Almost every Netbook we've seen to date has featured the same basic setup: the Intel Atom N270 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and Windows XP. We're even seeing less difference in screen size, as most vendors have settled on a 9- or a 10-inch screen. Really, the only differentiation between Netbook configurations is that some use a solid-state drive while others come outfitted with a larger capacity spinning drive--usually a 160GB hard drive. Adding a new wrinkle to the Netbook formula is the Asus N10J, a 10-inch system from the company that pretty much single-handedly kicked off the Netbook craze with its Eee PC.
This new model doesn't share the Eee PC brand common to other Asus Netbooks, but it still features the usual suspects with respect to the CPU, RAM, and OS. What makes the $699 N10J different is the addition of an Nvidia GeForce 9300 graphics card, which marks the first time we've seen discrete graphics offered on a Netbook. Better yet, you can switch between the GeForce graphics and the integrate Intel graphics--similar to the new MacBook Pro--should you want to extend battery life.
Why would you possibly need a Netbook with a graphics card? Honestly, most people probably don't need it. Given their tight dimensions and relatively meager specs, Netbooks are usually reserved for nothing more than basic tasks such as Web surfing and e-mailing. But the ability to do some casual gaming makes the Asus N10J an almost irresistible travel companion if you're a PC game addict and can live with the limitations of a very low screen resolution and the low-power CPU. We managed to get marginally playable frame rates from a few current games by dialing down the in-game resolution and detail levels.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$699|
|Processor||1.6GHz Intel Atom N270|
|Memory||1GB, 533MHZ DDR2|
|Hard drive||160GB 5,400RPM|
|Graphics||512MB Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS [switchable with Intel GMA 950 (integrated)]|
|Operating System||Windows XP Home|
|Dimensions (WD)||10.8 x 7.6 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||10.2 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.6/4.2 pounds|
Unlike Asus' other high-end Netbook, the Eee PC S101, whose price premium is put toward design and a slim case that's less than 1 inch thick, the N10J has a more traditional, slightly chunky Netbook chassis. The main body is plastic, with a few metal accents, but feels sturdy enough to stand up to regular travel.
For a Netbook, the N10J has one of the better keyboards we've seen, with large flat keys that maximize the typing surface area. It's no match for the HP Mini 1000's excellent keyboard, but it's an improvement on the tiny keys found on most Netbooks. It also helps that the slightly bigger 10-inch design gives you more room to work with than 9-inch Netbooks. This keyboard also corrects a major problem we had with the Asus S101's keyboard: the right shift key, which had been awkwardly moved to the right of the up-arrow key, is now back in its proper place, saving us from endless typos.
The system also includes a Linux quick-launch environment from Splashtop, which gives you access to a Web browser and media player without booting into Windows. It took us about 60 seconds to go from a cold start to surfing the Web, but you'll have to dig around a bit to configure the Wi-Fi settings the first time you use it.
The 10.2-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,024x600 native resolution, which is standard for Netbooks. It's readable, but most documents and Web pages will require some scrolling, and it's an awkward resolution for both games and video content.
|Asus N10J||Average for category [netbook]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
The inclusion of HDMI and an ExpressCard slot are appreciated additions. You're lucky to get VGA-out on a Netbook; the N10J is the first we've seen to offer HDMI. And the Lenovo IdeaPad S10 is the only Netbook we've seen with an ExpressCard slot. The biggest extra in the N10J, however, is its Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS GPU. In normal operation, the GPU is turned on and an included software app lets you switch between different power-saving modes, which largely involve when the display and hard drives will power down. A physical switch on the left side of the system, however, actually turns the GeForce 9300 off; this is useful when you're away from an AC outlet and want to extend battery life. You'll need to reboot in order for the change to take effect, so this is something you can't do on the fly.
Even with the graphics turned on, the N10J performed similarly to other Atom-powered Netbooks in our benchmark tests and in casual use. Attempting to watch hefty HD video content files still taxed the Atom CPU and resulted in choppy playback, but standard-definition video files played fine. The screen resolution was too low to properly run our Photoshop test, but in anecdotal use, we were able to work with images in Photoshop without completely slowing down the system.
Gaming performance is best viewed through the prism of realistic expectations. No one should expect much from an Atom CPU and 1GB of RAM, but we were still able to milk some acceptable frame rates out of Unreal Tournament III. To get 29 frames per second, we had to dial the resolution down to 800x600, which is close to the display's native resolution of 1,024x600, and we kept the detail level at medium. The result was a reasonable experience that jumped a few frames occasionally, but was certainly playable.
Asus' Netbooks are known for their excellent battery life (and big six-cell batteries). Adding a dedicated GPU to the mix would certainly have an impact on that, and we got 3 hours and 17 minutes from the system in our video playback battery test. That's still much better than other Netbooks such as the Lenovo IdeaPad S10 and the HP Mini 1000, which have smaller three-cell batteries. With the GPU turned off, the system impressed, lasting about 90 minutes longer in casual use.