Hands-on: Elite gaming and creative power collide in the slim ROG Zephyrus S15

Articles: Hands On
Dec 23, 2020 Written by:Eric Born

For most of my life, I assumed that the toughest tasks needed a desktop PC. Sure, I kept an ultrabook around for traveling, light productivity, and checking on my favorite websites. But for gaming, I relied on my desktop and its discrete GPU. And when it came to video editing and music production, my old notebooks weren’t even a credible possibility. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to test-drive a machine that shatters my preconceptions about what a laptop can do.  I've gone hands-on with the ROG Zephyrus S15, and it's proven its worth as an elite gaming rig and content creation machine in one portable package.

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As an amateur music producer, I was excited to get my hands on this laptop because of the experience of Dada Life’s Stefan Engblom. When we interviewed this prolific traveling musician, he gave us the inside scoop on how he uses his own S15 to write music and edit video while he’s on tour. I might not be part of an internationally famous DJ duo, but I record music and produce videos for my small circle of friends and family. This laptop lets me fit these hobbies more easily into my busy schedule because, like Stefan, I can’t be tied to a desk all day.

As a gamer, I was thrilled about the prospect of loading up some of my favorite titles on the S15. The gaming monitor on my desk is no slouch, but the 300Hz refresh rate on the laptop’s display outpaces its rate by a large margin. The S15’s potent combination of an Intel Core i7-10875H CPU and NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 SUPER GPU lets it take full advantage of the display’s capabilities. No matter what game I loaded up, I enjoyed fluid visuals and sharp images.

No matter where I am or what I’m up to, the Zephyrus S15 provides all the performance I’d expect from a desktop. Its top-tier components, blazing-fast 300Hz display, and high-speed storage accelerate everything I use a PC for. And, of course, it’s a laptop. Whether I want to kick back with a game in my office, hang out in the living room, or record music in my private studio, all I have to do is tuck the S15 under my arm and go.

Curious about the S15’s gaming prowess? Intrigued by its potential for content creation? Read on to find out what this machine can do.

ROG Zephyrus S15
  Availability (US) Availability (CA)
GX502LXS-XS79 ASUS
Newegg
Adorama
Amazon
Best Buy
B&H
EXCaliberPC
HIDevolution
Michael Electronics 2
Staples
XoticPC
Amazon
GX502LWS-XS76 ASUS
Newegg
Amazon
EXCaliberPC
HIDevolution
Micro Center
Staples
XoticPC
Newegg
Amazon
Best Buy
Canada Computers
Memory Express

The Zephyrus S15 matches the fast-paced Ghostrunner stride for stride

An excellent 3D platformer is a rare treasure, but Ghostrunner pulls it off with style. Launched just this fall, it offers a compelling blend of effortless movement and brutal combat. The game is an absolute thrill ride to play on the Zephyrus S15 thanks to its desktop-class display, high-powered components, and Aura Sync lighting that reacts to the in-game action.

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Image source: Gamesplanet

The action in Ghostrunner is lightning-quick, but the Zephyrus S15 is quicker. The beastly GeForce RTX 2080 SUPER 8GB and its 8GB of GDDR6 memory are more than capable of producing dizzying frame rates in recent AAA games. To reach its full potential, it needs the support of an equally powerful processor. That’s why we chose the Intel Core i7-10875H CPU as its partner in crime. With a max Turbo frequency of 5.1GHz, that chip really lets the RTX 2080 SUPER stretch its legs.

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This potent CPU and GPU combo produced 193.1 FPS on average in Ghostrunner. Those fluid visuals were a great help in mastering the game. One vicious slash of my katana drops any enemy, but their attacks do the same to me. If I mistime a dodge or a slide, back to the last checkpoint I go. The sky-high frame rates let me precisely time the insane parkour acrobatics that keep me alive.

The RTX 2080 SUPER allows me to tap NVIDIA’s DLSS 2.0 AI upscaling to push frame rates even further. With DLSS enabled, the game renders at a lower resolution, and then the Tensor cores in the GPU use a neural network to upsample each frame to the target resolution. The resulting frames are almost indistinguishable from traditionally rendered visuals, but since they’re drawn at a lower resolution to start, the GPU can produce them much more quickly.

