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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  • Kaboose - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    i sure hope that is why there isn't a single dell laptop offering a 1080p screen at the moment. (including alienware taxed items) Reply
  • chemist1 - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    Hi Jarred,

    Thanks for the review. A friend of mine recently priced out a Sony Vaio F series laptop: 16.4" 1080p screen, Blu-Ray R/W drive, NVIDIA GeForce GT 425M GPU, and an Intel Quad Core i7-840QM Processor (1.86GHz, turbo up to 3.20GHz) ---he said it was about $1300. Perhaps that is worth a review.....
    Reply
  • cgeorgescu - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    Very nice laptop... Check out the "premium" screens on all Vaio models, really nice, not led-backlight or any fancy stuff but perfect angles, 100% adobe RGB, perfect. And matte.

    I've got not the F but the EC because of 17.3 instead of 16.4 and two drive bays.
    Reply
  • chemist1 - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    correction: just checked it myself, and it's $1300 (on the Sony site) with a Core Quad i7-740QM processor (1.73GHz with turbo up to 2.93GHz).

    The EC series cgeorgescu mentioned might be an even better buy. With a 1080p 17.3" screen (a bit more suitable for 1080p than the F's 16.4) , Blu-Ray R/W, ATI HD 5650 (don't know how that compares with the 425M on the F series), and Core i5-580M processor (2.66GHz, with turbo to 3.33GHz ) (Core i7 not offered on the EC series), it prices out to $1200.

    And, as with the F series, if you downgrade from a Blu-Ray RW to a CV/DVD RW, you can subtract $150.
    Reply
  • chemist1 - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    Further, if we downgrade the EC series to make it comparable to the Asus reviewed here (Blu Ray read only + CD/DVD RW, Core i5 460, 1080p), the Sony site has it at $1020 --- nearly the same as the $1030 Asus but with what I understand is a much better screen (plus the extra drive bay that cgeorgescu mentioned, and the free Adobe Acrobat/Photoshop bundle). Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    Don't forget that quad-core Clarksfield CPUs are horribly power inefficient, so you'd sacrifice quite a bit of battery life. Given that Sandy Bridge will address this, there's basically no point in looking at any more Core 2010 or Clarksfield laptops. Reply
  • chemist1 - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    Understood, thanks for your reply. But that leaves unanswered the obvious follow-up question, which is that of why, given that these Vaios have been out for a while, and given that they may represent the best value available in ~$1K laptops (say, the dual-core EC series), you folks didn't include them among your recent looks at mid-range laptops (e.g., the Vaios weren't mentioned in your 11/15/10 "Holiday Buyer's Guide: Notebooks"). Did you consider them and discount them for some reason, or was it something else? Since choosing what to review from amongst a large universe of products is a significant part of what a tech journalist must do, I was just wondering what goes into these sorts of decisions. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    The biggest issue is that Sony basically has no interest in seeding reviewers with hardware. While you could try to buy/review/eBay laptops, I don't have enough time/money to go that route, and we've been busy with other items. We did mention the VAIO Z in the guide, but most of the time I have difficulty justifying the Sony Tax. And not all Sony laptops have good displays either -- I've looked at more than a few at Best Buy, etc. Without hands-on time or input from someone I trust, I'm not willing to recommend a laptop as having a good LCD. :-\

    I'll see if I can get Sony to be a little more forthcoming at CES, but I've gone down that road before to no avail.
    Reply
  • chemist1 - Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the explanation! Why there had been no review of this particular (and seemingly high-value) part of the Vaio line was something I'd been curious about for a while, so it's nice to understand the manufacturer's role in this (a factor I had not considered). Reply
  • Hrel - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    You guys and ur glossy bezel on the screen. Put ur thumb on the edge of the screen to open the laptop, there, problem solved. lol. wow.

    Other than that nit-picky sillyness I was REALLY saddened to see those low scores on that Asus. I read it had to same display as the Dell used to and got all excited then those scores... I guess they had to save money somewhere to hit 1000 bucks AND have a blu ray drive. Honestly, I almost never use disks at all anymore and have never even touched a blu ray disc. Don't include any CD drive at all, put in a bigger battery and better screen and non-name-brand speakers that don't suck and I'd be good. If the marketing guys insist on a cd drive use the cheapest one you can find.
    Reply

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