Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE Review: Powerful, Unique, Uncomfortable and Exorbitant

Category: Tech

Gaming laptops are always a lot of fun, but seldom do you stumble upon laptops that stand out, and are borderline outlandish. When Asus unveiled its dual-screen laptop design with the first generation ZenBook Duo, it was critically acclaimed for trying to fit in a second display as elegantly as possible, without needing users to completely remap muscle memory to a new keyboard layout. One might have guessed that this design would come to the gaming laptops too, but there were many question marks.

After answering plenty of these with a first-gen Zephyrus Duo, Asus sent us the latest generation of its two-display gaming behemoth – the mighty Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE. It’s supposedly an improved package, and at an eye-watering asking price of Rs 2,99,990 (for which you can legitimately buy a car), it’s pretty clear that this isn’t your everyday laptop.

Key specifications

The Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE that we reviewed features an AMD Ryzen 9 5900HX eight-core processor, and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 with 1645MHz boost clock and 16GB of GDDR6 VRAM. Our unit featured the 4K resolution variant of the 15.6-inch IPS display, which claims up to 120fps frame rate, 3ms response time, AMD FreeSync support, Pantone Validated certification, and 100 percent Adobe RGB and 132 percent sRGB colour gamut coverage.

Below this fairly large display is the second display, the Asus ScreenPad Plus. On our unit, it offers 14.1-inch screen size, 4K resolution (which is probably overkill), 60Hz refresh rate, 25ms response time and touch inputs. Our unit also features 48GB of DDR4-3200 memory, which is the peak memory support that the ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE offers. Stock configured SKUs come with 32GB RAM onboard, which is plenty as well.

For storage, you get two 1TB NVMe SSDs via PCIe 3.0 in RAID0 configuration, giving you 2TB of super-fast storage. Other specifications include a 90Wh battery, two speakers and two tweeters with Asus Smart Amp enhancement and Dolby Atmos certification, a chiclet style membrane keyboard with per-key RGB LED lighting, and NumberPad (which turns the trackpad into a virtual number pad).

In terms of ports, you get three USB-A 3.2 Gen2, one USB-C 3.2 Gen2 with DisplayPort and USB Power Delivery support, one HDMI 2.0b, an ethernet port, a microSD card slot and a 3.5mm audio combo port. With all of this, Asus supplies a mammoth 280W AC adapter that befits this desktop replacement of a laptop, and its 21mm minimum width and 2.5kg chassis weight aren’t surprising, either.

Design and ergonomics: The price of innovation?

The Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE is as far from a conventional laptop as you’d imagine. Upon initial impressions, you’re reminded of some of the more outlandish gaming laptops that we’ve seen over time. I’m thinking of 2015’s Asus ROG GX700 that had a massive water cooler sitting behind it, 2016’s Acer Predator 21X that had a curved 21-inch eye-tracking display and a full-size mechanical keyboard, and even the first Alienware Area-51m that needed two power adapters to run properly.

In comparison, the ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE doesn’t look as outlandish as the ones mentioned above, but that has probably also to do with the fact that by now, we are used to seeing the dual-screen layout that Asus has been marketing for a while. Still, there is a sense of bonkers going with it, particularly when you dim the lights. Coupled with the per-key RGB LED lighting, the virtual numeric pad and the two screens, this one is quite the sight.

In terms of its design, I like the fact that at least on the outside, the Zephyrus Duo 15 SE is a deceptively simple laptop. There’s nothing flashy or complicated going on, until you open it. Both the lid and the base are rather thick, but thanks to a notch at the front, it’s both easy to find the right side without seeing, and open it without much ado. The overall arrangement of the ports is decent enough, with all the USBs and the audio combo port within easy reach – something that would help creators. That, though, is where you say goodbye to ergonomics.

