Asus ROG Zephyrus GX701 review: New Nvidia RTX graphics supercharge this slim Asus laptop
To cool the new Nvidia RTX 2080 graphics card inside, the Asus Zephyrus lifts and opens its rear panel.
If you haven't gotten the memo yet, gaming laptops no longer have to be massive backbreaking monsters. They also don't need wild, flame-embossed lid designs or glowing backlit creature logos. The latter actually still seems pretty tough to get rid of, but thinner, more powerful gaming laptops are now the mainstream, at least at the higher-end of the price scale.
The first arrival in our testing lab to combine both a slim, professional-looking design with the expanded power of Nvidia's new RTX graphics cards is the Asus Zephyrus GX701. The laptop versions of the new RTX 20-series GPUs have just launched in laptops, with a handful of models available now and more on the way. From our early testing, these new laptop GPUs represent a generational leap over the previous GTX models (still available in many laptops).
The 17-inch Asus Zephyrus GX701 is the fourth iteration of that thin-and-light Asus series we've seen. Despite being only 18.7mm thick, it has the Nvidia RTX 2080 Max-Q GPU, which is near the top of the current stack, with only the non-Max-Q 2080 sitting above it for now. Nvidia introduced these Max-Q variant in 2017 as a way to get higher-end GPUs in slimmer laptops, with only a modest hit to overall performance.
Surprising no one, the RTX 2080 Max-Q in the new Asus Zephyrus beat other high-end gaming laptops when it comes to game performance. The closest competition comes from laptops with full-power Nvidia GTX 1080 GPUs, but those are already dinosaurs, with high prices and bulky bodies. We included a gaming desktop with dual desktop RTX 2080 cards to show how the desktop experience can still beat even a high-end laptop.
Asus Zephyrus GX701
|Price as reviewed
|17.3-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 display
|2.2GHz Intel Core i7-8750H
|24GB DDR4 SDRAM 2666MHz
|8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q
|802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 5.0
|Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)
A laptop that likes to vent
The system manages this style-to-power ratio by dispersing heat across a wide footprint. The body itself, housing a 17-inch screen, is 11.8 inches wide and 10.6 inches deep. More than half of the interior is empty real estate (except for a glowing Asus gaming logo), with fans kicking heat out through tiny vent holes.
Heat also escapes through a wide opening at the rear of the system, where the bottom panel lifts up on tiny hinges when the clamshell is open. This raises the rear of the system up by a few millimeters, but especially against the larger 17-inch body, it's hardly noticeable.
Of course, making all this room for high-end graphics and tons of cooling means making some changes to the traditional laptop layout. Each of the Zephyrus laptops we've seen over the past two years has taken some liberties with the expected keyboard/touchpad. Here, the keyboard is pushed all the way to the front lip of the system, eliminating the usual wrist rest.
The touchpad gets shifted to the right side, where a number pad might live on a different laptop. As always, you mess with the established norms of laptop design at your own peril. Having a touchpad off to the side, and one with a portrait-style orientation rather than a landscape one, is just never going to feel entirely natural. Decades of muscle memory will continue to pull your fingers down rather than to the right.
Need a number pad? Probably not, but the touchpad here lights up with a number pad screen at the touch of a button. It's a gimmick we've seen on a few similar touchpads (including the original Zephyrus), but I'd trade it all for a standard touchpad in the usual spot.
The keyboard, while shallow for a gaming laptop, has per-key backlighting in a rainbow of colors and patterns. But my favorite feature may be the small roller control for system volume. If I had a dime for every time I've squinted at a keyboard while holding down the function button and trying to figure out which keys control the volume, I might be able to buy a Zephyrus.
We're continuing to test the Zephyrus, including its battery life, so we'll update with more information in the near future. Two quick additional observations in the meantime: the chassis can get hot, both on the panel above the keyboard and on the bottom panel; and when the fans kick in, you'll probably hear it from across the room. But that's with the system preferences set to "Turbo," in the Asus control app, confusingly called "Armoury Crate." You can also pick Balanced or Silent modes, which trade lower noise for lower performance.
In Balanced mode, the battery ran for 135 minutes, which is OK for a gaming laptop but doesn't exactly fill me with confidence for road trips or extended unplugged sessions. Gamers will usually keep everything plugged in, but using this laptop for Photoshop or other creative endeavors is a perfectly reasonable use case, and one where you'd want longer battery life.
The system will cost between $2,699 and $3,299 in the US depending on the configuration, and we should have more information on how the price breaks down once the system goes on sale.
RTX in action
But what you're really here to find out is: Just how much of a difference does a new RTX 2080 Max-Q GPU make in a gaming laptop? The short answer is, based on a very limited sample size to date, it makes a pretty notable difference. Now, that must be tempered by noting that we've only been testing this Asus laptop for a few days, and while other RTX-powered laptops are starting to arrive in our testing lab, we don't have multiple RTX laptop scores to compare yet.
In the charts below, you can see how this laptop compared with some other recent models. The Zephyrus is only bested in this comparison by a desktop from Origin PC with dual RTX 2080TI GPUs, but that's an extreme example.
What's so new and different about these GPUs? Nvidia points towards several key new features. Real-time ray tracing better simulates light, allowing for new kinds of reflections and more realistic scenes. Key is the ability to reflect objects that are off-screen, which has been next to impossible before now. Games that specifically support that include Battlefield V and Metro Exodus.
There's also DLSS, or Deep Learning Super-Sampling, which uses cloud-based AI to simulate games at insanely high resolutions and teaches your GPU how to mimic that level of detail. This requires DLSS-compatible games, and initial list includes Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Darksiders 3 and Anthem.
Upgrade or wait it out?
Does it make sense to upgrade to a new RTX laptop if you have a perfectly good GeForce GTX one? From my anecdotal use of dozens of gaming laptops over past year or so, I'd say it depends on your budget and expectations. The GTX 1060 GPU, popular in low- and midpriced gaming systems, is feeling a bit long in the tooth, and it struggles with newer games at higher detail levels. New-ish GTX 1070 and 1080 laptops can still handle just about anything you throw at them, often at 4K resolution, so I'd be less in a rush to update one of those, especially if it was a big investment in the first place.
Of course, someone who bought a budget gaming laptop with a GTX 1060 may not be in the market for an expensive RTX 2070 or 2080 system, but RTX 2060 GPU options in other new gaming laptops start at around $1,500. For everyone else, there may not be much of a decision to make. Starting now, most new gaming laptops will include RTX 20-series GPUs, so if you're shopping for a gaming laptop, you'll be in the club by default.
With some very interesting new gaming laptops coming this year, not only this Zephyrus, but also the Asus Mothership, Acer Triton and Alienware Area 51m, 2019 feels like a very good year to be launching a new GPU.
|Asus Zephyrus GX701 (Nvidia RTX 2080 Max-Q)
|Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-8750H; 24GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,666MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 with Max-Q Design; 1TB SSD
|Asus Zephyrus GX531 (Nvidia GTX 1070 Max-Q)
|Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-8750H; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,666MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 with Max-Q Design; 512GB SSD
|Alienware 17 R4 (Nvidia GTX 1080)
|Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HK; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 ; 512GB SSD + 1TB HDD
|Origin PC Millennium Desktop (2x Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti)
|Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.6GHz Intel Core i9-9900K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,200MHz; (2) 11264MB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti; 512GB SSD + 3TB HDD