Asus has done it. It’s made a dual-screen laptop that — and there was a time when I never thought I’d say those words — is actually pretty good.
Asus has been doing this dual-display form factor for a while, and parts of the $1,999.99 and up ZenBook Pro Duo 14 OLED are nothing we haven’t seen before. Like previous models in the Duo line, there’s a large 14.5-inch display on the top and a smaller 12.7-inch display on the back of the keyboard (the ScreenPad Plus). Below that screen is the keyboard (reaching all the way to the front of the deck), with a teeny-tiny touchpad on the right.
But the company made a small tweak that made the experience significantly more comfortable: it raised the secondary screen 12 degrees.
This, reader, has changed everything. You see, last year’s 14-inch Zenbook Duo model tilted the secondary display up just seven degrees. The 2020 model was even flatter. In both cases, I was constantly craning my neck to lean forward whenever I wanted to see something on the second screen.
The rise to 12 degrees doesn’t look huge on paper, but it’s finally – finally – made the screen just high enough that I no longer have to lift it. As I type this, I’m leaning back in my desk chair. I’m actually leaning back a bit. I can see the primary screen of the Pro Duo and the contents of the secondary screen just fine. I can Read the words on the secondary screen in this landscape mode.
There are other various tweaks that make the secondary screen significantly easier to see from a distance than in the past. First, it’s brighter than last year, reaching 500 nits now. It is also a higher resolution (2880 x 864). And there’s a new “anti-glare etching” that keeps ceiling light from being reflected, which was a nuisance in the past.
Folks, the second screen is… really useful now. On previous models, it was just a place to throw distractions like Slack and Twitter, with my real work happening in the top half. Now I can keep reference material there to watch and read while I work.
Does this mean that the benefits ultimately outweigh the trade-offs needed to fit an entire second screen on this laptop? Not for me. But we’re at the point where that’s really just a preference for keyboard location. Asus basically solved everything else.
For example, ScreenXpert. This software makes the Duo’s two screens work together and has come a long way from the glitchy and unresponsive mess it once was. The new version that is on this device (ScreenXpert 3) looks considerably more professional than previous iterations. It’s all snappy to use, and the windows have been resized as they should. And while I occasionally had to tap a button a few times to open something, that was the extent of the problems I had. It is intuitive with a remarkably easy learning curve, which was not always the case with ScreenXpert software.
There is a taskbar (like a floating thumbnail Windows taskbar) with shortcut buttons for various functions, such as switching brightness, phone mirroring, opening an app navigation screen, locking the keyboard and making all windows on the ScreenPad disappear. to display the desktop background. I was willing to complain about the questionable usefulness of some of these, but it turns out you can do a degree of customization in the Control Center Settings panel, which I discovered after some research. You can also adjust the location of the taskbar by dragging it to the bottom or to one of the sides.
I continue to be a fan of the task groups feature (also accessible from this taskbar) which allows you to “save” a configuration of tabs and apps in an arrangement of your choice to reopen at a later date. This is something I use a lot on Duo devices.
The other solution that I am very happy with relates to the touchpad. The Duo 14’s touchpad is so small it’s basically useless. On previous models, I’ve just used a stylus for every possible situation. That’s what I did here – until I discovered TouchPad mode.
Touchpad mode allows you to turn the ScreenPad into a giant touchpad. You just need to tap it with three fingers. To turn it back into a ScreenPad, tap an X in the top right corner. The touchpad works well and responds to all the different gestures just as well as a regular one. There are of course drawbacks. First, there is no click mechanism (but tap to click works well). You also reach over the keyboard to use it, which is a little weird (but something I’ve gotten used to). And the touchpad interface is opaque, so if you pull it out, you won’t be able to see the other content that’s on the ScreenPad. I hope Asus is able to make it even the tiniest bit more translucent in the future, but I’m still really happy to see this feature here.
The Intel Core i7-12700H inside is a mainstream processor that we’ve mostly seen so far in high-performance gaming laptops and workstations, including Alienware’s X14. My device also has 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB of storage in addition to an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU. Asus says it costs $1,999.99, which I don’t hate because of these specs.
The performance in my general work applications was as good as you’d expect. I would have stacked Chrome tabs on Zoom calls or YouTube streams on both screens with no problem. The RTX 3050 Ti isn’t necessarily designed for AAA gaming and is weaker than other laptop GPUs you can get at this price, but it can certainly accommodate older, lighter titles.
Although the keyboard was sometimes warm, I never felt uncomfortable heat there or on the bottom of the device. This appears to be thanks to Asus’ new cooling system (dubbed “IceCool Plus”) that includes two 12-volt fans with 97 and 93 blades, respectively. Asus claims that the device stays below 28 decibels in the Whisper Mode cooling profile and that seems accurate as far as I know. Even when I wasn’t in Whisper mode, I could barely hear the fans.
Battery life was more of a mixed bag. I averaged about five hours of continuous work with both screens on medium brightness. That’s not close to a full day, of course, but not one either terrible result given that this device has two high-resolution screens. The original Pro Duo lasted just over two and a half hours, and the game-oriented and much more expensive Zephyrus Duo 15 made it an hour and 48 minutes with the same workload. If you need a lot of juice, you can easily turn off the ScreenPad with a keyboard shortcut.
The primary screen is 16:10 (hurrah!) and is one of the first (if not the very first) 120Hz OLED screens on a laptop. The port selection is pretty good, including two Thunderbolt 4 ports, a full-size HDMI 2.1, a USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A, an SD Express 7.0 card reader, and a combo audio jack. I’m happy to see this device keep the HDMI and SD card slot as all sorts of other premium 14-inchers are ditching them for the world of USB-C. (And this thing really shouldn’t skimp on ports, as I’ve never wanted to plug an external keyboard and mouse into anything else.) There are also a few Asus-specific connectivity features, including Wi-Fi SmartConnect, which automatically connects the device to the best signal in the current environment.
This is all great, which makes it all the more unfortunate that I still don’t like using it. In short, the Pro Duo 14 convinced me that even the best possible iteration of the dual-screen form factor isn’t enough to overcome the fact that I can’t stand having a keyboard in this position. I know some who like front-mounted keyboards, and for the life of me, I’ll never understand you folks. In fact, this is a great keyboard. The keys are clickable with a decent 1.4mm of travel, a spec I’d normally swoon over. But I’m constantly typing with my hands pressed to my chest like a T. rex and i hate it.
I don’t know if this is something Asus can solve. I think we’re running into a wall of personal preference with this design. I’ll just never enjoy using a keyboard that won’t give me a place to rest my wrists. But there are definitely people out there who don’t have this problem, and for you folks, I think this is rightly a good buy.
In the Pro Duo 14, Asus has made every effort to make a good, practical and usable dual-screen system. I rightly think that most of the problems that could have been solved have been solved. In our fairly critical review of the first-generation Zenbook Duo, Chaim Gartenberg wrote, “There’s a great laptop buried in the raw clay.” Three years later, Asus dug out that laptop. This is amazing.
The story with Duo laptops from now on can come down to whether you want a keyboard on the front of your deck. Which, given the number of other problems these devices have had in the past, is a very good sign for their future.
Photography by Monica Chin / Media Today Chronicle