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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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    Look, it's not like we *try* to put fingerprints all over the laptops. Just regular use will put them there, even if you're careful (which I am). If I walked around with white gloves on all the time, it wouldn't be a problem, but I'm not going to do that. Saying "just use your thumb" doesn't entirely fix the problem either, because you WILL overlap into the glossy area every time. A better solution, amazingly enough, is to stop using stupid piano black glossy plastic on laptops. There, problem solved, and it wouldn't cost anything extra.
  • IanWorthington - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    Got to take issue with this "brighter is better". Maybe for some stuff but for photo editing, where you would care about color gamut, even 100 cd/m2 is likely to be over bright for accurate work.

  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    You can always turn it down if you need to, but if you're outside and can't read the display because it's not bright enough (I've had that happen with numerous laptops over the years), then brighter *is* better. Apple does this with MacBook Pro, where they get up to 350nits or something, but you can always set it to 50% or 100nits or whatever if that's what you need/like.
  • blackrook - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    Now I'm just getting confused with ASUS's naming schemes. What does the N in N53 mean? The K? U? UL? G?

    It's the same with video cards, what with the GTX460 1GB/768MB/SE or the 5850 > 6850 business. Companies need to differentiate their product lines more intuitively.
  • 86waterpumper - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    I agree that displays have slipped lately. I am building a new desktop rig currently, and I hate the 16:9 displays enough that I am sticking to a old dell 4:3 17 inch. Pretty sad I would need a 24" or something to even match the height of it. My wife has a 17.3 hp dv7 laptop, and she downloaded the amazon kindle software. I double clicked it to check it out, and opened up a book...It looked hilarious to see the middle 1/4 of the screen being used and nothing on the sides, all of these apps and programs are going to have to start allowing for wrapping and double width viewing if this stupid trend continues. I literally wanted to turn the screen sideways it would have been much better.
    I tell you another problem too with the piano black glossy finishes. Our daughter is 7, and uses the laptop sometimes for schoolwork or to look at disney website etc. A very heavy laptop is a pain even for me to carry with such a slick surface. It is utter stupidity!!! I wonder how many people have dropped their expensive laptops and ruined them due to this. I always make sure my hands are 100 percent dry before carrying the thing, but it's really tough for my daughter which is why I have started to let her use my much lighter netbook more. Anyway a rougher, matte finish would provide tons more grip and look better on the fingerprint front as well. I can imagine the pain in the tail it must be for people doing these reviews to try to get the thing fingerprint free under camera flash.
  • Luke2.0 - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    Hi Jarred, can the "Blu-ray Combo" do DVD-burning?
    Thank you.
  • chemist1 - Thursday, December 30, 2010 - link

    If you google the drive name listed in the spec table at the beginning of the review ( "Philips/Lite-On DS-4E1S") you can get the full tech specs. But from what I vaguely recall, this drive can burn CD and DVD, but it's read-only for Blu-Ray.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 30, 2010 - link

    Correct: this is DVDRW and BD-ROM. I would say "BD-ROM/DVD-ROM" otherwise, but I suppose you have no way of knowing that. :-)
  • Luke2.0 - Thursday, December 30, 2010 - link

    Thank you for answering my previous question.

    Got another question though: The spec table shows only 1 HDD. Does this laptop support dual HDD, or SSD-HDD combo?
    IMO It'd be a shame as a 15-incher not to be capable of it.
    I have checked Asus International and it does not seems to support it, but could you please confirm?

    Thank you again.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 31, 2010 - link

    There's no room for a second HDD. If you wanted to get creative, you could try removing the optical drive and installing a second drive there, but ASUS doesn't sell the necessary caddy so you're pretty much on your own. Actually, very few 15.6" or smaller laptops have room for two drives in my experience; that's usually a feature of 17" notebooks, or special laptops that skip out on other items in order to fit two 2.5" drives. Granted, there are exceptions, but I don't think we've reviewed any in the past year at least.

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