ASUS K53E Impressions and User Experience

Last week’s ASUS U41JF review is going to be the most interesting comparison to the K53E. Sure, that notebook only comes with a dual-core Arrandale i3-380M, but the 15% CPU overclock option, 83Wh battery, and GeForce GT 425M Optimus graphics give it a leg up on the competition. Yes, i5-2520M is going to be a faster CPU, but everywhere else I’d rate the U41JF as the superior laptop. Before we get to the benchmarks, though, let’s take a closer look at the K53E.

The exterior and interior colors are an interesting shade of brown—almost a coppery color in the right light, and at other times the notebook can appear black. The lid is a textured plastic, which means that in normal lighting fingerprints don’t show up quite so well. Unfortunately, it also means that you can't easily wipe it clean with a microfiber cloth, and flash photography often brings out the greasy prints hiding in the indentations. I still prefer the silver styling of the U41JF (and other ASUS laptops), but the K53E doesn’t look bad.

The 15.6”-screen chassis happens to be one of the least expensive laptop sizes these days. It’s large enough that manufacturers don’t have to work as hard at cooling or internal layout, but still small enough that they’re not wasting a lot of material. Unfortunately, our biggest complaint with the 15.6” LCDs floating around is that most are of the 1366x768 variety, and the K53E falls into that classification. We’d really like to see some better resolutions in 15.6” notebooks—even 1600x900 would be better than 1366x768—but then we’d also like to see LCDs that have a reasonable contrast ratio, maximum brightness, and color quality. In case you were wondering, the AU Optronics B156XW02 v6 panel used in this particular notebook has none of the good features we’re looking for and all of the bad. Yuck.

The keyboard is a traditional ASUS chiclet design, with the numeric keypad wedged in on the right. Like other notebooks, we’re not happy with the 10-key layout, mostly because the zero is half-size and the right cursor key overlaps the 10-key space. It’s not so egregious a flaw that we’ll spend a paragraph or two ripping on the layout, but there’s still room on the sides that ASUS could have used to give us a full 10-key with no compromises. Typing action outside of the 10-key is fine, and the dedicated navigation keys in the top-right (Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn) are certainly welcome.

Something we do like with the K53E is the touchpad. It’s big enough to be useful without being so huge that you accidentally brush it while typing (and as usual, you can configure the touchpad to detect keyboard use and go to “sleep” for a short interval after typing to mitigate that particular problem). The tracking surface is also a nice, smooth texture and there are—gasp!—dedicated left and right mouse buttons. Why can’t we get these on the U-series? The palm rest is a nice metallic brushed aluminum finish, and the touchpad is slightly inset and has a different texture to help you find it without looking.

Rounding out the package, the speakers are still a weak point—every time I fire up a game or play some music on Dell’s XPS 15 (the L502x now has Sandy Bridge CPU support; review is coming soon!), just about every other laptop sounds horrible in comparison. Another big gripe I have is with the position of the AC plug. It’s on the left side, but instead of being at the rear of the notebook (as is usually the case), it’s located in front of the exhaust port. When plugged in, the AC cord gets in the way of the Ethernet, HDMI, and USB port on that side—or you can snake the AC cable around back, in which case you’re partially blocking the exhaust port. It’s not a big enough problem that you can’t use the ports while plugged in, but it’s just a weird design decision, particularly when you consider that nearly every other laptop puts the AC connector at the far back of the chassis.

Looking at the whole, the K53E is a very reasonable notebook for the price. It’s not going to outperform quad-core SNB or gaming laptops, but it will run just about everything you might want with performance to spare. The price also puts it into competition with many inexpensive laptops, and it’s a major reason why we think AMD’s Brazos platform at $600 or more is a dead end. Even the i3-2310M will run circles around an E-350 (in both applications and games), so the only area where E-350 comes out ahead is battery life. With a better LCD (or at least a better resolution) and more connectivity options (e.g. USB 3 and eSATA), this could be an inexpensive desktop replacement for people that don’t need maximum CPU and/or GPU performance. With the current design, the K53E is a decent mainstream offering that boosts performance and battery life compared to the previous Arrandale offerings.

Is that enough to warrant spending $100-$200 more compared to AMD Athlon/Brazos/Turion laptops—or Intel’s older Pentium and Core i3 systems? When you factor in the performance and build quality, I’d actually say that the $720 K53E-B1 is going to be a better all-around notebook than most of the $400-$500 laptops you can currently find at places like Best Buy. But then, I’d be far more likely to save up the remaining $80 to get a better GPU, like in the ASUS U41JF, or wait another month or two and see what AMD’s Llano APU can do for budget laptops. If you’re chasing lowest cost, small size, and battery life as your primary considerations, it’s difficult to beat HP’s dm1z, but as soon as you start customizing and approaching $600 (i.e. the Sony and MSI Brazos E-350 laptops), you have to look at the whole market and not just focus on netbooks.

