Asus ZenBook Pro 15 UX580 with ScreenPad review

The ZenBook Pro is a cool gadget, but a disappointing laptop

Asus bit off a little more than it could chew with the ZenBook Pro 15’s innovative ScreenPad.
Asus bit off a little more than it could chew with the ZenBook Pro 15’s innovative ScreenPad.
Asus bit off a little more than it could chew with the ZenBook Pro 15’s innovative ScreenPad.

Highs

  • Very good build quality
  • Strong CPU performance
  • Comfortable keyboard
  • ScreenPad is innovative and shows some promise

Lows

  • Battery life is disappointing
  • ScreenPad is buggy and limited in functionality
  • Display lacks accuracy and contrast
  • Notebook gets hot and loud under load

DT Editors' Rating

It’s not enough to just put great components in a well-built laptop these days. You need something special to stand out. Asus’s newest attempt is called the ScreenPad, a touchscreen built right into the touchpad that can be used as a second screen. Curious? So were we.

The company sent us a high-end configuration of the ZenBook Pro 15 to review, equipped with an 8th-gen Core i9-8950HK CPU, a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti, a 4K IPS display, and the aforementioned ScreenPad. That configuration came in at $2,300, though you can also spend $1,800 if you’re willing to “settle” for a Core i7-8750HQ and give up the ScreenPad.

The ZenBook Pro 15 is powerfully configured and premium-priced. Does the ScreenPad offer enough innovation to put Asus’s latest powerhouse over the top against some stiff competition?

Large and in charge

Large or small, thick or thin — if you’ve seen one ZenBook, you’ve seen them all. There’s almost always the same iconic Asus concentric circle swirl on the lid and rose gold diamond-cut chamfered edges. And of course, you’re guaranteed to find at least one model sporting the company’s most recognizable Deep Dive Blue color that’s at once attractive and almost regal.

Yes, we’re talking about the ZenBook Pro 15 here, and it’s just as lovely as always. Add to the elegant aesthetic an almost solid-as-a-rock build quality, with a lid and chassis bottom that stubbornly resist bending and twisting. The keyboard deck does have some flex to it, which frankly is unusual for ZenBooks. The hinge swings open easily with one hand yet stays in place, further testifying to the company’s attention to quality.

Even with a slightly flexible keyboard deck, the ZenBook Pro 15 does well against the best-made notebooks like the Dell XPS 15, Razer Blade 15, and Apple MacBook Pro. And that’s true whether you’re talking about its build or its good looks.

When you turn on the ScreenPad, it turns into a piece of tech we’ve never seen on a laptop before.

It also falls in line with those competitors in its weight and measurements. It’s 0.75 inches thick, which isn’t quite as thin as the XPS 15’s 0.66 inches, the Razer Blade’s 0.66 inches, or the MacBook Pro’s 0.61 inches. In spite of how solid it feels, its 4.1 pounds is slightly lighter than both the Razer Blade and XPS 15, both of which come in at 4.5 pounds.

In short, the ZenBook Pro 15 is a very attractive and well-made notebook, and it’s great to look at and hold in your hands.

Asus also spent some time making sure that the ZenBook 15 Pro is a well-connected machine. It includes two USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 ports with 40Gb/s Thunderbolt 3 support, two USB-A 3.1 Gen 2 ports (which is better than the Gen 1 ports on most notebooks), and a full-sized HDMI port (1.4 only, unfortunately). The XPS 15 only has one Thunderbolt 3 port while the MacBook Pro has no legacy ports whatsoever. All of connectivity is mated with a 3.5mm audio jack and microSD card reader, providing for both legacy and futuristic support. Wireless connectivity is provided by the usual 802.11ac Wave 2 Wi-Fi supporting up to 1.13Gb/s and the latest Bluetooth 5.0.

A very nice selection of input options, and one that’s particularly innovative

Turn on the notebook, and your eyes are drawn immediately to the ScreenPad, the brightly-lit input device below the keyboard. The 5.5-inch LCD screen works just like a standard touchpad when off, except that it’s a bit thicker than the usual touchpad. We also noticed it requires quite a bit of extra force to actuate the left and right buttons. The surface is comfortable enough, and there’s reliable Microsoft Precision touchpad support and smooth Windows 10 gesture support. If you usually tap to click, then you’ll be fine with the ScreenPad as “just” a touchpad. But if you tend to click the buttons, then you’ll be less impressed.

