Asus Zephyrus M GU502GV review

Asus’ buttoned-down Zephyrus M is a gaming laptop in search of purpose

Asus Zephyrus M GU502GV review

Asus Zephyrus M GU502GV

“Asus’ Zephyrus M is a gaming machine in a suit.”
  • Attractive, slim enclosure
  • Plenty of connectivity
  • Solid game performance
  • Spacious, yet quick, hard drive
  • Disappointing display quality
  • Annoying software
  • Not a great value

Buying a new gaming laptop is like trying to decide what take-out to order from Caviar. A seemingly endless array of options, all nearly identical but subtly different, can leave you feeling paralyzed. You know one is better than the rest. But which one?

Asus’ Zephyrus M wants to be the one, but it doesn’t do much to make your decision easier. Our review unit, bearing the model name GU502GV, is available for $1,850 through Best Buy (and is sometimes on sale for less). It’s a mid-range laptop, yet not a value leader. It serves up Nvidia’s RTX 2060. That’s a respectable GPU, but the most affordable laptops with it can be had for several hundred less.

Why should gamers buy the Zephyrus M instead of Dell’s G7 Gaming, HP’s Omen 15, and MSI’s GL63? Let’s take a closer look.

When I grow up, I want to be a Razer Blade

The Zephyrus M is a clear attempt to edge in on the growing universe of gaming laptops that can also pass as portable workstations. Though it does have a large ROG logo on its led, there’s little else that makes the laptop stand out from the crowd. It’s like a ThinkPad and a Razer Blade had a child and then joined an international espionage ring, forcing them to discreetly ship the wee lad off to a remote orphanage. You won’t find ‘Asus’ anywhere on the laptop except its FCC compliance label.

And…I like it. It’s an unremarkable but handsome laptop with the right proportions and a hefty, reliable look. That’s not to say the laptop entirely lacks personality. The keyboard backlight pulses red while the laptop is in sleep mode, as if it’s breathing, and booting the laptop prompts ROG’s signature race-car sound bite. Otherwise, though, it’s a simple and approachable laptop.

It looks modern, with thin display bezels on three edges (the bottom is still quite large) and a chassis that’s just seven-tenths of an inch thick. Though clad mostly in plastic, aside from an aluminum lid cover, the Zephyrus M feels rock solid. It doesn’t creak, moan, or noticeably flex even when held by a corner or picked up from the top of the display. You’ll eventually find flex if you mash the keyboard with all your strength but, well, stop that! You’re not the Incredible Hulk.

Connectivity is strong, with three USB-A 3.1 (one Gen2, two Gen 1) flanked by one USB-C 3.1 port that also supports DisplayPort 1.4 and power delivery. HDMI 2.0 is available for dedicated video output. Audio options include a 3.5mm audio jack, an audio mic-in, and an Ethernet port. While the USB-C port supports power delivery, it can only handle up to 65 watts, so the 230-watt power adapter will usually still be required.

The spacebar has a chin. That’s cool.

Open the Zephyrus M and you’ll find a spacious keyboard with a conventional layout. Each individual key is large, flat, and square, which means touch typists can easily accelerate to over 100 words per minute.

The layout has a few oddities, like the spacebar’s strange chin, extra function keys above the function row, and a column of keys on the left side that add options like Home and Page Down. None of these take away from typing, however, because they’re all at the edges of the keyboard and don’t cut into its usable space.

It’s an unremarkable but handsome laptop with the right proportions and a hefty, reliable look.

Per-key RGB backlighting is included, and it does what you’d expect. You can change the backlight to any of millions of colors or use effects to fade between colors, flash, pulse like a boombox, and more. The backlighting doesn’t include any new or unique functions, and the bundled software is a little confusing to use, but it allows the customization you’d expect.

The touchpad is on the small side compared to a Razer Blade, but not horrible for the category. Importantly, it offers a smooth and responsive surface. Windows Precision Touchpad drivers are supported, and multi-touch gestures work well. Gaming laptops tend towards below-average touchpads so the Zephyrus M’s touch surface, while not exceptional, is better than competitors like the MSI GL63.

15.6 inches of meh

Our review unit came with a 15.6-inch 1080p panel that boasts a 144Hz refresh rate, the sole choice for the Zephyrus M GU502GV. It seems a reasonable screen on paper, but a few mistakes make for an aggressively average viewing experience.

It starts with the refresh rate. The laptop supports a refresh rate of up to 144Hz and quotes a response time of three milliseconds, but it doesn’t support G-Sync. You may see the common jagged, flickering pattern that occurs when a game’s framerate poorly matches the refresh rate. V-Sync will fix that, but it also potentially lowers framerate and responsiveness, discarding some advantages of having a 144Hz panel. The high refresh rate is nice, but I prefer to see it paired with frame synchronization, and I’d always take G-Sync over a 144Hz panel if I had to choose between the two.

