Lots of announcements and teases for CES 2021, but one particular laptop design has me excited. And my wallet is bracing for the price.
Gaming laptops are a weird category for me. I am not one of those people that thinks you can’t game on them. No, I wish there was a way to have powerful laptop CPUs without paying for the high-end GPU for a work computer.
Almost all laptop CPUs have integrated graphics capable of doing non-gaming tasks incredibly well. But as soon as you look at a higher-end CPU in a laptop, there is the matching GPU cost whether you want it or not.
Well, Asus seems to have come close to my perfect laptop with the announced ROG Flow X13.
It’s a laptop. What’s so special about it?
Another laptop design rarely gets exciting – especially one that looks as ordinary as the Flow X13. A 13″ thin laptop, even a 2 in 1 design, isn’t exactly something new. Handy for if you want to take your computer out and about. Light, easy to carry, and not hard to put in most backpacks.
Most laptops of this size have U class CPUs. What are these? These are the lowest powered version of any CPU. I am not talking power as in core count. I am referring purely the power that the CPU draws to run.
The advantages of these low 15ishW CPUs is battery life and are easy to cool. The downside is a relatively low performance compared to their high end 35-45W counterparts. That said, this performance gap has been closing the last couple of years.
The Flow X13 offers a ‘full’ laptop AMD Ryzen 6-8 core CPU with a low-end NVIDIA graphics card. For my work, this is almost the perfect combination.
But isn’t the ROG line for gaming laptops? Wouldn’t you want a better graphics card?
Generally, yes. I tend to get the 60 series graphics cards in a laptop. This is partly because of the power required to run higher cards, but mainly because of the heat ‘better’ graphics cards tend to generate. Laptops tend not to have the most outstanding cooling solutions compared to desktops.
With a device called an eGPU, you can get a huge box to plug in a desktop GPU and connect that to your laptop. The marketing says you get ‘desktop gaming performance’.
Yeah, not quite. These generally connect via Thunderbolt 3, and the bandwidth for the graphics just isn’t there. This makes for an expensive and hard to transport solution that works, but nowhere near at its full potential.
But Asus has come up with a more workable alternative.
Introducing the ROG XG Mobile
Sold separately, the XG Mobile is essentially a small form factor eGPU unit, docking station and power supply all in one. It’s a small form factor because the GPU included is a mobile graphics card.
The connection is also made via a proper PCIe connection, so the bandwidth limitations aren’t a factor anymore. This is an amazing feat, but there is one huge drawback – it’s a custom port, and the Flow X13 is the only laptop that has it. Or rather will have it – the Flow X13 and XG Mobile aren’t available yet.
So why is this exciting?
For when I am travelling for work, this means I can take a small form factor laptop with more power than my current 17″ laptop. If I need mains power, I can drop in a tiny USB C charger into my bag. You can even run the Flow X13 from a decent battery bank!
When I get home, I can plug in the XG Mobile for power and the boosted graphics card (up to a 150W RTX 3080), and game away. True, I can do this with a traditional eGPU as well. But if I want to take my graphics with me, it means lugging two power supplies and an enclosure the size of a large toaster.
With the XG Mobile, yes I need to carry essentially a large power brick – but just the one. This makes the Flow X13 and XG Mobile incredibly travel friendly. Travelling to PAX Aus, I know what I would prefer to take down to Melbourne with me for PC gaming!
You said ‘Almost perfect’
With the tiny 13″ form factor, I would bet that memory and storage is soldered to the motherboard. This means no popping in extra RAM or upgrading the hard drive.
There is also going to be the price. It’s conjecture, but I would again bet that the Flow X13 and XG Mobile will be considerably more expensive than buying a larger gaming laptop with the same specs.
The trade-off will, of course, be the size and portability. Also, the battery life will likely be better on the Flow X13. This is also the first time Asus has produced a laptop like this, so early adopters tax on these items will also be involved.
There is also the included low-end graphics card – think a GTX 1650. For my usage, I will be paying for a graphics card I won’t use. The Ryzen CPU has an integrated GPU fine for watching YouTube or getting office work done. When I want more graphics grunt, that is what the XG Mobile is for.
Paying for an extra video card essentially for the NVENC encoder is a guaranteed additional cost that I wish wasn’t part of the Flow X13. I feel users that need the discrete graphics would get a ‘normal’ laptop with one. Gamers who buy the Flow X13 will likely get the XG Mobile, making the inclusion of the low-end card confusing.
Maybe Asus should have a model with the discrete graphics, and one without? That may be the best solution.
So how likely are you to get a Flow X13?
No idea. Honestly, I probably won’t if the cost is what I expect. Price and performance are yet to be revealed – this was a hardware announcement only. The idea is sound, and the possibilities for specific use cases are there. The only certainty to me is that the Flow X13 and XG Mobile won’t be for everyone.
I mention this with all tech but remember to wait until you see how something performs before dropping your hard-earned cash. I am excited about the combination because I have been hoping for such a setup for years. That doesn’t mean I am keen to line up to preorder one!
But I am really excited that manufacturers are looking at solutions like this, even if I may not necessarily purchase one. Many use cases need ‘beefy’ laptop CPUs but don’t need the higher-end graphics cards. It’s extra cost and heat management issues that just push up the cost and what needs to be carted around.
It’s tech like this that makes me look forward to CES every year. Not every idea is a winner or executed as well as possible. But it does show how some products can fit a need, and that is always exciting.
What about you? Is a device like the Flow X13 of any interest to you? Or does a ‘normal’ laptop already have you covered?
Until next time,