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Asus ZenBook Pro Duo UX581 review: Unique design, but beware the trade-offs

sandra-vogel.jpg
Written by Sandra Vogel on
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8.0/10

Asus ZenBook Pro Duo UX581

Excellent
Pros
  • Full-width secondary IPS touchscreen
  • Superb 4K OLED main touchscreen
  • Core i9 CPU, Nvidia GeForce RTX GPU
  • Wi-Fi 6 support
Cons
  • Poor battery life
  • Separate add-on wrist rest
  • Awkwardly located touchpad
  • Short on ports and slots
  • Heavy
  • Expensive
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

The Asus ZenBook Pro Duo UX581 is not your run-of-the-mill laptop: as well as its main screen, it sports a half-size secondary screen and display capability on the touchpad. The specifications are top end: Intel Core i9 or i7 processor, discrete Nvidia graphics, a 15.6-inch 4K OLED main screen with touch, 4K on the secondary screen and 1TB of internal storage.

Needless to say, all this comes at a price. The Core i9 model reviewed here will cost you £2,999.99 (inc. VAT; £2,499.99 ex. VAT or $2,999.99). If you are prepared to step down to a Core i7 processor, then the asking price is £2,499.99 (inc VAT; £2,083.32 ex. VAT or $2,499.99).

Asus is no stranger to laptop innovation, and most recently has taken to combining the touchpad with a small secondary screen. This ScreenPad -- as seen on the Asus ZenBook Pro 15, for example -- lets you run mini-apps or host additional controls for desktop apps.

Asus has now gone further, equipping the ZenBook Pro Duo UX581 with a much bigger full-width secondary screen above the keyboard, which Asus calls this the ScreenPad Plus.

asus-zenbook-pro-duo-main.jpg

The ZenBook Pro Duo UX581 is a high-end 15.6-inch laptop (Core i9 or i7, Nvidia GeForce RTX graphics, 16GB or 32GB of RAM, 1TB SSD) with a secondary ScreenPad Plus display and a touchpad to the right of the keyboard.

Image: Asus

This has a knock-on effect for keyboard and touchpad ergonomics, as the keyboard has to move forward, leaving no room for a wrist rest. Asus provides a separate wrist-rest unit that anchors under the angled front of the laptop, but has no fixings. It's commendably light, but one more thing to carry if you think you'll need it when travelling.

Key sizes have not been compromised, and the keyboard itself is very comfortable to use. However, the thickness of the base section raises the keyboard quite high from the desk, which is not ideal ergonomically. If you're concerned about wrist health, make sure you use the provided wrist rest, or find another solution.

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The ZenBook Pro Duo comes with a stylus and an add-on wrist rest unit.

Image: Asus
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The touchpad doubles up as a number pad.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

With the keyboard pushed towards the front, it's not viable to have the touchpad in its usual location, so it has been moved to right-hand side of the keyboard. It's also pivoted 90 degrees into portrait orientation, and therefore no longer mimics the screen's dimensions. A small calculator icon in the top right corner accesses a touch-sensitive number pad. A laptop of this size would normally accommodate a physical number pad, so this is a neat trick.

The touchpad is responsive enough, and its location is acceptable for a right-hander like me -- although it did take some getting used to. Lefties who are not keen on being forced to be righties for touchpad use might be less enamoured of the arrangement.

Asus provides a stylus for use with the touch screen. This is fairly sizeable, and there's no housing for it on the laptop's chassis. The wrist rest could have accommodated a stylus housing, though, so its absence is a missed opportunity -- and an annoying one given the ZenBook Pro Duo's premium price.

This is a 15.6-inch laptop, so its sizeable 359mm by 246mm desktop footprint is no surprise. However, the ZenBook Pro Duo's 24mm thickness, much of which is on the base, is noteworthy. That's why the keyboard is raised so high off the desk, as noted earlier.

The chassis is tough and solid, and its industrial design somewhat quirky. There are large cooling vents on each of the short edges, and an angular finish to the back edge. The overall look is distinctive, and a change from the customary thin and sleek ethic. 

SEE: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF)

Mobile professionals should note that the ZenBook Pro Duo UX581 weighs a hefty 2.5kg. If you do want to carry it, then bag space may be needed for the wrist rest and stylus, and will certainly be required for the power brick which is large and heavy. And you really will need to carry this because battery life is disappointing.