Going for the 144Hz panel brings with it a significant sacrifice in image quality. My testing recorded a maximum contrast ratio of 450:1, and that’s not great. The Acer Predator Triton 500 scored a maximum ratio of 910:1, while the Lenovo Legion Y740 15-inch hit 630:1. The Zephyrus M’s lower contrast translates to a lack of depth which makes games look flatter and less vibrant than on other laptops.

I saw an average color error of 3.74 (lower is better in this test) which, again, isn’t ideal. Most gaming laptops have an average color error value under two, and the Acer Predator Triton 500 delivered a score of 1.8. The color error simply means the image you see is a bit off from what’s intended. To my eyes, it takes on a cool, sterile cast, and colors skew towards a bright, neon look when they should be deep and rich.

Asus Zephyrus M GU502GV review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Brightness came in at a maximum of 277 nits, which again is lower than what I want to see. A value of 300 or higher is preferable. But there is good news. The Zephyrus M uses a non-gloss panel, so glare is not a problem. While the panel is a bit dim, it doesn’t compete as much with ambient lighting, so it often looks brighter than it really is.

That’s not enough to save the display, however. It’s a disappointing effort, though not surprising given the Zephyrus M GU502GV’s $1,850 price tag. Mid-range laptops are opting for 144Hz panels at all costs because, when it comes to marketing, a 144Hz panel looks great. It’s a higher number! Unfortunately, trade-off in quality aren’t always worthwhile – and that’s certainly the case here.

While the screen is lackluster, the speakers are great. They deliver strong, full-body sound with reasonable bass. Distortion is not a major problem even at maximum volume and the laptop’s tight chassis doesn’t rattle or hum. External speakers will sound better, of course, but I can’t complain about the sound offered here.

Intel’s Core i7-9750H is fast, but not an upgrade

The Asus Zephyrus M might be mid-range, but it has a notable piece of new hardware – Intel’s Core i7-9750H. Successor to the Core i7-8750H, the Core i7-9750H ups the base clock from 2.2GHz to 2.6GHz and ups the maximum Turbo Boost clock from 4.1GHz to 4.5GHz. The SmartCache is also increased, from 9MB to 12MB.

So, what does this mean for performance? Not much.

Despite the upgrade, the Zephyrus M doesn’t fair better or worse than would a typical Core i7-8750H laptop. It’s decidedly mid-pack in both Geekbench 4 single-core and multi-core tests, as well as the Handbrake test, which times how long it takes to transcode a 4K movie trailer from h.264 to h.265.

It’s disappointing to see a new processor produce no noticeable upswing in performance and, since it’s early in the Core i7-9750H’s life, I can’t say for sure whether this will become a trend. On the plus side, however, the Core i7-9750H continues to its predecessor’s legacy of extremely strong all-around performance. This processor is less than 10 percent behind an average Core i7-8700K desktop in both Geekbench 4 tests. That’s impressive.

The Core i7-9750H isn’t the only new piece of Intel technology inside this Asus. It also has an Intel Optane H10 hard drive, which combines an Optane cache with a one terabyte conventional solid state drive.

Again, the story is one of strong yet disappointing performance. The Optane H10 hits average read and write speeds in our tests. It does feels snappy in day-to-day use, booting within seconds and loading most programs in a blink. However, you can find better performance. The fastest solid-state drives exceed read and write speeds of two gigabytes per second.

The Optane H10’s greatest strength isn’t speed, but size. A one terabyte solid state drive is massive and not commonly found in laptops sold near the Zephyrus M GU502GV’s $1,850 price. Most competitors either have a single 512GB solid state drive or pair a smaller SSD, usually 256GB, with a 1TB mechanical disk.

That’s an important point. PC games can be large. Fortnite is nearing a 50GB install size, while Destiny 2 is approaching 100GB. A 512GB SSD can fill up quickly. The Optane H10 isn’t the quickest, but it can handle a much larger game library.

Fast for a Fortnite, slower to embark on an Odyssey

Intel’s turn up to bat has resulted in a whiff. Now it’s time for Nvidia to save the day. My Asus Zephyrus M review unit had the RTX 2060 graphics chip with 8GB of GDDR6 memory. Can it play your favorite games at excellent framerates? Let’s start with 3DMark.

This is a fine start. While the Zephyrus M scores lower than other gaming laptops we’ve recently tested, it’s the sole model with an RTX 2060 graphics chip. The RTX 2070 is more powerful on paper, but it’s only 10 to 13 percent quicker in 3DMark Time Spy. A lot of gamers may decide that bump in performance isn’t worth the price.

