Unveiled as the first Atom Netbook featuring a next-gen Nvidia Ion processor, the $499 Asus Eee PC 1201PN is an update to the very similarly named Asus Eee PC 1201N we reviewed at the beginning of 2010. Back then, we enjoyed the 12-inch 1,366x768 screen, the graphic improvements offered via Ion, and the dual-core Atom processor it employed. It was priced higher than most Netbooks, but was also more powerful.
The 1201PN, however, only has a single-core Atom N450 CPU to go with its Ion GPU, a combination that results in general performance that's weaker than its same-priced predecessor. If the 1201N can be found for sale somewhere, it's probably the better buy for now. While the keyboard feel and general build of the 1201PN are very similar to what we enjoyed in the 1201N before it, its limited processor slows things down, whereas the Ion graphics don't seem to add much more than what we'd already seen in Ion last year--and, in some cases, it even seemed to offer less. In a post-iPad era, a Netbook has to offer a low price or an impressive performance, and this Asus really has neither.
|Price as reviewed||$499|
|Processor||1.6 GHz Intel Atom N450|
|Memory||2GB, 667MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||250GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia Ion, 512MB DDR3|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.6 x 8.2 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||12.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.2/3.7 pounds|
From the outside and inside, the Eee PC 1201PN looks a lot like both the 1201N we reviewed in early January and recent, more affordable Eee PC Netbooks. A plain, glossy-black plastic lid that flaunts its fingerprints also comes in red or silver.
Inside, more shiny black plastic frames an edge-to-edge raised Chiclet-style keyboard. The double hinge on the lid straddles either side of a battery that has minimal bulge on the 1201PN's bottom and fits right into the back. The keyboard's easy to type on and comfortable to work at on a desk or perched in one's lap. The dimpled multitouch touchpad below is flush with the rest of the keyboard deck but responds well to finger gestures. A thin chromed-plastic rocker bar for button-pressing could have been a little more ergonomic.
The LED-backlit 12.1-inch glossy LCS screen has a native resolution of 1,366 x 768 pixels, which matches most laptop displays around 13 and 14 inches. Most importantly, it's a common resolution; browser windows and other programs won't feel shoehorned in like they do with the pixel restrictions on most 10 and 11-inch Netbooks. Images and video looked as bright and crisp as they did on the Eee PC 1201N we reviewed previously. The stereo speakers on this laptop, embedded on the front bottom edge of the base, are notably louder than other Netbooks. They don't exactly produce well-defined music, but we appreciate their volume for TV viewing.
Above the screen, a 0.3-megapixel Webcam offers video conferencing and picture-taking capabilities, with a passable frame rate and middle-of-the-road image quality.
|Asus Eee PC 1201PN||Average for category [Netbook]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
To its credit, the Eee PC 1201PN includes Bluetooth--but it better at this price. HDMI is common on any non-Apple laptop, but in the case of this Ion-equipped Netbook you might find it more useful than with others, as Nvidia promises smooth 1080p playback of video files on an external HDTV. While that's nice, we imagine more people will want to stream video onto an HDTV (for Hulu, for instance, or YouTube). Streaming-video playback, which relies on Adobe Flash 10.1, worked well sometimes and stuttered at others depending on the site and level of graphic overlay.
2GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive are increasingly standard offerings for higher-end Netbooks. Windows 7 Home Premium is preinstalled, which is an improvement over the Windows 7 Starter many Netbooks offer.
While the 1201PN is technically the first Netbook with next-gen Nvidia Ion graphics, the CPU is decidedly current-gen. Unlike the dual-core Atom processor we saw in the innovative but hot-running Eee PC 1201N, the single-core Atom N450 at the heart of this Netbook is the same one in nearly every Netbook currently for sale. Its performance when augmented with its Nvidia Ion integrated GPU does fair better than other competitors, but the 1201PN actually is a slower laptop than its dual-core predecessor, which cost the same back in January. If you can find the 1201N on sale somewhere, you'll have a faster Netbook.
So, does the next-gen Ion at least provide significant graphic improvements? Unfortunately, based on our experiences, we'd have to say the platform as it currently stands isn't ready for prime time. The much-heralded Adobe Flash 10.1, which uses GPU processing in certain tasks such as playing flash streaming video, is still a mixed bag in its final release. Hulu in full-screen still had some stutter, and YouTube in 720p played very smoothly until a Google pop-up ad or the mouse cursor intervened, causing massive frame drops. Unreal Tournament III, a forgiving, older 3D shooter, also wasn't really playable.
While other games might have better results, it's still hit-or-miss as far as finding games that play perfectly with Atom and Ion, at least on the 1201PN. There are games that will play well on this platform and have 3D graphics--Torchlight, Battlefield Heroes, and World of Warcraft on low settings, for instance--but if you're expecting fuller-fledged mainstream PC games to all run well on the 1201PN, you're out of luck. We wish Asus and/or Nvidia had at least offered a selection of game demos and programs as suggestions that "play well" with this type of laptop, because right now it might leave customers feeling a little confused with their out-of-the-box experience.
We expect future dual-core Pine Trail processors, ULV chips such as the new Core i3 CPUs, and future Nvidia Ion processors with Optimus automatic graphics switching will improve Netbook performance in the near-future. Software updates from Adobe and other companies could help matters as well. The next-gen Ion actually acts as a discrete GPU interfacing with the NM10 chipset via PCI Express in this Asus Eee PC 1201PN, whereas the original Ion was a true integrated GPU. What that means is one more level of distance between the Ion and the Atom, which may have been the cause of some of the graphics dips we saw as compared with the last generation of Ion Netbooks.
According to Nvidia, this Ion processor will be the heart of its future Ions with Optimus, which will be able to switch between discrete graphics and the integrated Intel processor and theoretically improve battery life performance. But, we're not sure this Ion GPU has enough graphics punch to really be of use to most people in a dedicated graphics capacity. It has nowhere near the graphics seen in the Alienware M11x, for instance, and really works best for enhancing streaming video quality and video playback as opposed to any sort of game play. The fact that both CPU and graphics performance seemed to take a dip since the January debut of the Asus Eee PC 1201N is the least forgivable part. To be front-running with next-gen technology, there at least need to be significant improvements.