A couple months ago, my colleague Chaim Gartenberg wrote a fair and accurate review of the Asus ROG Zephyrus. It’s an astonishingly thin, ultra-powerful laptop for gamers, and it almost utterly fails at being a laptop. “Basically useless away from a desk” was Chaim’s ultimate verdict, and I agree.
Also, I love this laptop.
After Chaim finished his review, I asked if I could try it out. Before long, my MacBook Pro was collecting dust. I became a full-on Zephyrus convert and evangelist, with fond things to say about nearly every detail of this machine. Because while Chaim is right that this isn’t a good laptop, it’s possibly the greatest portable computer I’ve ever had the joy of using. Let me count the ways.
Everything this computer gets right starts with the hinge. Inside the Zephyrus is a power-hungry, hot-running Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080. To keep the laptop thin while also leaving room for adequate cooling, Asus designed a special hinge that levers open the bottom of the computer when you open up the screen. The base plate stays flat, but the rest of the back of the computer is lifted off of it, leaving a ton of room for hot air to blast out of the back when the fans are running.
Of course, the downside of this hinge is that if you put the Zephyrus on your lap, or any unstable surface, it just doesn’t feel right. But once you accept the fact that this isn’t a “laptop” in the literal sense, it all makes sense.
Because the Zephyrus is so thin, despite its horsepower and 15.6-inch screen size, I can carry it around in the same backpack I use to tote my 13-inch MacBook Pro. The weight, combined with the Zephyrus’ large power supply, isn’t ideal. But it’s completely tolerable, and I was able to take this laptop everywhere with zero problems.
The Zephyrus has an astonishingly short battery life, even when the GPU isn’t engaged. Two hours would be a miracle with this thing; when gaming, it’s going to be much shorter. But it lasts long enough for a meeting, or for a short stay at a coffee shop — especially because those aren’t places where you’d want to be playing Overwatch.
The way I think of it is that the Zephyrus is a portable desktop with a tiny bit of buffer power for emergency situations when you’re away from an outlet. I have three main locations where I can set up and plug in: at home, at work, and at my buddy’s place. If I plan on gaming or some other serious task, I pack a nice mouse with me. If I don’t have serious plans to use the laptop, I don’t bring it at all.
The Zephyrus has the keyboard in the front and the trackpad on the right side. Madness? Genius, I say. Instead of resting your palms on the machine, you rest them on the desk in front of the machine. That keeps your body from becoming another heat sink when the computer warms up. I absolutely hate doing anything processor intensive on my MacBook Pro, especially during the summer, because it means I have to be hot as well. With the Zephyrus I never broke a sweat.
I also love typing on the keyboard. Keyboards are always a matter of personal taste, but the Zephyrus matches mine: somewhere between mechanical and chiclet. If you’re worried about proper ergonomics, Asus includes a horrible wedge of rubber to rest your palms on, but I actually preferred typing without it. After all, with my PC desktop I use a mechanical keyboard without a wrist rest that has a much higher rise than this keyboard does.
As for the fact that this keyboard is nearly useless when the Zephyrus is on your lap, or in the cramped confines of an airplane tray table, I would say: yes. And, in interest of full disclosure, at work I use an external keyboard, but that’s just a vestige of my typical MacBook setup.
This computer is faster than my 2016 self-built PC desktop. It’s faster than nearly any Mac you can buy. It’s just stupidly powerful, and I love it. I mostly used it for Adobe Premiere, After Effects, Path of Exile, and Overwatch. It exports video from Premiere in a fraction of the time it takes my 2015 MacBook Pro to do the same job. Gaming, combined with the 120Hz 1080p screen, is butter at any quality setting. If I had more time with it I would’ve probably moved my Unreal Engine game development work over to this machine as well.
I could easily see myself ditching my MacBook Pro and PC desktop in exchange for this machine. Maybe I’d augment it with a iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard for when I just want something lightweight with good battery life for writing on. But for tasks that require true computing power, not just a word processor or a web browser, the Zephyrus is exactly what I want: a portable computer.
Computers are constrained by physics, so compromises are necessary, and I think Asus picked all the right ones with the Zephyrus. Most gaming laptops I’ve used are much too large and heavy to want to bring anywhere, while also holding to form factor and battery life constraints that only make sense on a “real” laptop. If you’re committed to perfect specs, and the traditional laptop look, you end up with a beast that won’t fit in most backpacks, or weighs too much to carry everywhere. By forgetting about laps and battery life entirely, Asus has made a truly portable computer with top-of-the-line performance.
The low-resolution screen, keyboard design, and trackpad placement are all trade-offs that make this laptop just right for my use case, but possibly a non-starter for someone else. By not trying to please everyone, Asus has made something very rare and special in the computer world.
I don’t have $2,699 set aside for a new computer right now, and I can do everything I need to do with the computers I already own. After a few months out on loan, Asus asked for its computer back, so we sent it. And I miss it terribly.