Note: This article was first published on 27 May 2019.
What would happen if you took the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro and blew it up? As it turns out, ASUS did exactly that, and the new ZenBook Pro Duo UX581 it announced today features a giant second screen just above the keyboard. The secondary display is the same width as the primary screen, and the two flow into each other almost seamlessly, and they're actually pretty stunning to look at.
The ScreenPad Plus, as ASUS calls the second screen, is sort of a logical evolution of the ScreenPad ASUS first introduced on last year's ZenBook Pro 15 UX580. The original ScreenPad saw the trackpad double as the secondary display, and you could do stuff like watch YouTube videos on it. The new ScreenPad Plus does everything its predecessor could, but with so much more space to work with, it's far more powerful and useful than before.
But before I talk more about the ScreenPad Plus, here's an overview of the laptop's specifications:
It's clear that this is intended to be a powerful workstation machine for creators, although the GeForce RTX 2060 GPU means that gamers won't mind it either. If you don't want the overclockable processor though, you can also opt for a more modest Core i7-9750H chip.
The 4K OLED display is also one of the most impressive parts of the notebook. It is framed by super slim bezels and boasts a 100,000:1 contrast ratio, 100 per cent coverage of the DCI-P3 color space, and HDR support. In person, the display looks simply fantastic, with bright and vivid colors that really pop. The 4K resolution also makes both text and images look sharp and crisp. However, it sports a glossy finish, which creates a lot of annoying reflections.
The best part is that this kind of carries over onto the ScreenPad Plus display. The secondary screen isn't some low-resolution stand-in, and it also boasts a high 3,840 x 1,100-pixel resolution and an IPS panel. This is a 14-inch display with a 32:9 aspect ratio, and the 4K resolution means that there's no need for any rescaling to be done when dragging windows from the primary to second screen. This also easily allows for a single app to be displayed across both screens as you would with an extended desktop, which is really great when you've got apps like Google Maps that could really benefit from the extra screen real estate.
The new design means that the trackpad sits right next to the keyboard now, not unlike what ASUS has done with its ROG Zephyrus S laptops. The trackpad even doubles as a number pad, so you get the functionality of a full-sized keyboard. If you miss having something to rest your wrists on though, ASUS will be bundling a wrist rest with the laptop.
I haven't spent that much time with the laptop yet, but at first glance, the ScreenPad Plus seems pretty promising. I'm more inclined to think that it could come in really handy and isn't actually a fancy gimmick.
Together with the primary screen, you'll be able to work with up to five apps at any one time (two at the top and three at the bottom).
In addition, it supports something called Task Group, which lets you configure up to four preset layouts that you can access quickly on the ScreenPad Plus. So if you like to have Spotify out while working on Photoshop and browsing the web on Chrome, you can easily launch these apps in your preferred position with one touch.
Moving apps up and down is also pretty easy. It takes a while to figure out the mechanics, but once you get the hang of it, it feels quite intuitive. You can click on any window using either the touchscreen display or the pointer, and holding down will call up a small pop-up panel that lets you choose whether you want to send the app to the main screen, pin it, or expand it over both screens.
The ScreenPad Plus supports contextual and adaptive functions as well. While any Windows app will work with the ScreenPad Plus, ASUS says it is working with developers such as Corel to optimize the display for better productivity. This could help content creators reduce clutter on the main screen by moving tools and panels such as video previews, timeline controls, code windows, or audio mixer panels onto the second screen.
Elsewhere, Twitch streamers can even leave their chat window open on the ScreenPad Plus, and in this way keep an eye on what their viewers are saying.
In terms of both form and function, the ScreenPad Plus is a huge upgrade over the first ScreenPad. Its placement makes it work much more intuitively with the primary display, and the extra space opens up so many new possibilities.
To keep all that hardware running cool, the ZenBook Pro Duo comes with a dedicated Turbo Fan button to boost cooling at any time. In addition, it features an ErgoLift hinge that lifts the keyboard to a steeper angle of 7.5°, which ASUS says is the steepest on any of its notebooks to date. This makes for a more comfortable typing experience, but it also creates more space at the bottom of the notebook and improves airflow.
The laptop pulls in cool air from vents at the bottom and back, while hot air is expelled through distinctive slit-like vents at the sides.
In term of ports and connectivity options, the ZenBook Pro Duo has a decent selection, although it's not quite as comprehensive as you'd expect from a laptop this powerful. It supports the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard, and you'll find one Thunderbolt 3, two USB 3.1 (Gen 2) Type-A, one HDMI, and one 3.5mm audio jack. One glaring omission is an SD card slot, especially since the ZenBook Pro Duo is billed as a machine for creative professionals. However, going by the placement of the exhaust vents, it looks like ASUS decided to sacrifice some ports in order to beef up its cooling solution. That's not necessarily a bad decision, since the last thing you want is to throw a ton of cash at a laptop, only to have it under perform because of heat.
That aside, the ZenBook Pro Duo's metal body feels like quality stuff, and the new Celestial Blue color looks better to my eyes than the deeper blue of previous ZenBooks. And while the lid still features ASUS' signature concentric circles and spun-metal finish, the ASUS logo has been shifted to the side for a more modern asymmetrical look.
Separately, the company also announced the ZenBook Duo UX481, a smaller 14-inch version of the ZenBook Pro Duo. Compared to its larger sibling, it has a lower resolution 1,920 x 1,080-pixel display and a 12.6-inch 1080p ScreenPad Plus. The primary screen also doesn't support touch inputs, and it's lacking stylus support as well.
Furthermore, while the overall design is very similar, there is no digital number pad here, nor is there a dedicated Turbo Fan button, likely owing to the less demanding specifications. The ZenBook Duo will feature the latest Core i7 chip and an NVIDIA GeForce MX250, which should be a lot easier to cool than a ZenBook Pro Duo configured with the highest specifications.
It's considerably thinner and lighter than the ZenBook Pro Duo too, measuring 323 x 223 x 19.9mm and weighing 1.5kg, an entirely kilogram lighter than its bigger sibling.
What hasn't changed much is the battery, and the ZenBook Duo has a large 70Wh pack, so battery life should be quite a bit better than on the 15.6-inch model.
For connectors, it has one USB 3.1 (Gen 2) Type-C, one USB 3.1 (Gen 2) Type-A, one USB 3.1 (Gen 1) Type-A, one HDMI, and one microSD card slot.
I'll update once there's news on local price and availability.