In a world driven by productivity, manufacturers are always striving to find innovative solutions in technology. Asus have been at the forefront of this research for a number of years. Its original ZenBook Duo might have inclined more towards being a conceptual product. But having taken the criticism it received on-board, the 2021 Asus ZenBook Duo 14 is a solid device.
Design and build quality
Much of the appeal about the ZenBook Duo comes from its design. In the Celestial Blue color finish with Asus’ asymmetric-circle pattern, the laptop exudes a fair bit of class. Combined with the machine’s magnesium aluminum alloy and minimal Asus branding, it can fit in around any environment. But one complaint we have with this look is how easy the laptop’s exterior is to smudge. Perhaps a brushed matte finish could have helped conceal fingerprints a lot better.
At 16.9 mm and 1.6 kg, you are covered when it comes to travel too. While we are not traveling internationally very often these days, this kind of portability is great to have. For instance, if you want to change your working environment to keep things fresh. The fact that the laptop charges via Type-C USB is a huge plus point but more on that in a later section. Other elements of the design are worth mentioning too. Asus’ ErgoLift technology is here and so is its AAS plus hinge, both responsible to improve ergonomics. The latter is responsible for the ZenBook Duo’s second display whereas ErgoLift works for the overall body of the laptop, ensuring better airflow among other things. There are also two very small rubber pieces on the laptop’s rear edge for extra grip on a surface, a small touch that goes a long way. Moreover, the inside hinge holding the second display is extremely sturdy thanks to its zinc alloy structure.
But accessing the inside of the laptop could see a few issues. Firstly, you do not find an indent or lip at the laptop’s front edge making opening the lid more difficult than it should be. We often found ourselves prying before resorting to opening the laptop from its side edges using both hands. Secondly, every time you open the lid, there is a harsh cracking sound from the ZenBook Duo. We first thought this was a defect but upon closer inspection, it is the sound the second display makes when it rises up to its angled position. While this may not affect build quality directly, it is slightly alarming to hear every time you have to open the machine’s lid.
Primary display and multimedia
On the front of the 2021 ZenBook Duo, you find a 14-inch 1,920 x 1,080 resolution display. It sports thin 4 mm bezels making for a 93 per-cent screen-to-body ratio. The upper bezel, despite being thin makes way for an HD web-camera coupled with an IR sensor for Windows Hello authentication. The web-camera’s quality is decent with a dedicated camera algorithm to improve performance however we would have liked to see a Full HD web-camera here.
The lack of uniform bezels on the ZenBook Duo might bother a few people. But Asus has done a good job of concealing this fairly well. While the side bezels are identical, the top bezel of the display is much thinner than the bottom one. But because of Asus’ second display that tilts upward, the larger bezel is not visible.
Back to addressing the display, it is a 400 nit brightness panel which features precise color accuracy, something we value as creators. Whether for photo or video editing, the panel delivers a good experience, especially with its touchscreen support. But the sole focus is not just for the creator. We have had no issues with consuming content on the display, which looks vivid and sharp. One thing we particularly like about the LED-backlit panel are its viewing angles. There is no color distortion here and with official PANTONE validation, it stays easy on your eyes too. We also like how the display has a semi-matte finish to it, something that makes glare much less obvious.
Pairing with the display, you find the Harman Kardon tuned speaker set on the ZenBook Duo. We feel the speaker experience is a bit subjective on the machine. With them placed at the bottom and partially to the sides, they are fairly easy to muffle. For instance, using the machine on a sofa or bed will not give you the best experience. We often found ourselves lifting up the device slightly to get the best audio experience. Although on a flat surface, considering Acer’s ErgoLift design, you should not face too much trouble. It is a shame to have this issue here and we hope Asus addresses it in upcoming variants by moving the speakers towards the top of the machine.
Connectivity and I/O
Modern-day laptops tend to go light when it comes to port selection. However, the ZenBook Duo offers a generous suite that not many can complain about. The left edge houses two Thunderbolt 4 Type-C USB ports and a full size HDMI 1.4 port. On the right edge, you find a Type-A USB 3.2 Gen 1 port, a 3.5 mm audio jack, a microSD card reader and indicators for the battery and power supply of the laptop.
With the machine housing all the basic ports, users will have no trouble adapting to it. In theory, one of the two Type-C USB ports would be used for charging when the laptop is plugged in but in that situation, you still find another to connect a dongle to. We did exactly that to gain access to a dedicated Ethernet port and a full-size SD card reader.
As far as wireless connectivity is concerned, you find Intel WiFi 6 support, Bluetooth 5.0 and Asus’ WiFi Master. The latter is a software addition that helps you gain more stability when it comes to your WiFi connection. When working in a room with poor WiFi, this comes in fairly handy and more often than not, the difference is evident.
Secondary display (ScreenPad Plus)
A trademark of the Duo series from Asus is its second display. Dubbed the ScreenPad Plus, the 2021 ZenBook Duo offers a lot like here. It is a 12.6-inch panel which comes with the exact same 400 nit brightness, touchscreen support and PANTONE validation with a 1,920 x 515 resolution.
In addition to its ability to be used as just a second display, the ScreenPad Plus takes advantage of Asus’ ScreenXpert UI. This gives you access to a number of additional features, some useful and some not so much. Most of these can be accessed via a floating Control Center UI, which you can adjust depending on your preferred position. But sometimes, it being there constantly can get in the way so we have decided to hide it as a floating icon when not in use, something you can do in the settings.