ASUS K53E: Enter Sandy Bridge Man General Performance – Dual-Core Sandy Bridge vs. the World
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  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 8, 2011 - link

    Our battery life testing has always targeted maximum battery life while still being able to complete all tasks. So with Core 2 Duo, Athlon II, Core i-series, etc. we've always set minimum CPU and maximum CPU to 0%, and enabled any special power saving features as applicable. (I should note that there are exceptions to the above: Atom, Brazos, and CULV/ULV have always been tested at 0/100% CPU settings, mostly because they are already slow--particularly Atom. The laptop needs to be able to play our H.264 video without stuttering or dropping frames.) On the ASUS U41JF, if you use the "Battery Saving" Power4Gear profile, it automatically underclocks and locks the CPU to run at no more than 900MHz. Running stock instead of underclocked reduces battery life by 5-10% as noted in the U41JF review. Finally, as I point out, it's interesting that for SNB, 0/0% actually reduces battery life compared to 0/100% CPU in two of the three battery tests--this is not the case with Arrandale.

    Regarding power efficiency: 10 to 15% better efficiency is "similar" in my book. The 30% difference in H.264 is a lot more pronounced, true. As for SSD vs. HDD, SSDs really don't use that much less power at idle, and often even under load. Look at the ASUS U30Jc with an SSD comparison: SSD wins by 7% at idle, HDD wins by 3% in the Internet, and the H.264 is a tie (0.3% difference). The 17.3" LCD vs. 15.6" LCD is going to be more than a 5% difference I'd bet, and the K53E actually has an LCD that appears to use very little power. The same applies to the comparison with Dell's E6410: 15-20% isn't massive in my book, but 55% certainly qualifies. It's better, yes, but not a huge change.

    Your E-350 comment is already addressed in the text if you don't take just one piece of the paragraph: "Ah, but the E-350 has a much better IGP, right? Well, maybe it’s better, but it’s certainly not faster than Intel’s HD 3000 when it’s bottlenecked by the CPU...." I suppose I can add "and memory bandwidth" for you though.

    Anyway, what individuals think of DC vs. QC Sandy Bridge is a matter of opinion. I was more impressed by QC, and if I could get QC over DC in the form factor I want that's what I'd do. Dell's XPS L502x for instance gives you both options, and with a moderately large 15.6" chassis the quad-core is an easy sell for me. Others might be more impressed with the dual-core stuff, but we've had dual-core Arrandale for a year and increasing battery life by 20% with 15-20% more performance is still "incremental" in my book.
  • Shadowmaster625 - Friday, April 8, 2011 - link

    "What about AMD’s Fusion E-350 platform? If the 3DMark results hold in our actual gaming tests, Intel’s “horrible” HD 3000 IGP offers over twice the performance of the HD 6310M. In fact, even an Arrandale IGP would come within 10% of the E-350 results in 3DMark. It’s not that we love Intel or want them to pummel AMD, and we understand that the E-350 competes in a lower price bracket. Still, many people like to get carried away in discussions of how much better AMD’s graphics are compared to Intel’s IGP. That’s certainly true when you’re looking at discrete GPUs, and compatibility is still better with AMD and NVIDIA drivers, but the latest SNB IGP changed the status quo."

    What is this nonsense? You claim to understand that the E-350 competes in a lower price bracket. But it is obvious you simply cannot comprehend that there is a difference between a $50 part and a $225 part. Sandy Bridge is too expensive to ever change the status quo. That product line is so expensive that it changes nothing. Except you are paying the price of a discrete gpu, plus a hefty markup, to have an integrated gpu. Intel will not lower those prices even when llano blows it out of the sky for half the price.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 8, 2011 - link

    Did you even read the whole conclusion? Where I repeatedly cede the sub-$600 territory to AMD? And I only mention Llano nine times throughout the review. Obviously nonsense.... Except, $600 SNB is now a viable alternative to what used to be $900 laptops. The U30Jc is slower in every regard than the current i5-2xxx CPUs -- the 310M can't keep up with HD 3000, and Arrandale can't keep up with SNB. So yes, that's "changing the status quo". Integrated graphics no longer suck quite as bad, to the point where HD 5470 is dead and so is G 310M.
  • JPForums - Friday, April 8, 2011 - link

    H.264 content is a place where Sandy Bridge excels, however, and with only a 10 minute difference between the 11.6”-screen HP dm1z and the 15.6”-screen ASUS K53E it’s pretty clear that’s one metric where SNB is more efficient.

    SNB is probably more efficient at H.264 decode, but one fact makes it a little less than clear. Ironically, you point it out here:

    Setting the LCD to 100% brightness (instead of 50%, which corresponds with 100nits), idle battery life drops 10%. Put another way, the LCD uses an extra 0.87W at 205nits. That’s a very low figure for a 15.6” LCD, ...

