Asus laptops have come a long way since the Eee PC series, which effectively pioneered the netbook category in 2007. Emboldened by that success, Asus subsequently pitched into the mainstream Microsoft mêlée where it is now just another maker of carbon-copied Windows laptops.
The Asus N550JV tries to be a little different though, adding metal to the casework, the usual MacBook design element tributes like an expanded trackpad, and a dash of European style overall. Specifically, it has more than an air of B&O styling, helped along in no small way by a bold badge under the screen that reads ‘Audio by Bang & Olufsen ICEpower'.
This refers to the on-board sound system which is based on commonplace Class D switching modules. Bang & Olufsen licenses its version of the popular low-fi amplifier solution to Asus, as well as makers of mobile phones and other consumer electronics that put efficiency before fidelity.
The N550JK is not the first Asus laptop to bear the B&O name, following earlier models such as the N55 and N90. In the case of the N550JK there seems to be two ICEpower MobileSound 3 chips driving four tiny racetrack drivers (25 x 10 mm), ranged in a line and hidden under the front edge of the laptop. How does this technology sound? Tune in after the performance report. (See also: best laptops of 2015.)
Asus N550JV review: Build and design
In most respects the N550JK is an unremarkable 15.6-inch laptop, running Windows 8.1 and laden with a touchscreen display.
This is a low-resolution 1366 x 768-pixel type, based on budget TN technology, and has a highly reflective gloss finish with no treatment. The combination of large visible pixels and mirror-like finish makes it a poor choice for relaxed viewing and reading.
The casework of the N550J is more noteworthy – mostly metal, using a cast aluminium main chassis for the top desk section, and thin alloy plate for the underside. The back of the screen lid is in a darker grey finish but still brushed metal.
Running around the top plate between keyboard and screen are circular ripples of small holes that seem to emanate from two silvery metal buttons. The button to the right is the power key, while its counterpart to the left simply opens a custom software program for controlling volume, power settings and other user-adjustable settings. This Asus Console provides a full-screen overlay, mimicking the unfortunate look and clashing colours of the Windows 8 Metro interface.
Asus pitches the N550JK as a multimedia laptop, and to that end adds an optical disc drive to play films from DVD. If you prefer Blu-ray playback, we understand there are variations of this model fitted with a BD-ROM or BD-RE drive, although our sample had a Matshita DVD-RAM mechanism.
For those for whom multimedia means games, the good news is that the N550J is fitted with a decent graphics processor that can take on all modern action games.
The switchable nVidia GeForce GTX 850M with 2 GB video memory takes over on graphics-intensive programs, leaving the Intel HD Graphics 4600 inside the CPU for less demanding times. That main processor is a quad-core Intel Core i7-4700HQ, clocked at 2.4 GHz and able to short-term Turbo one core up to 3.4 GHz.
Supporting the main Intel chip and its integrated graphics is 8 GB of 1600 MHz memory. The storage side is not so speedy, relying on a 2.5-inch SATA disk, here of 1 TB capacity.
Around the laptop's case are three USB 3.0 ports (two left, one right), Mini DisplayPort and HDMI video outputs and an SDXC card slot. Gigabit ethernet is included, using a compact sprung-door type port.
Keyboard and trackpad are standard fare, the former taking Scrabble tile keys with a good action; the latter large and buttonless but sometimes less precise and sensitive than we prefer. (See also: MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air comparison.)
Asus N550JV review: Performance
The combination of Intel Core i7 quad-core and high-spec nVidia GTX GPU keeps the N550JK a fast mover. Geekbench 3 scored the CPU and memory with 3223 and 12,374 points for single- and multi-core performance, both usefully high results.
In Cinebench 15, it was rated with 130 and 642 points for its single-core and multi-core performance, the latter result putting it slightly ahead of an Aorus X7 Pro gaming laptop with its 590-point score.
Overall system benchmarks that can gauge application performance did not rate the Asus so kindly. Held back by its slow storage, it scored just 3150 and 2856 points in PCMark 8's conventional and hardware-accelerated versions of the Home preset.
These numbers rose to 3613 and 4206 points when accelerated; but these results are still far behind the aforementioned Aorus which scored 4051 and 4463 points, and without the benefit of its GPUs.
Delving more into the storage issue, sequential reads and writes from the 5400 rpm Seagate disk were just below 100 MB/s, while 4 kB random reads and writes languished at just 0.36 and 0.75 MB/s. In use we did find the Asus would hang for seconds at a time when tasked with simple operations like displaying the Start screen.
Gaming performance was very good. Our low-spec machine tests with Batman: Arkham City at 1280 x 720 and Medium/High detail were quickly despatched at 85 and 83 fps respectively. Set to screen native resolution, albeit not much higher than before, framerates with the same detail averaged 78 and 76 fps.
Tomb Raider 2013 played smoothly at native resolution and High detail (71 fps), falling only to 57 and 38 fps after pushing up detail to Ultra and Ultimate settings.
Finally we stressed the machine with the challenging Metro: Last Light. At High detail, no additional enhancements and native res, it played at 70 fps. Pushing it hardest at Very High and with all guns blazing (SSAA, AF 16x, Motion Blur, Tessellation and PhysX) it could still average a worthy 48 fps. (See also: Should I buy a Windows laptop or a Chromebook? Office apps on Chromebook explained.)
Noise levels increased during gameplay but not to the same annoying levels as many comparable laptops. It's just possible the aluminium-based chassis was assisting in dissipating some heat passively, giving the two internal cooling fans an easier ride.
The display is of mediocre quality by the standard of the cheapest laptops available, too low in resolution to render graphics sharply and too reflective to view easily in daylight conditions.
In our lab tests it could render only 54 percent of the lowest bar of the sRGB colour gamut – equalling the dismal colour quality of sub-£200 laptops we've tested recently. Contrast ratio was a low 80:1 in the chequerboard test. And colour accuracy measured poorly, with a high average Delta E value of 8.7.
Powering the N550JV is a non-removable 49 Wh lithium-polymer batter. This is charged by a rather large and weighty 120 W mains adaptor. In our standard looped-video rundown test the laptop lasted for 4 hr 23 min, assisted by the Optimus switching system that disables the fast but hungry nVidia GPU.
Asus N550JV review: Sound quality
Despite nailing its colours to the mast of a brand name associated with cool design, the sound quality from the N550JK's speakers was little different to that found in most midrange laptops.
There was the usual thin, empty sound from undersized drive units, made worse by the use of switching amps that major on high-frequency distortion.
Playing a quiet piano piece, the tread of pedals created an unpleasant whooshing white noise that pumped along behind the music. Female vocalists had the trademark gargling-glass effect heard with Class D technology, while violin was all too often simply shrill and painful to listen to.
The sound was made less tiresome by the addition of an auxiliary bass speaker that's included with the laptop. This comprises a round cylinder 74 mm in diameter and 87 mm tall, with a tethered cable that connects to a dedicated 2.5 mm jack socket on the laptop. Inside the black cylinder is a baby down-firing 45 mm paper-coned driver. Used with the N550JV it would add a little more warmth to the sound even if it couldn't magic up a silk purse out of the lo-fi technology.
All this said, the speakers in the N550JV are no worse sounding than those any most other laptops we've tested. But they also do not warrant any special marketing as something superior. (See also: best laptops of 2015.)