Asus ZenBook Pro 15 w/ ScreenPad review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

But when you turn the ScreenPad on, it’s transformed into a piece of tech we’ve never seen on a laptop before.

The first of its two operating modes is the ScreenPad mode, which offers mini-apps like a calculator, music player, and number pad that are ostensibly useful additions. While interesting, they were buggy and prone to crashing, which was a frustration. In this mode, these apps also take over the standard functionality touchpad when active. That’s right: enable a ScreenPad app, and you lose basic touchpad functionality.

If Asus can work out the bugs, the ScreenPad could be a nice innovation.

One feature that we found genuinely useful was the ScreenPad Office integration, which provides a suite of edit controls when you fire up Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Unlike the ScreenPad apps, the Office tools retained the ability to use the touchpad for swiping and tapping, and the tools were both easily accessible and helpful.

Then there was the Extension Display mode, which adds a second display where you can drag apps just like you can with an external monitor. That, too, was buggy and reset often during our testing, but it worked just as you would expect. It was best for Windows 10 apps that were optimized for touch — as long as you change the input mode away from the default that forces you to control a tiny mouse cursor – because things are quite small at the default Full HD resolution.

None of this is to say that the ScreenPad shows no promise. Some of the functionality made lots of sense, such as the home menu that provides convenient access to customizable app buttons. Using the touchpad is intrinsic to a notebook’s workflow, and so it’s intuitive to glance down and tap a button to launch an app rather than heading to the start menu or clicking a button on the desktop. It’s more intuitive, we dare say, than Apple’s Touch Bar.

Asus ZenBook Pro 15 w/ ScreenPad review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

If Asus can work out the bugs, then we think the ScreenPad could be a nice innovation. And, the company needs to get things up to snuff, because it’s implementing similar technology on its upcoming ZenBook general refresh that adds the ScreenPad and LED number pad technology to other machines. As of now, the ScreenPad gets in its own way more often than not.

Its other input methods are much more conventional. For you touch typists out there, the ZenBook Pro 15 has a typical chicklet-style island keyboard with black keys and attractive yellow letters that stand out without being harsh. There’s also three comfortable and consistent levels of backlighting. The keyboard’s travel is only so-so, less than it should be given the large chassis and falling behind the XPS 15 and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 15. Even so, it has a snappy mechanism with a soft bottoming action that combine for a comfortable — if not class-leading — feel.

The ZenBook Pro 15 also has a touch display, and so you can use that as well to quickly scroll through web pages and tap on-screen buttons. A fingerprint reader on the keyboard deck provides Windows 10 Hello support, and it’s fast and reliable as expected.

A 4K display that should have been more impressive than it was

Asus equipped our review unit with its 4K UHD IPS display that it promises will meet some seriously impressive specifications. It’s supposed to be Pantone-validated and factory calibrated for superior color accuracy, and we were disappointed when colors looked off to us and the display’s contrast was less than we’ve seen with other premium displays.

Unfortunately, according to our colorimeter tests, the display was somewhat inconsistent and ultimately disappointing. Its color gamut support is wider than average, certainly, at 96 percent of AdobeRGB and competitive with the excellent 4K display that graces both the XPS 15 and the XPS 15 2-in-1. That’s also higher than the other notebooks in our comparison group.

However, color accuracy was relatively poor at 3.65, higher than many other premium notebooks we’ve tested and far away from the “perfect” score of 1.0 or less. And contrast was also just average at 890:1, again falling way behind the two XPS machines and well into the middle of the pack.

Brightness was good but not great at 335 nits, again falling below many premium machines that tend toward 400 nits or higher. And gamma was way off at 1.4, meaning videos and images tend towards being too bright with blown-out well-lit areas.

Asus ZenBook Pro 15 w/ ScreenPad review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Subjectively, this was a good display for productivity work and for viewing photos, if you can accept the low accuracy. But the contrast was noticeably less than you’ll find with notebooks like the XPS 15 and the Surface Book 2, and movies and TV shows were way too bright.

