At Computex last year, ASUS did something a little weird and different with their laptops: they turned the touchpad into a second screen, with an ecosystem of apps to boot. But while watching Overwatch or Twitch in a screen the size of a touchpad is neat, it wasn't particularly practical.
So ASUS went and fixed that. Instead of being a virtual screen embedded within the touchpad, ASUS has squeezed a full-width second screen above a physical keyboard into a 14-inch and 15-inch form factor. And it's actually usable.
Announced at ASUS's Computex press conference and shown off to journalists at a pre-briefing, the second screen tech—dubbed Screenpad+—is part of two new products, the 15.6-inch ZenBook Pro Duo and the 14-inch ZenBook Duo. Both laptops are due for release internationally in the third quarter of 2019, but Australian product managers confirmed to Kotaku Australia that the ZenBook Pro Duo would be launching in Australia first.
On the flagship model, you'll get a 4K AMOLED display that's touch and stylus-sensitive. The second screen, which fills the space between the keyboard and the hinge, is a 3840x1100 32:9 screen that's also touch and stylus-sensitive. (On the 14-inch Zenbook Duo, only the bottom screen is touch and stylus-sensitive, and the main screen isn't AMOLED.)
The guts of the flagship include a i9 octa-core CPU, Wi-Fi 6 support, Thunderbolt 3, 1x USB-C and 2x USB-A ports. Support for a keypad is built into the touchpad, using the same design from the Zephyrus gaming laptops. The touchpad itself is rectangular and wedged into the right side of the keyboard. If anything, it's the keypad that will be the biggest dealbreaker for people: it's fairly narrow horizontally, curbing the trend of the last year or so where most trackpads have gotten wider and larger overall.
But the ZenBook Duo/Pro Duo design wouldn't have worked without moving the keyboard to the front edge, otherwise there wouldn't have been space for the second screen. I should note that the keyboard has gotten a substantial upgrade too—it's a genuine joy to use, vastly more than I would have expected. ASUS keyboards have traditionally been serviceable in the past, but not a genuine pleasure in the way a Surface Laptop, Huawei's recent Matebook, the XPS 13, or HP Spectre has been.
The Duo and Pro Duo fixes that. There's a solid amount of key travel—1.5mm—to withstand constant battering, and there hasn't been so much compromise to fit the second screen in that each individual key is squished together. Compared to my Matebook 13 at the time, the ZenBook Duo (but not the Pro Duo—I'll explain why in a second) was nicer to type on, although moving everything to the front edge does take some getting used to.
There's some fairly huge differences between the 14 and 15-inch models, besides the 4K AMOLED screen. If you're opting for the 14-inch model, the best discrete GPU you can get is a GeForce MX 250. The exact specification that will ship to Australia isn't fixed—ASUS headquarters lets their regional managers determine the best specs to sell in each market—but options range from a minimum storage of two 256GB PCIe SSDs in Raid 0, going up to a maximum of four 1TB PCIe SSDs in Raid 0 (!!).
Given that most applications don't even max out the transfer speed of NVMe drives today, let alone the speed of four SSDs bound together, that's pretty insane.
You're stuck with LPDDR3 RAM in the ZenBook Duo, but the Pro Duo can have up to 32GB DDR4 memory. It'll ship with either a i7-9750H or the overclockable i9-9980HK, but regardless of CPU you'll get a Nvidia RTX 2060 for the GPU needs. Only the Pro Duo comes with a Thunderbolt 3 dock, but both the Duo and Pro Duo have two USB-A ports, full-size HDMI, and on the smaller Duo, a microSD slot.
The ZenBook Duo weighs in at 1.8kg, compared to the Pro Duo's 2.5kg, putting the latter well out of the thin-and-light category. The Pro Duo does have support for HDR though, a rarity for any laptop. Expected battery life for both laptops wasn't available at the time, as testing is still being finalised.
Both models also come with a new set of features that's part of ASUS's refresh for Screenpad in 2019. On the left hand side is a little translucent button, which you can hit to bring up a set of options like brightness, swapping windows from the main screen to the bottom and vice versa, and so on.
ASUS talked about developing a "software control centre" where developers could create a suite of controls on the second screen to support existing apps. The first generation of the Screenpad had this, although support was thin on the ground because programs had to be especially coded to support ASUS's new ecosystem. That's been scrapped in Screenpad 2.0—which has been added to the Vivobook S14 and S15, as well as the base ZenBook and ZenBook Flip models—will run UWP apps natively, although ASUS wasn't able to show us the installation process at the time. But supporting apps from the Microsoft Store widens the utility of the Screenpad by an immense amount.
It's more responsive than last year, although none of the smaller-size Screenpads are anywhere near as handy as a full-width second screen. That ultimately feels like where ASUS is headed, with the Vivobooks and Zenbooks probably getting second screens of their own in the next few years once the R&D and refinements are far enough down the road.
The technology works well. The only kicker is the inevitable price with first-gen laptops like this. As for the ZenBook Pro Duo, AMOLED screens in laptops are still super rare, and consequently expensive. Adding four SSDs in Raid 0 is a crazy move as well, and I'd love to know what the cost of materials would have been compared to just having a 1TB NVMe drive instead. (Users wouldn't notice the speed, after all.)
Either way, it's neat that a company has taken a weird, slightly impractical idea, and doubled down to make it not only usable, but better in every single way. The ZenBook Pro Duo is due to launch in Australia later this year, although precise date and cost hasn't been decided.
The author travelled to Computex 2019 as a guest of ASUS.