Subjective Overview of the N53JF

The N53JF is a nice looking laptop—some might even say it’s the most attractive of the midrange laptops we’ve recently reviewed—but aesthetics are highly personal. Where the XPS 15 had rounded corners and a slightly thicker chassis, the N53JF is more traditional. The large speaker bar up top may be too much, and stickers abound on the palm rest, but the brushed aluminum palm rest and lid are attractive. Compal’s NBLB2 is old school in appearance (i.e. not good in our opinion), and the Clevo is okay but feels a bit cheap. I’d say personally I like some of the design elements of the N53JF more than the other laptops, but I do prefer the backlit keyboard and solidity of the Dell XPS.

ASUS makes the same mistake we’ve lamented with so many other laptops: there are no glossy finishes except for the LCD and bezel. I understand the idea of coherency—i.e. keep the entire viewing area glossy—but you will routinely put fingerprints on the bezel when you open up the laptop. Dustin also disliked the webcam “shutter”, but I’m not so negative on the feature; it may break, since it’s just a plastic slider, but if you’re like me you’ll have the webcam in the off position 99% of the time anyway.

The most controversial design element is probably going to be the speaker bar across the top of the keyboard area. Simply put, it’s huge, and that might give you the impression that ASUS is using better than average speakers. Perhaps they are, but subjectively the sound didn’t impress me all that much. Audio is clear, but there’s a major emphasis on the highs, to the point where a lot of my music sounded scratchy—like there was static on the high range. This was present on CDs, MP3s, and lossless FLAC audio files, so it’s not just a problem with overly compressed music. The lack of a subwoofer also hurts relative to the XPS 15’s excellent sound, so in the end the audio is just okay. Cranking up the volume, the overpowering highs become even more so, and certain music and sounds would create some resonance and distortion above ~80% volume. You can see pictures in the gallery above showing the dissection of the N53JF that show the two speakers underneath the large grille; they look to be pretty typical 1” (or smaller) tweeters, making the aesthetics of the grille even more questionable. Frankly, I expected a lot more from speakers bearing the Bang & Olufsen badge.

The keyboard is another “average” area. ASUS eschews the chiclet style that is used on so many other laptops for a change, but I’m not sure their flat keys are any better. There’s a fair amount of flex on the keyboard, no backlighting, and the number keypad has a half-sized “0” key that overlaps with the cursor keys. It’s certainly not my favorite keyboard ever, not by a long stretch, but it’s also not as bad as the Acer/Gateway floating islands. The palm rest and trackpad are decent sized and the latter works as well as other touchpads I’ve used, with support for all the latest multi-touch features. Again, ASUS uses a glossy rocker switch for the buttons, which is the wrong decision in our opinion, but it’s not so bad that we can’t live with it. Like I said, it’s simply an average layout.

The other item to discuss is the display, and here’s where things get a little confusing. Astra32 (and our display calibration utility) both report the N53JF LCD and the Dell XPS 15 1080p LCD as being an AU Optronics B156HW1 (B156HW01 v5 for the N53JF). While both are 15.6” 1080p displays, the backlighting and contrast are clearly better on the Dell panel—even without using any hardware, it’s immediately noticeable that the contrast in particular is nowhere near as good on the ASUS panel. Maximum brightness is also lower, so we’re not sure if AUO simply has different versions of the same panel where one model has a wide gamut and better contrast. The net result is that we like the 1080p resolution, but compared to the Compal, Clevo, and (no longer available) Dell 1080p offerings this LCD is definitely the low man on the totem pole. That still makes it a far better choice than any of the 768p displays we see everywhere else!

One other aspect of the design that bears mention is the access to the internals, which is actually another step back. A single smaller cover provides access to a couple of wire connections, while a larger panel hides the RAM and HDD slots. The problem is that the screws securing the larger panel are hidden beneath the rubber feet on the bottom of the notebook. If you never access the SO-DIMM slots and you don’t plan on upgrading to an SSD in the future, it’s not a big deal, but hiding screws on the bottom of a laptop in this manner is silly. We’re not talking about a laptop that’s designed for looks (i.e. MacBook’s unibody chassis), and there are plenty of other screws visible on the bottom, so hiding these and forcing users to remove and replace the feet (which will inevitably wear out the stickiness if you do this more than a couple times) is unnecessary. We went ahead and dismantled the laptop a bit more to show the internals, mostly because we had already removed the other 26 screws that hold the chassis together. The keyboard comes off relatively easily, and again I have to comment on just how flimsy this particular keyboard feels; please, add a stiff backplate on the keyboard next time ASUS.

Ultimately, what you get with the N53JF is a decent notebook that fails to surpass the competition in some key areas. ASUS uses a lesser LCD and the keyboard isn’t quite as good as we’d like; they make up for this by including a Blu-ray combo drive. On paper, we suspect they also spent some money to get the “improved” Bang & Olufsen speakers, but the result failed to impress. They’re not terrible, but if the speakers (and branding) added even $25 to the total cost, that money could have been put into getting a higher contrast LCD instead.