Perhaps our review unit was just poorly calibrated at the factory, but we came away unimpressed given Asus’s lofty promises. Just for kicks, we tried to calibrate the ZenBook’s display, and while we were able to improve color accuracy to 1.35 and gamma to 2.2, that was with a slight reduction in color gamut. Overall, the poor calibration is a pretty big disappointment on a premium device like this one.

The audio was a much better experience, thanks to Harman Kardon tuning and a Smart Amplifier that powered the speakers to some serious volume. There was no distortion even at full volume, and the large chassis provided for some nice stereo separation. Bass is better than usual, and mids and highs were crisp and tight. You can even listen to some music on the ZenBook Pro 15 and be satisfied, and movies and TV shows can be enjoyed without reverting to headphones.

A hot performer – both literally and figuratively

Asus sent us the fastest configuration on offer, sporting the latest 8th-gen Core i9-8950HK processor. It’s the most powerful you can get in a notebook today. The six-core, 12-thread CPU is capable of bursting to a heady 4.8GHz, and it runs at 2.9GHz as its base frequency. That’s fast.

It’s also a challenge for notebook manufacturers, because packing that much processor power into a closed chassis creates challenges with heat and throttling. Dell’s XPS 15 and Apple’s updated MacBook Pro 15 both struggle at least a little to keep the Core i9 running at full speed, and the result is that the chip isn’t that much faster in actual use than the Core i7-8750H that you’ll find on more machines.

That’s exactly what we discovered in our benchmark testing. Yes, the ZenBook 15 Pro is faster in the Geekbench 4 synthetic benchmark than just about any notebook we’ve tested, beating out the XPS 15 and the Razer Blade 15 with the Core i7-8750H as well as the XPS 15 2-in-1 and HP Spectre x360 15 with the Core i7-8705G.

The Core i9 isn’t that much of an improvement over the fastest Core i7, but it’s still pretty fast.

But it’s not that much faster. The Core i9 is a little less than 10 percent faster when using a single core, and only 14 percent faster in the multi-core test. In our real-world Handbrake benchmark that encodes a 420MB video to H.265, the ZenBook Pro 15 was again the fastest we’ve tested, completing the test in just 139 seconds. That’s fast, but it only narrowly beats out the XPS 15’s 150 seconds.

None of these results is so much faster that it puts the Core i9-8950HK into a different class completely than a notebook like the XPS 15. Because of that, it won’t be worth the extra $500 for most people. And even though it’s not that much faster, you’ll still contend with extra heat — the ZenBook Pro 15’s chassis got quite toasty — and some serious fan noise when the CPU and GPU are working especially hard. It’s worth noting that the XPS 15 is quieter and cooler.

Asus wasn’t as aggressive in configuring the ZenBook Pro 15’s storage, which can be configured in either 512GB or 1TB capacities. The company chose a Toshiba PCIe SSD that was plenty fast in both reading and writing data but not at the top of the class. You won’t find storage speeds holding you back, even if Asus didn’t choose the absolute fastest SSD on the market.

Asus ZenBook Pro 15 w/ ScreenPad review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Overall, the ZenBook Pro 15’s performance won’t disappoint. The Core i9 isn’t as much of an improvement over the fastest Core i7 as we’d hope, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the ZenBook Pro can perform.

A spotty midrange gaming performer

The ZenBook Pro 15 also benefits from a moderately fast discrete GPU, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti.  but in a laptop this thin, we were curious to see if those benefits would really be felt.

In our gaming benchmarks, the ZenBook Pro 15 turned in a mixed performance. That started with the 3DMark synthetic gaming benchmark, where the notebook scored a relatively low 6,534 in the Fire strike test. That’s slower than the XPS 15’s GTX 1050 Ti Max-Q and also the Dell G3 Gaming Laptop’s GTX 1050 Ti.

When we fired up our suite of games,  and the Dell G3. In Battlefield 1, the ZenBook Pro 15 managed 55 FPS in 1080p and medium details, and 39 FPS in ultra details — once again, falling behind the XPS 15 and the Dell G3.

You’ll find the ZenBook Pro 15 to be somewhat slow compared to other GTX 1050 Ti-equipped notebooks.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided showed similar results, and as expected there was no improvement when we jumped up to 4K resolution (the notebook didn’t offer 1440p as an option). Depending on the graphics quality, the ZenBook Pro 15 was either just slightly slower than the competition or significantly slower — not that any of these laptops are powerful enough for serious 4K gaming.

