Here’s a shocking idea — maximum performance may not be the ultimate goal of every gaming laptop. That seems at odds with traditional thought among gamers, who always want more power for greater in-game detail and smoother framerates. For many people though, a laptop, even one used for games, must function as a laptop.
That’s why we’ve seen a number of thin new systems that bridge the gap between notebook portability and gaming chops. Examples include Razer’s Blade, Acer’s Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition, and the Alienware 13. Now a new face has joined the party: the Asus Republic of Gamers G501.
Our model, the G501JW-DS71, is only eight-tenths of an inch thick and weighs four and half pounds, figures that put it in line with a MacBook Pro 15. Unlike that system, though, this Asus pairs its quad-core Intel processor with Nvidia GTX 960M graphics, sixteen gigabytes of RAM, and a 4K display. These specifications give it few peers in the notebook world. Only the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition looks its equal on paper.
Asus is not one to give away its best hardware for a bargain price, however. It charges two grand for our G501 review unit. That’s $600 more than an Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition with a 256GB solid state drive (our Asus review unit had a 512GB SSD). Is the price difference justified, or did Asus bite off more than it can chew?
Not much to look at
Comparing the G501 to its competitors at a glance will leave you wondering where the money Asus demands is going. The system features a brushed aluminum lid and black matte metal interior, and both look underwhelming. Much of this has to do with the interior finish which surrounds the keyboard and touchpad. Its flat, dark look is reminiscent of inexpensive plastic. A touch will tell you it’s in fact made of sterner stuff, but looks matter when a system sells for $2,000.
A PCI Express solid state drive led the G501 to shatter laptop hard drive performance records.
And some parts of the system that look like plastic are, in fact, plastic. Most notable among them are the display bezel and hinge. You won’t touch these areas frequently, but these components contribute to long-term durability. Shaving costs from hinge design on laptop that costs two grand seems a poor choice.
The G501 makes a half-hearted attempt to convey its gaming aspirations. Red-on-black is the theme, and it comes across like a teenager wearing an oversized trench coat. It’s trying too hard, yet it’s not nearly as stylish as it should be. Razer’s Blade offers a much better example of how a gaming notebook can distinguish itself while simultaneously blending in.
Connectivity consists of three USB 3.0 ports along with HDMI and mini-DisplayPort for video, a combo 3.5mm jack for audio, and an SDcard reader. 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth come standard, but an Ethernet jack is not part of the deal.
That’s sure to annoy gamers who want a reliable connection, though Asus does at least include a USB to Ethernet adapter in the box. There’s also a mini-DisplayPort to VGA cable, in case you come across an analog display in your travels.
As a 15-inch system the G501 offers enough room for a numpad, and it elects to include it. That means the keyboard’s layout is not as spacious as it otherwise could be. Backspace, Enter and the right-side Shift key are smaller than some competitors, and the numpad keys are very narrow, too.
Red-on-black is the theme, and it comes across like a teenager wearing an oversized trench coat.
While these problems slightly hamper the typing experience, they’re not the real issue. That honor goes to the individual keycaps, which are flat, lack definition, and seem cheap. I’m not talking tactile feel here; there’s enough key travel and a firm bottoming action, so accurate touch-typing is possible, if not a cinch. I’m talking about quality. The G501’s keys feel no better than some $500 notebooks. This is a recurring problem in expensive Asus systems, as the Zenbook NX500 was brought down a notch for the same reason.
Key backlighting is standard, and is one of the system’s highlights. While the red LEDs look a bit cheesy, they offer three levels of brightness, none of which are overly brilliant. There’s almost no light-leak, as well.
With the touchpad, though, the G501 returns to mediocrity. Its surface, which measures about four inches wide and three inches deep, is large and responsive, but the integrated left/right buttons have shallow travel and the touchpad’s texture is too similar to the surrounding palmrest. Fortunately, Asus bundles a wired mouse with the systems, so the touchpad is optional.