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With DLSS 2.0 enabled at its Performance preset, the S15 produces 244 FPS on average. A 26% higher frame rate for no discernible loss in image quality will always earn my endorsement. Don’t think that extra performance is going to waste, either. The Zephyrus S15 has a display that refreshes at a whopping 300Hz, so you can see every one of those frames. It's a refresh rate that’s only bested by our own ROG Swift 360Hz—and that's a desktop monitor, not one you can easily take with you. The display also supports NVIDIA G-SYNC variable refresh rate technology, so it can adjust its refresh rate to match the GPU’s output even as frame rates vary naturally over time. That means the S15’s display was able to show every one of those frames with full fidelity.

The triple threat of high raw frame rates, high refresh rates, and NVIDIA G-SYNC is magical. I used to tolerate 60Hz displays that produced odd visual glitches like tearing because it was all I knew, but now that I’ve experienced a fully modern gaming display, it’s tough to go back. When the enemy projectiles start to fly, Ghostrunner pushes my reflexes to their limits. The responsive 300Hz display lets me react more quickly than I ever thought I could. Even compared to the speedy 144Hz gaming monitor on my desk, it brings value that I can feel right away.

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Ghostrunner’s Aura Sync integration adds yet another layer to the experience. The per-key RGB LED lighting across the keyboard reacts in real time to the action, giving me a moment-by-moment edge. For instance, the lights change to a brilliant yellow when I’ve built up enough energy for a special attack, allowing me to trigger my most powerful moves without more than a moment’s glance.

Those colors pop against the S15’s fingerprint-resistant matte black finish. I love the contrasting textures of the laptop’s base and lid. The aluminum panel behind the screen has a brushed-metal look set off by a reflective ROG logo. The distinctive materials give the S15 an unmistakable style that I can make my own with that customizable RGB LED lighting.

The S15 doesn't just look good—it feels good, too. The keys are generously sized and have a satisfying weight that makes them easy to actuate rapidly during a game. Since the S15 has a desktop-style keyboard layout, I can dive right into a game without feeling like I have to retrain my fingers. Reinforcements under the palm rests make sure that the lightweight magnesium-lithium alloy chassis exhibits minimal flex without adding unnecessary heft. And the cooling system keeps the laptop’s skin at a comfortable temperature.

Unparalleled performance in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

The 300Hz panel is an asset for any game, but it’s particularly coveted by esports fanatics. In these fast-paced games, the distance between winning and losing is often measured in milliseconds. To make sure that they’re always on top of the action, competitors often play using components that can produce extremely high FPS and displays that can show new frames at dizzying speeds. Since the S15 brings together all this hardware into one package, I was excited to put it to the test in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. This game runs on a wide range of hardware, but pushing its engine to the absolute limits takes a lethal CPU and GPU combo. Let’s take a close look at what the S15’s Core i7-10875H and RTX 2080 SUPER can accomplish.

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How’d they do? Survey says: spectacularly. It’s a rare pleasure to play at 348.1 FPS on average with peaks breaking 500 FPS. When I do a quick turn because I hear enemy footsteps, the image always stays clear as I track movement and line up a shot. That clarity is transformative for those tense moments when the combat gets close and personal. The 300Hz display has a low 3ms response time, so each pixel can rapidly change color to keep up with the action. The responsive, fluid visuals let me react to enemy movement with lethal precision.

With frame rates so frequently exceeding the panel’s native refresh rate, I chose to take advantage of another NVIDIA tool to clean up screen tearing. Through the NVIDIA Control Panel, I enabled a form of Vsync called Fast Sync. Even as the GPU churns out more frames than the panel can natively show, Fast Sync intelligently displays only the most recent one available, ensuring that your view of the action is always up to date. It’s an elegant solution that lets gamers take advantage of the benefits of Vsync with much less input lag, but it only takes effect when frame rates exceed the native refresh rate of the monitor. Fast Sync and G-SYNC can be used at the same time, so the S15’s display can eliminate tearing both above and below its maximum refresh rate.