In conclusion, you’ll find the ZenBook Pro 15 to be somewhat slow compared to other GTX 1050 Ti-equipped notebooks, even in the MaxQ models. Asus fails to keep things cool enough to run its GTX 1050 Ti at full throttle. The company would probably have done better to join the Dell XPS 15 in utilizing the more efficient and cooler Max Q version of the 1050 Ti, which might have allowed the notebook to maintain higher overall frame rates. In the end, the ZenBook Pro 15 is fast enough for casual gaming sessions, but you expect some significant throttling.

A 4K UHD display and ultra-power CPU demand more battery, and don’t get it

Asus packed only 71 watt-hours of battery capacity into the ZenBook Pro 15. Given the 4K display and high-end components, we weren’t expecting much in the way of longevity.

And we weren’t surprised as we ran through our suite of battery tests. The ZenBook Pro 15 managed less than three hours when running the relatively grueling Basemark web benchmark, which is competitive with most of the notebooks in our comparison group. The XPS 15 with its Full HD display was the standout, thanks to its 97 watt-hour battery capacity — it would likely exceed the ZenBook’s score handily even with a 4K display.

The ZenBook Pro 15 started to drop off when we switched to our web browsing test, managing just under four hours. Only the Acer Predator Helios 500 gaming laptop lasted for less time on this test, and the XPS 15 was again much stronger. We had to look at thinner and lighter 2-in-1 machines to find 4K notebooks that so poorly, for example the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 that only managed about a half hour longer on this test.

Asus ZenBook Pro 15 w/ ScreenPad review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

When looping our test video, the ZenBook Pro 15 was even less impressive, matching the massive, 17-inch Predator Helios 500 at just under five and a half hours. Every other comparison group lasted longer, including the XPS 15 2-in-1 that managed just over six hours.

Toss in the ZenBook’s relatively hefty frame and its massive AC adapter, and this isn’t a notebook that you’re going to want to cart around for long-term mobile use. At the very least, you can’t expect to work a full day away from a plug, and you won’t want to carry that power brick around with you. We’d expect a significant jump in terms of battery life on the 1080p model, but we’d still expect it to sit near the back of the pack, given this system’s performance and the size of the battery.

Our Take

With the ZenBook Pro 15, you can’t accuse Asus of wimping out. The company equipped the notebook with the current latest and greatest components and created a good-looking, well-built, and fast 15.6-notebook that’s a real productivity powerhouse and a decent gaming machine for all but hardcore gamers. The ScreenPad is a real innovation that’s just begging for some bug fixes and polish to make it a truly useful component.

It’s not so much faster, though, that you’ll choose it just for the performance. And its battery life holds it back from beating out some of the competition.

Is there a better alternative?

The most obvious comparison machine is the Dell XPS 15, which is almost just as fast as the ZenBook Pro 15 and offers a better display and much better battery life. The Dell is more conservatively designed but also more robust all around, and it’s more expensive when configured with the Core i9 at $2,960 (on sale for $2,830). But that also brings 32GB of RAM and a 1GB SSD to go with the 4K display, and Dell often has sales that bring prices down significantly.

If you’re looking for a more gaming-oriented option, then don’t discount the Razer Blade 15. You’ll get an equally good-looking notebook that’s not so conservatively designed as the XPS 15, and you’ll also benefit from a much faster Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or GTX 1070 GPU. Plan to spend well over $2,500, though, if you try to match the CPU.

Finally, there’s another 15-inch player coming from a slightly unexpected source. We’re talking about the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme, which will offer the absolute latest Intel six-core CPUs and a GTX 1050 Ti Max Q GPU. That’s more power than we’ve seen packed into the ThinkPad’s iconic and rugged design, making the X1 Extreme a viable option in this notebook class.

How long will it last?

The ZenBook Pro 15 has a robust design and up-to-date components, and so should provide years of operation. Asus adds a year of accident and spill protection to its standard one-year warranty, which is a real plus.

Should you buy it?

No. The ZenBook Pro 15 doesn’t offer any performance advantage over competitors, has mediocre battery life, and a poorly calibrated display. And for now, the ScreenPad is too buggy and limited to live up to its potential.

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