Bright but not beautiful
One of the G501J’s most attractive features is its 4K display. Ultra HD is available in several laptops now, but it’s still rare overall, and this Asus is more affordable than most systems boasting the feature. Packing 3,840 x 2,160 into a 15.6-inch panel results in around 280 pixels per inch, a density well beyond the 15-inch MacBook 15 with Retina, which reaches 220 PPI. The result is an incredibly crisp, sharp image.
Brightness is also a high point, as the backlight can hit a brilliant 448 lux. That’s in addition to the non-gloss display coat. Combined, these traits make the G501 usable just about anywhere. If for some reason you’d like to game in a city park, this is the rig for it.
What you see may not be to your liking, though, as there are several weak spots. Contrast is mediocre, with a ratio of 490:1 throughout most of the panel’s range of brightness. That’s not a great result next to the Dell Precision M3800’s ratio of 840:1 or the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition’s contrast of 690:1. The main reason for this is poor black level performance. Images that look pitch black on other displays are never darker than a hazy gray here, and that means content lacks a realistic sense of depth. Color accuracy is mediocre, too, so content often looks too cool and a bit fluorescent.
All of this is topped by ho-hum speakers which lack both the bass and volume I like to hear from a gaming notebook. Asus makes up for this slightly by bundling in a headset, but it too falls short of expectations. A set of good travel-ready headphones will be mandatory if you plan to game on the go.
The fastest hard drive in a laptop?
An Intel Core i7-4720HQ processor is the heart of this notebook. It beats at 2.6GHz, with a maximum Turbo Boost of 3.6GHz. While it’s not the quickest mobile quad, it’s a solid chip that posted strong numbers in Geekbench.
No modern notebook with an Intel quad-core can be reasonably accused for sluggishness, but the Asus G501 clearly stepped ahead of the pack in this benchmark, particularly in the single-core result. The 4720HQ can take much of the credit, since it’s 100MHz quicker than the more common 4710HQ in both normal and Turbo Boost clock speed.
Disk performance was an even greater standout, as the G501 hit an outlandish sustained read speed of 1,333 megabytes per second, with sustained writes of 1,396 MB/s. These numbers are the new laptop record, and they beat everything we’ve reviewed except for the Intel 750 Series desktop solid state hard drive. All of the system’s competitors currently use SATA hard drives, and have sustained read/write speeds that hover around 500 megabytes per second.
While a fast hard drive is always appreciated, graphics performance is what a gaming laptop is all about. The Nvidia GTX 960 in the G501, while new, isn’t the quickest chip in Nvidia’s stable, and it showed in 3D Mark.
The G501 is not slow, as evidenced by its advantage over the Dell Precision M3800, which has discrete graphics but isn’t really built with gaming in mind. On the other hand, its score is less than half its big brother, the Asus ROG G751JY-DH71. That’s disheartening because the G751 we reviewed had an as-tested price just $500 north of the G501.
Still, if this thinner Asus can manage to handle modern games, the difference in 3D Mark may be less relevant. Let’s see how it stacks up at both 1080p and, since it ships with a 4K display, UltraHD.
Blizzard’s popular action-RPG, the least demanding game in our test suite, ran beautifully at 1080p resolution, even with all details set to maximum. Average framerate came in at 81 frames per second, and never dipped below 76.
4K proved far more challenging, as even setting most details to low resulted in an average of 38 FPS. Turning everything up to high lowered that further to 30 FPS. A playable result, to be sure, but this title’s frantic pace is better at 60 FPS.
Battlefield 4 struggled a bit at ultra detail and 1080p resolution.
Sid Meier’s Civilization Beyond Earth
Strategy games aren’t often considered demanding, but Beyond Earth can really put a notebook to the test. It proved that with the G501, which averaged 75 FPS at medium detail, 2X MSAA and 1080p resolution, but that dropped to only 39 FPS at maximum detail. That’s cutting it close.
At 4K the game was basically unplayable due to its 20 FPS average at medium settings, and 13 FPS average at maximum. The game was tested using its benchmark, which represents the game at its most demanding, so you might be able to skate by at 4K on smaller maps and early-game scenarios. For the most part, though, you’re better off at 1080p.
