Introduction, Design Features
Nvidia made the headlines at Computex 2017 with the introduction of its Nvidia Max-Q technology, an engineering concept and set of implementation guidelines aimed at helping notebook makers design thinner, lighter, and quieter gaming notebooks. Nvidia says that trimmed-down gaming notebooks employing Max-Q can retain 85 to 90 percent of the performance of traditional gaming notebooks that use the same graphics chips. So, for example, a notebook with a GeForce GTX 1080 with Max-Q won’t be as fast as a traditional notebook with a GTX 1080 in gaming situations, but it would have the aforementioned advantages.
The Asus Zephyrus, sold under the company’s ubiquitous Republic of Gamers brand, is the first Nvidia Max-Q-equipped notebook we’ve received for testing. (At Computex, only a handful were announced apart from the Zephyrus, from MSI, Gigabyte, and the OEM Clevo.) This 15.6-incher fits the trim profile of a Max-Q notebook; it’s less than 0.7 inch thick when closed, weighs less than 5 pounds, and uses a GeForce GTX 1080 chip with Max-Q. A few months back, we wouldn’t have believed fitting such a powerful graphics chip into a chassis this slim would have been viable, but we’re all too glad to be proven wrong. Well, that is, if Nvidia’s claims about Max-Q live up to the promise.
We previewed the ROG Zephyrus at Computex 2017. The model we’re reviewing (specifically, Zephyrus SKU GX501VI-XS74) is the highest-end configuration Asus offers, commanding a not-insignificant sum of $2,699. The hardware is all high-end; it sports a 15.6-inch display with a 120Hz refresh rate and Nvidia G-Sync support, an Intel Core i7-7700HQ quad-core processor, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics chip implemented in Max-Q fashion, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB PCI Express-bus solid-state-drive (SSD).
As high-end gaming-notebook hardware goes, the going rate for the Zephyrus seems fair. A larger, thicker notebook, such as the 17.3-inch MSI GT73VR Titan ProAorus X5 v7, which goes for $2,399. It packs a 3K display and a Core i7-7820HK CPU, but it has “just” a GeForce GTX 1070. We’ll see how well the GeForce GTX 1080 with Max-Q stacks up.
So without further ado, let’s see what the Asus ROG Zephyrus is all about.
The pricier an item gets, the more its design matters. After all, no one would pay a supercar price for a supercar that didn’t look the part. That’s why Asus went all-out with the Zephyrus. If this notebook looks bad from any angle, we couldn’t see it.
Let’s start with the numbers. For a notebook with a 15.6-inch display, the 4.9-pound weight of the Zephyrus is low, even for a gaming notebook. It’s lighter than the Gigabyte P35X v6, which was one of the lightest 15.6-inch gaming notebooks we had tested up until now. The chassis measures 14.9×10.3 inches, or about the expected dimensions for a notebook with this size of display. The bezel going around the edges of the screen isn’t small, but it’s also not oversize.
Thinness is where the Zephyrus breaks new ground. With the lid closed, it’s just under 0.7 inch thick. With the lid open, it’s exactly 0.7 inch. The reason that the height varies stems from the bottom cover of the chassis, which is hinged. It opens up a few millimeters to permit additional airflow into the chassis when the lid is opened. (In the thermals section of this review coming up, we’ll have some photos of this.) That bottom panel is all plastic, and it didn’t feel all that sturdy when it was in the open position. However, we didn’t have a problem using the notebook on a lap or a soft surface while in that state.
The rest of the Zephyrus is as solid as a rock. There’s virtually no space in the thin chassis for any flex to be possible. Brushed aluminum covers most of the surfaces, save for the bottom cover.
The aluminum finish attracts fingerprints, but they come off with a microfiber towel.
The attention to detail on the outside of the chassis is admirable. Take, for instance, the diamond-cut edges, and the copper-colored rear edge…
The Asus ROG logo on the back of the lid was also intricately backlit. This notebook looks every bit of its lofty price point.
No wrist rest was included with the Zephyrus, but the chassis was thin enough that we didn’t feel the need for one.
The idea behind the front-mounted keyboard is simple: almost all gamers will use an external mouse. (A mouse is actually included with the Zephyrus, which we’ll talk about soon.) We’d agree with this logic. The benefit of a keyboard oriented like this is that you can sit further away from the screen, and you also don’t have to worry about the touch pad getting in your way.
We found the right-handed, vertically-oriented touch pad took some mental orientation, but it quickly became second nature. It only makes sense; for right-handers, that’s where you would move your hand to control the mouse, anyway. Sorry, lefties; there’s really no practical way to use the touch pad with your left hand.
