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Editor's note: After conducting additional performance and battery testing, we're updating our initial hands-on of the Asus Zephyrus to a full review.
Getting the best graphics hardware in a gaming laptop usually means trading up to a bigger, bulkier system, especially if you want Nvidia's top-of-the-line GeForce GTX 1080. And while slimmer gaming laptops do exist, but they're often restricted to lower-end GPUs. Gamers have historically been forced to choose between power (especially the power to drive high-end virtual reality games) and portability, with compromises required no matter what.
Helping reduce the number of compromises required is a new concept from Nvidia, called Max-Q, which combines more energy-efficient versions of GeForce 10-series graphics chips with thinner laptop bodies. It was announced at the 2017 Computex trade show, where several prototype designs from different PC makers were showcased.
The first real-world example of Max-Q we've tested is the new Asus Zephyrus laptop. It's a 15-inch system from the Asus Republic of Gamers (aka ROG) line, which covers a wide range of laptops and desktops. If you're curious about the name, Zephyrus was the Greek god of the west wind.
The laptop version of Zephyrus is a 15-inch gaming laptop that's incredibly slim despite its Intel Core i7 and Nvidia GeForce 1080 GPU, which is really the combo you want for high-end PC gaming. It's just 17.9mm thick and a hair under 5 pounds. A typical laptop with a similar set of parts can weigh 8 pounds or more, and be much, much thicker.
But, while impressive, the Zephyrus isn't the end of gaming laptop compromises. It's still expensive; some of its design decisions, including a misplaced touchpad, are head-scratchers; and the battery life won't get you far.
The main configuration, with an Intel Core i7-7700HQ CPU, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 GPU, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, costs $2,700 (note that our early test model had 24GB of RAM). Asus says prices for other configurations and regions will be announced "in the coming months," but the flagship price works out to around £2,100 or AU$3,600.
Part of the secret to getting an Nvidia 1080 card in a laptop so thin is a hidden vent under the system. Keep the lid closed, and it looks like any slim midsize laptop. Open it up, and the entire bottom panel lifts away, creating a 6mm-high air chamber to help keep the system cool.
When you flip open the laptop lid while holding the Zephyrus in your hands, it looks like the entire bottom surface is lifting away, and the opened panel feels flimsy, flexing easily when touched. On a flat tabletop, it feels much more stable, and unless you're craning your neck looking for it, the effect is very subtle, just lifting the rear of the system ever so slightly.
Because the front panel doesn't taper down like many gaming (and nongaming) laptops do, Asus also includes a rubber wrist rest that fits right up against the front lip.
The one thing that struck me as a bit odd is the touchpad, which gets moved to the right side of the keyboard. It can also double as a numberpad with the tap of a button, which turns on backlit numeric keypad icons. We've seen similar setups on laptops such as the Acer 21 X and the Razer Blade Pro, but it's never come off as a particularly good idea.
That's because laptop users have years -- sometimes decades -- of muscle memory invested in traditional below-the-keyboard touchpads. One messes with that classic setup at one's own peril. Keeping that admonition in mind, I found it responsive and easy to use for a gaming laptop touchpad. Since gamers are more likely to use a mouse or gamepad most of the time, touchpads on gaming laptops tend to be second-rate. This one exceeded my modest expectations.
This wasn't the fastest gaming laptop we've ever tested, but it certainly held its own against recent high-end competitors. In our tests, the performance fell between some recent gaming 14- and 15-inch laptops with Nvidia 1070 GPUs and giant backbreaking 17-inch models with the Nvidia 1080. I was very pleased with the overall performance as a gaming machine, especially considering how slim and portable it is. One caveat: As mentioned before, we tested a unit with 24GB of RAM, the final version will have only 16GB.
Of course, with high-end parts in such a small chassis, there's not a ton of room for a big battery. In our preliminary tests, the system ran for 2 hours and 26 minutes on a single charge, and that was just for streaming HD video, not even playing games. Even the massive Origin Eon17-X ran for 10 minutes longer.
I also tested the Zyphyrus with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Only a year ago, VR on a laptop was a near impossibility. Now, it's much more common, and available even in midpriced gaming laptops with GeForce 1060 GPUs. The problem is usually the number of ports. In this case, using all four USB-A ports and the single USB-C port, I was able to connect the Oculus headset, both sensors, a gamepad and even a mouse, all at the same time (although it required a USB-C to USB-A dongle for my wired mouse).
The built-in 15.6-inch display also has some impressive specs. It's a 120Hz display (most laptop screens are 60Hz) that supports Nvidia's G-Sync technology. This means that it syncs the GPU output to the screen's refresh rate, allowing for smoother-looking games. I liked that the display itself was matte, eliminating excessive screen glare, but for $2,700 you might be looking for a higher native resolution than the unexciting 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution found here. My favorite current gaming laptop screen is the OLED display on the Alienware 13, but that's restricted to a smaller 13-inch model.
Maybe you really do need a hidden riser under the bottom panel in order to get a powerful Nvidia 1080 GPU inside a 5-pound, 15-inch laptop. In practice it looks a little silly and certainly doesn't make the body feel sturdier or more damage-resistant. But it didn't take away from my overall experience while gaming with the oddly named Zephyrus.
The sky-high price is going to be more of a deal-breaker than the design quirks, but it's not outrageously out of line with what you'd pay for a big 17-inch gaming laptop with the same Nvidia 1080 GPU. Then again, I did recently say a lot of nice things about a $9,000 gaming laptop, so this may not be so extravagant after all.
|Asus ROG Zephyrus||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core I7-7700HQ; 24GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeFroce GTX 1080 with Max-Q Design; 512GB SSD|
|Alienware 15 R3||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,666MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070; 512GB SSD + 1TB HDD|
|Razer Blade Pro||Microsoft Windows 10 Home; (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080; (2) 256GB SSD RAID 0|
|Origin PC Eon17-X||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 4.2GHz Intel Core i7-7700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GTX 1080; (2) 256GB SSD RAID 0 + 2TB HDD|
|Acer Aspire VX 15||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7300HQ; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050; 256GB SSD|