In their early years, gaming laptops were meant to be desktop replacements. The first Razer Blade, released in 2011, was almost seven pounds; the 2012 Blade was 6.6. Battery life was a laughing matter. (The 2017 Zephyrus had just over two hours.) Gaming laptops were bulky and garish. They were designed for gaming on a budget, not for gaming on the go.
But the age of the ultraportable is here. There’s now a 2.01-pound laptop with six cores, there’s a 3.3-pound laptop with a discrete GPU, and a 5-pound laptop is considered to be on the heavy side. Each year, we’re expecting lighter notebooks that can do more — and as productivity laptops move in that direction, so are the gaming machines.
That’s where the AMD Ryzen 9 4900HS comes in. For the past decade, the main argument for a Ryzen chip over an Intel chip centered on price rather than performance. But AMD has released a CPU that could, for the first time in recent memory, compete with Intel’s top-of-the-line model. The 35W 4900HS, with 8 cores, 16 threads, and 3.0 GHz clock speeds that can boost up to 4.4 GHz, goes head to head with Intel’s Core i9-9880H; it’s meant to power desktop-class gaming and productivity in portable laptops.
We’re getting our first look at the 4900HS in its quintessential use case: the $1,449 Asus ROG Zephyrus G14. Somehow, Asus crammed a 4900HS and an Nvidia RTX 2060 Max-Q into a 14-inch notebook that weighs just over 3.5 pounds. It also has 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, and a 120Hz display. It’s unusual to see such powerful hardware in such a small chassis: the G14 is the smallest Zephyrus gaming laptop AMD has ever made, and it’s also one of the few 14-inch laptops to pair an H-series processor with a discrete GPU.
(You can get the same model with a Ryzen 7 4800HS, 16GB RAM, 512GB storage, and the less-powerful GTX 1660 TI Max-Q for $1,299, or go down to 8GB of RAM, a GTX 1650, and a 60Hz screen for $1,049.)
I’m happy to say that the G14 delivers. The laptop is fantastic for productivity, and it’s a lot of fun to use. The 4900HS and 2060 Max-Q duo can handle demanding games like Red Dead Redemption II and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. As with any gaming rig, you’ll make some trade-offs for that performance. But in the grand scheme of things, the sacrifices that the G14 asks are small.
I’ll start by talking about the gaming experience since that’s probably what you care most about if you clicked on this review. Fear not: it’s good. It’s as good as you’d expect from an H-Series processor, a 2060 Max-Q, and a 120Hz screen.
CS:GO averaged 216fps on maximum settings, with a low of 49. Motion was smooth, and I could see individual dust particles and sparks flying from various things I shot. The more graphically intensive Shadow of the Tomb Raider was also playable on the highest settings (with ray tracing off), averaging around 74fps with a minimum of 58. The play was also quite smooth and scenery, from bright towns to dark jungles, looked great.
On the ultimate test, Red Dead Redemption II cranked up to Ultra (with fast and multisample anti-aliasing off), the G14 delivered more of a console-like experience, achieving an average of 31fps and a low of 14. Rows of stores and trees were a bit blurry as I galloped past them on horseback, and there was some stuttering in flurries of dust and snow. But the game was functional. Most people will have a better time on High settings, however, where the G14 hovered around 50fps.
I suspect cooling is holding the G14 back somewhat. The 4900HS got pretty hot under demanding titles; it hit 98 degrees Celsius during my 80-minute session of Red Dead, and 97 during my hour-long session of Tomb Raider. That’s not unexpected from a 14-inch laptop running AAA titles, but a laptop with the same hardware but better cooling would probably see better results.
Now, for all the other stuff.
Asus has nicely refined its retro aesthetic. If there were laptops in Battlestar Galactica, they would look like the G14. A dot matrix covers half of the lid — these can function as an LED display that can show GIFS, the time, and other neat effects, but that model won’t be available for a few more weeks. On the non-LED model, they’re still a cool design.
Like many thinner laptops, the G14’s screen folds under the deck when you open it, lifting the keyboard a bit above the ground. This, in theory, helps with cooling by allowing air to better circulate, and it also hides a chunk of the screen’s enormous bottom bezel. Some people find these types of hinge uncomfortable in their laps, but I had no problem with this one, which is blunt and rounded.