Touching the number-pad button at the top of the keyboard instantly transforms the touch pad into a virtual number pad. It’s a clever conceit, but it’s not the first such design we’ve seen; MSI’s GT80 Titan SLI we mentioned earlier pioneered it in gaming laptops. It was surprisingly responsive, though as you might expect, it required a bit more concentration to use than a normal number pad because of the lack of key feedback. Other than that, the touch pad’s anti-glare surface felt fine to us. The dedicated left- and right-click buttons were quiet, and they provided good feedback.
The keyboard provides an excellent typing experience. There’s absolutely no flex in the keyboard deck. The keypress action is unusually quiet, as well. The layout leaves something to be desired, though. You do get dedicated Page Up and Page Down keys, but they are above the touch pad; also, the Home and End keys are respectively integrated into them as secondary functions. Furthermore, the keyboard lacks a Print Screen key.
The four keys above the touch pad are backlit only in red, but the rest of the keyboard can be changed to any one of the 16.7 million colors in the RGB spectrum. This is done using the preinstalled Asus AuraCore software…
The QWER and WASD key clusters can be changed on their own to other colors, but the rest of the keyboard can be only one color. Essentially, the keyboard doesn’t support per-key backlighting, as do the ones on the competing Razer Blade Pro (2017) and the Aorus X5 v7 we mentioned earlier. We won’t make a big deal out of that, though; the keyboard backlighting on the Zephyrus looked great to us, especially in its color-cycling mode. The highest brightness level offered plenty of daytime visibility. (Three brightness levels are available, plus off.)
The 15.6-inch display on the Zephyrus has all of the latest and greatest technology. First and foremost, it’s a wide-viewing-angle panel; the picture doesn’t distort when looking at it from above or below. That attribute in itself isn’t remarkable, as wide viewing angles are an expected feature on high-end notebook displays.
It’s notable on the Zephyrus, however, because its display also has a 120Hz refresh rate. Up to 120 frames per second in games can be displayed at any given time, which its GeForce GTX 1080 Max-Q graphics card is capable of achieving in some games. If the display had only a 60Hz refresh rate, as is true of most wide-viewing-angle displays, having a graphics card as powerful as the one in this notebook wouldn’t make sense.
On top of the 120Hz refresh rate, the display on the Zephyrus supports Nvidia G-Sync to further smooth out the frame rate. Combined with the high contrast, ample brightness, and well-saturated colors, gaming and looking at just about anything else on the display is a treat for the eyes.
Just above the display, you’ll find the 720p/30fps Webcam. It has passable picture quality, but it has just the minimum resolution and supported frame rate we’d look for in a Webcam on a modern notebook.
The two upward-facing speakers in this notebook are hard to spot at first glance; they’re located at the front corners of the chassis…
They lacked bass, but we found they had a good frequency response and provided a convincing soundstage for a one-person audience.
The port selection on the Asus Zephyrus is fairly robust for a model as thin as this one. Along the left edge are the headset jack, a pair of USB Type-A 3.0 ports, an HDMI video-out port, and the AC power jack. You can see them all here…
The right-most of the USB ports supports charging devices while the notebook is in standby.
The right edge of the chassis, meanwhile, has a USB Type-C port with underlying support for Thunderbolt 3, another pair of USB Type-A 3.0 ports, and a Kensington-style cable-lockdown notch…
The Zephyrus doesn’t have a native Ethernet port, but Asus includes a USB Type-A-to-Ethernet adapter in the box. A notable omission on this notebook is an SD card reader. There’s no optical drive, either, but that’s more or less a foregone conclusion on today’s notebooks.
The placement of the ports on the right side of the notebook works out for right-handers; if you plug in something over there, the protruding connectors shouldn’t interfere with your external mousing space, as they’re located far enough towards the rear of the chassis. However, the same isn’t true for the ports on the left side, which are located mid-chassis or more forward. The power jack, fortunately, has a right-angle connector that juts out less than an inch. Everything else is further to the front of that, though. It looks like this was an unavoidable design decision, given that the cooling exhaust takes up the rear part of the left side. There are no ports on the front or rear edges of the chassis.
Asus includes its RoG Strix Impact mouse with the Zephyrus. This is a basic gaming mouse with just four buttons: the usual left-, right-, and center-click, plus an additional button to switch DPI settings. The all-plastic design is ambidextrous. The shape of the mouse is friendly to various grip types, including claw, where just your fingertips touch the mouse buttons. The sides of the mouse don’t have an anti-slip coating, but we found the mouse was tall enough that our fingers had plenty of purchase.
