The touchpad-turned-touchscreen on the Asus ZenBook 15 is less gimmicky than it seems, but still not a must-have.
There's a lot going on in the new 15-inch ZenBook Pro from Asus. It's one of the first laptops to get a top-tier Intel Core i9 processor. Then there's the 15-inch 4K touchscreen. It even has a halfway-decent graphics card for gaming (the Nvidia GeForce 1050Ti). But there's got to be something else besides all that to justify a hefty $2,299, right?
The thing you really want to hear about is the second screen built into the touch pad. Asus calls it the ScreenPad, and it's a full-color 1,920 by 1,080 touchscreen built into the wrist rest of the laptop. Several different modes allow you to use it as a secondary display, a control panel for media or office apps, or just as a regular old touchpad.
In practice it whips between straight up gimmick and occasionally useful tool, but is just as often frustrating in its seemingly arbitrary limitations. The ScreenPad is at its best when showing off the handful of built-in tools it ships with. Swipe down from the top of the pad and a small line of launch icons appear. There's a music player and calendar, both of which require external Windows software to run, a number pad and a calculator, which might actually be pretty handy, and a well-designed Spotify helper app. Other apps can be added from Asus' app store, and the core icons can be rearranged and changed in the settings menu.
That Spotify hook is the closest I've found to a killer app for the ScreenPad. To use it, you need to have the Spotify app installed and be signed into it. After that's all set up, the touchpad will display the name and cover art of whatever track is playing and provide basic transport controls. There's also a way to navigate to some other parts of Spotify, but I found that to be awkward at best.
|Price as reviewed||$2,299|
|Display size/resolution||15.6-inch 3,840x2,160 touch display|
|CPU||2.9GHz Intel Core i9-8950HK|
|Memory||16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz|
|Graphics||4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 5.0|
|Operating system||Window 10 Pro (64-bit)|
A handful of other apps are available, including controls for YouTube playback via the Chrome browser and for menu shortcuts in Microsoft Office. Both of those end up being more frustrating than anything else, but for different reasons.
The YouTube helper offers only basic playback controls on the touchpad screen, and doesn't display the video itself. If you're genuinely flummoxed about how to play, pause or mute a YouTube video from within the browser, well, then this may be the app for you. For everyone else, the added value is minimal, especially considering it takes the touchpad out of action for actual on-screen navigation while in use.
There actually is a way to play a video from YouTube or elsewhere on the ScreenPad, but it's a hassle. You have to switch the pad's function from ScreenPad mode to extended display mode, then you can manually move a YouTube or other video window down onto the second screen. Like most of the ScreenPad functions, this works better if you have a mouse hooked up.
Microsoft Office also has ScreenPad functions, and in this case, it works much the same as Apple's Touch Bar. While working on a Word doc, for example, you can use the menu shortcuts on the touchpad to make text bold or italicized, play around with font colors and even save files. The nice part here is that the bottom two-thirds of the touchpad still work as a, you know, touchpad, so an external mouse isn't a must-have.
If all this sounds like I'm knocking the ScreenPad, it's not as bad as all that. It can be a fun conversation piece, but like the Touch Bar on MacBook Pro laptops, I can't see it being used regularly outside of a couple of shortcuts. That said, it's cool-looking to have a light-up touchpad, and more amazingly, it seems to work fine as a touchpad, whether the screen is on or off.
If this ZenBook Pro was just a gimmicky second screen attached to a boring basic laptop, it'd be a hard pass from me. But, putting the ScreenPad aside for a moment, it's actually a pretty solid midsize performance laptop. The Intel Core i9 CPU is more for bragging rights than anything else -- a good six-core Core i7 will probably work just as well for most high-end tasks (or a Core i5 for everyday computing). That's paired with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, which are both standard for a premium-priced laptop.
There's also the very nice 15-inch 4K touchscreen. It's surrounded by a bezel that frankly could be thinner and is (according to a sticker on the wrist rest) "Pantone Validated," which according to our display guru Lori Grunin just means it meets some basic standards for color reproduction.
While you may not need the extra power of a Core i9, or even a 4K display (which can have a negative effect on battery life), one feature that could get a lot of use is the Nvidia GTX 1050Ti graphics card. That's currently the standard for laptops not specifically sold as gaming machines, but that need the extra graphics power for games, video editing and other visual tasks. Any current game (such as Far Cry 5) will play fine, but you may need to drop the resolution down to 1,920 by 1,080.
If you really, really want a laptop with a second screen built in, then this is one of your only options. But it's not the first time we've seen this -- the original Razer Blade laptop had a similar touchpad/screen hybrid, and one could call Apple's Touch Bar a second screen for MacBook Pro laptops. It's a fun showoff feature, but didn't really make me more productive. Having an easier way to play videos on the second screen would make a more compelling case.
There are trade-offs, too. This is heavy for a 15-inch laptop, at 4.4 pounds, and battery life is short, at just over four hours, which I'd blame more on the 4K display than the ScreenPad.
If the touchpad display doesn't sound like your bag, take a look at options in the same premium price range, like the new 15-inch Razer Blade or even the MacBook Pro. Ironically, with a powerful CPU/GPU combo, an excellent display, good selection of ports and the great keyboard with its touchpad, the ZenBook Pro doesn't really need any add-on gimmicks.
|Asus ZenBook Pro 15||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.9GHz Intel Core i9-8950HK; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2400MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti; 512GB SSD|
|Acer Predator Helios 500||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.9HGz Intel Core i9=8950HK; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070; 512GB SSD + 2TB HDD|
|Lenovo Legion Y530||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-8300H; 8GB DDR? SDRAM 2,660MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti ; 1TB HDD + 128GB SSD|
|Razer Blade (2018)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-8750H; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,660MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeFroce GTX 1070 with Max-Q Design; 512GB SSD|
|Acer Nitro 5||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-8300H; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,660MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti Graphics; 256GB SSD|
|Asus TUF Gaming FX504GD||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-8300H; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,660MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Graphics; 1TB HDD|