Gaming notebooks are a funny niche. They're not especially thin nor light, and they generally don't have excellent battery life. They're also not as speedy as a similarly priced desktop. What they are is a great compromise between portability and power, though, and the brand new ASUS G550JK stays true to that trend.
What Is It?
The ASUS G550JK gaming laptop that I tested, specced at $2699 for the G550JK-CN147H variant, is the company's newest 15-inch Republic Of Gamers notebook. As part of ASUS' G Series, it's a reasonably powerful but also reasonably portable high-end PC, in the vein of the MacBook Pro or Alienware 14. A fourth-generation Intel Core i7 CPU and integrated graphics is complemented by a discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M and 16GB of DDR3 RAM, all wrapped in a design that hits a good compromise between understated and fancy.
Where the MSI GT70 Dominator Pro is all about sharp edges and angular corners, the G550JK is a little more relaxed and refined. There's a very attractive thin anodised red line that runs around the laptop's outer edge, but apart from that the satin black finish looks extremely smooth and clean without being boring. The top panel of the ASUS G550JK's lid has a vertical brushed aluminium finish, with the ASUS and ROG logos stacked in the centre, and the base is the same satin black as the internal wrist-rest. Everything about the G550JK's finish speaks to how much thought has been put into the overall design.
As you'd expect, the G550JK runs Windows 8.1 Pro out of the box. Although you can buy different variants at different price points -- the lesser Core i5 model is $1999 -- my $2699 spec uses an Intel Core i7-4700HQ processor on Intel's HM86 Express chipset -- which means all the USB 3.0, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 extras you'd expect to find.
What Is It Good At?
The ASUS G550JK does not lack for input and output ports. Stacked along the left side of the notebook you'll find the power connector, a wired Ethernet socket, HDMI, mini DisplayPort, two USB 3.0 host ports and a combination headphone-microphone 3.5mm jack. Go to the left and you'll see a Kensington lock, Blu-ray read/write optical drive, another USB 3.0 port and full-size SD/MMC card reader. If you were looking for an all-in-one notebook, you'd be hard pressed to find an issue with the connectivity that the ASUS G550JK has on offer.
The Full HD IPS panel of the top-spec ASUS G550JK is a thing of beauty, if you're a fan of antiglare displays. The matte coating on ASUS' screen does an excellent job of dissipating direct light sources without reducing contrast across the entire LCD; the end result is a laptop that you can happily use in a bright office environment or even outdoors in the midday sun. It's a nicely detailed display for the screen size, but it's not too high-res as to require excessive processing power for modern 3D games. You can also get a lesser 1366x768 pixel non-IPS antiglare screen on the cheaper model, although it's likely to lose points on both viewing angle and outright detail.
The combo of Core i7-4700HQ, GTX 850M, 16GB of RAM and reasonably quick spinning-disk hard drive means the G550JK performs more than adequately for everyday computing tasks, as well as gaming at middling levels of quality for most modern PC games. It's not going to win any awards for outright computing power -- or for its battery life -- but if you use the laptop within its means you won't be disappointed. This is not a super-high-end gaming PC, and it's not an ultraportable low-power long-life Ultrabook; it's a compromise between the two that skews slightly towards performance.
ASUS G550JK: Performance
CPU: Cinebench: 343 Cinebench (OpenGL): 83FPS Graphics: 3D Mark Fire Strike: 5423 3D Mark Fire Strike Extreme: 1282 Gaming: Tomb Raider: 32fps Metro: Last Light: 25fps Battlefield 4: 58fps Crysis 3: 23fps Storage: CrystalDiskMark (Sequential Read): 114MBps CrystalDiskMark (Sequential Write): 110Mbps Battery: Gizmodo Torture Test: 3hr 52min Gizmodo Torture Test Extreme: 2hr 1min
This notebook's keyboard is also one of the best I've used, equaling the MacBook Pro's simple and consistent chiclets. ASUS' keys are raised somewhat compared to an Apple notebook, but the keypress feel is consistent and there's a noticeable 'click' point that makes quick typing feel excellent. The large, multitouch trackpad is also a smart choice and the default sensitivity is good; the solid tactile feedback from pressing either the left or right semi-physical mouse buttons on the pad is something that trackpad manufacturers often neglect so it's reassuring to see that the unit used here is a high quality one.
What Is It Not Good At?
At a $1999 or $2699 price point, it would have been good to see ASUS include some form of SSD in the G550JK. SSD prices are dropping quickly across the board, and the massive boost they give in startup speeds and standard sequential read and write speeds just takes laptop gaming to another level; even if ASUS were to include a small mSATA SSD drive for caching the operating system the G550JK would be better value.
This is the most minor of niggles, but the ASUS G550JK's beautiful satin finish and few colourful accents are so happy to pick up and display fingerprints. You'll see them in the various photos around this review; try as I might I wasn't able to get pictures of the G550JK without the odd smudge or mark. If you're a clean freak, this is one small point worth considering before you buy.
Battery life is mediocre from the ASUS G550JK; it could be far worse but there's also potential for it to be a lot better. Some of the middling result can be explained by some inconsistent switching behaviour between the discrete Nvidia graphics and the low-power internal Intel ones, which could easily be fixed in an upcoming Nvidia or ASUS software update. For the most part, though, you'll get perfectly reasonable but not spectacular results out of the G550JK's battery, like the 3hr 52min of 720p movie playback I encountered. A lot of this comes from the G550JK's super-bright screen; turn it down and you'll be able to extend the battery by a long way.
Should You Buy It?
The 'Republic Of Gamers' tag doesn't sit completely comfortably with the ASUS G550JK, given its mid-range graphics card. But that doesn't change the fact that it's a very well built, quite attractive notebook with specifications that will handle most modern games at reasonable quality. It's more of an everyday workhorse than an all-out gaming monster, but that's a point in favour of the G550JK's versatility.
The $2699 price tag is a little much for ASUS' mid-range notebook, given the strong competition in this area. If you can find the ASUS G550JK for a slight or significant discount, it'll become better value, and I'd recommend it more strongly. As it stands, if you're willing to pay a slight premium for the ROG brand name, and if you want the sleek black-and-red colour scheme, there's nothing that should stop you getting the G550JK.