Ask yourself: what makes the perfect laptop? You’re probably picturing something very thin, powerful, and quiet. Up until now, you could only pick two. Thin and powerful, but it’d be loud. Thin and quiet, but it’d be weak. Powerful and quiet, but it ain’t gonna be thin. Well, let’s see if ASUS’ latest attempt is able to break that mold.
This is the ASUS ROG Zephyrus GX501, one of the first laptops featuring NVIDIA’s new Max-Q design for ultra-thin gaming notebooks. So what does that mean? It’s a combination of cherry-picked graphics chips from NVIDIA and a set of design principles that manufacturers have to follow in order to earn the designation.
These processors are picked for having higher than average efficiency, offering at least 95% of the performance of regular chips while drawing much less power. NVIDIA hasn’t told anyone what their exact specifications are, but we should expect Max-Q design laptops to be around 18mm thin, have a fan no louder than 40 decibels, and a weight of around 5lbs.
Coming back to the Zephyrus, let’s take a look at the physical design. Just like the Max-Q requirements, this 15.6” laptop is just 16.9mm thin when closed and weighs 4.9lbs. We mentioned closed, because as you open it up, a transforming hinge on the bottom separates the bottom from the body, opening up a vent that leads all around the back and the sides for increased airflow. And this increases the thickness to a WHOPPING 17.9mm. Unacceptable.
When we first saw the pictures online, we thought it was an odd design choice. But in person, the bottom plate is very strong and it’s not noticeable at all when you’re sitting in front of the laptop. What IS noticeable, however, is the keyboard and trackpad that have been relocated to the bottom half of the laptop.
Most laptops fill the top half with a keyboard, the bottom with a trackpad, and offer two areas to put your wrists. However, in the interest of better cooling, ASUS put air intakes in the top half instead. As well, the touchpad on the right can be toggled between a traditional mouse trackpad and a number pad, something that’s very handy if you use an external mouse. And let’s face it – pretty much everyone who plays games will be using a mouse and not a trackpad. And for desk use, ASUS includes a rubber wrist rest, but it doesn’t attach to the laptop. If that bothers you, … I’m sorry.
Moving up to the display, we’ve got a gorgeous 1920×1080 IPS panel with a refresh rate of 120Hz. There isn’t any noticeable backlight bleeding and the hinge is very sturdy since it’s also connected to the same mechanism that raises the lower vent. Around the sides, the Zephyrus is very well stocked. You’ll find an HDMI output, 4-pole headphone and microphone jack, 4 USB 3 ports, and a USB 3.1 type c port. It does not come with an ethernet port, since it’s actually thicker than the laptop itself, but it does come with a USB ethernet adapter in the box. You can game on WiFi, but only if you’re CRAZY, man.
Speaking of included accessories, there is a ROG-branded screwdriver included so you can open up the bottom panel – it’s a rare sight to see manufacturers encouraging you to open their products up. The underside opens up in two layers – the first one uses regular Philips screws and it’s an easy way for you to dust the bottom vent as well as the two fans. There is a second layer secured with Torx screws hiding the rest of the components. One stick of ram is soldered in, but the other slot and the PCIe SSD are both user replaceable.
Now let’s move on to the inside. Our review unit is powered by an Intel i7 7700HQ processor, a GTX 1080 with Max-Q design, 16GB of DDR4 memory, 512GB PCIe SSD, and Windows 10 Pro.
Here is one of the main differences between a Max-Q chip and a regular chip. A normal desktop GTX 1080 founders edition has a base clock speed of 1607MHz and a boosted clock speed of 1733MHz. A regular laptop GTX 1080 has a base clock of 1556MHz and a boosted clock speed of 1733MHz as well. Our Max-Q chip? A base clock speed of 1228MHz and a mystery boosted clock speed.
Why is it a mystery? Well, it’s not officially specified anywhere. Notebook check has it listed as a maximum of 1468MHz, but in our testing, our boosted clock speed peaked as high as 1709MHz. We ran it through our usual list of games, and some synthetic benchmarks, and came to an interesting conclusion.
In short, the Zephyrus performed on par with a desktop GTX 1070. Within 5%, in fact. Take a look at our synthetic 3DMark numbers for example, and you’ll see that it’s much more similar to a desktop GTX 1070’s performance than even the regular GTX 1080 found in a laptop. You can check out some of our reviews of desktop 1070s to get a broader picture of what kind of gaming performance you can expect.
Now, we also wanted to test the impact of the cooling vent on the bottom, so we hooked up a monitor, mouse, and keyboard, and kept the laptop closed since that’s how a lot of people would use a gaming laptop at home. Surprisingly, the laptop stays in a low power state with a max temperature of just 61 degrees and a throttled maximum clock speed of around 700mhz. If you plan on docking the system at home, then keep the lid open.
Finally, we tested the laptop in our super accurate sound measuring box of science, or SASMBS. We recorded 41.6dBa with nothing inside the box and with the laptop idling in the box. With the laptop running a stress test and the fans going at full speed, it jumped to a whole 42.1dBa (sarcasm). We’re willing to believe ASUS’ claim of 40dB since our studio is in an industrial area with a lot of background noise all around us.
Depending on what your expectations were, the Zephyrus can be either be a bit disappointing or very impressive. Other laptops under 18mm thick, such as the Razer Blade or the MSI GS series, only come with a GTX 1060 as their most powerful graphics card.
And other laptops with a GTX 1080 inside are usually much thicker and require pretty loud fans in order to keep it running cool. While the ASUS Zephyrus GX501 may not be the perfect trifecta of powerful, thin, and quiet, it’s one of the best attempts we’ve seen so far. There was a lot of talk about NVIDIA’s new WhisperMode profile for games, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to test that since it isn’t available yet. But with a 2dBa gain over ambient, we can live without it.
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