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Asus Zenbook Duo (UX481FL) review

... with a supercharged Touch Bar!

(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

Asus ZenBook Duo is an interesting spin on the classic laptop form factor, with two screens and huge amount of firepower. Having said that, it feels like there are a few too many compromises made to house the ScreenPad Plus which doesn’t feel like a part of the primary screen. It’s a bit bulky and the second screen doesn’t quite justify those compromises. A shame.

For

  • ScreenPad Plus an interesting concept
  • Packed with powerful hardware
  • Great build quality
  • Affordable
  • Built-in Wi-Fi 6

Against

  • ScreenPad Plus isn’t essential
  • Issues with full-screen apps and games
  • ScreenPad Plus needs further optimizations

Asus ZenBook Duo looks like a futuristic laptop, and that’s mainly due to the presence of a second display on the base, just above the keyboard and trackpad. With the ZenBook Duo, the company is catering to a different set of users who demand performance without compromising their creative aspects. This kind of form factor hasn’t been seen before in a laptop, and hence Asus tries to provide a balance between style and productivity.

The ScreenPad Plus, as Asus calls it, is essentially a supercharged Touch Bar if you’re familiar with Apple’s MacBook Pro range. The same concept has been taken ahead with a full-fledged second display that can be used to show apps, scribble something or just generally listen to music while working.

However, having a second screen on the laptop has significant ramifications in the form of keyboard and trackpad placement. Now, this means the ScreenPad Plus needs to prove itself as a genuine value-addition to the laptop. And never before has a laptop’s success or failure depended so much on one feature.

Asus Zenbook Duo (UX481FL) configuration

CPU: Intel Core i7-10510U @ 1.80GHz
Graphics: Nvidia GeForce MX250 (2GB)
RAM: 16GB DDR3 (2,133MHz)
Storage: 1TB PCIe Samsung SSD
Screen: 14-inch, LCD Full HD (1920 x 1080), 12.6-inch Full HD (1920 x 515) touch display
Ports: 1 x USB 3.1 Type-C, 2 x USB 3.1 Type-A, 1 x HDMI &1 x MicroSD reader
Connectivity: Intel Wi-Fi 6 with Gig+ performance (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5.0
Camera: IR webcam with Windows Hello support
Weight: 1.5kg
Size: 32.3 x 22.3 x 1.99 cms

Price and availability

Asus ZenBook Duo (UX481) starts at Rs 89,990 and is on sale in India. The base model features a 10th generation Intel Core i5 processor paired with 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD and NVIDIA GeForce MX250. The configuration tops out with the second variant which comes loaded with Intel Core i7 chip, 16GB RAM and 1TB SSD storage.

Design

(Image credit: Future)

Taking the ZenBook Duo out of the box, we noticed that it has a considerable thickness and weight, unlike other ZenBook laptops, which we consider as thin and light. Even the price segment this laptop falls under is generally filled with ultra-portables; however, with its new design, the ZenBook Duo is a joker in the pack of cards.

(Image credit: Future)

The new laptop sticks to its roots and features the iconic spun-metal concentric circle finish on the lid with tapered edges. Only this time, it isn’t centered and instead is asymmetric. It gives a spotlight-like effect to the Asus logo, which looks intriguing. 

(Image credit: Future)

ZenBook Duo is a bit on the heavier side of things as it weighs around 1.5 kgs and measures 32.3 x 22.3 x 1.99 centimeters. So it’s not that slim either, presumably due to the addition of a secondary screen. It is unlike something we had hoped for from a ZenBook machine, which has a reputation of being one of the slimmest and lightweight Windows laptops. 

And that is why Asus can’t hold the necessary hardware accountable except the ScreenPad Plus, that is. 

(Image credit: Future)

The ScreenPad Plus is an impressive addition to the laptop; sadly, it took so long. Back in 2010, Toshiba showcased Libretto W100, which was a functioning hybrid between a tablet and a laptop running on Windows. It didn’t see the light of the day in global markets, but look how far it has come. With the subsequent announcements of a Touch Bar on MacBook Pro and devices like Lenovo’s YogaBook C930, there wasn’t any form factor left unchecked until Asus dropped the ZenBook Duo. 

The second screen pushes the keyboard further down, like how its on Asus’ ROG Zephyrus S gaming laptops. Except there, space is utilized by heatsinks for the cooling system. A touchpad on the right flanks the keyboard, and this setup might look strange to many non-gamers. It eliminates any wrist-resting space.