That’s only one benchmark, however. Let’s see how the Zephyrus M and RTX 2060 stack up in real-world gaming.

Even a quick glance at these results tells an unsurprising story. The RTX 2060 is fine. It played Fortnite, Civilization VI, and Battlefield V at 60 frames per second or better, with resolution set to 1080p and all the details ramped up. That’s not bad! It shows this laptop can tackle almost anything you throw at it.

Almost. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey throws a wrench in the works, as it so often does. The Zephyrus M only averaged 38 FPS at 1080p and Ultra High detail. Even turning detail down to High (which is the game’s middle setting) results in an average of 44 FPS. Playable? Absolutely. But it’s not the 60 FPS that PC gamers aspire to.

However, the same is true of other laptops we’ve tested. Even the Acer Predator Triton 500, with its RTX 2080 Max-Q, averaged 57 FPS. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is much more demanding than other games, including beautiful titles like Battlefield V.

I think gamers will be happy with the RTX 2060’s performance. Remember, the price tag is $1,850. That’s mid-range for a gaming laptop. A few sacrifices can be expected.

Don’t stray far from home

The Asus Zephyrus M is thin and light enough to tote around all day without issue. It’ll slip into many laptop bags and can be lost in a large backpack. The battery lasts long enough to work a few hours away from home but, like many modern gaming laptops, you can’t spend more than a few hours away from a socket.

Basemark’s web browsing benchmark ate a full charge in 177 minutes. Yep, less than three hours. A 1080p video loop extended life to a shade over five hours, which is more encouraging, though it also represents light-duty use.

Basemark’s web browsing benchmark ate a full charge in 114 minutes. Yep, less than two hours.

The Asus Zephyrus M looks like a do-it-all laptop. You can play games, but you can also take it to class, code the next killer app, or fire up Photoshop. However, the battery life doesn’t live up to those aspirations. You can use it away from home for a few hours, but it’s not going to last through a cross country flight or handle a full day of meetings.

It’s not all bad news. The results aren’t amazing, but they do beat more powerful gaming laptops like the Lenovo Legion Y740 15-inch and Acer Predator Triton 500. Those competitors are hopeless away from a power socket. Razer’s Blade 15 does last longer than the Asus Zephyrus M, but it’s also more expensive.

Still, I’d like to see better battery life. The Zephyrus M could be your everyday laptop, but its lackluster portability is an obstacle.

The software is a mess

Several of the laptop’s special functions, including the keyboard backlight, CPU/GPU clocks, and the race-car sound that plays when the laptop boots, can be changed through the ROG Armoury Crate software. There’s even a dedicated button. Launching Armoury Crate is easy. That’s where the ease ends, and the trouble begins.

The software’s interface makes no sense. The layout reminds me of the Xbox 360’s blade interface. Except…vertical. I guess. Many menu items are represented by indescribable, unlabeled icons. Navigation is a matter of trial and error.

Asus Zephyrus M GU502GV review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

In some areas, you’ll see what looks like a scroll bar on the bottom of the menu. Except it’s not. Instead, it’s a set of three diamond icons. Click on one to the left, and the page scrolls left. Click right, and it scrolls right.

Here’s the good news. You can mostly ignore Armoury Crate. It isn’t necessary for anything aside from customizing the keyboard backlight.

Our Take

The Asus Zephyrus M can game. There’s no doubt about that. It’s not a great value, however, and its harried by several serious problems. Display quality is modest, battery life is poor, and the bundled software is a chore to use.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes. The Asus Zephyrus M has many competitors, and it can’t fend all of them off.

The MSI GE63 has an older Core i7-8750H processor, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem in our tests. The MSI GE63 is often available for $1,500 or less, so it’s a great value.

Lenovo’s Legion Y740 and Dell’s Inspiron G7 15 Gaming offer similar hardware, a more attractive price, and a slightly lower price. They’re a good choice if you want a less subtle, yet more refined, pick.

Our favorite pick in this price range, however, is Acer’s Predator Triton 500. It’s attractive, powerful, slim, and slightly less expensive. You can also buy upgraded models with up to an RTX 2080 Max-Q, if you’d like.

How long will it last?

The Asus’ Zephyrus M has the latest hardware and feels sturdy, so it should last at least several years. The mid-range Nvidia RTX 2060 will feel obsolete within three years, but the processor will be mighty for at least five years.

Should you buy it?

No. The Zephyrus M makes a good impression, but my frustrations mounted as the weeks went by. Competitors offer more refined laptops for the same price, and sometimes less.

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