Asus ROG Flow Z13
  • computer
  • 10/04/2022

Asus ROG Flow Z13

Most of Asus' Republic of Gamers PCs are conventional gaming laptops, but sometimes the company gets wild. Asus debuted a 2-in-1 convertible gaming laptop with an external GPU solution last year with the ROG Flow X13 and has now refined the concept with the ROG Flow Z13 (starts at $1,799.99; $1,899.99 as tested). While the X13 was a convertible laptop, the Z13 is a tablet first, with a detachable keyboard like that of Microsoft's Surface Pro. Unlike other tablets, however, a high-refresh-rate screen and Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU put it on par with entry-level gaming laptops, and its Core i9 processor—unheard of in a tablet until now—delivers uncommon speed.

The XG Mobile external graphics adapter, sold separately, can replace the RTX 3050 Ti with a mobile RTX 3080 GPU for superior performance when plugged in at your desk, while the tablet is ready for the road. The design is well-executed and the eGPU delivers the frame rates you'd expect, but the prohibitive cost of the pair combined is a tough sell (as is the price of the tablet alone considering its modest graphics power ). The concept doesn't inherently improve your experience, either, as there are plenty of thin and light gaming laptops that combine power and portability for less. Asus' own ROG Zephyrus G14 is our favorite ultraportable gaming rig, and we recommend it over the Flow Z13 on the basis of value and convenience.

A True Gaming Tablet

As we said, this device is a follow-up to the ROG Flow X13 gaming convertible we reviewed last year. While that machine was a 2-in-1 laptop that could be converted into a tablet by folding back the keyboard, the Z13 is a true tablet that operates in laptop mode with an attachable keyboard.

If you think that sounds more like the Microsoft Surface Pro 8 than a convertible laptop, you're right. Unlike the Surface Pro, however, the ROG Flow Z13 includes its keyboard cover as standard equipment—and, much more important, is built for gaming. We'll examine its performance and the components that make that possible in a minute.

Like the Surface Pro, the Z13 has a built-in rear kickstand to prop up the device when you're not holding it as a tablet. Its high-powered hardware makes it considerably heftier than the tablets you're used to, measuring 0.47 by 11.9 by 8 inches (HWD) and weighing 2.6 pounds. That's compact compared with most laptops, but I certainly felt the extra thickness and weight when holding it as a tablet. The design is well within usable range, but I just found myself more aware of its bulk, and it's tiring to hold in one hand for long.

The fact that the keyboard is removable makes the device itself lighter than last year's X13, though the keyboard adds another 0.6 pound when attached. As with most detachables, the keyboard attaches to the bottom of the device magnetically with a 7-pin connector. I also found the small tab on the kickstand very useful for popping it open when shifting the device into laptop mode; more 2-in-1s should employ this as opposed to a too-small indent you need to grab.

Back to the tablet itself, the display measures 13.4 inches diagonally with a 16:10 aspect ratio. Its resolution is equivalent to full HD (1,920 by 1,200 pixels), and its refresh rate is 120Hz. This should make web browsing and scrolling look smoother, but it's even more helpful while gaming, making games look smoother when the GPU can push frame rates above 60fps. If you crave higher resolution, there's a 4K screen option with 60Hz refresh.

In terms of its visual design, the Z13 has elements of both professional and gaming systems, arguably with too much of the latter for some. The chassis is all black, but the rear features a bold circuitry pattern and a see-through window with RGB backlighting. I think this is a neat addition for an expensive product, adding some flair to what might otherwise be too plain for the price, but it might be a bit much for some shoppers.

Like other tablets, the Z13 features both front and rear cameras. The front-facing camera is an unremarkable 720p webcam for taking video calls, but the rear-facing camera boasts 3,264 by 2,448 resolution. Connectivity includes a USB 2.0 port; a USB-C port that supports Thunderbolt 4 and DisplayPort out and serves as the charging connector; an SD card slot; and an audio jack. There's also a proprietary connector for the optional external GPU, the XG Mobile (more about it in a moment).

Components and Pricing

There are several ROG Flow Z13 models available, though it's a little complicated. Our review unit costs $1,899.99 with an Intel Core i9-12900H processor, 16GB of memory, a 1TB solid-state drive, and the Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti GPU. Not only is a blazing Core i9 chip a rarity in a tablet, it's part of Intel's latest (and impressive) 12th Generation "Alder Lake" family. On top of that, it's one of the more potent H-series chips that usually appear in full-size gaming rigs, rarely ultraportables and certainly not tablets. This monster CPU boasts 14 cores and 20 threads; you can read more about the innovative "Alder Lake" architecture here. Compared to larger laptops, the Z13's chassis likely constrains the chip's thermals to a point, but it should still offer formidable performance potential. A $1,799.99 model steps down to a Core i7 and RTX 3050.