This is pretty much due to the super cramped keyboard and trackpad, which had to be so because of the massive second display above it. Once you start using it, you’re left wondering if it might have been prudent to make the above display narrower or smaller, and use the added space to spread out the keyboard. This is, after all, a gaming laptop that’s incidentally very good at its job, so why not give users the ammo for it? The Zephyrus Duo 15 SE also requires you to completely remap your muscle memory if you are to get used to it, which means that when you switch back to a typical laptop, you’d need some time to acclimatise.

Display(s): Do you really need TWO 4K displays on a laptop?

The main reason for this compromise is the massive secondary display, which would be preferred more by creators, rather than gamers. Think of this as a glorified version of the OLED touch bar on Apple’s MacBook Pro laptops, but with more functionality and a less cramped layout. Its matte finish is something that I personally like in terms of tactile feedback, and there’s no complaints whatsoever about the crispness and sharpness of this second display. It looks good, for sure.

In terms of its use cases, you can configure the second display to offer you customised toggles when, say, you use Adobe or Autodesk’s creative suites. The toggles are handy, and reminds me of the physical joysticks and knobs that DaVinci offers with its Resolve colour correction suite for professional movie post-processing setups. While purist film editors will likely disagree, I personally found the Asus ScreenPad Plus to be an elegant replacement of the physical toggles that professional creative artists use. This, however, is a very specific use case, and if you’re not a professional who regularly uses Blackmagic, Adobe, DaVinci and other similar creative services, the second display won’t be of much meaning for you.

This applies to gamers, too. To add a use case, Asus allows pro gamers to map performance trackers and benchmarks to the second display, which gives them a live feed of how their Zephyrus Duo 15 SE is performing. However, you wouldn’t exactly be doing this unless you’re testing the performance of the laptop – which itself is something that you won’t quite do everyday. You can have your email open on the second display as you game, but that isn’t an everyday affair, either.

As for the main display, the 4K IPS panel offers true to source colours and excellent tonal balance, which is what creators would prefer. Given that a majority of creators would work on export timelines at up to 60fps, this 4K panel makes more sense for them. If you buy the Zephyrus Duo 15 SE for gaming, you’d be better off with the 300Hz, full HD IPS panel. The latter isn’t as colour accurate as the 4K one, but you get much higher frame rates – which should be your priority above resolution and tonal accuracy.

As for the quality of the displays, there’s no denying that they’re excellent. The response times are also significantly improved from before, to now be 3ms for the 4K panel that we used. As a result, there’s no visible ghosting or display lags, which makes it great for both gaming and heavy duty, accurate Photoshop and Corel workloads. The only qualm is in slightly uneven backlighting of the display, which you would notice in darkness. As for whether you need them both, I’m not so sure. I can still make sense of the second display as a video editor or producer, but as a gamer, not quite.

Performance: The price you pay shows, clearly

On the performance front, the Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE is as monstrous as it looks. The AMD Ryzen 9 5900HX is an absolute mobile computing beast, and most benchmark scores reveal it to be among one of the most powerful gaming laptops in the market. Coupled with 48GB RAM, a fast 2TB SSD storage and the Nvidia RTX 3080 16GB GDDR6 GPU, this is adequate for most performance needs.

On PCMark 10, the Zephyrus Duo 15 SE scored 7,100 points on average, which squarely puts it in flagship gaming laptop territory. In terms of rendered frame rates, esports titles such as CS:GO render at close to 120fps in 4K, while graphically demanding titles such as Forza Horizon 4 notch up around 65fps consistently, at 4K. FIFA 21 registered around 100fps frame rates at 4K resolution in Ultra graphics, showing how consistent the ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE is in its overall performance.

While we did not get down to rendering 4K timelines on the laptop, all indications suggest that you’d get as good performance from it as you can expect from laptops. The secondary display’s toggle based controls also work smoothly, and the ScreenPad Plus does show some screen tear due to the higher response times, but that’s not due to the lack of performance firepower. The massive amount of memory, coupled with 2TB of SSD storage, ensures that heavy duty video tasks with multi-tab browser loads do not show any sign of stutter for the most part.

The Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE also reports excellent results on the CrystalDiskMark sequential read and write speeds, which is critical for creators. Thanks to an updated generation of USB featuring across all ports, you get the assurance of fast bulk data transfers. However, it is important to note that to make the most of all of this performance firepower, you need to either be a competitive esports player, a hardcore gaming enthusiast or a professional video producer. If you are, the multi-core performance, heavy duty multitasking and bulk data transfer aspects make a big difference.

Keyboard and trackpad: The unconvincing bit

While the impressive performance is largely appreciable, it is the keyboard and trackpad combination that is a put-off. The layout is way too cramped for you to game comfortably, and that you do not get anywhere to rest your palm gives way to aching hands, if you try to game for long hours. Video editors and producers can still make do via a mouse and the second display’s input, but for gaming, this is far from ideal.

The keyboard’s input quality is a bit mushy as well, and the trackpad is awkwardly placed and too small. The edges are rounded, but are too protruding – all of which combines into a rather tricky recipe on the ergonomics front. It is this that puts the Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE squarely in the desktop replacement category and not as an out and out laptop – to use it for all its power, you need an external keyboard and mouse to go with.

Connectivity: More or less what you’d want

The general arrangement of the ports are, thankfully, in line with how you might line your desk up. The HDMI and Ethernet ports are to the rear, which also gets a USB-A 3.2 Gen2 port if you wish to have a larger external storage permanently connected. This further reinstates the desktop replacement point. The solitary USB-C port is to the left, and the overall layout and range of features at hand are more or less accurate. A full-size memory card slot, however, was in order.

Wireless connectivity wise, the Zephyrus Duo 15 SE supports Wi-Fi 6, which ensures that you are updated with the latest generation of multi-gigabit internet connectivity once you upgrade your home router. The laptop supports Bluetooth 5.1 out of the box, and Asus says that future software updates can help it upgrade this as well.

Battery life: You’re probably not worrying about it anyway

Gaming on battery with the Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE is hardly an experience to savour, for your laptop is likely to die within just over an hour. For non-gaming and non-graphic intensive tasks, the 90Wh battery can last for a little less than five hours on average, with the laptop’s performance profile set to silent, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connected, the primary display set to 50 percent brightness, and the second display’s brightness set to 25 percent. For this laptop, such a scenario is a light day at work.

In other words, if your performance requirements involve any kind of gaming or video editing on the go, expect a maximum battery output of around three hours at best. Topping up the ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE is a massive, 280W power brick, which feels nothing less than the mammoth contraption that it is. The laptop supports USB Power Delivery, which means that you can charge it via a high wattage USB-C power adapter. However, do note that you’d be charging at a slower pace if you do so, and even then, it won’t run at full throttle. This makes carrying the power brick rather compulsory, which in turn further hits home the desktop replacement status of the Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE.

Verdict: You can’t dislike it, but can you justify it?

All of this fancy paraphernalia comes at a mammoth price tag of Rs 2,99,990. If you are anything less than a hardcore creative professional or gamer, the Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE is overkill (and overpriced) for you. For the most part, I was left without quantifiable needs for it in my everyday workflow, but if your work involves about 10 hours of writing, you anyway won’t be looking at this. It also charges you a premium for giving you two OLED displays, which means that even in its performance bracket, the asking price is on the higher end.

Can anyone justify buying the Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 SE, then? There is a very specific subset of users at the very extreme end of the consumer band, at whom this laptop is targeted. For them, there are choices such as the Alienware m15 R6, the MSI GE76 Raider, and even Asus’ own ROG Strix Scar 15. While the aforementioned laptops aren’t exactly as innovative as the Zephyrus Duo 15 SE, there is no denying that in terms of functionality, the straightforward layouts, comparable performance and a better spaced keyboard make them the better ones to use. This one, then, should only be yours if you want a neater desktop, have external keyboards and mice to connect, and won’t need to move around much with the mammoth power brick.

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