£279 inc VAT • acer.co.uk
The X553SA is a cheap laptop, with a good deal of entry-level features across the board in a ‘proper’ laptop frame. Asus would readily admit that there are compromises at this point, but should they put you off buying the X553SA? We put it through its paces.
A laptop built on a shoestring budget, you’d hope that Asus wouldn’t make any silly design moves, and it doesn’t. This is an average-looking laptop with a plastic shell. In pure aesthetic terms it’s pleasantly simple. While the lid is plastic, there’s a series of concentric circles fanning across it, mimicking the brushed metal style Asus uses in its higher-end ZenBook laptops.
We were sent the sober, all-black version, which is a good look for those who want a low-key computer. However, it’s also available in pink, white and purple, each of which radically alters the impression they make while changing nothing but the colour.
We weren’t impressed by the build quality, though. Press down on the keyboard and you’ll see flexing, a sign of a less-than-tough laptop. Issues like this are all the more grating now that tablets have made us expect expensive-feeling devices for similar money.
The X553SA’s size and weight are those of the ageing laptop archetype, too. At 2.2kg and 26mm thick, it’s too heavy to carry around for hours at a time without your shoulders complaining, but will fit into most larger record bags for the occasional trip out.
Asus’s features strategy is to offer plenty of breadth, but not all that much depth. It’s probably the right direction for a cheap laptop. The X553SA has both VGA and HDMI video connections, which will please those who have old pre-HDMI monitors they are not ready to retire just yet. There are, however, just two USB sockets – one is USB 3.0, while the other is USB 2.0. Other entry-level laptops tend to offer three USB ports. The X553SA’s connections are also all located on one side of the laptop, which may make manufacturing cheaper. There are also headphone, ethernet and SD ports. On the connection-free side is a DVD multi-writer and Kensington lock port. Once you start adding up what the X553SA offers, it starts to sound like a pretty good deal.
Keyboard and trackpad
The question is whether the deal will merit the sacrifices required. Its keyboard is one of these. At a glance, it does a lot right. It has a standard layout, and even manages to fit in a numberpad to the right. However, the flex-happy casing and entry-level keys leave it feeling springy, with a less well-defined action than a more expensive laptop. There’s plenty of key travel, but it seems vague when compared with a taut chiclet design.
The trackpad is large, with a smooth-but-textured plastic surface that tries to emulate the feel of a glass-topped trackpad on a budget, and doesn’t do too bad a job. However, like a lot of Windows laptop pads, it comes with frustrations. It uses evenly-spaced
At 2.2kg and 26mm thick, the X553SA is too heavy to carry around for hours at a time without your shoulders complaining
buttons integrated into the pad itself, and as there’s a numberpad, the left mouse button area is actually towards the left of the laptop. As such, the resting position of your left hand needs to be way over to the left, which may feel unnatural. Overall, the X553SA will work best when used with a mouse, much as there are some good parts to the pad.
You’re not going to get a stellar screen in a sub-£300 standard-design laptop. Asus has taken a few cues from the tablet school of display design, but this is ultimately an uninspiring laptop screen. Given the price though, that should not be a deal-breaker.
The X553SA has a 15.6in 1366x768-pixel LCD screen. It’s not terribly sharp, this being the same resolution and pixel density that laptops offered 10 years ago. It isn’t an IPS display either, meaning it only looks entirely ‘right’ seen front-on. Look at it from above or below and it either looks washed out or shadowy, which is down to contrast shift.
Asus’s stab at getting a modern look consists of using a glossy screen finish rather than a matt one. On the positive side, this makes the colours look punchy, even though actual colour performance of the screen isn’t great. Using our colorimeter, we found it hits 59.9 percent of sRGB, and 41.3- and 42.4 percent of Adobe RGB and DCI P3 respectively. These are the three most popular colour standards, and hitting just 60 percent of sRGB means the display will look undersaturated. However, for the price it’s a decent performance.
The main issue with using a glossy display is that it’s prone to reflection. Take it outside and the X553SA will be virtually useless. The screen goes up to a reasonable 283cd/m2, but during testing we found reflections were so severe that seeing what was on the screen became a trial.
Most of the laptops we review come with Intel Core series processors, which offer day-to-day performance that’s largely free of compromise. The X553SA has a lower-end Intel Celeron N3050 CPU. It’s a dual-core chipset clocked at 1.6- to 2.16GHz and its performance is dismal. In our tests it recorded 1143 in PCMark 8, which is less than half of what a good Intel Core i5 might score, and 1558 points in Geekbench 3. That is the sort of score we would expect from a £150 entry-level phone.
Limited power is not often an issue when you take a laptop from the abstract world of benchmarks and into the real world. However, here the low power is obvious. Basic parts of Windows 10, such as the Start menu apps display, took a little while to load, and even browsing the internet felt sluggish a lot of the time.
This Intel Celeron processor has a higher TDP (thermal design power) – which tells you how much heat they can generate, or how hard they can rev – than the latest Intel Atom CPUs, but actual performance is worse in some cases.
It’s not all down to the CPU, though. The X553SA also has a slow 5400rpm hard drive. Download over an ultra-fast optical connection (100Mbit Virgin Media was our test connection) and there’s a further knock to performance, and the system becomes difficult to use if it is installing a program at the time.
On the plus side, you do get a 1TB hard drive – just buying a 1TB SSD would cost you almost the whole price of this laptop.
We’ve seen an awful lot of good developments take place in laptop hardware over recent years, but the X553SA suffers from performance traits that would have been a problem in laptops 10 years ago. The issue is that both the CPU and the hard drive are potential performance bottlenecks, and their choke point is within arm’s reach at all times.
It will still make a fine machine for basic office tasks, such as web browsing, but you’ll have to accept that some of these may feel slower than they do on your phone or tablet. Bargain hunters out there should consider looking for an older Core i3 machine, some of which are available at a similar price.
Unsurprisingly, gaming performance is terrible. Even with visuals pared right back and the resolution dropped down to 720p, Thief was unplayable, with an average frame rate of 5.8fps, dropping as far down as 2.6fps. Just for masochist satisfaction we also tried it at the native screen resolution (1366x768 rather than our usual 1080p) and it averaged 2.9fps, dropping down to 0.4fps at points.
The less demanding Alien: Isolation was unplayable too, averaging just 9.3fps with settings minimised and resolution at 720p. Theme Hospital (1997) should run fine, but don’t expect recent games.
Battery life is another area that the Asus disappoints. In our tests, playing a 720p video on loop lasted just four hours 35 minutes. Even though the Intel Celeron CPU feels weak and slow, it does not appear to offer particularly good efficiency.
The X553SA is a lesson in the sacrifices you need to accept when buying a bottom-rung laptop. Parts of the build are basic, the screen has some issues and performance is disappointingly slow. Cheap phones and tablets often feel almost as fast as their expensive relatives, but the Asus is unmistakably slower than a Core-series laptop. Those who don’t need to buy on the high street would do better by searching online for a Core i3-powered laptop from an earlier generation. Haswell and Broadwell i3 laptops can often be found online at similar prices, and will get you much less compromised performance. At this price, buying ‘old’ is often better than buying new. Of course, much of this is not Asus’s fault. Considered among its peers, the X553SA is a serviceable laptop whose design covers most low-end use bases, and its look swerves between serious and fun, depending on which colour you go for.