The discrete GPU is also noteworthy, and virtually every other tablet relies on humbler integrated graphics. The GeForce RTX 3050 Ti is more or less an entry-level GPU in Nvidia's gaming lineup, but it's still plenty capable for mainstream gaming, putting the Asus into a class of its own. (It's one of the main reasons for the Flow's size and price, too.) The Z13 features a MUX switch that lets users activate or deactivate the integrated graphics for specific applications. It also more directly delivers frames between the GPU and the display, which should increase performance and reduce latency slightly.

However, not even an RTX 3050 Ti will let you play the most demanding games with all the visual bells and whistles turned up. It's fine for gaming on the road, but if the Flow Z13 is your main machine at home, you may crave higher frame rates. This is why Asus sells the XG Mobile external GPU enclosure, which plugs into the tablet via the proprietary connection to bring its own, more powerful graphics chip into play.

The XG Mobile we received for review includes a GeForce RTX 3080 (the laptop version, not the massive desktop card), several steps above the RTX 3050 Ti. We'll detail the performance of each in the benchmark section below, but suffice it to say the eGPU boosts gameplay significantly. Of course, this bonus comes at a big price: The XG Mobile we tested costs $1,499.99, the price of a whole separate laptop, bringing our Z13 total to about $3,400. There are less expensive versions of both—an XG Mobile with a tamer AMD GPU is $100 less and Asus says an entry-level Flow Z13 is coming in Q3 for $1,499.99—but even they are far from cheap, and our test combination is an undeniably pricey proposition.

XG Mobile Execution: Does the Concept Hold Up?

With the design and pricing laid out, now's as good a time as any to discuss the overall value or appeal of the concept. The two-piece idea makes sense on paper—the tablet can easily fit in your bag and plays games moderately well on its own, and you can get a huge performance boost with the eGPU back home. The XG Mobile is also compact enough that you could take it with you, if not for use in transit than at least when you arrive at your destination.

Asus ROG Flow Z13

The tablet and keyboard are comfortable and easy to attach, detach, recline, and use; Asus executed the design nicely and the parts feel high-quality. I'm not sure the tablet form factor adds much in the way of portability or improves the gaming experience over a slim laptop considering its heft (though at least it takes less space in a bag or briefcase), but like the Surface Pro, it's satisfying to use.

External GPUs have a history of being troublesome, but the XG Mobile is commendably streamlined. It has a standard power adapter you plug into an AC outlet, and you plug the other end into the proprietary connector on the Z13. Crucially, you must flip a switch on the connector header to lock it in place and activate the eGPU, or it won't do anything. Once I did this, the software almost immediately recognized the device, showed a progress bar while activating the RTX 3080 as the display adapter, and was ready within a few seconds. A notification informed me that to disconnect, you release the XG Mobile via the Windows taskbar tray as you would a USB flash drive before unlocking and disconnecting.

So the ROG Flow Z13 and XG Mobile are well made and work together pretty seamlessly—that's half the battle. But today's lightweight gaming laptops have come a long way in portability, power, and price/performance. Asus' own ROG Zephyrus G14 arguably provides the same functionality in a single device at a much lower cost; even our relatively high-end G14 was $900 less than the tablet and eGPU duo and weighed only 3.64 pounds.

Is the tablet design and one-two punch worth the premium? Since that answer depends on how much of a performance leap the XG Mobile provides, let's dive into our test results.

Performance Testing: Core i9 Speed, Entry-Level Graphics Power

We'll start by testing the ROG Flow Z13 by itself. We'll be comparing its benchmark scores to those of the Zephyrus G14 and three other gaming laptops, whose basic specs appear in the table below.

Of course, with Asus pitching the Z13 plus XG Mobile as a matched set, we ran our graphics and gaming benchmarks twice, the second time with the tablet connected to the eGPU. This way, you can get a sense of how much the performance improves and whether it's competitive with a standard gaming laptop. First, the Z13 on its own.

The main benchmark of UL's PCMark 10 simulates a variety of real-world productivity and content-creation workflows, measuring overall performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, web browsing, and videoconferencing. We also run PCMark 10's Full System Drive test to assess the load time and throughput of a laptop's storage.

Three benchmarks focus on the CPU, using all available cores and threads, to rate a PC's suitability for processor-intensive workloads. Maxon's Cinebench R23 uses that company's Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene, while Primate Labs' Geekbench 5.4 Pro simulates popular apps ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning. Finally, we use the open-source video transcoder HandBrake 1.4 to convert a 12-minute video clip from 4K to 1080p resolution (lower times are better).

Our final productivity test is workstation maker Puget Systems' PugetBench for Photoshop, which uses the Creative Cloud version 22 of Adobe's famous image editor to rate a PC's performance for content creation and multimedia applications. It's an automated extension that executes a variety of general and GPU-accelerated Photoshop tasks ranging from opening, rotating, resizing, and saving an image to applying masks, gradient fills, and filters.

