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Asus' K53E dual-core Sandy Bridge notebook


Sandy saunters into a slimmer system
— 3:19 AM on March 31, 2011

Our first brush with Sandy Bridge in its mobile incarnation—or rather, the first vessel for it that entered our labs—was a 17" Compal review platform, a great big hunk of a laptop fast enough to put most folks' desktop PCs to shame. At its heart lay Intel's Core i7-2820QM processor, whose ample 45W thermal envelope is a testament to the raw might of its four cores. In such a chunky desktop replacement system, that chip is right at home.

In anything substantially smaller and thinner, however, less grandiose alternatives are required.

Today, we're getting our first crack at one of those alternatives: the Core i5-2520M, which numbers among dual-core mobile Sandy Bridge variants that have started pouring into 15", 14" and 13" laptops recently. We're also taking a look at a member of that new breed of laptops, the Asus K53E, which plays host to the i5-2520M as well as a 15.6" LCD panel and a run-of-the-mill six-cell battery. By running the K53E through our mobile test suite, we'll get a feel for the kind of performance and unplugged run time you can expect from an everyday Sandy Bridge laptop—the kind you might find at Best Buy for well under $1,000.

We'll also get a sense of the Asus K53E, which, unlike the 17" Compal review unit we studied in January, is an honest-to-goodness retail system (though the exact configuration we'll be testing doesn't appear to be available for sale right now). K53E models with slower Sandy Bridge CPUs and less exotic specifications can be nabbed for as little as $624.99 at Amazon right now. If the system's battery life, performance, and build quality are what they should be, the K53E could be a sweet deal.

Before we get our hands dirty, we'd do well to give the Core i5-2520M a more thorough introduction. Looking at Intel's mobile Sandy Bridge lineup gives us the feeling that this is very much a middle-of-the-pack offering. Probably because it's sandwiched between two quicker dual-core variants and two slower ones, all of which fit into the same 35W power envelope. Just like its siblings, the Core i5-2520M has two cores, four threads, 3MB of L3 cache, and an Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics component (boy, is that name awkward). With a 2.5GHz base speed, a 3.2GHz top Turbo speed, and an integrated GPU that'll run as fast as 1300MHz, this particular model edges out slower ones without getting too close to faster alternatives.

This isn't the first time we've looked at a dual-core Sandy Bridge processor, of course. In early January, while tackling desktop implementations of Intel's new architecture, we benchmarked the Core i3-2100. Much like the Core i5-2520M, the i3-2100 squeezes two Hyper-Threaded Sandy Bridge cores into a tighter thermal envelope and a lower price point than its quad-core brethren—it's just designed with desktops in mind. We're curious to see if the i5-2520M is palpably slower than the i3-2100, and how the spread between dual- and quad-core offerings translates to the mobile arena, where the quad-core chips are more thermally constrained than on the desktop.

New silicon aside, Asus' K53E doesn't look all that different from other 15" laptops. It's thin, but not too thin. It's light enough to use on the couch, but probably a little too bulky for an economy-class airline seat. Asus hasn't done much trailblazing as far as the rest of the specifications go, either:

Processor Core i5-2520M 2.5GHz
Memory 6GB DDR3-1333 (2 DIMMs)
Chipset Intel HM67 Express
Graphics Intel HD Graphics
Display 15.6" TFT with 1366x768 resolution and LED backlight
Storage Seagate Momentus 640GB 2.5" 5,400 RPM hard drive
Matshita UJ8A0ASW DVD-RAM
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 3 USB 2.0
1 HDMI
1 VGA
1 RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet via Atheros AR8151 controller
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots 1 MMC/SDHC
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230 controller
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Input devices Chiclet keyboard
Elan capacitive touchpad
Internal microphone
Camera 0.3-megapixel webcam
Dimensions 14.9" x 10.0" x 1.1-1.4" (378 x 253 x 28-35 mm)
Weight 5.73 lbs (2.6 kg)
Battery 6-cell Li-ion 5200 mAh, 56 Wh

The configuration we received from Intel has 6GB of RAM, more than we're used to seeing on systems like this, and Bluetooth, which is conspicuously missing from many of today's notebooks. However, the display has the same old 1366x768 resolution as every other 15.6" notebook panel, the built-in hard drive has a pokey 5,400-RPM spindle speed, and there are no USB 3.0 or external Serial ATA ports to be found along the laptop's edges. Discrete graphics aren't even on the menu.

In the interest of full disclosure, we should point out that Asus' website doesn't list the Core i5-2520M as an option for the K53E. Rather, the company offers versions of the system with slower Core i5-2410M and Core i3-2310M processors. The former runs at 2.3GHz with a top Turbo speed of 2.9GHz and a top IGP speed of 1200MHz, while the latter is limited to 2.1GHz for the CPU and 1100MHz for the graphics component. We're not talking about huge differences by any means... just keep in mind that even the nicest variants of the K53E selling in stores might not match the performance of the system we're testing today.

In a nutshell, the K53E has the makings of a budget workhorse. Sure, it's not quite as cheap as some of the similarly outfitted Core 2010 notebooks on the market. Once the novelty factor dissipates and Sandy Bridge laptops knock their predecessors off retail listings altogether, though, I wouldn't be surprised to see systems just like the K53E selling closer to the $500 mark. For now, you can think of the K53E as a premium alternative to today's $500 systems—it's probably a bit faster, and it certainly looks a little bit nicer. (The design is tasteful, and we're also fond of the relative lack of glossy surfaces. Nobody likes a palm rest or display lid full of smudges.)

Enough rambling. Let's crack this puppy open and start picking and probing.