Gaming laptops are pretty boring. They get the job done, and the hardware gets better every year, and just about every single one has some form of gaudy RGB lighting.
But there's so much more that can be done with the design, as the ASUS ROG Zephyrus line shows.
The laptops, which were recently refreshed with the 9th generation of Intel's mobile CPUs, are ASUS's attempt at bringing a little more class to an ordinary gaming laptop. They're not the thinnest or lightest devices in the market - MSI takes the crown in that regard - but from a pure design standpoint, the sorts of things an everyday user would touch and see, they're by far the most interesting.
As soon as you open the laptop, you'll notice that the layout is a little different. Rather than placing the keyboard halfway up the chassis and the touchpad directly underneath, the 17-inch ROG Zephyrus S GX701 brings the keyboard all the way to the front edge. The keypad is also virtual, built into the touchpad and accessible through the touch of a button.
More gaming laptops doing funky design things like this please pic.twitter.com/eB1b6FE5hb
— Alex Walker (@dippizuka) April 24, 2019
It's not ideal for a lot of Excel work, or someone who really wants that tactile Sid Meier's Pirates experience, but most people who buy a gaming laptop don't care about the numpad. Making it virtual is a clever way to save space, and it's also indicative of the kind of thing that gaming laptops desperately need: more interesting designs.
For years, the flashiest thing about a gaming laptop was RGB lighting. There were tangible improvements under the hood to cooling, modular components, and quality of life things like moving the HDMI and USB ports to the back of the laptop (please, all laptops, do this).
But you were getting largely the same designs, same screens - since all manufacturers get their displays from the same factory - same GPUs, same CPUs, same amount of RAM. Different logos maybe, and there was slight differences in the quality of keyboards and touchpads from one manufacturer to the next, but beyond that the boundaries weren't being pushed too much.
That's why the early versions of the Razer Blade were so exciting. They were overpriced to the hilt, but they were sleek for their time, and they were also doing weird shit. It was great, and manufacturers have backed away from that a little. The Zephyrus line is having a go at being unconventional, and it's great to see.
ASUS Zephyrus S GX701
WHAT IS IT?
ASUS's take on a 17-inch gaming laptop in a 15-inch chassis.
Nvidia RTX 2080 Max-Q
24GB DDR4 26676hz
1TB M.2 NVMe PCIe SSD
17.3-inch IPS 1080p 144Hz 3ms G-Sync, NVIDIA Optimus enabled
399 x 272 x 187mm, 2.7kg
It's worth noting that, with any experiment, there comes a cost. Firstly, 17-inch gaming laptops aren't cheap. The Zephyrus S GX701 will set you back $4999 at retail, although at the time of writing at least one local vendor was pushing it out the door for under $4200.
Secondly, not all of the experiments completely work. By using a different surface that allows the touchpad to function as a virtual keypad, the quality of the touchpad itself isn't as nice as what you might find on other laptops. I don't think that's a huge deal breaker: most people use separate mice and keyboards with high end gaming laptops, and it's not like a 17-inch laptop would comfortably fit on a train seat, or a plane (unless you're rich enough to fly first class).
The Zephyrus S does have one other fairly clever design tweak that helps performance a surprising amount. But let's get into the benchmarks, and then I'll explain what I mean. Note that all tests were run on the latest version of Nvidia's drivers (the ones with that rather essential hot-fix).
First up, Fire Strike.
The results here are a serious jump from the Razer Blade 15 I tested recently. The Razer Blade only had an RTX 2070 Max-Q card, but that model was also selling for $4399, while some vendors are selling the Zephyrus GX531 for the same price (or lower). You're getting more RAM in the Zephyrus GX701 as well, which is also a factor in some games and synthetic tests like this.
That's a tempting sell, unless you really want the lighter frame of the Razer Blade (2.1kg compared to ASUS's much heavier 2.7kg). Personally, unless a gaming laptop drops below the 1.9kg mark - the ideal would be between 1.3kg or 1.4kg, the weight of most Macbooks / Surface Books / thin-and-light productivity laptops - it won't make much of a day-to-day difference, since you'll be leaving it on a desk anyway.
Here's how it holds up in games.
I mentioned before that the Zephyrus has a neat design quirk. When you lift the lid, a flap opens on the reverse, propping the back end up a fraction. It basically creates an extra cooling vent for the chassis, allowing it to expel more of that heat that you usually feel around the hinge of a gaming laptop.
Cooling is the biggest problem for gaming laptops, and it's one of the most important factors in why one laptop performs better than another. Since so many laptops share the same hardware - Intel CPUs, Nvidia GPUs, RAM and SSDs from the same manufacturer - it's the cooling design that determines how much performance you get, until your laptop hits that thermal limit.
Moving the keyboard to the front helps in that regard too, although you'll really only notice that if you're using the laptop keyboard while you're playing. The Zephyrus S GX701 relies on a series of copper heatsinks, heat pipes and exterior heatsinks rather than vapour chamber cooling, which Razer, Samsung and Dell have being using more of over the last few years. (Microsoft also use vapour chamber cooling for the Xbox One X, and it's likely the technique will appear again in the next generation of consoles.)
Beyond that, this is the kind of performance you'd expect from a $4000-plus gaming laptop. I'd still argue at this price point that you should probably consider a desktop machine, only because the Zephyrus's weight is still substantial enough that you might not want to be carrying it around on a regular basis. At 2.7kg, most people will just leave it on a desk - and if you're going to do that, you might as well look into a machine that does the same thing.
But we're getting closer to truly thin-and-light gaming laptops. And with AMD seriously ramping up competition in gaming laptops this year - Computex should be real interesting - the price of a lot of devices will tumble. That's especially true after the release of Intel's 9th generation mobile CPUs. The Zephyrus GX701's RRP should fall substantially over the next six months, and if you can find this priced around $3000 come Black Friday, that's a pretty solid package for what's inside.