There’s no beating around the bush; Asus’ ZenBook Pro Duo is a weird laptop. It’s got a weird keyboard layout, a weird position for its trackpad, a weird thickness for its specs and, most evidently, a weird number of screens. This isn’t a traditional laptop in any way, which makes it both exciting and experimental. Its dual-screen design invites tantalising ideas of multitasking, but it’s also a concept that results in so many other compromises that it’s difficult to label the Pro Duo as even a decent laptop.
The ZenBook Pro Duo immediately stands out thanks to its two – yes, two – 4K displays. The first is a standard 16:9 display located in the place where you’d expect, bursting with colour and brightness thanks to its spectacular OLED panel. This might be one of the most impressive displays I’ve ever seen on a laptop, and certainly makes me consider the overhead cost of OLED right now as an expensive but extremely noticeable luxury. Like most laptop manufacturers are finding now, the 16:9 display seems a bit outdated for productivity means, but that’s somewhat offset by the ability to just use a whole new one entirely.
Located below the main display and taking up half of the real estate your keyboard would be another 4K display. This one isn’t OLED, instead using a standard IPS panel with a matte finish that makes stylus support smooth and responsive, but drastically reduces the brightness. It’s staggering how different the two displays are in terms of brightness and colour vibrancy, made worse by their proximity to each other. Despite its smaller size and 32:9 aspect ratio, Asus has managed to pack the same number of pixels on both screens. This helps windows moved between the two retain their crispness and resolution, which definitely helps alleviate the differences in panel quality between them.
So, what’s the point of two displays anyway? Especially when the one is not even a regular size? Well Asus hopes that you’ll use the extra screen space in creative ways. Imagine editing a video where all your video timelines exist on the lower screen, freeing up space for previews on your main OLED one. Hell, what about playing a series in one window, having Whatsapp open in another and continuing to pretend to work on your main display? Given that the second display acts as an extension of your desktop, any viable combination you can think of is entirely possible. Asus even makes it easy to bring up common programs through its own custom control panel on its second display, although its lacklustre performance on top of Windows 10 made me forget about it very quickly.
Asus includes a stylus in the box that can turn the second display into a full-on Wacom-like drawing pad, which offers its own creative uses to artists on the move. The strange aspect ratio requires some mapping to the regular 16:9 one to work properly with the stylus, so you’ll often find that vertical movements on the pad translate to much greater ones on the main display. This takes some adjustment to use, but considering you’re getting a much more portable solution rather than carrying around a drawing tablet everywhere, that might be acceptable.
What isn’t acceptable are the concessions made everywhere else on the Pro Duo to accommodate this second display. First and foremost is the keyboard and trackpad position. Similar to the Asus Zephyrus range of gaming laptops, Asus has shifted the keyboard down to the lower half of the laptop, and relegated the trackpad to the right side of it instead of underneath. So similar is the design that Asus even allows you to convert the trackpad into a touch-based numpad, exactly like the Zephyrus.
The problem is that this design is still extremely counterintuitive to the purpose of a laptop. It makes working on your lap or anywhere without a desk virtually impossible, and requires the included wrist rest to be placed very close to be comfortable at all. The keys themselves are pleasantly sized and have enough travel, which makes their placement a real pity. This is a keyboard that I like to type on, but it takes such specific requirements to get there that it’s far too much work.
Equally frustrating is the Pro Duo’s footprint. This is a far chunkier laptop than any Ultrabooks that you might be familiar with, with large side-facing vents and a thicker rear accommodating the extra display and heat requirements it imposes on the design. At around 2.5 kg it’s also on the heavier side for a 15-inch laptop, but considering how hard it is to use on the go that might actually not be as big a concern as previously thought.
It’s a pity that portability, one of the most important facets of a good laptop, is compromised so heavily for a dual-screen design that itself is entirely experimental and niche, because the Pro Duo is an incredibly powerful laptop otherwise that can easily drive most power-hungry tasks. The most powerful configurations come with a Nvidia RTX 2060 and Intel’s Core i9 processors. The configuration I got to play around with didn’t feature Nvidia’s dedicated GPU, but did come equipped with Intel’s Core i7-9750H and 16GB of DDR4 RAM.
That made it overkill for simple word processing tasks and basic browsing, allowing for some light video editing and numerous multi-tasking exercises. I appreciate having the second screen for two alternative windows when jumping between different types of work, but the angle of its placement didn’t make it entirely useful for work that required precise and readable text. As a command deck for programs that would otherwise clutter my main display during work though, it was perfect.
It’s makes me believe that there’s potential for laptop designs similar to the Pro Duo. Ones that even Intel themselves are investigating, with propped up displays that don’t confine your keyboard to a nearly unusable state. In that future, the Pro Duo might have been perfect, but right now it stands as an expensive and flawed experiment that serves a very narrow purpose, while not satisfying the basic needs of a portable laptop. It’s still one of the most unique laptops I’ve had the chance to review, but it’s not one I’d likely pack into my bag for a trip.
Last Updated: August 30, 2019