ASUS N53JF: Four Times Lucky? ASUS N53JF: Performs as Expected
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  • DanNeely - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    I wouldn't hold my breath. The theater's originally went widescreen (1.85 in the US, 1.6 in the EU) to differentiate themselves from the 1.33 aspect ratio of TV and offer something more than a giant screen to compensate tor the extremely expensive food and obnoxious idiots you had to share the theater with.

    1.85 isn't much more than 1.77 and with 3D poised to invade the living room as well it won't serve well as a differentiator. Unless the studios decide to throw the theaters under a bus I expect something wider to go mainstream even if they stop short of 2.39.
  • DanNeely - Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - link

    The end has begun, Vizio just launched a pair of 2.33:1 TVs at 2560x1080. I hope everyone is looking forward to their 2013 laptop running at 1400x600. It won't be deep enough to have a touchpad, so your lousy low contrast ultra-superglare LCD will be covered in fingrerprints from the touchscreen layer.
  • therealnickdanger - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    The 1080 resolution was a standard HD resolution in the 80s and 90s, long before flat-screen, fixed-pixel displays were even being sold.

    While you may argue that 1080p is a step backward in resolution from the 1600x1200 CRTs of yesteryear - not even my beloved (and perfectly calibrated) Sony FW900 24" CRT can hold a candle to the clarity of my 1080p LCDs. Not to mention the LCDs are thinner, lighter, and much cheaper. Plus, having a true 1:1 pixel ratio for HD content is so much better. My wife is a professional video effects editor and can attest to the benefit of 1080p displays for her own reasons as well.

    That's progress.

    The only regress I can think of with modern displays is the loss of refresh rates over 60Hz. That's the only reason I keep the FW900 - for gaming w/VSYNC @85Hz and up. Analog FTW in that case. More and more 120Hz and 240Hz LCDs are coming out, but without proper mainstream connectivity, what's the point? Meh to that.
  • ET - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    I agree that in some respects current displays are better than what we had ten years ago, but some things took a step back, and even if everything else was equal, it's not such significant progress. If I want a monitor that's better than 1920x1200 I need to pay a lot more than I did for the 1600x1200 19" monitor I bought 8 years ago, and it'd be a lot larger.

    One would have thought that by now it'd be possible to display high quality text and images on a PC monitor, but somehow we've degenerated into believing video is the only application that matters.

    I agree that for standard users, who do just web and content surfing, current monitors are a step up from what they had in past years (1024x768, 1280x1024), but anyone more demanding could ten years ago get something that was a step up yet took about the same space and didn't cost 5 times more.
  • chemist1 - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    Yup, what DanNeely said is right. Even with Blu-Ray, which represents the highest data rate currently available for consumer 1080p video (roughly twice what you get with terrestrial HD broadcasts, which in turn have higher data rates than cable, satellite, hulu, and netflix), the signal has to be compressed an amazing ~100:1 vs. a raw video feed! Only the cleverness of the compression algorithms, combined with the fact that large parts of a typical picture don't change much from frame to frame, allow this compression to still look good ---though it is still perceptually lossy on a high-end system (I understand Joe Kane did some studies to determine what data rate you would need to avoid all perceivable compression losses, but the results were for a private client and thus not published).

    Plus don' t forget that the current bandwidth limitations force compromises not just in spatial resolution, but also chromatic and temporal resolution. Blu-Ray movies today have 8-bit color (allowing for only 2^8=256 gradations). The standard does allow for higher color depth (up to 16 bit), but that means more data and, with the current bandwidth limit, that in turn would necessitate more compression. Likewise, at 60 fps we'd get more temporal resolution than we do at 24 or 30 fps, which would result in less blurring during fast action scenes. But if you go to 60 fps, you've got to give something else up.

    I.e., with the current bandwidth limitations, we're at about the limit of how much spatial resolution the system can offer, unless we want to increase compression artifacts or give up further on the already-compromised chromatic or temporal resolution.

    Don't get me wrong -- I have a 100" screen (JVC RS1 projector), and would love to see a consumer 4K format. But I'd also like to see at least a 12-bit 4:4:4 color space, and fewer compression artifacts---which is not going to happen until they can offer a bandwidth about an order of magnitude higher than what Blu-Ray currently offers.

    And unfortunately, a lot of video seems to be moving in the same direction as music -- less resolution for more convenience. So I think it may be a while before we see market pressure for a higher-resolution video format.
  • DanNeely - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    We also appear to be reaching the limits in what compression can offer. Over the summer I read that the team working on the H.265 algorithm were concerned that they'd only be able to reduce bitrates to 70% of current levels while maintaining quality levels vs the 50% target that they'd set when beginning the design process.
  • torgal - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    Well, and now Dell XPS 15 no longer have the 1080p upgrade ( Or have I got the wrong XPS 15?
  • jigglywiggly - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    hai guise my name is asus we make a good laptop and then ruin it by putting a POS LCD on it.
  • Kaboose - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    I think with sandy bridge on the horizon the majority of the people this laptop seems to be targeted at would be better off waiting a month or so for something more substantial for their ~$1000.
  • jabber - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    Surely it doesnt take 1 minute to wipe a product down before taking pics of it?

    Just makes it seem a little more pro.

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