    That does seem like a rather low power draw for a 15.6" and makes me wonder how much power HP's 11.6" draws. The question is purely academic, though, as I would be willing to sacrifice some battery life for a better looking screen. Further, 13.3" is about as small as I'll go.

    That aside, this article makes me wonder how well similarly equipped notebooks with Optimus technology will do. It would be nice to see some designs that get most of the battery life under normal usage while giving you the ability to game when you want. Hopefully, nVidia realizes that the GPU is no longer needed for H.264 decode with SNB and will leave the CPU to take care of it.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 8, 2011 - link

    All of the Optimus Arrandale stuff I tested used the IGP, because it was sufficient for H.264 decode. However, oddly enough the Optimus laptops never quite seem to get to the same battery life levels as the IGP-only systems. Okay, I only tested one of the latter (Dell Latitude E6410), but for a 14" chassis the relative battery life was much better than any other Arrandale laptop we tested.

    Perhaps the real culprit is the batteries: they all come with Wh ratings, but I can tell you from personal experience that some 2500mAh NiMH Energizer AA rechargeables have got nothing on 2000mAh NiMH Eneloop AA rechargeables. But unfortunately, I don't know of a good way to independently rate a laptop battery to say exactly how good it is--not without some sophisticated equipment (and tearing the batteries apart, which would likely be frowned on). So I "hope" that these Lithium Ion batteries are more consistent than NiMH, even if they're not.
  • strikeback03 - Monday, April 11, 2011 - link

    I have some 2500 mAh Energizer AA batteries that I bought 4-5 years ago that are absolute trash. Even when new they self-discharged so fast that their apparent capacity was much lower than the rating. Fully charge them using an intelligent charger then leave them in a drawer for a few weeks and they would be dead. Nevermind low-discharge batteries like the Eneloop, even compared to other standard NiMH batteries they are awful.

    As far as Li-Ion batteries go it is relatively easy to test in a way that makes them look really good (third-party camera/phone batteries are infamous for this). I would hope that laptop batteries from well-known brands wouldn't follow the same pattern, but I suppose you never know.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, April 11, 2011 - link

    I've noticed over the years that some laptop batteries will self-discharge at a faster rate than others. I've never really tried to determine how fast that rate is, but it would be interesting to fully charge every laptop battery I have, wait three weeks (with them unplugged), then check how much charge is remaining. Most laptop batteries seem to lose most of their charge within about three months, so they definitely wouldn't keep up with the Eneloop stuff.
  • krumme - Friday, April 8, 2011 - link

    An e350 is 74mm2 - the same as Atom - this is exact numbers.
    The e350 is aprox 40usd (63usd list price - exact number) exactly the same as Atom d550 sans ion
    The e350 have fewer pins -> cheaper to integrate for the OEM than Atom

    How difficult is it to compare in the same segments?

    As an owner of an Intel sb e2520m machine (dell e6420) and an Atom nettop, i can safely say this Article is the most lousy and biased article for years.

    This leads to the most stupid buying decisions all over. Do you seriously think the e350 is a SB competitor?

    What a shame
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 8, 2011 - link

    You're simply not getting it: less than twice the cost, more than double (actually, quadruple CPU and double GPU) the performance. That's my point. If you want an inexpensive netbook, Brazos wins. If you want an all-around laptop, E-350 is better than Atom, but Atom was horrible. What exactly is stupid about telling people that Brazos isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread? It fills a niche, but for me Brazos is at best a secondary laptop.

    Or to rephrase: do you seriously think everyone should buy Brazos and forget about better options that cost more? What a shame.
  • krumme - Friday, April 8, 2011 - link

    Who would have imagined the brazos came to 15.6" right off?

    Probably it will be all over even in desktops within the next year, when TSMC 40nm capacity expands big time.

    The OEM knows their market so the consumers clearly have a different view of performance than you and I do.

    Even with a ssd i cant tell the difference selecting max 50% perf., doing all the normal office stuff and hd video. The brazos is paired with normal hd, and its aparently just fast enough not to be noticed for the target group. And battery life is just okey. The target group would probably prefer more battery life if they could select themselves - if lower price was not possible.

    I think a review and the conclusions - with its interpretation of facts - should reflect the needs and the perspective of the target group.

    Sandy bridge is an excellent CPU with even better power management, but its like comparing a gtx570 to an 330m if you compare it to brazos. It doesnt make sense. Its different different segments, different purpose.

    If some less informed buyers - lets say the ones that buy cheap stuff - reads this article they might get the impression the HP brazos is very slow, and will select an Intel brand instead. And it will be Atom something not an i3/i5 or Llano - whatever - for that matter. And Brazos is the best since sliced bread compared to an Atom.

    Normal users dont use time installing programs or games, encode, whatever. And when they do they take a cup of coffee.

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