The display industry can be a pretty fickle-minded one. After Avatar in 2009, 3D was said to be the next big thing. But it never really took off. Right now, the key buzzword is 4K and this is one development that seems set to stay. The reason is for this is quite simple, unlike 3D, which requires specific hardware and even lighting conditions to be enjoyed fully, 4K is much more straightforward. Play 4K content on a 4K display and viewers can immediately enjoy and appreciate the added benefits of all those additional pixels. So is it any surprise then that we are seeing 4K displays on notebooks?
Last year at Computex, ASUS unveiled a new 15.6-inch gaming notebook called the ROG GX500. It was a super slim notebook that measured just 19mm thick and weighed only 2.2kg. But more importantly, it had a 4K display - a rarity in those days and still isn’t all that common today. Unfortunately, that notebook was powered by an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 860M mobile GPU, which seemed underpowered to us. Fortunately, a year on, NVIDIA has launched its new GeForce 900M series GPU which promises greater performance and power efficiency.
Taking advantage of this, ASUS has tweaked the ROG GX500 prior to launch and has renamed it, dubbing it the ROG G501. It has also outfitted the new notebook with NVIDIA’s newest GeForce GTX 960M mobile GPU, but will it be enough? Let’s find out.
Despite Intel recently announcing the release of the first quad-core mobile processors based on the newer Broadwell architecture, the ASUS ROG G501 notebook is powered by a quad-core Intel Core i7-4720HQ processor (2.6GHz, 6MB L3 cache), which is based on the older Haswell architecture. Broadwell is the 14nm die shrink of the Haswell architecture, which typically brings about minor improvements to performance and power efficiency. In this case, the Core i7-4720HQ processor is still a fairly powerful beast, so users shouldn’t worry about missing out on too much performance.
On the graphics front, the ROG G501 is equipped with NVIDIA’s new GeForce GTX 960M mobile GPU, which offers a good blend of performance as well as power and thermal characteristics, allowing ASUS to keep the ROG G501 slim. However, the GeForce GTX 960M is not much of an upgrade over the older GeForce GTX 860M. In fact, the GeForce GTX 860M is already based on the new Maxwell architecture and has been used in other slim gaming notebooks such as the HP Omen. If you recall, the launch of the new GeForce GTX 800M series mobile GPUs was a bit of a messy affair and it included GPUs that used a mix of Kepler and Maxwell architectures, and the GeForce GTX 860M and GTX 850M were the first mobile GPUs to be based on the newer Maxwell architecture. Nevertheless, the GeForce GTX 960M does sport slightly higher clock speeds than the GeForce GTX 860M (1096MHz vs.1020MHz), which should give it a slight advantage in terms of performance.
ASUS has generously bestowed the ROG G501 with 16GB of DDR3L 1600MHz RAM and storage comes in the form of 512GB PCIe x4 SSD. ASUS also offers the ROG G501 with SATA-based SSDs and mechanical hard disk drives.
On a whole, the ROG G501’s specifications can be described as adequate and certainly decent. Our biggest concern, however, is the somewhat lackluster choice of GPU, which could hamper the ROG G501’s ability to run games decently at its native 4K resolution.
One of the key highlights of the ASUS ROG G501 is its svelte design and slim chassis. The chassis is mostly aluminum and exudes a premium look and feel. It measures just 20.6mm thick and weighs only 2kg, which makes about as thick and lighter than the GX500 unit that we saw at Computex last year. The aluminum is black and ASUS has employed different finishings on the panels to give the ROG G501 more visual pizzazz. The external panels are all brushed, whereas the internal panels such as the palm rests have a matte finish.
Remember I mentioned earlier than the chassis is mostly aluminum? That’s because the bezel surround the display is plastic. The choice of material is puzzling as most premium notebooks these day employ an edge-to-edge glass panel that looks more pleasant and classy. Choice of material aside, the bezel is also fairly large, measuring almost 20mm or 2cm at its thickest point.
Fortunately, the ROG G501 redeems itself with its ultra-high resolution display. The 15.6-inch display supports 4K resolution, which means a native screen resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. If you do the math that’s over four times as many pixels as Full-HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels). And on a 15.6-inch display, that means a pixel density count of 282 pixels per inch, which means text and images look incredibly sharp and smooth, most of the time. I say “most of the time” because Windows 8, up till now, still has incredibly iffy support for ultra-high resolution displays. For the most parts, everything is rendered as it should, but there are certain menus and applications that still run into trouble and end up looking fuzzy. Windows 10, which is available now as a free update for many systems, should rectify this problem. Sharpness aside, we had no problems with its brightness or viewing angles, but contrast is a little lacking so the display tends to look a little soft and lacks punch.
In keeping with the traditional ROG color scheme of red and black, the keyboards have red accents as well as non-customizable red black lights. The “WASD” keys are also specially marked for quick identification. And according to ASUS, the keys have up to 1.6mm of travel and this feels about right. Unfortunately, they feel just a tad too mushy, and I would have preferred it if ASUS upped the actuation force by a little.
Still, this is only a minor gripe. What’s conspicuously missing is macro keys of any sort. Macro keys let users map commands for quick execution and it is a nifty feature that is becoming increasing popular on most gaming notebooks these days. Even smaller 13-inch notebooks like the recently reviewed Aorus X3 Plus V3 have macro keys so there’s really no excuse for them to be missing on the ROG G501.
In terms of connectivity, the ROG G501 has got most bases covered. There are three USB 3.0 ports in total and video output comes in the form of an HDMI port and a mini-DisplayPort. There’s also the usual 3.5mm audio jack and SD card reader. The ROG G501 also has an Intel Wireless-AC 7260 adapter which means it supports the latest 802.11ac wireless standard (2x2 streams and up to 867Mbps) and Bluetooth 4.0. Unfortunately, there's no Ethernet jack, but ASUS does provide a USB to Ethernet adapter.
The ROG G501 has two stereo speakers and MaxxAudio technology and an ROG feature called ROG AudioWizard that lets you select modes to best suit your usage needs. Unfortunately, no matter how much we tried to tune and tweak the audio settings, the ROG G501 still came off sounding weak and detached. Volume is not an issue, but the sound lacks any sort of body and bass and sounds tired and thin. Best stick to your speakers and headphones.