You can usually rely on Asus to come up with something a little different for its laptops, and Computex 2019 is no different: the company has unveiled what it calls the future of laptops: the ZenBook Pro Duo, a high-end creative device that boasts not one, but two 4K displays. With a secondary display built
You can usually rely on Asus to come up with something a little different for its laptops, and Computex 2019 is no different: the company has unveiled what it calls the future of laptops: the ZenBook Pro Duo, a high-end creative device that boasts not one, but two 4K displays.
With a secondary display built into the main body, the ZenBook Pro Duo is built for multi-tasking and heavy duty creative work – think Apple’s MacBook Pro Touch Bar on steroids – but that brings with it design changes and compromises that you’re likely to either love or hate.
Price and availability
Asus hasn’t yet announced any pricing or release date for the ZenBook Pro Duo, though given the specs and unusual design it’s a safe bet that it’ll be expensive even compared to other top laptops – certainly north of £1000/$1000, and potentially a lot more than that. Still, Asus pricing is usually competitive, so the company may yet surprise us.
We’d expect to see it some time in late summer 2019, but release dates may well vary by regions.
If you like the concept but hate the price, Asus also announced a smaller ZenBook Duo model – this drops most of the specs down to go with the smaller chassis and screens, and is likely to cost substantially less – along with offering extra portability, at the cost of some power.
Two screens or not two screens?
Here’s a choice you didn’t used to have to make when buying a new laptop: how many displays do you want it to have?
Secondary displays have been around in some form for a few years, seen in the likes of the MacBook Pro’s slimline Touch Bar or Asus’s own ScreenPad, which replaced the traditional laptop trackpad with a small touchscreen. The ZenBook Pro Duo takes this to the next level, with a full-width 4K display built into the body of the laptop, right above the keyboard.
If that sounds either mad or pointless, then you’re probably not alone. Still, Asus makes a pretty good case that the Duo’s secondary screen can be useful productivity tool, albeit one that comes with a few major drawbacks.
The lower screen sprawls across half of the laptop’s body, starting at the edge of the main display and running down to the top edge of the slightly smushed in keyboard and trackpad, and most of the way to the edges of the body too. In terms of raw specs, it’s a 14in IPS LCD with an aspect ratio of 3840 x 1100 – so it’s just about half the size of the main OLED panel, which is 15.6in diagonally and 3840 x 2160.
You might have noticed that the screens differ in more than size. While the top panel is OLED the secondary screen is only an LCD. That’s a compromise presumably driven mostly by cost, but one that shows in side-by-side comparisons – the only kind of comparisons that are really possible, given the two screens are basically touching. The second screen is dimmer and less rich, even with brightness cranked up to the max, and it’s the sort of obvious difference that I worry I’d never be able to stop noticing.
From a software perspective things are fairly smooth though. You can fit up to three different app windows in the bottom panel side-by-side, dragging them around to suit whatever multi-tasking you want to do at the time – whether that’s keeping the file explorer open while you work on a project, keeping an eye on Google Maps and a calendar while you book hotels on the main screen, or just running Spotify or YouTube while you get on with your work.
You can switch between apps quickly on the fly, set app shortcuts to open some programs straight to the second display, and save certain combinations of programs as Task Groups, letting you quickly access your favourite setups on the fly. The included Core i9 and Nvidia RTX 2060 mean the hardware shouldn’t struggle to keep up with committed creative work or even gaming, though Asus hasn’t yet confirmed RAM availability – the main factor in multi-tasking performance.
If you’d rather focus on one task at a time that’s an option too. You can turn the lower screen off entirely, or let one program sprawl across both screens, ideal for programmers who want extra vertical real estate, or complex creative apps that might let you move certain controls down to the bottom display. Asus says it’s also developing dedicated accessories – seemingly both software and hardware-based – that will help users set-up more complex hotkeys and controls for specific software.
The average user will, in all honesty, not get a whole lot out of this unless they really, really hate switching windows. But for anyone used to working on a desktop with multiple monitors who wants the same experience on the road, it’s clear to see why the Pro Duo might appeal – so long as you can put up with the impact that second screen has on the rest of the laptop’s design.
Squished by the screen
So here’s the downside: it’s quite tricky to actual fit a 14in display into the body of a laptop. For what it’s worth, Asus has done a good job of it, with minimal bezels around the screen and not a lot of wasted space: mostly just a thin black bar that boasts the ZenBook logo between the screen and the keyboard.
But in another sense, that’s exactly the problem: with no wasted space there’s also no free space, and the whole design feels inevitably cramped and squeezed. There’s still a full-size keyboard, but the trackpad has had to shift to the right-hand side of it, squeezed into the corner, and doubling as a numpad thanks to LED strips you can activate to illustrate the number keys.
There’s almost no un-used space at all on the main body, which means there’s nowhere to rest your hands while you type. Asus is also releasing a palm rest – though it’s not clear if this will be included, or a paid extra – but whether you use it or not you might find that the Pro Duo is tricky to use in cramped conditions.
It’s hefty too. Between the top-end specs and the extra display, this thing is thicc, and it’s got the weight to match – an ultrabook this ain’t. Portability clearly wasn’t the priority here, and while it’s still some shy of the heftier gaming devices out there, there are plenty of other premium creative devices from the likes of Apple or Dell that offer similar performance with a slimmer build.
One advantage of the heft is that it does leave Asus space for a decent array of ports at least. You get two full-size USB ports, one USB-C, and one HDMI, along with the dedicated power port – Asus still hasn’t jumped onto the USB-C charging bandwagon, sadly.
As is standard for Asus laptops these days, sound is provided by Harmon/Kardon, so you can expect that to deliver too, though I haven’t tested it yet. The chunky chassis also packs in a ‘Turbo Cooling’ fan, with a dedicated function key to amp it up to high gear when you know you want the laptop to work hard.
The Asus ErgoLift hinge design returns, naturally propping the base of the body up at a slight angle – ideal for both cooling and comfortable typing – and beyond the silly screen the rest of the design is actually very restrained. It’s available in a black finish with pretty minimal detailing, with both the Asus logo and its concentric circle finish offset slightly on the aluminium body.
There’s also one other feature you won’t see in my photos, because it wasn’t enabled during my hands-on: a small light strip underneath the front edge of the body, which illuminates when you use either of the Cortana or Alexa voice assistants that come built-in, just as you’d find on most dedicated smart speakers.
A lot of the ZenBook Pro Duo’s appeal will depend on the price, but it’s clear that no matter what this is going to be a divisive device.
If you’re a multi-monitor addict who’s fed up of feeling constrained by your laptop’s paltry single screen, then the Pro Duo could be pretty tempting – not least since it packs more than enough power for just about anything you’d care to throw at it.
On the other hand, if your typical multi-tasking is limited to a few browser tabs and a music app, there’s really no need to put up with the compromises that the Pro Duo necessitates.