The port selection is serviceable: two USB-C, two USB-A, an HDMI, and a 3.5mm audio jack. The G14 can charge via USB-C, but there’s also a jack for Asus’ 180W adaptor if you don’t want to take up a port. There’s no Thunderbolt 3, unsurprisingly, since that’s Intel’s proprietary standard. This is an unfortunate downside of using an AMD system for the time being, though the G14’s HDMI and DisplayPort capabilities give you other options for connecting to peripherals.
This probably won’t surprise you if you’ve owned a smaller gaming laptop before, but if you plan to use the G14 for browsing and productivity, the largest trade-off you’re making is screen quality. The notebook has a 1920 x 1080 screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is par for the course with smaller gaming machines. You’re not likely to see many 14-inch 120Hz panels at any higher resolution, and a 4K panel would be a big ask of the 2060 Max-Q.
That means the G14’s screen is excellent for gaming, and it’s not bad for video-watching either. It’s matte and kicks back almost no glare. Dark scenes from Altered Carbon looked great, even in bright rooms. Some lighter tones (such as a wedding dress and Joel Kinnaman’s skin) had a greenish tint to them, but it’s not noticeable if you’re not looking for it. (The screen covers 100 percent of the SRGB spectrum and 75.35 percent of Adobe RGB.) I saw a lot more glare outdoors, but it’s usable there in a pinch.
The downside is that if you plan on doing a lot of browsing or productivity work, you’ll be more cramped than you would on a 3:2 display such as that of Huawei’s MateBook 13. I had to zoom out to 70 to 80 percent to comfortably work two windows side by side.
The second drawback is the fans. The G14 does an impressive job keeping itself cool, given the power of the hardware it’s packing into a 3.5-pound chassis. If you’re using this machine on its default fan settings for multitasking, you’re likely to hear a constant whine. It’s loud enough that your office neighbors will hear it. I got used to this fairly quickly, but it’s a fact worth noting if you’re picky about fan noise.
You can also switch to Asus’ “Silent” profile, which makes the fans inaudible. I was worried that muffling the fans would cause the 4900HS to fry itself, but browsing in this profile was still very doable. You won’t want to use this mode for intensive gaming, of course, but even while running several Chrome tabs and a number of other programs, including Slack, Spotify, and a couple of benchmarks, the G14 was downright cold in my lap, and the CPU didn’t pass 35 degrees Celsius.
Speaking of the touchpad and keyboard, they are both great. The Windows Precision Trackpad is a good size and very easy to press. The keys are clicky with decent travel, without being loud enough to annoy officemates. The deck is sturdy, with very little flex. The labels do retain Asus’ sci-fi font that looks like it belongs in a Johnny Rockets restaurant; you can take your own view on that design choice. I also like that the G14 has a separate panel containing the volume controls and a key that mutes or unmutes the microphone, as well as a slightly less helpful button that opens Asus’ control panel.
I never thought I’d be saying this about a gaming laptop, but the battery life is also very good. During my normal workday of swapping between a dozen Chrome tabs, running Slack, and occasionally streaming Netflix or Spotify at 50 percent brightness and a balanced battery profile, I got around 8 hours and 50 minutes of juice. That means the G14 can make it through a workday on battery and can handle a long bus or plane ride as well. The device took 41 minutes to charge up to 60 percent on Asus’ plug and 53 minutes to do the same via USB-C.
Of course, don’t expect to be doing much gaming on battery. Red Dead on high settings ran around 18 to 20fps when the G14 wasn’t plugged in, dropping down to the low teens at around 40 percent, and the low single digits at 10 percent. I got an hour and 38 minutes of gaming on a charge.
At the end of the day, the Zephyrus G14 can handle the multitasking you need it to. The keyboard, touchpad, and battery life are superb. If you don’t mind a low-resolution screen and fans that you can hear, you’ll be happy with the G14 as your primary device. (If those are deal-breakers for you, though, you’ll need something else for browsing and work.)
But mainly, Asus and AMD have successfully put Intel on notice. Last year’s Core i7-powered Blade Stealth 13 was the first 13-inch machine that came with a GTX 1650 Max-Q GPU. The most demanding game it could handle was what Engadget called “a stuttery Destiny 2 experience.” Still, many gamers hailed it as a triumph for being a 3.24-pound laptop that could run that title at all.
The Ryzen-powered G14 weighs just a bit more than the Stealth GTX and it games better. I see no reason to buy the Stealth GTX or any pricier gaming ultraportable when this laptop exists. AMD has rewritten the rules of what a gaming laptop can be.
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