The Asus NX90 comes in what may be the largest notebook packaging we've ever seen; its very own stylish black monolith, designed to make you feel you're getting something seriously high end. Open it up and you might think you've bought a mirror by mistake. The cover and the enormous palm rest are both unfeasibly shiny mirror-finish aluminium with curved edges that make this enormous beast of a notebook feel surprisingly slender. The massive, curved speakers either side of the screen overhang the keyboard as well, lending a retro futuristic 70s feel to the design that you'll either love or hate; this is a notebook with Bang & Olufsen sound that actually looks like it was designed by B&O (it was). But is that design more than skin deep? Is the NX90 clever as well as big and beautiful?
Big is an understatement; the speakers add another 2 inches on each side of the 18.4-inch screen and the solid and well-built case weighs in at just under 5kg. And beautiful isn't an overstatement either; although we don’t know how hard-wearing the finish will be, the way the aluminium wraps around the curved edges, the deliberate perforated design that highlights the speakers, the stylish slab of a keyboard and the way the wedge shape of the chassis puts the keys at a comfortable typing angle add up to good design as well as good-looking design. Even the black plastic all matches for a change, which stops it looking cheap. (Cheap isn't a word you're going to use about the NX90 much, thanks to its top-end spec and top-end price.)
The twin touchpads to either side of the keyboard are disconcerting. Usually, you use both hands together to drive a touchpad; the NX90 touchpads are like having a mouse on either side of your keyboard but without having to move your hand so far away and once you've got out of the habit of futilely moving your hand down to the palm rest and trying to click the mirror finish it's more efficient - and it makes you feel a little like you're playing the piano. You can change the settings for the two touchpads independently, so if it makes more sense to you have the inner mouse buttons on each side be left click you can do that, or you can use one set of buttons for the middle click option most laptop users miss out on. And if you're left-handed, you'll love having the mouse the right way round. But it does take a long time to break the habit of moving your hands, especially if you also use a laptop with the traditional placement; having the Asus logo on the palm rest doesn't help, because it makes you think there's something to pay attention to - right where the touchpad would usually sit.
The touchpads use the ElanPad hardware, although they're much less twitchy than usual; we didn't need to adjust the sensitivity to be able to scroll and click without more than the occasional mis-selection. Even though they don't fit the screen ratio, the vertical orientation and large size work very well for two-finger scrolling and zooming gestures because the slightly textured surface is very responsive and you actually have room to swipe up and down with two fingers. The three-fingered sideways swipe is fluid and responsive too; a great way to flick through a gallery of pictures, say.
Without the usual central touchpad to arrange your hands around it's not as easy to get your hands in the right pace on the keyboard without looking; the NX90 has the usual imperceptible raised bar on the F and J keys, but the feel of the edges of the keys is far more noticeable against your fingers. There's distinct spacing between the keys - at least as much as with a chiclet-style keyboard but the keys here are flat tops floating above the surface. It looks good, it's comfortable to type on with plenty of travel and a nice positive action - but we predict a lot of dust and crumbs getting caught between the key tops over time.
Even with the space taken up by the palm rest and the twin touchpads, there's plenty of room for the keyboard - but while the keys are a good size, the layout sticks to a very rigid grid. Again, that looks very good but with no separation from the secondary or navigation keys you have to pay attention to which key you're actually hitting. The inverted T layout of arrow keys and vertical strip of navigation keys make a neat and logical arrangement, but this is too big a laptop for you to be happy feeling slightly cramped between the touchpads.
The minimal look extends to the indicator LEDs; instead of the usual collection of lights there are only the power light embedded in the power button and the Caps Lock indicator (also in the key), plus the hard drive light and the blindingly bright Wi-Fi indicator. As usual with Asus, almost every key on the keyboard has a double function; there's a secondary numeric keypad as well as a selection of accented vowels, the usual secondary functions like screen brightness and volume on the function keys and media player controls on the arrow keys. But there's also an extra row of dedicated multimedia and control keys duplicating a lot of those functions (and it would have looked neater to just have these - this looks like the point where B&O stopped working on the design).