Despite being confined to a tablet chassis, the Z13's Core i9 CPU posted a strong showing. It wasn't the fastest in the group, but when you consider the size and thermal differences the ROG Flow's results are impressive. The Z13 is clearly a fast system for general productivity and even moderate media or content creation workloads.

That's also much more than you can say for the vast majority of tablets. The fastest available Surface Pro 8 has a non-H-series Core i7 and no discrete GPU, and its extra-cost keyboard cover brought the price of our review unit within $20 of the Flow Z13. On a performance basis, that makes the Asus slate a much better deal, even if it is thicker and heavier.

For the record, the Z13 offers several software performance modes, but they generally didn't deliver much of an improvement in our tests. The Turbo mode, for instance, boosted the tablet's Cinebench score by a mere 100 points, which wasn't worth the added fan noise—the device otherwise operated with reasonable (and even quiet) fan volume and heat. The scores you see were obtained using the Performance mode.

We test Windows PCs' graphics with two DirectX 12 gaming simulations from UL's 3DMark: Night Raid (more modest, suitable for laptops with integrated graphics) and Time Spy (more demanding, suitable for gaming rigs with discrete GPUs).

In addition, we run three real-world game tests using the built-in benchmarks of F1 2021, Assassin's Creed Valhalla, and Rainbow Six Siege. These represent simulation, open-world action-adventure, and competitive esports shooter games respectively. We run Valhalla and Siege twice (the former at its Medium and Ultra quality presets, the latter at Low and Ultra) while trying F1 2021 at its top settings with and without Nvidia's performance-boosting DLSS anti-aliasing (or its equivalent FSR for AMD GPUs).

This is arguably the most important set of benchmarks for the ROG Flow Z13, and the results are mixed. It's not much of a surprise given its tablet form factor and GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU, but the Z13 trailed almost across the board (Rainbow Six Siege being the sole exception). The synthetic benchmarks show a clear power ceiling, and the gap to even the RTX 3060 is noteworthy. The real-world game frame rates are competent, but leave something to be desired. The RTX 3060-based MSI Katana doesn't always hit 60fps in these games either, but that laptop only costs $1,199 and offers a larger screen.

Part of this is just the GeForce RTX 3050 Ti being the least powerful GPU here, not the Asus tablet's design failing to live up to the GPU's potential. That said, $1,899.99 is far more than you'd normally pay for an RTX 3050 Ti gaming rig. For a budget laptop, I'd tell you it was reasonable to have to turn down visual settings in a game like Assassin's Creed, but when you're paying what you normally would for something like an RTX 3070, it's a tough pill to swallow.

The big question, however, is how much the XG Mobile eGPU boosts performance. Here are the results with the Z13 connected to the mobile RTX 3080:

The difference between the tablet alone and the tablet plus the XG Mobile is stark—the combo went toe to toe with the other top-end laptops, and was even the fastest in several benchmarks. That may seem obvious—an RTX 3080 should lead the other GPUs—but two notes on that front.

One, it matched or bettered the RTX 3080 in the full-size Lenovo Legion 7, which is a strong endorsement of its effectiveness. Two, we normally see performance loss with eGPUs, due to the external connection costing some of the GPU's native power. Asus' proprietary connection must offer superior throughput compared to the USB-C links we've seen. It's also possible there's less of a penalty for a mobile GPU than a full-size graphics card as in eGPUs like the Razer Core.

Again, the Asus duo's combined price is a big ask for shoppers. But unlike many eGPUs, the combo does deliver the performance it should, boosting the tablet into a tier reserved for larger gaming laptops. If the tablet-plus-external-graphics idea appeals to you, this is a winning implementation of it.

We test portables' battery life by playing a locally stored 720p video file with display brightness at 50% and audio volume at 100% until the system quits. We make sure the battery is fully charged before the test, with Wi-Fi and keyboard backlighting turned off.

The Z13's battery life is so-so, in line with some larger gaming laptops but shorter than more portable systems. This undermines the road-ready nature of the device, as most tablets offer much longer unplugged runtime. The display's color coverage is middling, too, but its brightness is well above average.

A Decent Solution in Search of a Problem

It's difficult to come to a single, simple conclusion about the Asus ROG Flow Z13. On one hand, a legitimate gaming tablet is a head-turning idea, and the Asus' design and execution are high-quality. Its gaming performance equals that of many entry-level gaming laptops, which is impressive given the Z13's relative thickness and size. And the eGPU hookup, often a headache, works fine.

Ultimately, however, we have to ask if this solution is better than existing alternatives. The tablet on its own approaches premium gaming laptop pricing for entry-level gaming performance, while being thicker and heavier than productivity-focused tablets and relatively short on battery life. And while it's hard to resist the extra performance you get with the XG Mobile, the combination is super expensive, as much as $1,000 more than comparable gaming laptops. If you throw out price as a consideration entirely, it's a nifty setup, but we have a hard time recommending the tablet as a standalone gaming solution or justifying the additional price of the eGPU.