The App Navigator feature allows you to adjust your open programs between both the primary and secondary display. But one of our favorite features is the Action Menu. Here, you can access various pre-installed applications as well as configure pairs of applications to launch together. For instance, if you want Chrome to launch on the ScreenPad Plus and Adobe Premiere Pro on the main display, you can do so. Another use case for the features is the ScreenPad Plus doubling as a number-pad. Asus has thought through the ScreenPad Plus concept fairly well on the ZenBook Pro Duo and we will touch on it more in the user experience section of this review.
Keyboard and trackpad
With the ScreenPad Plus taking half of the space the keyboard and trackpad on a regular laptop would, it is hard to imagine Asus fitting a fully functional keyboard here. However, Asus has done a fairly good job of this. But, it will take some time to get used to the design. Firstly, the keyboard feels a bit congested and secondly, it has been pushed downward. People who typically like to rest their wrists on the edge of a laptop when typing will not feel at home.
The keys themselves are decent to type on. We would describe them as a hybrid between mushy and tactile for a generally pleasant experience with a 1.4 mm travel. There is a 0.15 mm curvature to the top of the keys which is subtle but helpful for someone who types a lot. You also find full access to the function row, arrow keys as well as three levels of backlighting support.
Other than the keyboard, the trackpad on the ZenBook Duo is also oddly placed. For someone who is right-handed, its position is natural however for left-handed individuals, its position renders itself borderline useless. Given the small size of the trackpad, it is more difficult to adjust with. Your typical gestures are a bit harder to execute but tracking as well as scrolling is responsive and intuitive. Just above the trackpad, you find access to a few extra buttons. The power button, a dedicated button to disable to keyboard and a button to switch windows between your primary and secondary display, a feature we have grown to appreciate quite a bit.
Under the hood, the retail 2021 Asus ZenBook Duo runs Intel’s 11th Gen Core i7 processor with up to 1TB of PCIe 3.0 NVMe SSD storage and 16GB of LPDDR4X RAM. Accompanying this power, you also have a choice for the graphics on the ZenBook Duo. You can either opt for Intel Iris X Graphics or NVIDIA GeForce MX450 with 2GB of GDDR6 memory. Our review unit is equipped with 32GB of RAM and Intel Iris X Graphics.
Instead of relying on just benchmark scores, our review is focused on real world use case scenarios. As content creators, having the flexibility to use a dual-screen setup in such a compact form factor is great. We often used the setup when taking notes or referencing material when typing. The fact that the ScreenPad Plus can accommodate for three open windows comfortably means you get unprecedented levels of multitasking. Watching a sports livestream or a Netflix TV show is also easy, although doing that during work hours is something we would not recommend.
The other aspect of this experience comes in handy for photo and video editing. The majority of Adobe’s Creative Cloud applications are natively supported for a dual display operation via Asus’ Control Panel setting. With this, an accompanying second screen panel opens up automatically when you access any of these applications. This second panel for the application can be user customized and is helpful in applications such as Photoshop. Illustrators in particular may also benefit here from the stylus which allows for a natural workflow between both displays.
But while this companion software is great, it does not work as seamlessly for video editing. Once again, it gives you a similar suite of controls however, access to a video’s timeline on the second display is way more important. Thankfully, you can use Adobe’s ability to customize your workspace to manually drag elements to the secondary display. However, the adjustment process does not work as intuitively as it should. For example, certain elements of the timeline fall outside the ScreenPad Plus upon right-clicking or accessing a longer menu on the second display. We think a great way to counter this situation is for Asus to work with Adobe to develop its Control Panel interface further. Perhaps this way, the adjustment is more seamless and better optimized for the ScreenPad Plus.
Our general consensus with the ZenBook Duo has been extremely positive, right from performance down to functionality. The ScreenPad Plus’ 7-degree incline helps greatly and almost all of its software features are useful this time, and constantly being updated through the MyAsus software companion. This is a great development from Asus building on its previous generation of software and we can only hope it continues to grow on this strong foundation. One thing that is certain though is that once you are used to this dual-screen workflow, it is difficult to let go.
Thermals and battery life
Despite pushing the machine heavily during our testing, it remained fairly quiet. With moderate workload, the fans did not turn on but under stress, for example when rendering a video, they did ramp up. The noise from the fans was not distracting however the laptop did heat up a bit. This was particularly noticeable underneath the ScreenPad Plus but thankfully, your hands stay away from that region when using the laptop.
When it comes to battery life though, the ZenBook Duo is outstanding. When used for just multimedia consumption and browsing, you should be able to get 7-8 hours of usage. For heavier tasks such as video editing and rendering, this drops to 6 hours which is still decent for a dual-screen device. On no occasion did we find battery life to be particularly restricting, both when it came to endurance and performance.
Above all though, having Type-C USB charging with the device is a great advantage. Instead of being reliant on a charger provided out of the box, you are able to use any. We could charge the device with smartphone chargers easily as well as the provided 65W charger out of the box. With this, you can get a full charge on the 70Whr battery of the ZenBook Duo in just under 2 hours.
The 2021 Asus ZenBook Duo has left a lasting impression on us. Not only is Intel’s new 11th Gen processor series power efficient but it is also able to easily handle moderate to high-end workflows. It is nice that Asus has gone the extra mile of bundling so many software features into the machine. These are not perfect but are a step in the right direction. However, the star of the show has to be the physical ScreenPad Plus, which is capable of ushering a new level of productivity among users. Pair that with the machine’s Dh5,999 price tag and you have yourself some great value for money in a device that arguably goes toe to toe against Apple’s M1 MacBook Pro.