Anirudh RegidiSep 21, 2020 15:33:58 IST
Provided you have some rather deep pockets, the ROG Zephyrus S15 has to be the best gaming laptop you can buy this year. As of this writing, anyway.
It’s slim, it’s light, and it’s powerful. The display is fast and accurate, the speakers get the job done, and its cooling system is effective, while not going out of its way to deafen you. It also delivers on the performance front, has great battery life when you’re not gaming, charges via USB-C and proprietary power, looks amazing, and has all the ports you’ll ever need.
It’s almost perfect.
Specs: The best you can get
When it comes to specs, ASUS hasn’t held back. By the looks of it, the company’s managed to squeeze in every premium feature it could in the slimmest 15.6-inch chassis its engineers could design.
Here’s what you’re getting:
CPU: Intel Core i7–10875H
GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Super Max-Q with 8 GB VRAM
RAM: 32 GB DDR4 RAM @ 3,200 MHz in dual-channel mode
Storage: 2x PCIe Gen3x4 SSDs in RAID 0
Display: 15.6″ Pantone validated 300 Hz (3 ms) panel with G-Sync support
Audio: 2x 2.5 W speakers and ESS Sabre DAC
I/O: 1x USB Type-C with Thunderbolt 3 and Usb 3.2 Gen 2 and DP1.4 and PD 3.0 support, 1x RJ45 gigabit ethernet jack, 1x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A port, 1x USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A port, 1x HDMI 2.0b port, 2x 3.5 mm jacks for mic and headphones
Wireless: 802.11ax WiFi 6 2×2, Bluetooth 5.0
Weight: 1.9 kg
The keyboard has per-key RGB backlighting and, sadly, there is no integrated webcam. ASUS does included an external USB webcam in the retail box, but my review unit didn’t ship with one so I can’t comment on its quality.
This configuration will set you back by a whopping Rs 2,73,990.
Design: Premium materials, intelligent thermals, understated elegance
It’s been a while since I’ve used a gaming laptop that looks and feels this expensive. The laptop is slim, but it feels solid: There’s little to no flex in the chassis.
I like the all-black, RGB-free aesthetic of this laptop. The subtle, two-tone finish on the lid looks cool and prevents it from looking too plain. The internal surfaces are coated with some sort of soft touch finish that’s grippy without being sticky.
When opened, the entire upper portion of the laptop hinges away from the bottom panel, creating a vent that increases air flow to the (HOT) CPU and GPU. ASUS has used the design on other Zephyrus laptops in the past, but what I do like is that unlike on previous laptops, this mechanism now feels more sturdy.
The most fascinating update is the use of liquid metal as a thermal interface material to increase heat transfer efficiency.
Liquid metal is exactly what the name suggests. It’s a conductive, metallic liquid that is applied to the top of the CPU and GPU cores to ensure a near-perfect, extremely conductive contact between the cores and the copper cooling system.
Normally, though, I’d be horrified at the idea. Liquid metal is a great conductor of heat, but also of electricity. If it’s not applied properly it can leak and short-circuit various motherboard elements, killing your machine. Liquid metal is highly corrosive and eats through copper plates and heat pipes in the long run. The application process is also very involved and finicky. Surrounding contacts need to be given a protective coat, and the liquid metal itself must be applied with utmost care and in exactly the right quantity to allow for perfect contact while avoiding spillage.
I don’t know how ASUS managed it, but its engineers apparently developed a method for reliably depositing liquid metal on the CPU and GPU cores without spillage. The copper contact plate has also been coated in nickel to prevent corrosion, and there’s a ‘special fence’ around the plate that prevents the liquid metal from leaking out.
ASUS tells me that as long as the user hasn’t interfered with the cooling system, any damage from leakage is covered under warranty (for up to three years if you opt for extended warranty).
As any PC enthusiast knows, the quality of the thermal paste used is one of the key factors affecting system performance. ASUS claims to have observed a 10°C drop in temperature with this design.
Performance: The best you can get from a gaming Ultrabook
Performance is excellent, but it’s also important to temper expectations. What we have here is an ultra-portable gaming laptop that is slimmer than most regular 15.6-inch laptops. This is NOT a desktop-replacement like the behemoth that is MSI’s Titan line. As such, no matter how well its designed, the laptop will be thermally constrained and will not deliver the no-holds-barred performance that a quick reading of the spec sheet might suggest.
In terms of raw numbers, the Zephyrus S15 outperforms any laptop we’ve tested this year, and in nearly all departments. Given that Nvidia’s 2080 Super Max-Q GPU is basically the most powerful mobile GPU available for this class of device, this should come as no surprise.
When gaming, this laptop can easily sustain 60+ fps at max settings in most single-player games (barring the poorly-optimised Red Dead Redemption 2 and, for some reason, Battlefield V), even with RTX turned on. In Battlefield V, I had to turn down settings to ‘High’ (The horror!!! 😱) and enable DLSS — a feature that renders the game at a lower resolution and then upscales it with AI — to get a steady 60–70 fps.