With fast hardware churning out hundreds of frames per second, the 300Hz panel keeping pace, and G-SYNC and Fast Sync eradicating tearing and minimizing input lag, the Zephyrus S15 gave me the best CS:GO experience I’ve ever had. I’ve been anxiously scanning for snipers under the bridge of de_dust since the days of Counter-Strike 1.6, but I’ve never felt this on top of my game.

Control’s cutting edge graphics meet their match

NVIDIA’s Turing architecture offers more than high frame rates. It delivers on the long-awaited promise of real-time ray tracing in games. The RT cores in the GeForce RTX 2080 SUPER accelerate the computations necessary for ray-traced effects.

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Image source: Gamesplanet

Control is one of the best ways to showcase what this technology has to offer in games. It’s a tense, surreal thriller with a compelling heroine and an unforgettable environment. I set it to its High preset, maxed out the ray tracing settings, and put the S15 to the test.

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Even with those settings cranked, the S15 posted 67.2 FPS on average, giving me a fluid and high-fidelity experience. Thanks to those ray-traced effects, the labyrinthine interiors of the Bureau of Control were filled with shimmering marble surfaces, glass-walled cubicles, and dimly lit hallways. The translucent reflections on windows and glass walls never ceased to stop me in my tracks. And G-SYNC put the finishing touch on my experience by ensuring smooth, responsive, and tear-free frame delivery.

Unleashing hell on Doom Eternal

Want a GPU that’ll stay relevant for the long term? Pay close attention to the amount of VRAM that it comes with. The GPU uses that specialized pool of memory to store everything it needs for rendering frames: textures, models, shader information, and the like. In the past, 4GB of VRAM was more than enough for the games I played, but in this new era of high-resolution texture packs, I increasingly find that I need more in order to enjoy games at their highest settings.

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Image source: Gamesplanet

Doom Eternal is just one example. Its Ultra Nightmare preset demands more than 6GB of VRAM at 1080p. The RTX 2080 SUPER in the Zephyrus S15 boasts 8GB of speedy GDDR6, so it’s ready to rip and tear.

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Even with the game’s most GPU-taxing settings in play, the Zephyrus S15 delivers an impeccably smooth experience. Its 166.9 FPS average leaves no room for criticism. The display’s massive G-SYNC range is a clear asset in this game, too. Those peaks above 200 FPS exceed the refresh rate of many panels, but pose no problem for the 300Hz display in the S15.

That fluid, tear-free experience allows me to play as fast as my reflexes allow. I’ve rarely felt so much like a one-man army under siege, but that’s how Doom Eternal plays on the S15. Even as I feel the acute awareness of being steps away from death, the responsive, smooth visuals let me unleash an unrelenting assault on the game’s endless swarms of enemies.

Thermal efficiency in a thin package

Considering that the Zephyrus S15 is just 18.9mm thin and a lot more compact than many 15” laptops, it’s fair to wonder how the cooling solution holds up under pressure. Games like Control use every GPU resource they can get their hands on. High-refresh-rate gaming in titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive makes CPUs earn their keep. And I regularly find myself in scenarios, as when I’m live-streaming a game, where I need the full capabilities of both of these chips.

Several key technologies work together to keep the internal components happy and the laptop’s skin comfortable under my fingers. Liquid metal thermal compound by Thermal Grizzly effectively transfers heat away from the Core i7-10875H CPU so it can sustain high clock rates. You can read all about the engineering challenges we surmounted to automate the process of painting liquid metal thermal paste here.

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That compound is just one part of S15’s cooling system. Our innovative Active Aerodynamic System (AAS) opens up broad vents on the underside of the laptop as the lid opens. This stealthy solution makes the laptop thin and portable when I have it folded up, but a powerhouse performer when I’m set up and playing. 83-blade fans direct cooling air through four heatsinks, each a dense array of fins. To keep the system performing optimally for the long term, the fans are designed to divert dust out of the chassis through specially designed channels.

Producing music without missing a beat

Last summer, I bought my first house, and now I have something that I’ve dreamed about for years: a recording studio of my very own. Well, maybe “studio” isn’t exactly the right word. I’ve staked my claim on a corner of the unfinished basement, and I’ve begun the work of transforming it into a soundproof recording room. That work will take awhile, but in the meantime, I’m recording anyway. I’ve got a couple tables set up with an old gaming PC, a USB audio interface, a USB MIDI keyboard controller, and a big ol’ pile of guitars.

