Nvidia's Pascal architecture marked a step-change in gaming laptop technology. No longer would users have to put up with cut-down GPUs, slower memory and reduced clocks. A notebook GTX 1080, 1070 or 1060 offers almost all of the power of the desktop iterations in a fully portable form-factor. But what if instead of targeting maximum performance from the silicon, manufacturers aimed for peak efficiency instead? The end result is the new Nvidia Max-Q technology, seen at its zenith in Asus's new Zephyrus laptop.
It's a remarkable piece of technology - the sort of product that shows that the PC space is the place to be for the latest and greatest innovations. In short, Asus has crammed a quad-core Intel i7 alongside the Max-Q version of the GTX 1080 into a 15-inch laptop. It's light at 2.24kg and certainly thin enough at just 17.9mm. We've never seen so much gaming performance integrated into such a small product - so it makes sense that Nvidia boss Jen-Hsun Huang would proudly display the Zephyrus at Max-Q's Computex reveal just a few weeks ago.
There's plenty that makes the Zephyrus special, but to begin with, let's nail down what Max-Q is all about. Put simply, desktop versions of the GPUs push frequencies close to the max in order to extract maximum performance. However, there's no linear relationship between power consumption and performance - dropping clocks by 400-500MHz obviously sees lower frame-rates compared to the desktop parts, but the efficiency savings are huge, enough to move the GTX 1080 down to a remarkable 90-110W TDP. And that's exactly what's happening here - we noted GPU boost topping out at around 1340MHz, whereas our desktop GTX 1080 can hit highs in excess of 1800MHz.
It's really easy to describe the benefits here - the Max Q GTX 1080 has approximately the same power requirement as a mobile GTX 1060, but offers a big bump in performance - our tests peg it at ballpark GTX 1070 frame-rates, five to six per cent higher if you ramp up resolution to 4K. The good news is that obviously the performance bump is remarkable, but the obvious down side is that a GPU marketed as a GTX 1080 isn't delivering GTX 1080 performance, which begs the question of whether a new, more obvious naming convention is required in order to cut out potential customer confusion.
It's a debate we'll return to later, but even if we're talking about ballpark GTX 1070 performance, having that amount of gaming power integrated into a shell as thin and light as this constitutes a minor miracle. While the desktop world has seen the zenith of GPU power move on with GTX 1080 Ti and Titan Xp, the fact is that Pascal-level GTX 1070 performance is on par, if not better than the last-gen Titan X Maxwell. Nvidia reckons that this is enough grunt to offer 4K gameplay - something we've achieved with varying levels of success on an HP Omen laptop with GTX 1070 paired with a 4K G-Sync display.
Asus takes a different route through, combining the Max-Q GTX 1080 with a 120Hz 1080p G-Sync display. On the one hand, a 4K screen for a 15-inch form factor laptop would be a monstrous level of overkill (it's mad enough on a 17-inch screen) but on the other, aiming for 120fps in modern games often sees the Zephyrus hit CPU limits, meaning that a fair amount of GPU power is left on the table. Using a desktop GTX 1070 set-up as a baseline comparison point, we easily hit CPU limits in titles like Crysis 3 and Far Cry Primal with the Zephyrus, with anything up to an 18-20fps deficit on the latter at its widest delta. The Zephyrus ships with a Core i7 7700HQ - which we found maxes at 3.4GHz across all four cores and eight threads. That's more than enough power to propel you to 60fps in most games, but beyond that, frame-rates in many modern games are tied to scene complexity and CPU draw-call throughput, as opposed to the GPU's capabilities.
A 1080p display also means there's visible aliasing - so our advice would be to use Nvidia DSR to ramp up resolution to 1440p or thereabouts, minimising artefacting, making more of the available GPU power and almost completely cutting out CPU bottlenecks. However, that's not to say that all titles are off the table here at 120fps, or close to it.
Minimal tweaks could bring Battlefield 1 up to 100-120fps (with G-Sync smoothing out any stutter), while Overwatch's auto-settings ramped us up to ultra-equivalent presets with a 140 per cent resolution scale. When it works, it's glorious, but our contention is that GTX 1070-level power is great for modern gaming at 1440p60, and that would have been our preference for the primary display. The bottom line though? Pixel density for a 15-inch 1080p screen is fine overall, and super-sampling clears up pixel crawl nicely.
|1920x1080 (1080p)||i7 7700HQ/GTX 1080 Max-Q||i7 6700K OC/GTX 1080||i7 6700K OC/GTX 1070|
|Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA||82.9||99.3||81.0|
|Ashes of the Singularity, Extreme, 0x MSAA, DX12||65.8||85.5||71.2|
|Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA T2x||104.6||129.1||106.7|
|Far Cry Primal, Ultra, SMAA||85.0||107.7||90.4|
|Hitman, Ultra, SMAA, DX12||101.9||133.4||112.6|
|Rise of the Tomb Raider, Very High, High Textures, SMAA, DX12||113.5||133.9||107.7|
On the face of it, the Zephyrus is all things to all people: thin and light, with excellent acoustics (39dBa under loud according to Asus) and an undisputed gaming powerhouse. However, as remarkable as it is, there are inevitable limitations. Firstly, in order to dissipate heat, the Zephyrus's thermal solution dominates real estate, meaning that the excellent chiclet keyboard and trackpad are shunted to the front of the machine, with no integrated palm rest (and further heat dissipation measures are required - open the laptop lid and the base of the unit also opens up to facilitate further air flow). For convenience, Asus actually provides a separate palm rest and mouse in the package, but these are only really of use on a static desktop-style set-up.