DICE’s sprawling first person shooter is still difficult for many mid-range notebooks. That includes the G501, unfortunately. At 1080p and the medium preset it cruised to a comfortable average of 80 FPS, but ultra cut that by more than half to 34 FPS.
Raising the resolution to 4K makes matters far worse. At medium the average came in at 24 FPS, and at ultra it was a slide-show 11 FPS.
Shadows of Mordor
This cross-platform title is notoriously difficult for PCs to handle, and its reputation proved well earned. Even at medium detail and 1080p the game came in short of the ideal 60 FPS, and averaged 50 FPS instead. At ultra detail, with the ultra texture pack installed, the average dropped all the way to 30 FPS.
4K? Forget about it! Even at medium the average rung up an unplayable 17 FPS, which dropped to 12 FPS at ultra. It’s 1080p or nothing here.
Grand Theft Auto V is a surprisingly solid PC port, at least from a performance perspective. At 1080p and medium detail the game averaged 59 FPS, and it still hit 39 FPS even with most details settings at maximum.
Once again, though, 4K proved out of reach. At medium the average was a barely playable 28 FPS, and at near-maximum settings it was only 12. You’ll really need to stick at 1080p resolution for the best overall experience.
Serious power draw needs a serious battery
On paper the Asus G501 looks like a battery life disaster in the making. It combined a quad-core Intel processor, powerful discrete graphics and a 4K display, all of which sap a lot of power. Similar systems have not done well in the past.
Asus has addressed the problem the only way possible: throwing in a huge battery. Rated at 92 watt-hours, it led the notebook to last five hours and 29 minutes in the Peacekeeper web browsing benchmark. That’s not amazing, but it’s more than double the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition, and about an hour more than the Dell Precision M3800 with 4K display.
Our watt-meter made clear why battery life is an issue for computers like the G501. It recorded 24 watts of draw at idle with the display at maximum brightness. That’s comparable to the Dell Precision M3800 and Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition, but seven watts more than the HP ZBook 15u G2, which we reviewed with a 1080p panel.
Placing a GTX 960M into a laptop that’s only eight-tenths of an inch thick is bound to bring thermal constraints to the fore, and that’s certainly true here. At idle we noted a maximum external temperature of 83.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which is reasonable. Placing the system under load, though, increased that figure as high as 112.8 degrees. That’s warmer that most notebooks including the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition, which maxed out at 100.4 degrees.
The G501 could likely run cooler, but it instead prefers to keep the fan restrained. At idle it could be heard, but it didn’t register above the noise floor of our test area, which was 34 decibels. Full load increased the whirr to a very noticeable 43.8dB, but that’s still a modest figure. Still, it should be noted that the Acer V15 was quieter, making it both cooler and easier on your eardrums.
Like most laptops, the G501 comes with a factory one-year limited warranty on parts and labor. This is the norm for computers no matter the price.
The Asus 501JW-DS71 is a prime example of why cutting-edge hardware isn’t enough to win in the laptop market. Its hard drive is particularly awesome, shattering past records and more than doubling the average speed of competitors. The display also pushes boundaries, hitting 4K resolution, something only a handful of other notebooks can claim. Yet this isn’t a system I can recommend buying, because everything surrounding its lovely hardware comes up short.
It’s also unfortunate the one performance trait that matters more than any other – graphics – is the one area where the G501 is merely strong, rather than a standout. The system delivers a playable experience in any game at 1080p and maximum detail, but it can’t do that while hitting 60 frames per second, which would be ideal for smooth gameplay. 4K is mostly out of reach, which of course makes the inclusion of an UltraHD display an odd decision.
This notebook feels like a puzzle completed by jamming pieces together, regardless of whether they actually fit. It’s an okay gaming system, but far from best in class. A buyer who ignores the Republic of Gamers branding might find it a decent portable workstation, but the keyboard and display really aren’t up to the task, and it costs too much. Asus needs to lower the price of the G501 for it to make sense – or, better yet, bolster its design to match its lofty MSRP.
- 4K display
- Record-breaking hard drive performance
- Decent battery life
- Dull design
- Mediocre display contrast
- Game performance could be better
- Not a good value