There’s just one problem: the PC running the show is a little on the old side. I usually build up a song with virtual instruments—drums, bass, piano, and at least one synth. With all those tracks and their associated effects, plus a couple guitar tracks on top, my recording process quickly exceeds the capabilities of my desktop’s aging CPU. When I recently tried to add a particularly CPU-intensive pad synth to a track, the audio started crackling immediately.

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The Zephyrus S15, on the other hand, handled that same situation without breaking a sweat. When I transferred the same mix to this system, it played back the audio with nary a glitch or crackle. What’s more, I was able to raise the sample rate up to 96KHz from the usual 44.1KHz, a move that both reduced end-to-end latency and increased the quality of my in-process recording.

A speedy CPU like the Core i7-10785H opens up exciting possibilities for home recording. As a musician, my nemesis is always latency. There’s an entire world of guitar-friendly plugins that emulate amplifiers, cabs, and effects pedals, but in order to record with them I have to have extremely low latency. If there’s an audible gap between plucking a note on my guitar and hearing it in my headphones, I just can’t play freely. The S15 lets me load up exciting new sounds, record the music that they inspire me to play, and monitor it all with imperceptible latency. That’s a game changer for my creative process.

It’s incredible that a laptop gave me such an upgrade over a desktop. I can’t overstate the convenience of having one laptop with all of my projects that I can use wherever I want. I’m not even held back by the port selection. The S15’s three USB 3.2 Type-A ports are enough for my mouse, audio interface, and MIDI keyboard controller, and the Thunderbolt 3 USB Type-C port will let me upgrade to a more powerful audio interface down the line. I can plug a secondary display into that same Type-C port or the HDMI port for keeping track of all my FX plugin windows.

I edit video less often than I record music, but I still make projects that just cry out to be shared with a full video. The Zephyrus S15 is highly capable in that regard, too. The Core i7-10875H offers the mix of snappy single-threaded performance and multithreaded muscle that software like Adobe Premiere and DaVinci Resolve loves. Those programs can leverage GPU horsepower, as well, so the RTX 2080 SUPER has an important role to play even outside of After Effects. And the laptop’s 32GB of DDR4 RAM is key, since it’s awful easy to run out of RAM when I’m cutting together a video out of 4K footage.

  GX502LXS-XS79 GX502LWS-XS76
CPU Core i7-10875H
Display 300Hz FHD
GPU GeForce RTX 2080 SUPER GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER
Memory 32GB DDR4 16GB DDR4
Storage 512GB SSD + 512GB SSD 1TB SSD
MSRP $2,999.99 (U.S.)
$3,473.19 (CA)
$2399.99 (U.S.)
$2,999.99 (CA)
U.S. ASUS
Newegg
Adorama
Amazon
Best Buy
B&H
EXCaliberPC
HIDevolution
Michael Electronics 2
Staples
XoticPC
ASUS
Newegg
Amazon
EXCaliberPC
HIDevolution
Micro Center
Staples
XoticPC
Canada Amazon Newegg
Amazon
Best Buy
Canada Computers
Memory Express

The S15 does it all with looks that kill

There’s no question that the ROG Zephyrus S15 has what it takes to deliver excellent performance for everything I use a computer for. Make no mistake—my PCs earn their keep. I demand fluid frame rates in all my games, from competitive esports titles to the latest AAA visual spectacles. And when I’m streaming, recording music, or cutting video, I expect snappy performance and sustained power.

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It’s remarkable enough that one machine can handle all these demanding applications. But the Zephyrus S15 does so while still being portable. The same machine that I plug into my 43” gaming monitor is the one I use from the living room couch or in my basement studio. That’s tremendous convenience, and that’s just thinking about how I use my PC at home. The S15 also lets me travel for work or to visit family without putting my hobbies on hold. And when I gather some musicians together to record, we can meet up just about anywhere.

If you’re also looking for a powerful gaming PC that does it all, the ROG Zephyrus S15 is the machine for you. This slim, stylish laptop will open doors to the best gaming experiences while setting you up for more intensive tasks like game streaming and content creation, all without weighing you down.