I suspect that the lower memory bandwidth afforded to the Max-Q variant of the 2080 Super has something to do with this, given that RTX performance is heavily reliant on the same. Bear in mind that this is to be expected from a Max-Q GPU and is not unusual or a flaw in the S15’s design.
I also ran into severe performance issues when playing Modern Warfare (multiplayer) at max settings. While the laptop delivered about 80 fps at max settings most of the time, performance would frequently drop so dramatically that I’d be looking at a slideshow for a few seconds. I had to turn down most settings to ‘Normal’ and disable RTX for a more consistent experience.
A closer look at the GPU performance logs explained why. The Max-Q GPU, by design, was rapidly hitting its power and thermal caps, and every time it did so, throttled either memory or core clocks to bring down temperatures, resulting in the performance dips. A regular 2080 Super with adequate cooling will not show such behaviour, but then a regular 2080 Super will also need a 2-inch thick laptop with industrial-grade exhaust fans to keep cool.
On the plus side, the fps boost to ~140, a result of lowering the settings, was very welcome on this 300 Hz panel.
Note: All tests were conducted using the ‘Turbo’ performance profile that slightly overclocks the CPU and GPU.
Display: 300 Hz FTW!
Speaking of, I wasn’t sure if I’d see any benefit from this fast, 300 Hz panel. Initial tests appeared to confirm my suspicions — that 300 Hz wouldn’t make a material difference to gameplay. My first couple of hours gaming, I didn’t think I noticed any difference between this panel and my 144 Hz desktop monitor (the BenQ EX2780Q)
It was only after several rounds of CS: GO (which runs at nearly 400 fps on this beast), when I switched back to my desktop PC, that I noticed the difference. All of a sudden, gaming on my 144 Hz panel felt… wrong. It felt a bit janky, slow.
If you’re a gamer, the Zephyrus’ 300 Hz panel is most definitely worth getting.
Notes for content creators
I measured a display contrast ratio of 700.7:1 and a max brightness of 193.8 nits. Display gamut came in at an excellent 94.4 percent sRGB.
Despite being Pantone validated — a display quality certification certifying the colour accuracy of the panel — I found the default white point to be a bit off, with the display leaning more towards warmer tones than pure white. This isn’t such a big deal, however, and some minor tweaks to the colour profile will fix the issue.
As expected from a device with an Nvidia RTX GPU and high TDP Intel CPU, performance for creators is excellent. The data suggests that AMD’s Ryzen 7 and 9 CPUs outperform the Intel 10875H here, but only by a small margin. The difference is most noticeable in 3D rendering workloads that are CPU dependent.
In most other cases, and especially when editing video, the Nvidia GPU and Intel QSV features ensure that performance is as good as it can get in this class of device.
Input: The keyboard and trackpad are fine, and the keyboard, with its RGB lighting, does look good. However, I’m not a very big fan of the feel of said keyboard. It’s fine for gaming but the feel is a bit mushy when typing.
Fan noise: When gaming, and especially in Turbo mode (the max performance option), the fans get quite loud. However, the speakers can get louder than the fans, and if you’re using headphones, you won’t even notice them.
Heat levels: Heat is dissipated out the rear and the sides, and while heat from the right does hit your mouse hand when gaming, it’s not hot enough to cook said hands.
The area near the Esc key on the keyboard does get very hot, but as long as you’re only touching the keyboard, you won’t notice the heat.
Charging and battery life: To get the most out of this laptop, you need to be using the bundled 240 W charger with its proprietary connector. You can charge the device via USB-C (up to 65 W), but the laptop will not run in its max performance profile. USB-C charging is only for juicing it up in a pinch.
Our standard battery life test kept failing, so I don’t have a comparative metric to share with you. Anecdotally, I managed to extract 6–8 hrs of usage from this machine when browsing and watching videos. ASUS claims about 10 hrs for light workloads, and I expect this is attainable, given my experience.
Verdict: Dig deep, it’s worth it
At Rs 2,73,990, the ASUS ROG Zephyrus S15 is indeed expensive. However, it also happens to be the best, most powerful gaming ultrabook you’re likely to get this year. In fact, if you’re looking for something more powerful, you’ll have to rummage around in the desktop replacement category of laptops, or perhaps just cave and get a desktop PC instead.
ASUS hasn’t held anything back with the S15, and with liquid metal and that high-quality 300 Hz display, it’s taking risks and pushing limits.
MSI and Dell Alienware do have some excellent alternatives and one or two models that could beat the ROG Zephyrus S15 on some fronts, but they don’t appear to be available in India just yet. Until they do arrive, and we can put them through their paces, the S15 will stand as the best gaming Ultrabook you can get this year.