line: An impressive laptop, but left-handed at times
It is true that the ZenBook Pro Duo offers something “different” on the laptop market, but it is not yet clear whether this “difference” is an improvement. At the moment, the secondary screen seems to only increase the price of the computer without giving concrete advantages in productivity.
On the other hand, it is undeniable that the 4K OLED screen on the ZenBook Pro Duo offers an excellent user experience, and the performance offered is at a very high level. There may not be too many users of this computer complaining about the performance, especially when ASUS seems to have made great efforts to properly tweak this computer. The noise level is low, even in full load, as the side vents efficiently release the warm air from the housing.
Now that we have a first-generation computer of this kind, we look forward to seeing what a truly finished product of this kind looks like, with better-developed software and slightly better hardware. However, the secondary screen does not seem to be an absolute necessity and we hope that ASUS does not extend it on several models before rigorously testing the market and making partnerships with software manufacturers, which offer dedicated functionality for it.
ZenBook Pro Duo is an impressive laptop, but at the same time disappointing, because it doesn’t really push laptops as far as it could. However, it shows that ASUS has the courage to try new things, at a time when most companies are stepping up, waiting for others to innovate in this space, to align with new trends. Thus, the Taiwanese manufacturer has assumed the lead role in these new directions, but the path to success is often hampered; ZenBook Pro Duo will have to cross over them in the future to establish itself in the market as the new “standard”.