If you think of Asus just for Eee netbooks, it's time to think again. With its sleek curves, Blu-ray drive and Bang & Olufsen audio the N53 is a high-end 15-inch notebook intended to compete with the HP Envy and Dell XPS; but this excellent specification doesn't quite deliver a winning system.
The design is a symphony in black and grey, from the metallic grey lid to the black brushed aluminium wrist rest. The large speaker bar running behind the keyboard is distinctive, as are the cutout curves of the hinges that wrap around the speakers. The keyboard slopes up at a slight angle, which gives you a more ergonomic typing position and helps with cooling. The style nicely disguises the bulk of this notebook and you'll be surprised by the 2.9kg weight when you pick it up (that's a little more than many 15.6-inch notebooks).
With a notebook of this size there’s plenty of room for the keyboard, even allowing for the large speaker bar, the generous wrist rest and the full numeric keypad, but despite the large keys the layout isn't actually that easy to use because there's no separation between the QWERTY keys you're typing on and the secondary and control keys jammed up next to them. It’s far too easy to hit CapsLock instead of “a” or the hash key instead of “@”, the left Shift key is unusually small and the sheer size of the keyboard means the Home/End and PageUp/PageDown keys are a long way away when you're typing. The arrow keys - which double as multimedia controls - straddle the main keyboard and the numeric keypad, and we often found we confused the down and right arrows if we tried to use them without looking first.
As well as the usual function key options for wireless, sound and screen brightness, the other keys are spattered with extra functions, including accented letters, a launcher for the Lifeframe webcam software and options to switch the screen brightness and power settings. That's all in addition to the strip of buttons and indicators between the keyboard and speakers which give you more volume keys, another play/pause button (which also opens Media Center) and two power buttons (one launches the ExpressGate quick start pre-boot environment for web browsing, the other starts Windows). That's a lot of options and initially they're confusing.
If you're not typing a lot of numbers into Excel, the numeric keypad is still excellent for gaming or you can turn it off and use it as an extra set of arrow keys but the tiny bar on the “5” key is much too small to help you find the right key without taking your eyes off the screen. Much more obvious tactile feedback would make this far more useful for gaming.
The feel of the keyboard isn't great; although it doesn't flex much (there's a little movement on keys in the very centre), individual keys have a rattling, clicky feel as you type and the action is a little spongy, but there's a lot of travel so if you hit the keys hard and in a hurry, your fingers won't bounce.
The metallised touchpad surface has plenty of texture, but the cursor is still a little jumpy on the default settings (although much less so than most other ELAN touchpads). There's a huge range of one, two and three-finger gestures including an unusual magnifying glass option; in fact there are so many gestures that the touchpad tends to get confused, zooming when you were trying to use two-fingered scroll. You can improve things by turning off any gestures you don't use, but we'd rather see basic functions like two finger scroll working responsively out of the box (and as usual, we had problems getting any of the three-finger gestures to work). The mouse buttons are under a single bar but this has a nice positive action and the two buttons feel well isolated, not like a flimsy rocker switch, so we'd say the style doesn't get in the way of the performance (unless you can't break yourself off a habit like clicking right in the middle of the button bar).
The screen is bright (extremely bright) and clear, with an excellent viewing angle, but colours aren't as vivid as the superb Dell XPS screen (although the automatic movie mode does bump up the saturation to good effect). In anything but a dark room the glossy reflections can be annoying (they're even worse from the fingerprint magnet that is the shiny black bezel). The 1366 x 768-pixel resolution is standard for a 15.6-inch screen (some N53 models have a 1920 x 1080 full HD screen that's much more impressive).
The Bang & Olufsen speakers give the N53 impressive audio quality. The bass is very dependent on where you're sitting; although the speaker bar behind the keyboard projects sound up well it also focuses it forward and you'll hear much more bass if you're sitting right in front of the screen than if you're off to the side (for example if you're sitting with a friend to watch a movie). That means although the N53 has the volume to fill the room, it works better for individual listening. The sound has excellent stereo separation and a lot of crisp detail but initially the treble sounded a little thin and tinny. We were able to make the sound significantly richer by tweaking the SonicFocus settings in the RealTek audio control and you'll certainly enjoy listening to music far more than on the average laptop. Compared to the Dell XPS 15, which remains the best-sounding laptop we've heard, the N53 doesn't deliver as much bass - but music that focuses on the midrange and treble sounds excellent.
The Core i5 delivers its usual powerful performance, helped by the fast hard drive and 4GB of memory. It's impressive how cool the N53 stays; some Core i5 laptops can get a little warm to the touch, but the most you'll notice is a gentle warmth from the vent, which doesn't angle the heat down into your lap either. The GeForce GT 335M delivers decent gaming and video performance, although competing systems like the Dell XPS 15 have a higher spec and you can't get above medium detail levels. Playing 720p video over the local network was smooth, with plenty of detail; streaming 1080p video from the web also delivered all the detail we expected to see although it wasn't always perfectly smooth playback.
As usual with the switchable Nvidia Optimus graphics, battery life is harder for the system to predict accurately because it depends so much on what you're actually doing and the tradeoffs between using power for more complex graphics and saving power with GPU acceleration. The four specific Power4Gear profiles change settings significantly so initially you'll see predictions ranging from 4 hours down to less than 2.5. In use, with the balanced profile and a mix of browsing, streaming video, playing music and general computing that 2 to 2.5 hours is what we measured. That's shorter than other, similar systems and it's disappointing for a system with Optimus graphics; the problem is that although you get a 6-cell battery, the capacity is lower than on other systems - it's always a question of price and there is an optional 9-cell battery but we'd like to see Asus increase battery capacity on its high-end models.
By comparison, even for this size of laptop Asus gives you a generous selection of ports: two USB 2.0, one USB 3.0 and a combo USB/eSATA port, HDMI (at the side) and VGA (at the back), an SD Card slot that supports the latest SDXC cards (up to 2TB), plus gigabit Ethernet, separate headphone and microphone jacks - and the Blu-ray drive. There's even room for a physical wireless switch as well as the function key version. We also like the right-angled connector on the power jack; it's a little neater and less likely to get pulled out. The webcam is fairly standard quality and doesn't impress the way the HD webcam in the HP Envy does.
Unusually, Asus bundles both the Google and Live Search toolbars in IE (as well as Google Chrome alongside IE 8); it’s nice to have the choice, but like the splatter of icons down the screen and the plethora of keyboard controls, it’s also cluttered and confusing. Asus Access, Asus AP Bank, Asus MultiFrame, SmartLogon ControlDeck , Video Magic, Splendid, e-Driver, LifeFrame, SmartLogon; some of these are useful software like the colour tweaker to make movies more vivid, face recognition for logging on to your Windows account, the nifty MultiFrame system for quickly moving windows into place on multiple screens (like Aero Snap on steroids) or the upscaling Cyberlink DVD suite. Others are simple utilities or links to random online software stores and having them all as icons on the desktop simply looks messy and buries the useful tools with the pointless ones. As well as the usual Office Starter, Live Essentials and Skype, you get Trend Micro Internet Security and a handful of games.
The Asus N53J is something of a curate's egg; it's stylish, well built and powerful, with a superb spec - on paper. The keyboard, screen and battery life let it down and they're rather fundamental issues for a system at this price. But the sound quality is beaten only by the Dell XPS 15 (or Asus’s own upcoming NX90) and this is still an excellent multimedia notebook in many ways. If you're not planning to travel with the N53 and you watch movies more than you type, you may still find you're getting excellent bang for the buck.