(Pocket-lint) - The first thing you're going to notice about the ZenBook Flip is that there's a screen under the trackpad. Yes, you read that correctly: the so-called ScreenPad 2.0 system adds additional dynamics, such as app shortcuts, the ability to act as a miniature second screen, and more.

But do you really need a second screen under the trackpad - in what is Asus' challenge to Apple's Touch Bar in its MacBook Pro line-up - or is the ZenBook Flip 15 stretching beyond logic?

ScreenPad 2.0: Sensible or insanity?

  • 5.65-inch inter-trackpad display
  • App launch, second screen
  • 2160 x 1080 pixels

It's not the first time we've seen the ScreenPad 2.0, which also features in the Asus ZenBook 14. When we reviewed that laptop we found some positives, but some confusions, and it's much the same in the Flip 15.

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Asus has really gone down the touchpad rabbit hole here. But, unlike the Apple Touch Bar approach, there's less of a cost associated here. Indeed, the Flip 15 isn't that pricey for all that it offers. That said, the ScreenPad 2.0 setup is more contentious than the Apple approach, for the simple fact it takes over the whole touchpad.

ScreenPad 2.0's homepage features shortcuts for a bunch of different apps. Most of these offer Microsoft Office's functions, but there's also a Numpad, system-wide shortcuts for copying, pasting, or anything you can type without using the Fn keys. The Spotify mini app is perhaps the most interesting add-on (as it's not really that "mini" at all) for running a version of the Spotify UI to control your tunes.

Asus has gone all-out on this screen, too, as its 5.65-inch display delivers 2160 x 1080 pixels, making it rather high resolution. It's like a decent budget phone screen jammed into a laptop keyboard surround.

All of which sounds potentially useful. But we've found it to be anything but. Using the trackpad's shortcuts, or dragging screens from the main display into here, fust feels clumsy. There's also limited true integration with this setup, as most apps aren't going to develop ScreenPad specifics to make the most of this second screen.

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Ultimately, we can only conclude that you'll probably want to switch it off. Which, thankfully, you can by the tap of the F6 button.

The only workaround to that, as we said with the ZenBook 14, is if you plug in an actual mouse. Then the pad becomes like a dynamic shortcuts board, while your mouse control is handled via the peripheral. But we're not accustomed to using a laptop in this way anywhere, so that use-case might only suit a small number of people.

We're much more comfortable just using the pad as exactly that: a trackpad. It's a genuine glass-topped and matte-finish pad that has a glide-friendly texture and makes it easy to use.

Design

  • Ports: 1x USB-C, 2x USB-A, 1x HDMI, 1x SD card, 3.5mm jack
  • Dimensions: 356 x 229 x 19.9mm / Weight: 1.9kgs
  • Chiclet keyboard, Numpad, adjustable backlight

It's not just the trackpad that feels good in use: the keyboard, which is full size and includes a Numpad, offers keys with decent travel, not too much loud klack, and subtle illumination that looks great. We've been typing this review away without issues, unlike the latest not-so-great MacBook keyboards. Good job there, Asus.

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Ignoring the ScreenPad for one moment, it's worth pointing out how solid the ZenBook 15 feels in use. It's not abominably heavy for a 15-inch Ultrabook and feels really well built, avoiding the kind of flexing screen or keyboard that we've seen plenty of times in lesser machines.

Plus, as the name suggests, this laptop offers versatility from its "Flip" hinge, which not only holds the laptop screen firmly in position, but allows you to push the screen around by 360-degrees to use it in stand, tent and tablet modes too. So if touchscreen is your thing, such modes can be great for display, on-desk use and in other scenarios.

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The Asus ZenBook 15 is also wonderfully practical. In a world where connectors seem to be vanishing, there's a full spread here: including a 10Gbps USB-C, two full-size USBs (both of which are the 3.1 standard), HDMI and a full-size SD card slot. That's everything you need, without annoying adapters.

Screen

  • 15.6-inch LED-backlit display
    • 360-degree hinge
    • 60Hz refresh
    • Touchscreen
  • Full HD (1920 x 1080) / 4K UHD (3840 x 2160) options

The ZenBook Flip 15's footprint is also petite considering the screen size and hinge versatility, thanks to its small screen bezel (at just 4.5mm to the sides). Slim-border laptops like this often have a big blank space below the display, but here only the top surround is slightly larger, and that's not huge by any means.

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The screen comes in two flavours: Full HD (1080p) or 4K (2160p), the latter being on review here. We tend to think that 4K laptop screens aren't really necessary if you're using them when on the go, given the impact in battery life, but having all those pixels to play with does bring a great deal of versatility. You could load a Full HD clip into a video editor at one-to-one resolution with all your editing tools around it, no compromises.

The panel doesn't flex about and is able to show stacks of colour and ample brightness. Indeed, we had to turn it down below half for the photos in this review. Asus also talks about Pantone Validated with 100 per cent of the sRGB colour space and less than Delta E level 2 (which is a low level, defining how close to true a screen is). That makes it one accurate monitor, which we've felt to be true in our time with this laptop.

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The only downside? There is some reflective quality, so you'll likely need the brightness up to negate that. 

Performance & Battery Life

  • Intel Core i5 or i7 processor options (i7 10510U / i5 10210U)
  • Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 graphics, 4GB GDDR5 VRAM
  • 1TB PCIe Gen3 x4 SSD / 512GB PCIe Gen3 SSD 
  • 8GB / 16GB LPDDR3 2133MHz SDRAM
  • 71Wh lithium-polymer battery
  • Separate DC charging port

Performance here matches the ambition of the outer hardware. As we have the 4K screen, this review model also comes loaded with the top-end Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB RAM, plus Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 graphics.

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It's a relative powerhouse for a casual use laptop. We've had no torubles with Photoshop editing and watching movies, but if you need to video edit or crunch through some more power-intensive tasks then that will be no bother. The Nvidia GTX 1050 means you can even play some AAA games at reasonable settings.

However, that power does add to the price. With the 4K and i7 model predicted to cost £/€/$1,799, it's an extra half grand spend over the Full HD and i5 model. The choice is yours, though.

All that power did make us anticipate a poor battery life, but this is one area where the ZenBook Flip 15 has rather impressed. We were able to watch a 4K video with the volume at half and brightness to 70 per cent for around eight hours non-stop. That isn't going to win any prizes, but in the context of a 4K resolution screen that's far better than we've seen from some rivals in the past.

If you want even more battery life for on-the-go use then we'd suggest opting for the lower-resolution and slightly less powerful model. Because put the 4K model under pressure and that eight hours cuts itself in half pretty rapidly, if you've got all manner of apps open.

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The only criticism with the battery is the huge brick transformer that comes with it. Not especially elegant for transporting. But at least there's a dedicated DC input on the laptop itself, so you needn't waste that USB-C port to ensure power is being provided.

Verdict

While the screen-in-trackpad ScreenPad 2.0 feature is the thing that'll first jump out about the ZenBook Flip 15, it's the one thing we ended up finding of little use.

But that doesn't make the ZenBook Flip 15 a failure. Quite the opposite: because Asus has considered the power, the ports, the screen, and the keyboard in this laptop, it's one versatile machine that ticks a whole lot of boxes.

So while the ScreenPad might lure you in, once that's been switched off it's the overall design and feel that will happily keep you here, whether for work or play.

Also consider

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Apple MacBook Pro 16

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Want something even larger that'll slot into a Mac rather than Windows ecosystem? The 16-inch Pro is a great option. But it highlights the Asus' value: the ZenBook has a higher resolution screen for less money and far more traditional ports too.

Writing by Mike Lowe.