The full 1080p (that's 1920 x 1080 resolution) LED-backlit 18.4-inch 16:9 format screen takes great advantage of the space, but it's infuriatingly glossy and reflective in daylight. The viewing angle is good and the screen image is clear, bright and beautiful with great contrast even in darker areas of the screen. It's not as vivid and saturated as the Dell XPS 15, but it makes that screen look oversaturated and unnatural by comparison and colours are clear, bright, strong and realistic.
The video performance is also excellent - better than we've seen from other systems with the GeForce GT335 chip (the GDDR3 may help here; we also saw better gaming performance with higher detail). Streaming 1080p video from YouTube plays smoothly with exceptionally clear and vivid details and playing 720p HD video wasn't just equally smooth and detailed; the PowerDVD upscaling kicked in to deliver more detail and clarity that we've seen in our test clips before. Blu-ray playback is also impressive and the TV antenna lets you get a reasonable TV signal too - but the great multimedia performance is eclipsed by the B&O sound.
The reason the speakers are so large is to create resonance chambers in the curved section at the bottom, which give the NX90 unusual clarity of sound. Placing the speakers so far apart isn't just a design gimmick either; this much distance between them allows for excellent stereo separation - sounds actually move across the soundscape the way they're intended to which makes movies more immersive as making for great audio. The sound is incredibly rich, resonant and detailed with bass that's powerful but not overpowering, strong midrange and detailed treble that doesn't distort at high volume; you can hear every note and nuance in the music. This is the first notebook we've heard that rivals the Dell XPS 15 for sound quality and we'd say it beats it, delivering more warmth and richness in the audio without losing definition and clarity. It's positively reserved compared to the HP Envy models; thanks to the resonant chambers you can feel the bass if you've got your hands on the palm rest but it's not overblown, just rich, deep and impressive. With such great sound you don't need excessive volume; the NX90 is loud enough - you could certainly fill a room with sound - but you don't have to crank it up to enjoy the music.
The word we keep coming back to is impressive - but not necessarily balanced; the Core i7 runs at the faster 1.73GHz speed so the system is speedy even if your software doesn't take advantage of all four cores, and the 6GB of DDR3 memory and twin 640GB hard drives match that performance. You get two USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 and a combo USB eSATA port, both HDMI and VGA ports, Gigabit Ethernet, a slot loading Blu-ray/DVD burner, both analogue audio and microphone sockets as well as a headphone jack that's also an SPDIF connector - the only component you could really be disappointed by is the average 2-megapixel camera. With a screen as big as this and a processor as power-hungry as the Core i7, the 2 hours 20 minutes of battery life we saw in general multimedia use (with Wi-Fi) isn't unexpected. It's great to have such high spec components, but they may be overkill - and overpriced - for the majority of users.
The bundled software is the usual plethora of Asus utilities (which look even more assorted next to the clean hardware design), Office Starter and Cyberlink PowerDVD, PowerDirector, Power2Go burner and LabelPrint; welcome but not outstanding.
The NX90 is a substantial as well as stylish notebook that could be ridiculous but actually impresses. We're calling it a notebook rather than a laptop because if you have this on your lap for a few hours, your knees start to ache. Really, this is a portable all-in-one PC with a great screen and amazing sound (the sealed base reinforces that impression; opening the NX90 would be a major operation and there's hardly anything you'd want to upgrade in this spec). We do have some concerns; the mirror finish doesn't seem particularly durable (less of a problem if you're not taking it out of the house much) and although the finish does resist fingerprints, after a while they stop subliming away before your eyes and start sticking.
You hardly need it with the brightness of the screen, but we're surprised not to see a backlit keyboard on a system at this price. We'd rather it came with a Core i5 to improve battery life, but we're not sure how often you'd take it away from the power socket anyway. But to make the high price worthwhile for anything more than sheer style and desirability, you want to be using this to replace a TV, Blu-ray and possibly a stereo system as well. If you don't want to spend as much, the Dell XPS 15 gives you better value, but the NX90 outshines it in most ways - as you'd expect from a luxury system.