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The display, speakers, and controls
Displays with matte coatings are a rare sight in modern notebooks. Displays with matte coatings that eschew the infernal 1366x768 resolution in favor of something a little nicer—say, 1920x1080—are even harder to come by. The N56VM's panel is a rare gem indeed, because it ticks both boxes.

This isn't one of those extremely rare displays that features VA or IPS panel technology, though. As nice as it may be, the N56VM's display is of the TN variety, and it has the (limited) viewing angles to match:

 
 

To be fair, color shift isn't particularly bad when you look from the side or down from above.

Since we wanted to check color accuracy, we ran X-Rite's Eye-One Match v3.6.2 software and used it to calibrate the display. We don't expect average joes to go around calibrating notebook displays, of course, but the tool spits out some very useful information after the process. In the screenshot below, the graph on the left shows the correction curves required to achieve "correct" colors per the specified gamma and color temperature settings (2.2 and 6500K, respectively). The diagram on the right shows the panel's color gamut. We specified a luminosity target of 120 cd/m² and attempted to match it as closely as possible using the laptop's brightness controls.

Bear in mind, by the way, that our N56VM didn't come pre-loaded with any Asus software. If the company applies custom color profiles to its retail systems via software, then our test machine may not have been using such a profile.

Those are some very decent results. The default calibration is a tad too blue, but not by a whole lot. Compare the curves on the left to those we measured on Asus' Zenbook UX31—the N56VM requires much less correction, and its curves follow a smoother progression, suggesting more uniformity in how colors are rendered out of the box.

Next, we cranked up the display's backlight to its maximum setting and measured luminance at nine points along the panel's surface. Luminance readings are presented both as cd/m² figures, which were produced by the calibration software, and as percentages of the most luminous point we measured. Note that luminance and perceived brightness follow different scales, so the display appears more uniform than the chart below might suggest.

311 cd/m²
(80%)
376 cd/m²
(97%)
384 cd/m²
(99%)
327 cd/m²
(84%)
389 cd/m²
(100%)
371 cd/m²
(95%)
296 cd/m²
(76%)
344 cd/m²
(88%)
318 cd/m²
(82%)

I guess backlight uniformity isn't so great. The left side of the display is measurably darker than the right side, and the bottom is darker than the top, too. The differences aren't quite as stark to the naked eye as the diagram above might suggest, though.

To recap: here we have a nice 1080p display with a matte coating and decent color reproduction, which unfortunately suffers from poor backlight uniformity and the kind of color shifting problems typical of TN panels. You might want to shop elsewhere if you're planning to do serious image editing work, but I think most users should be pleased. This is such a nice step up from the glossy, 1366x768 status quo.

Above the keyboard are the N56VM's Bang & Olufsen ICEpower speakers. They dwell under sets of little holes drilled through the aluminum, which are (quite elegantly) arranged in fading concentric circles. The speakers sound surprisingly decent by notebooks standards, with passable separation between highs and mids, and plenty of volume headroom. As you'd expect, though, they sound a tad tinny. Also, they make the system's casing vibrate even at low volumes, which has the potential to get uncomfortable. You'll probably be best off plugging in a nice pair of headphones.

Asus has taken cues from Apple in making the N56VM's keyboard: keys poke straight out of the aluminum surface covering the top half of the notebook's body. The metal seems to give this keyboard a little bit of extra resilience, because I noticed very little flex when typing, and keys had nice, crisp tactile feedback.

  Total keyboard area Alpha keys
  Width Height Area Width Height Rough area
Size 276 mm 103 mm 28,428 mm² 167 mm 52 mm 8,8684 mm²
Versus full size 96% 94% 90% 97% 91% 89%

In terms of size, the keyboard is a wee bit smaller overall than our non-chiclet reference. In fact, the keys feel a tad small even by chiclet standards. Perhaps that's because Asus needed to leave room for the numeric keypad on the side. As someone who does a lot of data entry in Excel, I can appreciate a good numpad—but I wouldn't mind some slightly fatter keys, either.

Asus tells us retail N56VM systems will boast keyboard backlighting. That feature wasn't enabled on our test system, however.

Let's now talk about the N56VM's multi-touch touchpad, an Elantech model that looks like something right off a MacBook Pro. Apple does make some truly excellent touchpads—I'd go so far as to call them the best in the industry—so this would be a good thing... if the imitation weren't only skin-deep. Unfortunately, this Elantech contraption doesn't have the right friction coefficient; it feels too tacky, and it rattles a little when you tap to click. The software suffers from the same shortcomings we noticed on our pre-release Zenbook UX31 last year. Try to click-and-drag with your thumb positioned too far forward, and the cursor will freeze, thinking you're trying to perform a two-finger resize. It's a frustrating design flaw that I haven't encountered on any other multi-touch touchpad designs, save for the UX31's.

I'll give Asus a tentative pass here, since this isn't a retail sample, and the company ended up fixing the problem on retail Zenbooks. Besides, everything else, from resizing and rotating to scrolling, works just fine. I can't say I wasn't disappointed, though.