Secondly, battery life from the 50Wh battery is very low. Gaming on the go reduces performance to around 80 per cent unplugged, dropping to less than 50 per cent when the battery is low. As unique as this laptop is, in common with every gaming notebook on market, keeping the machine plugged in is a must. Even with the Max-Q GTX 1080 dormant, you'll struggle to get a couple of hours usage from the Zephyrus while out and about.
But as a workstation, it's a great performer and you get a great selection of ports: USB-C with Thunderbolt, four USB 3.0s, HDMI 2.0 and a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. Just about the only useful port that's missing is gigabit LAN. On top of that, the 24GB of 2400MHz DDR4 and a super-fast 1TB Samsung SM961 M.2 NVMe SSD make for a blisteringly fast machine (these may be pared back to 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD on retail units).
And certainly in operation, this machine is discreet - we can well believe the 39dBa claims, but it is important to note that the pitch of the fans can carry across the room, something a basic noise measurement doesn't really capture. Compared to the HP Omen 17 with GTX 1070 we had in the office recently though, or even a PS4 Pro with fans engaged at maximum warp, it's a night and day difference.
|3840x2160 (4K)||i7 7700HQ/GTX 1080 Max-Q||i7 6700K OC/GTX 1080||i7 6700K OC/GTX 1070|
|Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA||27.5||33.0||25.9|
|Ashes of the Singularity, Extreme, 0x MSAA, DX12||46.2||60.2||48.7|
|Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA T2x||33.5||40.3||31.9|
|Far Cry Primal, Ultra, SMAA||35.7||42.3||33.8|
|Hitman, Ultra, SMAA, DX12||48.4||60.9||48.4|
|Rise of the Tomb Raider, Very High, High Textures, SMAA, DX12||38.4||46.2||36.1|
The Asus Zephyrus is a masterpiece of integration then - but you are paying a massive premium for its brilliant form-factor, all of which begs the question of whether Max-Q itself justifies any kind of price-hike. In effect, it's a straight trade of performance for efficiency with a frame-rate hit, which in turn opens the door to smaller form factors and quieter acoustics - but should a downclocked GTX 1080 that performs more along the lines of a GTX 1070 retain the same name as a significantly faster performer?
To a certain extent, Nvidia has already answered that question in the negative with its own product line-up - the notebook GTX 1070 is downclocked compared to its desktop equivalent, but has more CUDA cores to make up the deficit. It works though - surprisingly so, bearing in mind the clock-speed differentials we noted when we looked at the HP Omen 17. In essence, the notebook GTX 1070 makes a compelling case that it is performance that defines how a GPU should be marketed, as opposed to its clock-speeds or CUDA core counts.
Asus ROG Zephyrus GX501VI with Max-Q: the Digital Foundry verdict
As beautifully portable and discreet as it is, the Asus Zephyrus isn't quite as mobile as you'd hope it would be - keyboard and trackpad location make it difficult to use anywhere other than a desktop environment, while the battery life is distinctly underwhelming. Inevitably, it's the price you pay for integrating desktop-level parts into a laptop. The Max-Q GTX 1080 is an underclocked version of the full-fat GP104 processor, while the supplied Core i7 7700HQ is a similarly pared back variant of the i7 7700K. That said, this much power in such a small form-factor - with reduced noise to boot - really is impressive 'in the flesh' but ultimately, as cutting-edge as it is, the use-case scenario for the device remains much the same as a standard gaming laptop. It only really works on a desktop, plugged into the mains.
It's important to stress what while we're not sure whether the Max-Q marketing is entirely clear for the consumer, fundamentally, the concept itself makes sense. More GPU power in smaller form factors can only be a good thing - and it's totally logical to utilise peak efficiency in a mobile device, as opposed to going for flat-out power. That's exactly what the Core i7 7700HQ that sits alongside the GTX 1080 is doing in the Zephyrus, after all. And we'll be fascinated to see how the GTX 1070 and (in particular) the GTX 1060 fare in their transitions down to thinner and lighter designs. For its part, Nvidia is backing the Max-Q venture further with an additional option - whisper mode - accessible via GeForce Experience, designed to tune titles for the best experience, further improving efficiency and reducing noise.
In the final analysis, it's clear that Asus's notebook division likes to push the envelope - as we saw with the beautifully insane GTX 1080 SLI watercooled behemoth that is the GX800VH - but the difference here is that the Zephyrus is perhaps more indicative of the future of gaming laptop technology. Market trends favour thinner, lighter designs, and with Nvidia's next-gen Volta architecture promising further substantial efficiency savings, there's every chance that devices like this will become closer to the norm - but further emphasis on better battery life is the key to making devices like these great laptops, as well as excellent games machines.