Asus did it. It’s a dual-screen laptop that – and there was a time I never thought I’d say those words – is actually pretty good.
Asus has been making this dual-screen form factor for a while, and parts of the ZenBook Pro Duo 14 OLED for $1,999.99 and up aren’t anything we’ve seen before. As with the previous models of the Duo series, there is a large 14.5-inch screen on the top and a smaller 12.7-inch screen on the back of the keyboard deck (ScreenPad Plus). Below that screen is the keyboard (which extends all the way to the front of the deck), with a tiny touchpad stuffed to the right of it.
But the company made one small change that made the experience significantly more comfortable: It raised the secondary screen by 12 degrees.
This, dear reader, has changed everything. Do you see, last year’s 14-inch Zenbook Duo model only the secondary screen is tilted up by seven degrees. The 2020 model was even flatter. In both cases, I was constantly craning my neck to lean forward when I needed to see something on the second screen.
Raising it to 12 degrees doesn’t look huge on paper, but it’s finally – finally – made the screen just high enough that I don’t need to crack it anymore. Right now, as I write this, I’m leaning back in my office chair. I actually lean back slightly. I can clearly see the primary screen on the Pro Duo and also the content on the secondary screen. I can read the words on the secondary screen in this reclined state.
There are various other tweaks that make the secondary screen far more visible from afar than it has been in the past. For one, it’s brighter than last year, now hitting 500 nits. It also has a higher resolution (2880 x 864). And there’s a new “anti-glare etch” that prevents overhead light from reflecting, which has been a nuisance in the past.
Guys, the second screen is…really useful now. On previous models, it was just a place to throw distractions like Slack and Twitter while my actual work took place in the top half. Now I can keep reference materials down there to look at and read while I work.
Now, does that mean its benefits finally outweigh the compromises required to fit an entire second screen on this laptop? Not for me. But we’ve gotten to the point where it’s really just a keyboard position preference. Asus basically fixed everything else.
For example ScreenXpert. This software allows the duo’s two screens to work together and has come a far cry from the buggy and unresponsive mess it once was. The new version on this device (ScreenXpert 3) looks significantly more professional than previous iterations. It’s all snappy to use, and windows resize as they should. And while I occasionally had to tap a button a few times to open something, that was the extent of the trouble I had. It’s intuitive with a remarkably easy learning curve, which wasn’t always the case with ScreenXpert software.
There’s a taskbar (like a floating miniature Windows taskbar) with hotkeys for various functions like toggling the brightness, phone mirroring, opening an app navigation screen, locking the keyboard, and hiding all windows on the ScreenPad to reveal the desktop background. I was willing to complain about the questionable usefulness of some of these, but it turns out that you can make some customizations in the Control Center settings panel that I found after a little research. You can also adjust the position of the taskbar by dragging it down or to both sides.
I remain a fan of the task groups feature (also accessible from that taskbar) which allows you to “save” a configuration of tabs and apps in an arrangement of your choosing to reopen at a later time. This is something I use frequently on Duo devices.
The other solution I’m really excited about is the touchpad. The Duo 14’s touchpad is so tiny it’s practically useless. With previous models, I just used a pen for every possible situation. That’s what I did here – until I discovered TouchPad mode.
Touchpad mode lets you turn the ScreenPad into a giant touchpad. All you have to do is 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 different gestures just like a regular one. There are of course also disadvantages. For one, there’s no click mechanism (but tap-to-click works well). You also reach over the keyboard to use it, which is a bit odd (but something I’ve gotten used to). And the touchpad surface is opaque, so once you’ve pulled it up, you can’t see the other content you have on the ScreenPad. I hope Asus can make it just a little bit more transparent in the future, but I’m still really excited to see this feature here.
The Intel Core i7-12700H inside is a mainstream processor that we’ve mostly seen in high-performance gaming laptops and workstations, including Alienware’s X14. My device also has 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage in addition to an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU. Asus says it will cost $1,999.99, which I don’t hate for these specs.
Performance in my general work use cases was as good as you would expect. I would have stacked Chrome tabs on both screens on Zoom calls or YouTube streams with no issues. The RTX 3050 Ti isn’t necessarily built for AAA gaming and is underperforming than other laptop GPUs you can get at this price point, but it can certainly make older, lighter titles possible.
While the keyboard was warm at times, 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”), which includes two 12-volt fans with 97 and 93 blades, respectively. Asus claims the device stays below 28 decibels in the Whisper mode cooling profile, and that seems correct as far as I can tell. Even when I wasn’t in whisper mode, I barely heard the fans.
The battery life was rather mixed. I averaged about five hours of continuous work on both screens at medium brightness. That’s nowhere near a full day, of course, but it’s not abominable Result as there are two high resolution screens running on this device. The original Pro Duo took just over two and a half hours, and the game-focused and much more expensive Zephyrus Duo 15 clocked in at an hour and 48 minutes with the same workload. If you need a lot of juice, you can simply turn off the ScreenPad with a hotkey on the keyboard.
The main screen is 16:10 (hooray!) and is one of the first (if not the very first) 120Hz OLED displays 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 glad to see this device sticking to the HDMI and SD card slot as all sorts of other premium 14-inchers are dropping them for the world of USB-C. (And this thing really shouldn’t skimp on ports, because I’ve never wanted to connect an external keyboard and mouse to anything else.) There are a few Asus-specific connectivity features, too, including Wi-Fi SmartConnect, which automatically helps your device get the best signal connect in its current environment.
All of which is great, which makes it even more unfortunate that I still don’t enjoy using it. Basically, 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 stomach a keyboard in this position. I know some who love front panel keyboards and for the rest of my life I will never understand you guys. This is actually a great keyboard. The keys are clicky with a decent 1.4mm of travel, a spec I’d normally swoon over. But I keep typing my hands against my chest like a t rex and i hate it.
I don’t know if Asus can fix this. I think we’re hitting a wall of personal preference with this design. I’ll just never enjoy using a keyboard that doesn’t give me a chance to rest my wrists. But there are absolutely people who don’t have this problem and for you people I think this is a deservedly good buy.
With the Pro Duo 14, Asus has done everything to build a good, practical dual-screen system. I’m right in thinking that most of the issues that could be fixed have been fixed. In our rather critical review of the first-gen Zenbook Duo, Chaim Gartenberg wrote, “Buried in the raw tone is a great laptop.” Three years later, Asus dug up this laptop. That’s great.
The history with Duo laptops from now on can only boil down to whether you like having a keyboard on the front of your deck. Given the many other issues these devices have had in the past, this bodes very well for their future.
Photography by Monica Chin / The Veranda
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