(Image credit: Future)

The position of the trackpad can also take getting used to as it is usually placed below the keyboard. Asus thinks that most creative professionals would anyway use an external mouse, but forgot that unlike gaming laptops, their’s isn’t connected to one at all the times. Also, gaming laptops are often used on a stable surface, unlike ultrabooks, which can be kept on the lap, on-the-go, and be used as efficiently.

To add more salt to the burn, the trackpad on the ZenBook Duo doesn’t double up as a numeric keypad as on the Pro Duo range, which is a real bummer. Even if you attach an external mouse, the trackpad area remains of no use. It would have been great if Asus had made this particular feature common across their ZenBook Duo lineup.

(Image credit: Future)

Asus includes a soft-stand in the box, which raises the base of the platform to a specific angle for users to use the laptop more easily. However, our experience with it didn’t go well as the laptop started wobbling with the stand.

(Image credit: Future)

The ErgoLift hinge design already provides a 5.5-degree tilt to the laptop by default and anything above that requires some wrist rest for comfortable use.

(Image credit: Future)

Overall, the design of the ZenBook Duo is pretty surprising and innovative, but users will have to make some compromises on how they use their laptops performing day to day activities. Nevertheless, it’s a different form factor and a unique design for sure. The notebook has also received the MIL-STD-810G certificate, which is the military standard benchmark for durability and toughness.

Are two screens better than one?

(Image credit: Future)

ScreenPad Plus is the most noticeable feature of the ZenBook Duo and its USP as well. The primary screen is a gorgeous looking 14-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) LED panel with minimal bezels. Colors are vibrant, and the contrast is excellent. 

The screen can produce a 100% sRGB color gamut and is also Pantone validated. The top screen alone means this is a laptop that you should consider if you’re looking for a machine to edit photos and videos.

(Image credit: Future)

The 3.5mm thin bezels on either side give the ZenBook Duo a 90% screen-to-body ratio with a 178-degree field-of-view. It’s got a more modern feel (despite the thickness elsewhere) and ensures the upper screen remains the main focal point.

The second display measures 12.6-inches and looks a bit dull in comparison to the primary display, which has impressive vibrancy and brightness. We increased the default brightness of the screen in an attempt to match the top screen better, but it doesn’t help the case either. 

(Image credit: Future)

Windows 10 treats the Screenpad Plus as a second monitor, so when you drag the mouse cursor to the bottom of the top screen, it will then appear on the bottom screen – and the reverse happens when you move the mouse to the top of the second screen. It essentially breaks the seamless experience that Asus is trying to provide with the addition of a second screen.

However, using ScreenPad Plus, one can easily drag windows and apps to the other screen. While many apps might feel a little cramped, it works quite well. For example, you could drag a Chrome window with YouTube or Gmail to the bottom screen and listen to music or keep an eye on emails while working on the primary display. 

(Image credit: Future)

As the Screenpad Plus is a touchscreen, you can use your fingers to move or select open apps, or use the included Asus Pen stylus, essentially turning the Screenpad Plus into a drawing tablet – making it an attractive choice for digital artists. 

Asus has also included its software that can be used with the Screenpad Plus. By tapping on an unobtrusive on-screen button, you can bring up a menu that lets you pin app shortcuts, tweak the Screenpad Plus’ settings, and perform a few other nifty moves – for example, quickly swapping which apps and windows are open on which screen.

(Image credit: Future)

It’s a nice addition that makes the Screenpad Plus more useful than just a second monitor. However, during our time with the ZenBook Duo, we weren’t entirely convinced that Screenpad Plus is an essential tool.

In some respects, it was nice to have, but it did get in the way some times as well. For example, when moving the mouse to the bottom of the top screen to click on the taskbar, it’s a bit too easy to overshoot and results in the mouse ending up on the bottom screen. And that can be annoying, especially if you’re working through a deadline.

The problem is even worse when playing games or running apps in full screen because if you move the mouse cursor onto the second screen and accidentally click it, it minimizes the game/app. You can at least avoid this by pressing a button above the trackpad that disables the second screen. However, it means you can rule out using the second screen while playing games – for example, having a live streaming app running on the Screenpad Plus.

While the Screenpad Plus is an exciting addition, it didn’t prove itself to be essential by any stretch of the imagination, and in some cases, proved to be a bit of a hindrance. The fact that the top screen is so good means the Screenpad Plus seems a bit dull and lifeless by comparison. While some people Screenpad Plus features, we feel it doesn’t quite justify the impact it has on the dimensions of the Asus ZenBook Duo.