I ran my normal productivity workload -- writing into web apps, web browsing, and some music and video streaming -- from a full battery. The system automatically set screen brightness to around 50%, which I was happy to work with, and after four hours the battery was down to 35%. I had a high-end Core i9 specification with the second screen on. Turning the second screen off would extend battery life, but that rather defeats the point of having it in the first place. 

The main screen is a touch-enabled OLED with 4K (3,840 x 2,160) resolution. It's beautifully sharp and bright but reflective, which some won't like. Colours are fantastic, making video watching a particular pleasure.

asus-zenbook-pro-duo-screenpad-plus.jpg

The 14-inch ScreenPad Plus functions like an external monitor; Asus supplies software to organise the display and run applets.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The secondary ScreenPad Plus touchscreen measures 14 inches across the diagonal and has a resolution of 3,840 by 1,100 pixels. This essentially functions like an external monitor in Windows 10, so you can drag app windows down onto it. You can use the second screen to extend the height of an app, or run the app entirely in the second screen. 

The second screen is vertically challenged, and runs apps in somewhat squished dimensions -- compared to the main screen, you can see the full width of a web page, for example, but only half the depth. The alternative is to resize apps. Manipulating them with the cursor is a little tricky, but may be unnecessary as Asus provides an 'organiser' feature that will divide three apps into three equal-sized windows.

You can create and save specific sets of apps to open at speed on demand. A 'swap' tool flips what's on the main screen with what's on the ScreenPad Plus. Because it's touch sensitive like the main screen, you could use the second screen with a graphics app, or use the built-in Asus handwriting recognition utility.

Handwriting recognition is among several features Asus provides within its own software tool. There's also a separate control panel for this screen, which you call up by tapping an icon to the far left of the screen. You can drag an app icon onto this panel from the desktop to create a quick-launch point, and there's also some dedicated app support -- a Spotify applet is included, for example. 

SEE: Asus ZenBook 14 UX434FL review: A solid ultraportable, with added ScreenPad

The screen hinges back to about 120 degrees, and Asus may have missed a trick by not making this laptop a full 360-degree convertible. This could have been handy for tablet-mode working with stylus-based input. It could also have provided an interesting use case for the ScreenPad Plus: you could work in 'tent' mode, delivering presentations to an audience around a table on the main screen while viewing your speaker's notes and/or a mini version of the presentation on the second screen.

As mentioned earlier, there are two iterations of this laptop, one with a Core i9-9980HK processor, and the other with a Core i7-9750H. The respective prices -- £2,999.99 (inc. VAT) versus £2,499.99 (inc. VAT) -- entirely reflect the CPU, as the specs are otherwise identical: 32GB of RAM, discrete Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 graphics, and 1TB of PCIe SSD storage.

The array of ports and connectors is slightly disappointing: a Thunderbolt USB-C port, a 3.5mm audio jack and a USB 3.1 port on the right side; and a round-pin power jack, an HDMI port and a second USB 3.1 port on the left side.

There's certainly room on both edges of the chassis for more, even given the space taken up by two large vents. I would have liked to see an SD card reader, plus at least one more USB 3.1 and one more Thunderbolt port -- and maybe even Ethernet considering this laptop is likely to spend plenty of time in the office. As it is, wired peripheral users will need some sort of dock.

Other features include Wi-Fi 6, Windows Hello support, integrated Alexa with a little light bar on the front of the laptop which illuminates when you are talking to the virtual assistant, and Harman Kardon speakers that turn out very decent-quality sound.

Conclusions

asus-zenbook-pro-duo-verdict.jpg
Image: Asus

It's easy to applaud the aspiration behind the Asus ZenBook Pro Duo UX581, but I'm not certain the end result is any better than having a second monitor, or even a pair of larger screens which are both used in preference to the on-device panels when you're deskbound.

During testing I used the ScreenPad Plus for a number of things, including keeping an eye on social feeds and email, watching video while working, doing handwriting recognition. But it never felt as though it was adding anything I don't already have a good solution for. The trade-offs -- a wrist-rest free keyboard, relocated touchpad, reduced battery life, added laptop weight -- don't seem like a fair exchange.

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Asus ZenBook 14 UX434FL review: A solid ultraportable, with added ScreenPad

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