The Omron switches behind the left- and right-click buttons have a precise feel. We also liked the rubbery notched action of the scroll wheel. The DPI button behind the scroll wheel is easy to reach with an index finger. The LED indicator behind the scroll wheel illuminates in white on the low DPI setting, and turns off when the high DPI setting is active. The mouse is rated for 5,000dpi, though we weren’t sure what the high and low levels were actually set at.
The rubber cable isn’t detachable, but it feels durable enough. We measured it from end to end at 6 feet and 8 inches. The Asus ROG logo at the back of the mouse is RGB. By default, it cycles through a rainbow of colors at fairly short intervals. The lighting is supposedly customizable via a piece of software called “ROG Armoury,” but the software wasn’t pre-installed on our ROG Zephyrus review unit, and we didn’t find a link to download the software on the Asus support site.
The Strix Impact mouse is overall a good-quality peripheral. It’s uncommon to see a mouse included with a notebook, so the gesture doesn’t go unnoticed. That said, if ever a laptop were suited to using an external mouse for gaming, it’s this one.
Acer Predator 21X, versus the GTX 1080 Max-Q in the Asus Zephyrus. Percentage differences are shown relative to the GTX 1080 Max-Q in its non-overclocked state.
Given that the number of shading units between the Max-Q GPU and the standard GTX 1080 card is the same (they are the same core silicon), it’s logical to conclude that most of the performance difference between the two should be attributable to the differences in how that silicon is clocked. The core and boost clock-speed advantages for the standard GTX 1080 chip are indeed significant; the factory overclocking in the Zephyrus doesn’t do much to narrow the gap, but at least it’s something.
The clock-speed differences alone don’t tell the full story behind Max-Q. As we noted earlier, Max-Q brings additional engineering changes to the card. However, our benchmarks in the next section will show that the performance gap between the standard GTX 1080 and the GTX 1080 Max-Q was larger than we were hoping it would be. In our testing, the GTX 1080 Max-Q was consistently faster than a standard GTX 1070, but usually not by more than 10 percent.
The cooling-system design is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Asus Zephyrus. Just to reiterate, this 15.6-incher has a 0.7-inch, 4.9-pound profile, yet houses an Nvidia GTX 1080 with Max-Q, and an Intel Core i7 quad-core processor. This kind of hardware is typically only found in larger, thicker notebooks.
With its lid closed, the Zephyrus measures just under 0.7 inch thick. However, when the lid is opened, a hinge on the bottom of the chassis pushes the bottom panel away from the notebook, creating a slight angle and allowing increased airflow through the chassis. You can see this in our photo…
The exhaust air is carried out of the notebook courtesy of two fans, one located on either side. The heatpipes inside the chassis are shared between the components, but the fan on the right is primarily responsible for the heat from the CPU, and the one on the left for the GeForce chip. What we just described rounds out the active parts of the thermal design. In a notebook this thin, it’s unavoidable that the chassis itself is used as a passive heatsink, too.
We’ll give you the bad news first. The chassis of the Zephyrus gets very hot while playing the latest games. With a laser thermometer, we measured a peak surface temperature of 124 degrees F just above the keyboard, and 107 degrees F on either side of that area. The keyboard itself measured in the mid-90-degree F range, which is tolerable. The underside of the notebook had almost identical temperatures in the same areas. We admit there’s no real reason to touch the area above the keyboard at any time, but still, it was hot to the point where you’d burn your hand if you touched it for a measurable length of time. Consider also that we did our testing in an air-conditioned room at 75 degrees F, so it’s not like it’s going to run any cooler in a warmer environment.
The good news is that the fans were exceptionally quiet. Thin gaming notebooks tend to almost universally have fans with a good amount of whine and noise, but that’s not true of the Zephyrus. We’d feel comfortable gaming with this notebook in a quiet room without fear of interrupting someone having a conversation or watching TV.
In the course of a gaming session, we recorded the Core i7-7700HQ processor topping 94 degrees C, just a few degrees shy of its maximum-rated temperature. We suppose that’s fine from an engineering perspective, but we’d like to see it run at least 10 degrees C cooler. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 hit “only” 84 degrees C, which is cool enough, and that was with the factory GPU overclocking enabled.
Based on our GPU-Z logs, the GTX 1080 Max-Q did maintain its factory overclock quite well. Our logging showed that the core clock consistently stayed above 1,400MHz, and it occasionally reached over 1,500MHz, falling to its overclocked boost clock at the minimum. The memory stayed at 1,251MHz, which is what it was rated for. The key takeaway is that the clocks remained stable above their rated thresholds. That’s not something that can be said about every gaming notebook.