Aug 312012

Just when I said that the AMD laptops with new Trinity processors might successfully compete with Intel middle class and upper middle class systems, I’ve found an exception – this week (end of August 2012) you can find a new ASUS K55A-BBL4 laptop with 3rd generation  Intel Core i5-3210M CPU at Best Buy for $479.99.  It’s a bit heavier than the smaller ultrabooks, but not heavier than other 15.6″ laptops.  Equipped with a standard 500 GB hard disk and a only a single 4 GB RAM chip (add one in the free slot to upgrade to 8 GB) and only a 0.3 Megapixel webcam (640×480) it’s still an excellent value for the money, equipped with the third generation of Core Intel processors,  the leader in processing power.  In addition, it has the two very fast USB 3.0 ports (backward compatible with USB 2.0 and 1.0) and one USB 2.0 port.  According to a number of users, the battery life is very good – about 5 or more hours (not the fake factory rated value usually found with other brands).

Some don’t like the very big and sensitive touchpad but it is very responsive and works very well with gestures (two fingers to scroll up and down, multi-touch to resize and three fingers to show desktop, etc).  This is totally subjective and it may be a pro or a con depending on your hand positioning while typing, because touching it with your palm will make the cursor end up somewhere else in the screen,or even select and delete a section of the text, where the ever useful Ctrl+Z (undo – remember this hotkey forever) will save the day.

I don’t like the keyboard too much, just because chiclet keyboards are “against my religion” and I can’t believe that there is no dedicated Ins (insert) button, which affects us who use the Ctrl+Ins and Shift+Ins to copy and paste, but not those who use Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V.  To access the Ins feature you have to hold the ‘fn’ button and then press delete (go figure).  The numeric keypad is not your standard full size keypad and it’s crammed into a narrow space so those who use it a lot might have a problem getting used to it.

The speakers are at the bottom and not even symmetrically placed, one a bit closer to the front, but they sound OK.

With an extra $150 investment you can “supercharge” this laptop, making it possibly even surpass the performance of value Core-i7 systems.  For that I’d recommend an extra 4GB RAM chip (under $40) and more importantly, the highest return on investment on virtually all computers equipped with a classic hard drive, a solid state drive (SSD).  A reasonably priced recent SSD can be bought for just under $100 for about 128 GB, but you will sacrifice some hard disk capacity over the 500 GB that comes with the system.  If space is that important, for $20 or so you can buy a fast USB 3.0 HDD enclosure and install the laptop’s original hard disk in it for some extra external storage.  (Warning: replacing the original hard drive with an SSD and adding a RAM chip requires some technical skills).

If installing Windows from scratch on the new SSD as some advise, you can download ASUS drivers on their website by searching support, but not for the K55A-BBL4, use the more generic K55A model instead.   It’s better to download the drivers to an external USB drive, before the hard drive swap and installation, because the freshly installed Windows 7 won’t be able to connect to the internet without first installing either WiFi or the Ethernet LAN network card drivers.  Use Atheros and not Intel Wireless card drivers and use Intel and not Nvidia video drivers (both available for download for higher versions of this laptop) and don’t download Intel wireless display drivers or bluetooth.  Other recommended downloads if starting from scratch (requires Windows 7 installation DVD) include ATK package for hotkeys, Realtek sound, and optional ASUS Instant On and Power4Gear battery/performance control… (this list will be updated when I get more time)

When at the ASUS downloads site, I recommend first downloading and upgrading BIOS before any of these hardware upgrades because the most recent version is two versions above.

Some recommend creating recovery DVDs and then using them to restore the system on the new SSD drive, but the question is how well they would restore on a smaller drive.  If anybody has done that, please let us know below in the comments section.

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