Whenever I take my laptop on a trip, I long for the multiple monitors on my desk at work. It ends up that there's an easy way to get that feeling back: a $249 USB monitor. The Asus ZenScreen MB16AC uses DisplayPort or DisplayLink technology to serve as a portable extra display to make you more productive. It's quick and easy, and Asus' software makes it easy to adjust the settings, but it's nowhere near as bright or vivid as a great laptop display.
I'm not going to tell you that the 15.6-inch, 1080p ZenScreen is vivid and bright. It's not. But it's enough to suffice as a second screen to use for work.
It measured 179.6 nits of brightness on our light meter, far dimmer than your average laptop in any category. It covers 72.4 percent of the sRGB color gamut (we consider 100 percent to be excellent) with a Delta-E color accuracy score of 0.2 (0 is ideal, so this is quite good).
While those numbers don't sound great, I didn't mind it during my testing. Yes, it's noticeably dimmer than I'd like, but when I used the screen to hold a secondary chat program, text editor or a web browser, it was plenty usable.
When I watched the trailer for "Black Panther, scenes shot in bright light were sharp and crisp. For instance, I could make out all of the cracks and moss on the rocks at the Warrior Falls. But in the scene where the Black Panther takes on enemies in a dark road in the middle of the night, it was hard to make out some of the action.
There are a handful of different viewing modes, including some for gaming and watching movies, but I found that the default was the brightest, and I couldn't handle anything dimmer.
At 14.6 x 8.9 x 0.3 inches and just 2.8 pounds (including the cover), the ZenScreen is incredibly portable. The cover wraps around the screen and the back, protecting it when it's in a backpack or suitcase.
There's very little bezel around the viewing area, which is far more attractive than the thick bezels on some laptops. There are two buttons in the bottom left-hand corner to navigate through menus, though if you install some software you'll be able to change settings from your computer.
The cover is supposed to double as a stand. I say "supposed to," because I found it to be a serious pain in the ass, and I imagine you will, too. The instruction manual has three different ways to use its folds and creases to prop up the display. With more time, maybe I could memorize them all. But for now I found one that worked and stuck with it.
There's a small hole on the bottom right of the display to fit a pen. If you don't want to use the cover, you can stick one through the hold and it will balance on its own. It's charming in a MacGyver kind of way, but it's a bit of a hack and you'll need the right-size pen. Luckily, Asus includes one in the box (black ink, if you're wondering). I hope that Asus just adds a built-in kickstand next time and save us all the trouble of using pens and origami. As it stands, neither option is as stable as I'd like, but the pen is by far the better option.
The back of the monitor is gunmetal gray with Asus' logo and trademark concentric circles.
I appreciated all of the little customization options the ZenScreen offers. For instance, there's a four-level blue-light filter for working at night and a series of different modes for gaming, movie-watching or reading.
If you have the drivers installed, it also automatically rotates, should you want to start coding or see a ton of your Twitter feed at once.
There are some features meant for gaming, like a timer and choices of red and green crosshairs (sadly, no FPS counter in this model), though I found that powerful gaming rigs couldn't transmit enough data over USB to actually play games on the screen. When I played Mass Effect Andromeda on an Alienware 17, there would be no movement in-game until I moved it back to the laptop's display.
Although the ZenScreen comes with a USB Type-C cable, you can use a USB Type-C to Type-A cable or an adapter to plug it into older laptops as long as you download a DisplayLink driver. I had no issue using it with both an HP Elitebook x360 with Thunderbolt 3 and my work- issued Dell Latitude E7270 with a USB Type-A. Mac user? No problem. I plugged this into a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and had an instant second screen.
Software and Warranty
In theory, you don't need any software or drivers to get the ZenScreen working. In our testing, we plugged it into a laptop with a Thunderbolt 3 port and it worked. If you go to Asus' website, though, you can grab DisplayLink drivers and Asus' DisplayWidget and MultiFrame software.
DisplayWidget is the most useful piece of software I've seen with any computer or peripheral in a long time. Sure, you can go through menus with the two physical buttons on the display, but those menus are a pain to navigate. DisplayWidget lets you change all the settings you want with a Windows 10 app -- literally, with the click of a mouse. It's also required for auto-rotate.
MultiFrame lets you move your programs into grids so you don't have to spend time moving overlapping programs. It's nice, but more complicated than snapping your programs into place with Windows 10.
The software is only for Windows, though, so you won't be able to use auto-rotate if you use the display with a Mac.
Asus offers a three-year warranty with the ZenScreen MB16AC.
If you're a business traveler in need of all the screen real estate you can get, the Asus ZenScreen MB16AC is an easy, portable option to get another 15.6inches. Whether on its own (for Thunderbolt 3 or USB Type-C with DisplayPort) or with an adapter (for USB Type-A), it should work on just about any laptop.
If you're looking for an extra monitor for entertainment, you should look elsewhere. It's dim and, while sharp, not as vivid as some mainstream and premium laptops.But for work and simple web browsing, this is an incredibly easy and efficient way to double your screens and get more done.
Photo credit: Shaun Lucas/Laptop Mag