Is it time to stop sacrificing portability for performance?

A few months ago at Computex, NVIDIA announced their "GeForce GTX with Max-Q Design" initiative. Essentially, the heart of this program is the use of specifically binned GTX 1080, 1070 and 1060 GPUs. These GPUs have been tested and selected during the manufacturing process to ensure lower power draw at the same performance levels when compared to the GPUs used in more traditional form factors like desktop graphics cards.

In order to gain access to these "Max-Q" binned GPUs, notebook manufacturers have to meet specific NVIDIA guidelines on noise levels at thermal load (sub-40 dbA). To be clear, NVIDIA doesn't seem to be offering reference notebook designs (as demonstrated by the variability in design across the Max-Q notebooks) to partners, but rather ideas on how they can accomplish the given goals.

At the show, NVIDIA and some of their partners showed off several Max-Q notebooks. We hope to take a look at all of these machines in the coming weeks, but today we're focusing on one of the first, the ASUS ROG Zephyrus.

ASUS ROG Zephyrus  (configuration as reviewed)
Processor Intel Core i7-7700HQ (Kaby Lake)
Graphics NVIDIA Geforce GTX 1080 with Max-Q Deseign (8GB)
Memory 24GB DDR4  (8GB Soldered + 8GBx2 DIMM)
Screen 15.6-in 1920×1080 120Hz G-SYNC 

512GB Samsung SM961 NVMe

Camera HD Webcam
Wireless 802.11ac
Connections Thunderbolt 3
HDMI 2.0
4 x USB 3.0
Audio combo jack
Power 50 Wh Battery, 230W AC Adapter
Dimensions 378.9mm x 261.9mm x 17.01-17.78mm (14.92" x 10.31" x 0.67"-0.70")
4.94 lbs. (2240.746 g)
OS Windows 10 Home
Price $2700 – Amazon.com

As you can see, the ASUS ROG Zephyrus has the specifications of a high-end gaming desktop, let alone a gaming notebook. In some gaming notebook designs, the bottleneck comes down to CPU horsepower more than GPU horsepower. That doesn't seem to be the case here. The powerful GTX 1080 GPU is paired with a quad-core HyperThread Intel processor capable of boosting up to 3.8 GHz. 

Additionally, you can find all of the creature comforts you've come to expect with a modern high-end PC. 512GB of fast NVMe storage from Samsung and 24 GB of RAM will help you in typical productivity tasks in addition to gaming. 

Now let's talk about the most radical thing about the ROG Zephyrus, the form factor.

The Zephyrus moves the keyboard and trackpad to the very leading edge of the notebook, allowing for a larger surface area dedicated to the CPU and GPU. While this is not necessarily a first in the notebook world (the MSI GT83VR TITAN comes to mind), it's a more radical design than typical notebook users expect. 

Off the bat, we had questions about the usability of a keyboard and mouse in this location on a notebook. In my experience with the Zephyrus, the answer to this is simply – it's not great.

My attempts to use the Zephyrus in any configuration outside of sitting on a desk have been uncomfortable at best. To effectively use the Zephyrus in your lap, it has to be pushed far back so that you can use the keyboard and mouse. This means that the center of gravity for the machine ends up being more near your knees, and the entire setup feels unstable.

When using the ROG Zephyrus on a flat surface like a desk, the situation is better. The keyboard has a good tactile feel to it, and although it's in an odd place, the trackpad works well. Additionally, the Zephyrus ships with a rubber wrist rest to help the typing experience. While I wouldn't want to have to travel with a wrist rest, it certainly helps make typing more comfortable.

To a lot of people, it may seem ridiculous to complain about not being able to use a gaming notebook to surf the internet while watching Netflix on your TV. However, I would argue that part of the reason of making a more portable gaming notebook would be the flexibility to use it in different environments. Additionally, I think the type of person who is buying a $2700 device is likely to be using this as their sole computer. The ergonomics of the Zephyrus don't seem to allow this. I can't even imagine the pain of trying to use this notebook on an airplane tray table.

An interesting design detail of the Zephyrus is the angled ventilation system found on the bottom of the notebook. When you open the Zephyrus, the bottom panel angles up and allows direct airflow to the GPU and CPU fans underneath. This improves cooling significantly and allows the fans to rotate slower and reduce noise under a full gaming workload.

As far as ports are concerned, the thickness of the Zephyrus means that the options are more limited than traditional gaming notebooks. You'll find four USB 3.0 Type-A ports, a Type-C Thunderbolt 3 connector, combination audio jack, and full-size HDMI 2.0 connector. Included in the box is a USB 3.0 to Gigabit Ethernet adapter to help with any wired networking concerns since the Zephyrus is too thin to fit an RJ-45 connector.

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